Collage: Wassim Elmetni (age 11).

“Many Diversified Interests” sounds like a line from a college application, or advice from a responsible money manager. In fact, though, it’s the name of a Superfund site in the Fifth Ward, one of the oldest and most disenfranchised neighborhoods of Houston, Texas. For the most part, children growing up in the Fifth Ward don’t have anything like the extracurricular life of fruitful choices promised by a phrase like “many diversified interests.” Instead, these youngsters come of age amidst toxic waste and illegal dump sites; all too often, their nearest neighbors are poverty, neglect, and despair.

Some of these kids, however, do at least have a productive and rewarding outlet — one that is helping them to creatively document and change both their own lives and their community. For the past three years, the Museum of Cultural Arts, Houston (MOCAH) has used a series of art projects to teach environmental awareness to these youth through a program called Project GROW.

This year, Rhonda Adams, who cofounded MOCAH with her husband Reginald, gave neighborhood children cameras, art supplies, and lessons in everything from photography to lead pollution — and then sent them out to document the Superfund site and other environmental hazards of the Fifth Ward. The resulting photo collages provide a sobering counterpoint to the typical rainbow-and-blue-skies artwork of young children. And they send a (literally) graphic message to their viewers: all children deserve a safe and healthy community.

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Adams, who lives just blocks away from the Superfund site, feels that it is her moral obligation to do this work. “I have a young child of my own and I realize that one day we will have to rely on these children to become the stewards of the community,” she says.

The children’s artwork will be featured in a photography exhibit, “Artists Responding to Violence Against the Earth,” at Houston’s FotoFest 2006, from March 16 through April 22.

Project GROW is a community outreach partnership between the MOCAH, Sierra Club, Community Toolbox for Children’s Environmental Health, the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, and the Houston Childhood Lead-Poisoning Prevention Program.

For more information or to support the MOCAH, email or call 713.224.2787.

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