Several times a month, a group of girls from Southeast Michigan cities retreat from their urban environment and appreciate nature through activities such as picking apples or taking a walk through the Nichols Arboretum.

The girls participate in Environmental and Cultural Opportunities for Girls, a program for second- through sixth-grade girls living in urban Southeast Michigan. Founded by Tiya Miles, director of the University’s Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, ECO Girls launched in September and strives to use activities focused on environmental health to foster friendships among diverse participants.

Miles is a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, which she received last month, and plans to distribute a portion of her $500,000 grant — given out quarterly over five years — to ECO Girls. According to Miles, the program focuses on five themes: ecological literacy, water, food, energy and sustainability.

Miles started the project a few years ago while on an environmental justice tour in Detroit where she saw communities in distress.

“That was an eye-opening experience that made me want to do something positive,” Miles wrote in an e-mail interview. “I have long wanted to work on a project that would benefit girls of color and girls in economically challenged families and communities. It is often these kinds of communities that are especially vulnerable to environmental hazards.”

Miles said she wants the girls to learn more about their identities and “to develop a sense of place in the cities where they live.” She added that the project teaches girls to build self-confidence despite the messages the mainstream media sends of “a narrowly defined femininity, external looks and consumerism.”

University alum Alexandria Cadotte, the ECO Girls program coordinator, said events are typically held biweekly and consist of hands-on activities that allow the girls to learn more about nature and ways to sustain it.

“Some of our upcoming events include a trip to pick apples from a local orchard, a guided nature walk through the Arboretum and a tour of the city’s recycling facility,” Cadotte said.

In addition to monthly activities, the girls will work throughout the year on a recipe booklet containing healthy and organic recipes from their different cultural backgrounds. The booklet will also include historical and current descriptions of Michigan communities and their relation to the land and local foods.

The program is held during the school year, and adults 19 years and older can apply to be volunteers. Though the program’s main focus is on girls, boys can also apply to the program, Miles said. She is also considering starting another project solely for boys. Miles added that though ECO Girls is currently focused on the Southeast Michigan area, she envisions future chapters starting around the country.

Kira Berman, director of education at the University’s Museum of Natural History, said she enrolled her 7-year-old daughter in the program because of the outdoor learning experience.

“I looked at the website very carefully and … really like the perspective and the sensitivity this program brings to learning about the outdoors,” Berman said. “… I wasn’t satisfied with what the Girl Scouts had to offer.”

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