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Everyone Has a Story

Everyone’s Got a Story

Sharon Fuller has been in the press a lot lately. A life-long resident of Richmond, California, she was recently named “Woman of the Year” by California Assemblymember Loni Hancock and Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante. Fuller is also one of twelve residents to recently receive the Koshland Award from The San Francisco Foundation; the diverse group of recipients now forms a “sustainable development” task force, each bringing unique experiences and perspectives from around the Bay Area.

Honored for her dedication and commitment to youth advocacy, Fuller says these awards are a coup for Ma’at Youth Academy (MYA)—an organization she founded in 1994 as a project of Earth Island—and thinks of those who work with her as co-recipients. “It’s great to get recognition of work that we’ve been doing for ten years.”

Ten years ago, Fuller saw a need for urban communities to become more involved in their local environments. She began to address this need by creating MYA with two branches: advocacy and education. “Both are designed to improve the quality of life in urban areas and communities of color,” says Fuller. “What we do is use education as a vehicle for bringing about change.”

MYA created an urban ecology curriculum, in accordance with the California Science Framework, that Fuller and others bring into science classrooms in high schools in the Bay Area. “Education that links to the local environment and engages students by bringing in things that are relevant to their experiences is one way to enhance academic achievement,” says Fuller. In these urban schools, where just half of African American and Latino tenth graders will go on to graduate, improving academic interest is a priority. “If we’re losing these kids at tenth grade, where are they going?” asks Fuller. “Our kids are falling through the cracks.”

Fuller makes it clear that the environment she’s talking about is not a nature preserve or wilderness area. She’s talking about where people live, the quality of air and water and food, and the cleanliness, health, and safety of their immediate surroundings. Fuller and the staff of MYA, with Earth Island’s administrative support, provide urban students wiith the skills to protect their local resources.

MYA’s mission is two-fold: to engage students in their own habitat with a curriculum that is personally relevant, and to enhance their science and math skills. “Environmental education is often viewed as extracurricular, but our model can be used to enhance academic achievement and engage students fully in the civic areas of their communities,” says Fuller. “We have to show the students that they can be the policy makers.”

It’s not just students who respond positively to MYA’s science curriculum. “The teachers love it,” says Fuller. And once the teachers learn that the curriculum is offered for a nominal fee – MYA fundraises to offset the costs of its own program—they love it even more. Fuller says that MYA wants to ensure that its curriculum is available to all urban students, not just those who attend well-funded schools.

Fuller is currently leading a student study on the effects of eating mercury-laden fish from the waters of the Bay Area. “There is a correlation between developmental problems and where a child lives, learns, and plays,” she says. “Exposure to mercury, a neurotoxin, is a major concern for our community, which has a large subsistence fishing population.” In conjunction with the Fish Consumption Study, Fuller is also heading a campaign to have appropriate signs placed around the entire Richmond Harbor, detailing the deleterious effects of eating mercury-laden fish.

Fuller earned her B.S. degree in Conservation and Resource Studies from UC Berkeley, and her M.S. in Environmental Education from CSU Hayward. She is a Contra Costa County Hazardous Materials Commissioner and a member of the Point Molate Restoration Advisory Board. And she has continued to use all of her knowledge to improve her community, the quality of life for local children and youth, and to educate those around her in ways to improve their own local environment. Her ultimate goal, she says, is to “create a system of community monitors who will use the skills we provide them with to improve the conditions in their communities.”



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