Interview by: Viktoria Pashtriku
Juli Schroeger, the Program Coordinator at Rockaway Waterfront Alliance (RWA), shares with us how RWA is working to bring the community together through various projects and initiatives to fight the various issues Rockaway faces.
Viktoria Pashtriku: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Can we start off by telling me a little about RWA and its mission?
Juli Schroeger: Absolutely! At RWA, we do both social and environmental advocacy. We try to engage the local community and inform them about issues Rockaway is facing and we try to empower the kids that we employ to be able to advocate for themselves and the neighborhood.
We’re actually in a really awesome location because we have Jamaica Bay one block away and the beach one block in the opposite direction. This allows us to do a lot of environmental research. For example, we monitor the oysters for the Billion Oyster Project with the kids here at Jamaica Bay.
VP: Can you explain a little further some of the issues that Rockaway faces?
JS: Rockaway faces a whole slew of issues from being disenfranchised and really poor to being in a floodplain. It is literally a swamp whenever there’s a high tide or rain. So there’s a whole variety of issues we try to organize people around.
We just started physical and mental health initiatives as well. This means that we’re both an environmental organization and a community development organization. We host all sorts of community events. Over the fall, just a few weeks ago, we did a couple of dune plantings.
VP: Can you explain what a dune planting is and why it was something RWA felt was important to do?
JS: What gathered members of the community together and we planted a bunch of dune plants to act as a green infrastructure for the coastline. Having plants there creates a buffer zone, so if there’s a storm, the neighborhood won’t be as demolished as it was during [Hurricane] Sandy. The plant roots act as shoreline stability and they can also absorb more water before it floods over the entire neighborhood.
VP: Does RWA often host community events and activities such as the dune planting?
JS: Most of what we do is engage people with their waterfront neighborhood because it’s a really beautiful place; a lot of people don’t even know that or can’t access the water. So we get them involved through initiatives such as beach and bay cleanups, kayaking days and getting people out on the water. Over the summer, the kids go surfing, swimming and fishing.
“The stuff the kids came up with was just incredible.”
VP: I understand that RWA also just launched a new initiative called RISE. Can you tell me a little more about that?
JS: So RISE stands for Rockaway Institute for a Sustainable Environment. We’re just opening our doors now and it has been a long time coming. My boss, Jeanne DuPont, is the executive director and she’s been working on this building for almost ten years now. It was an old firehouse that she converted it into a community center.
The hope for RISE is to host workshops, community events, bring all of the local schools to do programming here in our building and most importantly to act as a hub for when a disaster strikes. The reconstruction of the building was designed to be both sustainable and resilient. We’re elevated and all of our important equipment, like generators, are on the second floor.
During [Hurricane] Sandy the flooding got very bad, especially here in Rockaway – it was the worst. So the kids have been sharing their stories from what happened during the disaster here at the center.
VP: You previously mentioned that you also have kids monitoring the oysters for the Billion Oyster Project. How is it that you can have the children working on such projects?
JS: We have this program called Environmentor that is open to the high school kids in the community. It’s funded by the Museum of Natural History and the Pinkerton Foundation. It’s an initiative to get youths from under-represented backgrounds to do STEM and to provide them with college level research opportunities.
The group of teens in this program meet with me one day a week throughout the school year and during the summer they do their own research projects. For the research projects, they’re paired with a mentor who is a professor at a university – we have partnered with a few different colleges – and conduct research at the bay.
VP: You mentioned that as part of the Environmentor program, the kids meet with you one day a week. Can you tell me a little about yourself and what it is you do here at RWA?
JS: I have a degree in marine biology and worked for a while as a scuba diver instructor in various places. Then I found myself in NY doing education with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. It was through that job that I got connected with RWA.
I am the Program Coordinator here. This place fits a lot of my interests because it’s a beach community in NYC and there’s a lot of marine life. There’s also a lot of opportunities to teach kids marine science and just fall in love with the water.
VP: How long have you been here?
JS: Just about nine months.
VP: Let’s go back to the Environmentor program. Can you tell me about some of the projects that the kids did?
JS: The kids did really amazing projects this past summer! One project that stands out was done by two high school students: Andriana and Adriana. They did their project on micro-plastic consumption by oysters. In fact, they were actually contacted by Billion Oyster Project to share their data because not many people are doing that. They were the first ones to conduct micro-plastic research in Jamaica Bay and even took it a step further and dissected the stomachs of the oysters.
After they dissected the oysters, they found various plastics in their stomachs. If the oysters are consuming the micro-plastics in the water, it has massive implications about a lot of things such as their ability to reproduce, stay healthy, filter water and even with humans eating those very same oysters!
“Most of what we do is engage people with their waterfront neighborhood because it’s a really beautiful place.”
VP: What were some other projects the students came up with?
JS: The stuff the kids came up with was just incredible. I remember one team was doing environmental DNA analysis at the bay by looking for eels. Another group found a whole population of diamondback terrapins which nobody previously knew about. There are actually two populations of those terrapins at JFK and the Wildlife Refuge.
They did some amazing stuff. There were also other projects like marsh restoration, more on flooding and one was even on the raccoon population relations in Jamaica Bay.
VP: Are there any final thoughts you would like to add?
JS: The two girls, Andriana and Adriana, who conducted the research project on micro-plastics and oysters are actually here today if you’d like to speak to them!
VP: I’d love to! Thank you for taking the time to speak to me about RWA.
JS: My pleasure.
Stay tuned for an interview with Andriana and Adriana about their research project on oysters consuming micro-plastics in Jamaica Bay!