California’s State Seal of Civic Engagement Guides Students in Merced, California, and Nanyuki, Kenya

By Jeff Rivero|February 2, 2023

The Junior Ambassadors in the Merced Union High School District are answering their State Seal of Civic Engagement call through California’s Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools (GRS) program. Students have modeled the three pillars of the GRS to reduce environmental impact and costs, improve the health and wellness of students and staff, and provide environmental education that incorporates science, technology, engineering, mathematics, civic skills, and green career pathways to help an all-girls school, Daraja Academy, in Nanyuki, Kenya. The two school systems are brought together through a Sister School project called Green That School (GTS), which promotes an end to gender inequality and violence, advocates for women’s empowerment through quality career technical education, supports and strengthens peaceful, inclusive communities that provide justice for all, and builds global partnerships for sustainability.

White House visit with Vice President Kamala Harris’s environmental team. Photo by vice presidential staff.

In Kenya, government-funded education ends at the eighth grade. For many girls, who may be from families of fishermen, animal herders, farmers, or traders in rural areas, a high school education is out of reach. (For families with the resources to continue their child’s education, priority goes to the eldest son.) Without a path to secondary education and career opportunities, girls may live in poverty or be sold into arranged marriages to help sustain their families. 

Daraja Academy, which provides a full scholarship for every student admitted, offers girls an alternative path to this life of subjugation and poverty. The school prepares students for the national exam and university admission. Over 93 percent of Daraja graduates accept a professional job within three months of graduating from a university. For the 7 percent of students who still need to pass the national exam, Daraja teaches them professional skills and helps them secure a job in the larger city. Daraja’s graduates send up to 60 percent of their income home, often keeping their younger sisters out of arranged marriages and their families economically sustained.

Daraja Academy is one of the best in Kenya, if not the world, at lifting girls out of hunger and poverty. By helping girls halfway around the globe, students from MUHSD learn professional skills that will help them in their college and career journeys. Problem solving, communication skills, leadership knowledge, and teamwork are built or sharpened while working on the Green That School project. Alondra Huerta, a junior at Yosemite High School in Merced, said, “Working on this project helped me understand how fortunate I am as a female student in America. It has changed my perspective of many opportunities and inspires me to help people with little political power or voice.”

The GTS program illuminates solutions to problems faced by the girls of Daraja. Some of these are more straightforward, like unreliable energy, unsafe drinking water, and challenges related to facilities management. A collaboration with the Sunrise Rotary Club of Merced addresses these issues by implementing more solar battery systems, eliminating bacteria and dangerous chemicals in the water supply with atmospheric water generators, and providing more environmentally friendly cleaning supplies. The local nonprofit also bought two sets of uniforms for the incoming freshman class. Modeling the GRS application process will effectively “green the campus” through meaningful environmental practices. However, the more complex and systemic inequities will require tact, perseverance, and crowdsourcing. 

Taping of The 17 And Me Show. Photo by Juan Martinez, student director.

As a United Nations ambassador for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and host of the YouTube channel The 17 And Me Show – United Nations 17 SDG’s, I believe that creating relationships between students from opposite parts of the earth with significantly different social norms adds devotion by both schools to improve the girls’ lives, as well as to address social and environmental inequity issues here and at home. When students see how bad it is in other places, they tend to want to be persistent in changing policies locally. The comparison of societies illustrates that such change is a long haul, not a sprint, and if there had been an easy fix, it would’ve been fixed long ago.

For a comprehensive global effort, the GTS project has collaborated with Climate Action Schools, a Take Action Global (TAG) program that assists young people across seven continents in connecting virtually to help curb climate change while also addressing the United Nations’ seventeen SDGs. Education is the key that allows foreign and domestic people to solve the social changes needed for equity within global communities.

Jeff Rivero accepting the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Education in 2016.

To broaden awareness of the girls of Daraja and the inequities they face, the students are participating in the KQED Call for Change by producing a documentary showing how one of the global community’s most marginalized peoples is winning the fight for their educational and economic lives while simultaneously helping to save the planet for the world’s more fortunate. This project helps remove gender-based violence and heinous cultural practices from the information bubble that keeps knowledge of these acts of suppression localized in the region. It promotes social justice and equality through education, civic engagement, and fidelity to the UN’s seventeen SDGs.

The California Environmental Literacy Initiative (CAELI) is another effort that promotes the State Seal of Civic Engagement, having produced a State Seal of Civic Engagement Environmental Literacy Implementation Guide. It advocates that students support environmental literacy and civic engagement through informed action on essential local and global issues. A great example of students engaging in governmental policies and procedures came in July, when the MUHSD team of students and teachers flew to Washington, DC, to accept the Green Ribbon Schools plaque at the US Department of Education ceremony. But instead of resting on past environmental success, the team requested meetings with some of the highest officials to showcase what drives students’ interests and to ask for increased support for the GRS award and their GTS project. The team met with Vice President Kamala Harris’s environmental team in the White House, US Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman, Senator Alex Padilla, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters. They also attended a reception hosted by Congressman Jim Costa to highlight their efforts to help the most marginalized people in Kenya, young women in economically depressed areas. 

MUHSD team and George Garica before the visit with Vice President Kamala Harris’s environmental team. Photo by White House staff.

The students were also invited to the US Department of Education to meet with Deputy Secretary Cindy Martin, where they discussed district projects, programs, and personal goals after graduation. The GTS project exemplifies the department’s Climate Adaptation Plan, which envisions enhancing resilience in the face of the challenges presented by climate change through supporting educators, parents, and student communities that are climate literate and prepared to act in support of climate change mitigation and adaptation. This collaboration with federal, state, and local educational agencies and non-governmental organizations helps to coordinate efforts to educate and create equity.  

QS Reimagine Education had over eleven hundred applicants for its Reimagine Education Awards Competition. The Green That School project was selected for the contest and has advanced to be shortlisted for the Sustainability Education Award. This award will go to the most innovative approach for encouraging and teaching sustainable development principles and best practices. Participants are judged on economic, environmental, and/or social sustainability involvement. As a shortlisted project, the program will be showcased in Cairo, Egypt, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and have a chance to be awarded $25,000 to help the girls of Daraja Academy.

Jeff Rivero
This article was written by Jeff Rivero

Jeff Rivero is a US history and digital media teacher at Yosemite High School in Merced, California. He has integrated environmental and social equity education into a curriculum that requires civic engagement to advocate for policy changes, behavioral and procedural modifications, and equity in social, economic, and environmental issues. He was selected as a United Nations Ambassador for the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals in 2019 and advised students to lead an after-school program called the Junior Ambassadors (JA).

Students earn extra credit for attending an after-school JA lab class that uses science, technology, engineering, and math. They also focus on research and address issues such as women's empowerment in the US and Africa, energy use, forest sustainability, climate change, pollution, wastewater treatment, and mental health. Past projects include Tag Not Bags, which supplied suitcases for foster youth; Forest Sustainability: Problems and Solutions, a documentary on saving the redwoods; and a campus policy to conserve water with a reduction of 40 percent during drought years. Additionally, his students extensively researched plastic bags made from protein (which begins breaking down in landfills within three weeks) instead of petroleum and advocated for drought-resistant landscaping on the school campus.

Rivero's innovative approach to integrating the seventeen SDGs, career technical guidance, history content standards for California, and environmental studies into the high school classroom has led to several awards, including the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Education in 2016, the 2022 US Green Building Council’s K–12 Educator Award, and Green Technology’s Green California School’s Leadership Award. Take Action Global, a nonprofit organization that focuses on curbing climate change, selected Rivero’s class as one of the top 250 classes in the world for its School of Excellence awards. England's Prince William addressed the schools virtually to recognize their work. Similarly, Quacquarelli-Symonds selected the JA’s Green That School project from a pool of twelve hundred universities and colleges worldwide. The Green That School project earned its students the honor of being shortlisted among the top ten sustainability projects in the world. In 2015, Rivero received Atwater’s Key to the City for his advocacy in support of senior citizen and veteran services, energy conservation and renewable energy production, and recreational activities for youth.

Rivero and his Junior Ambassador students are leading the way to refocus and restart students' college and career passions since the pandemic. College and Career Readiness Mentorship Month offers students the opportunity to meet leading professionals from various job sectors that offer advice, experiences, and encouragement to interested students.