Mena Gamil extended his hand, introduced himself, and started talking about the need for solar-paneled sidewalks -- sidewalks that would be environmentally friendly, safe for passersby and, above all else, an improvement over existing paths in nearby neighborhoods.
"I want to make my city better," the ninth-grader said outside LEAD Academy at Cameron on First Avenue South on Wednesday afternoon. "It's a really big thing for me. More people are coming to Nashville everyday. People are going to want to go outside, explore Nashville and see how beautiful it is."
Gamil, who hopes to one day attend either Vanderbilt or Belmont University, was one of more than 120 LEAD Academy freshmen who participated in the school's Freshmen Civic Design Showcase -- the culmination of a yearlong Freshmen Seminar project with the Nashville Civic Design Center.
The class, led by teachers Lyzette Garza and Melody Gibson, education coordinator at the Nashville Civic Design Center (and LEAD Academy math teacher), pushed students to consider a social or political issue in their community, work through the idea by troubleshooting and problem-solving, and feature their work at the Showcase, attended by more than 200 people at the school.
"Our main goal was for students to experience what it means to be active in the community or to be active leaders in their communities," Garza said. "To be able to take an idea and execute all the way through."
Students presented six different showcases from 1 to 3 p.m. both inside and outside of the Cameron campus: an affordable housing protest; student-led workshops; a tactical urbanism solar panel sidewalk; Chestnut Hill sidewalk tours; an interactive art showcase raising awareness around gentrification; and a Nashville affordable housing story collection release party.
"This made me pay attention," Gamil said, wrapping up an overview of the solar panel sidewalk. "I know this work is going to help me in the future. I want to do something that helps with the community."
The LEAD Academy freshmen were engaged pretty much from late August, when the project started, through today's presentations, said Garza.
"The kids became really invested in the issues," she said. "They looked at things happening in Nashville: gentrification, affordable housing and walkability in the Chestnut Hill community. They're serious about it but they're also having really having fun an learning about the community."
Among the showcase visitors were Councilwoman Angie Henderson, who sponsored a bill the city council unanimously passed last night calling for developers of new single-family homes and duplexes in neighborhoods to provide sidewalks -- something Gamil, for one, would certainly stand for, as well. David Plazas, deputy director of opinion and engagement for the USA Today Network-Tennessee, attended the showcase as well. He was a panelist at the school earlier in the year as part of the project.
Garza said the school and community support for the project was essential.
"When you get kids fired up about an issue that affects them, it's not about this year or it's not about this unit or even this showcase," she said. It's about the fact that they are motivated to do something more. I'm so extremely proud of our students. They all stepped up. I can see the growth and the growth in them has been tremendous."
(For more pictures from today's showcase, check out our Facebook page here).