When Partnership eighth grader Yuleidis heard that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency was coming to Immaculate Conception in the South Bronx, she already knew what she wanted to talk to him about: “We need cleaner air,” she says simply. She adds, “I see it on the way to school, with my brother. He has asthma. Sometimes, it’s hard for him to take a deep breath.”
Her brother isn’t alone; her grandfather has asthma too. Indeed, the neighborhoods the Partnership Schools serve have some of the highest rates of asthma hospitalization and death in the country. Air pollution is a significant contributor to that problem—and to lung and heart health challenges as well. “The Bronx is a nice place,” Yuleidis insists, “but with smog and cars everywhere, the air isn’t always so nice.”
So when EPA Administrator Michael Regan came to New York last week for the United Nations’ Climate Week, it makes sense to Yuleidis that he kicked off the international event a hundred blocks north of the U.N. itself—in the South Bronx, and at Immaculate Conception, where she and her classmate Julio asked him questions on behalf of their classmates.
Mr. Regan got a thoughtful review from Yuleidis and Julio after their conversation. “He was respectful to us—to everyone,” they said. Yuleidis adds that he was “open and welcome, and formal,” which she thought appropriate. “He didn’t make false promises, and he explained things in a way that we could understand them, and in a way that we could anticipate that the changes he was talking about could really happen.”
Mr. Regan had come not just to talk but to observe, touring community-based strategies to improve air quality. That’s why the well-dressed group of officials and concerned citizens started their conversation in the church but quickly went where few visitors go: to the basement boiler room that the school and the church share.
George Grenier, Partnership Facilities Director, led the effort to install the upgrades to ICS’s systems that the group observed, improvements that both save our schools money and improve the quality of air around them. He notes that the 97-year-old building’s boiler room contains a long history of slow progress toward cleaner air: in the back corner of the room are the remnants of an almost century-old coal-fired boiler, and the coal chute down which fuel was delivered. At some point, the church and school switched to oil; now, new burners use cleaner gas, and have automated smart controls that improve efficiency.
“An issue might look monstrous, but if you attack the root causes, you can gradually address the problem.”
While similar upgrades have happened at almost all Partnership Schools, these capital-intensive efforts can be daunting to launch. Our network has converted St. Charles Borromeo in Harlem, for example, from a #4 oil furnace to #2 oil, which cuts down on pollutants—but as Donnell Baird, CEO of clean energy firm BlocPower, shared with the group, the real goal is to get buildings in the South Bronx and Harlem off fossil fuels entirely, transitioning to heat pumps or other technologies that both heat and cool buildings far more efficiently than their current systems do.
As ICS eighth grader Julio reflected Baird and Regan’s comments, he saw a pattern: “little problems make big problems,” Julio says—like lots of old boilers emitting pollution. But he also sees potential solutions in the same light: “An issue might look monstrous, but if you attack the root causes, you can gradually address the problem.”
Julio also found himself intrigued by the partnerships he saw at play among our visitors, and curious about the nature of the contracts they have. “The federal government can’t do this all themselves,” he noted.
As urban Catholic schools, our mission doesn’t just call us to run schools on a shoestring, avoiding extra energy costs where we can—or even just to help cut down on the number of school days our students miss from illnesses due to asthma and other illnesses that poor air quality exacerbates. We are called to equip our children with hope; with the intellectual tools to translate hope into action; and with an ethic of care for the common good—all of which shine through in Julio’s reflection.
As Pope Francis explains in Laudato Si’, the papal encyclical on “Care for Our Common Home,” environmental protection is not a project we complete; it is a way of living our faith in the world, one aspect of a larger call—“the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us.” The Holy Father explains that “if we can overcome individualism,“ then we share with others “the joyful celebration of life”—a celebration which our students got to enjoy for a few minutes last week in, of all places, the basement of their school.