“21 Jump Street” Is Right: Environmentalists Are Now the Cool Kids in High School!

In the new movie 21 Jump Street, two young cops named Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are sent back to high school as undercover police officers. The pair are shocked to find that in the few years they’ve been away, the social strata have been seismically restructured: Biking to school, recycling and otherwise showing concern for the environment makes you a Cool Kid.

To find out whether this depiction of the new cool is accurate, Pop Omnivore spoke with National Geographic Emerging Explorer Juan Martinez. As a national spokesman for the importance of getting youth—especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds—into the outdoors, he visits a lot of high schools. And he himself is a former cool kid turned environmentalist: “I love nature like I love my ‘hood.”

Has there been a change in the way teenagers think about environmentalism?

Oh, absolutely. The way I got involved, it was an ultimatum. When I was in high school at Dorsey High [in South Central L.A.] back in 1999 I got put in detention and they gave me a choice: Stay in detention for the rest of the year or else you go to this thing called Eco Club.

Eco Club was where the dorks, the geeks, and the nerds hung out. I didn’t want to associate myself with those kids. I was a football player. I was trying to be this [gangsta] kid that lived in the ghetto.

I didn’t talk to anybody in that club for almost the full semester. I just went in there and did my work. I had these little jalapeño plants that I grew—that’s the reason I kept going back. And that eventually turned out to be the catalyst that changed my life through the opportunities the club offered me including helping me win a scholarship to attend the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming.

For the last few years I have been working with the Eco Clubs at both Dorsey and [nearby] Crenshaw High School. We’ve created these programs with the Sierra Club and are taking students out on trips, on hikes.

Gradually between 2007 and 2010 the Eco Club became the largest club at Crenshaw. We had kids walking around with Sierra Club backpacks. Everyone wanted to be a part of the Eco Club. One time we had to take three buses because 150 kids wanted to go on a camping trip.

Yeah, it’s changed.

What do you think is the reason for this shift?

I think it’s due to the attitude of this generation, and to technology and how that opens up new information gateways. Not knowing something is no longer acceptable. Everybody is on Facebook, Twitter, on blogs. Social media has changed what this generation talks about.

There’s this whole attitude that “I can do this.” “That I am empowered to make positive change” is something that our generation really feels.

Are you seeing this change reflected in the community?

Some of the young are considering careers and employment in places that they wouldn’t have before, like with the National Park Service, with the Department of the Interior. People are becoming empowered to discuss the issues that matter to them and to their community. That’s some of the strongest change that we’ve seen.

Our councilwoman’s office here in South Central now has a solar panel, and the farmers’ market is happening right now. These were not things that were happening around here five or ten years ago. And last Monday out at Carson High School (in South L.A.) they had a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a windmill that they just raised and started to operate.

So some of the changes are exciting. It’s still a challenge. You’re not going to get everybody, but it’s starting to become more of a way of life rather than an alternative way of thinking. Environmentalism and conservationism was always associated with this thing that hippies did, and you had to wear Birkenstocks and have a tie-dyed shirt or something and celebrate Earth Day. But the reality is that if you want to survive in today’s economy—if you want to be part of the global community—you have to be a part of this movement.

-Rhett Register

Changing Planet