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Checking in with 3 teens who challenged a waste management company with their podcast

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The last time we spoke to the founders of the Steel City Academy podcast club, they were hot on a big story. The town of Gary, Ind., had approved a waste management facility next to their charter school despite community objections. And so three 14-year-olds set out with their microphones in search of answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "STEEL CITY ACADEMY PODCAST")

JIMMY VENTURA: OK. Will you stop taping me so we can talk?

ERIN ADDISON: Will it release fumes?

VENTURA: OK. I'll answer it if he shuts that off for a second.

EVAN ADDISON: Wait. Why?

ERIN ADDISON: Will it release fumes?

VENTURA: I don't want to be on tape.

SHAPIRO: These high schoolers asked tough questions to people from the waste management company trying to build the facility. They went to city council meetings and interviewed protesters. They even submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "STEEL CITY ACADEMY PODCAST")

EVAN ADDISON: We have something for FOIA.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are these all of you?

EVAN ADDISON: Yeah, all of us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, all of you. Goodness, OK.

SHAPIRO: Back in 2019, they told my co-host Audie Cornish that it felt like an issue of environmental justice.

AUDIE CORNISH: Throughout this process, you got to meet activists in your community. You got to, you know, speak to some pretty important people. What did all this teach you about power?

EVAN ADDISON: This is Evan. I was always told to stay in a child's place. I'm sure a lot of children are told that. But now I know there are times where you have to tell people that they're wrong.

ERIN ADDISON: This is Erin. See; I can't really put this into fancy words. So I've seen Gary for, like, all of what it is. With the good and bad, you take it all together, and you would get so much more good than you get bad. We've learned that - to be prideful, to be powerful, in a sense, in ourselves.

SHAPIRO: That was almost three years ago. And this spring, the students who created that podcast graduated from Steel City Academy. So we're joined once again by twin brothers Evan Addison and Erin Addison and their best friend, Emma Arevalo. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. It's so good to have the three of you here again.

EVAN ADDISON: Thank you.

EMMA AREVALO: This is Emma. I just want to say thank you for pronouncing my last name right, at least.

(LAUGHTER)

AREVALO: Because everyone pronounces it wrong.

SHAPIRO: Arevalo, right?

AREVALO: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: OK, good. The three of you started your podcasting club in 2019 and immediately took on this huge story. Did it have an impact on your community?

ERIN ADDISON: At first, no one was really paying attention to it besides us in our little podcasting group. But when we started getting the word out there, we had students and teachers and even parents joining in to help us fight against this.

EVAN ADDISON: This is Evan. I agree. We even had people who had completely no relation to our school. Just - they lived in the city. They lived in our community. And they wanted to help fight against what was happening because they lived there, too. They cared.

SHAPIRO: How did that feel, Emma, to have that kind of an impact?

AREVALO: To have that kind of impact, it's a little bit overwhelming at the young age of 14, but it was also empowering because it was, like, we're young, and our voices are being heard.

SHAPIRO: And so how did that change you at this formative moment in your lives?

AREVALO: This is Emma still. I feel like that's changed a lot because if something is wrong, I will speak out for it, whereas before I was very timid and soft-spoken.

SHAPIRO: I'm curious whether it affected your reputation at school. Did people look at you differently? Did they treat you differently? Was there a kind of, like, aura about, like, you're the - I don't know - people who took on the giant?

ERIN ADDISON: This is Erin. Yeah, it definitely changed the way people - fellow classmates - saw us. For the people that really cared, it was, when's the next meeting? When are we doing this? When are we scheduling that? Or for people that just wanted to be included, just to be in an interview, i'd say at least half of those people, when they got included, they began to care. And then after that, it became more than just, oh, I want to interview. I actually want to join and protest with them.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like what you're saying is it's not just that your podcast may have changed the course of events, but it really engaged the community and the student body in a different way.

EVAN ADDISON: This is Evan. Definitely, you know, because once kids see one person doing it, it's like everyone else wants to do it. Everyone else feels more confident doing it because they see their friends, their teachers, their community coming together on it. And it's empowering. You find a problem, and then one person goes ahead and does something about it or starts to fight against it. And then more people. And then you yourself look at that and, like, OK, I can help, too. What can I do? It was kind of like it had that effect.

SHAPIRO: I'm dying to know whether there's now a waste management facility opposite your school. What's happened?

AREVALO: This is Emma. They got their permit to build in 2017. Five years have passed. They need to renew it. So they got it renewed after we had protested in those five years. As of now, they are not building it. But honestly, they could start building at any time.

SHAPIRO: Well, now that the three of you have graduated, have you passed the podcasting torch on to any younger students? What's going to happen to the podcasting club?

EVAN ADDISON: This is Evan. No, we haven't passed the torch - but I'm going to say yet because what we want to do is we want to, like, find students that are, like, interested, you know? So that's definitely something I want to do.

AREVALO: This is Emma. I definitely feel like we haven't passed on the torch. But I want to, but I'm also kind of hesitant because I feel like if we don't, then Erin, Evan and I kind of have that legacy as the founding students who were the podcasters.

SHAPIRO: The first and only.

AREVALO: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: What advice do you have for students anywhere in the country who might want to do what you did and follow in your footsteps, whether or not they're at your same school or even in your same state?

AREVALO: This is Emma. I would say definitely go for it. Please speak out against anything that you believe to be an injustice. And even if, like, your voice isn't heard initially, eventually it will, hopefully, gain traction if people believe it is a big problem.

EVAN ADDISON: This is Evan. I definitely agree with what Emma said. You know, if it's not - let's say there's a problem you want to fight against. Your voice has power, and it's important to know how to use that power.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about what you're planning to do in the fall now that you've graduated from high school.

ERIN ADDISON: This is Erin. I'm pretty much just - I'm just going to college, Indiana State University. That's pretty much the only plans I have. It's really nothing too special. That's just about it.

AREVALO: Nothing too special? That is college.

ERIN ADDISON: It's just...

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: And what about the rest of you?

EVAN ADDISON: This is Evan. I'm going to Indiana State with my brother. I, for one, am excited, a little nervous. But, you know, that's just the next step I want to take.

AREVALO: This is Emma. Initially, my plans were to go to college, but now I'm planning to join the military in a few years.

SHAPIRO: I understand you ended every episode of your podcast the same way. Will you just give us that one more time to go out on?

AREVALO: Of course. This is Emma Arevalo.

ERIN ADDISON: This is Erin Addison.

EVAN ADDISON: And this is Evan Addison signing out.

ERIN ADDISON: Steel City strong.

: Steel City strong.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Evan Addison, Erin Addison and Emma Arevalo, congratulations on graduating from high school, and good luck with the next chapter of your lives.

EVAN ADDISON: Thank you.

ERIN ADDISON: Thank you for having us.

AREVALO: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Kathryn Fox