Art and Conservation -- Reaching (or, at least attempting to reach) a wider audience

By Micaela Hyams on May 9, 2017.

One of my favorite professors in college, Katie Lynch at the University of Oregon, used to remind us that environmental education does not and should not sit solely in the science classroom.  For the last three months I’ve endlessly repeated this phrase in my head (and to anyone who would listen) while I coordinated RiverLink’s 10th Annual Voices of the River Art and Poetry Contest.  The contest began as a way to celebrate Earth Day, and continues as a way for students to reflect on their connection to the environment, this year through the theme “How are you connected to your watershed?” A month after putting out a call for submissions my supervisor and I glanced at the shelves cleared and ready for entries, as our operations manager assured us that art always comes in, and it always comes in just before the deadline.  When the first artwork did finally come--a series of brightly decorated foil fish in underwater scenes--we exchanged high fives. 150 original works of 2D art, 3D art, and poetry later, our conversation instead turned to whether we were going to be able to fit it all into the cafés that had agreed to display the art and poetry as part of our goal of fostering more community awareness of the program and of the watershed.

With that goal in mind, the winning works were first hung at our Earth Day Kid’s Festival, where somewhere around 3000 people celebrated Earth Day (#americorpsworks). At this festival, a board member, moved by the poems, came to me asking if I had copies accessible because he wanted to share them at gatherings of RiverLink supporters.

This week we had one of those gatherings and I was asked to read one of the poems; I chose one called “River, Friend, Ally” by a second grade student named Cadance. The room was silent as these supporters--some who make their living through the river, many who served on the RiverLink board for the maximum number of years, and others whose family history includes stories of the river that take place before the 20th Century--considered the words of this eight year old: “The river,/ like a bowl holding our lives,/ and love, more and more love...The river is my heart.”

It’s hard to express how special it was to share that poem aloud. It was such a grounding moment for our organization and its supporters, to remind ourselves why we do the work that we do, and that we aren’t doing it only for ourselves, but for our next generation of watershed stewards. It reminded me how important it is to share with our supporters how the youth in our community see the river, how they feel and think about it. And it reminded me that, while equipping kids with the skills to monitor water quality is an important component of empowering the next generation of watershed stewards, one of the most powerful ways we can engage a wider audience is by stepping outside of the science classroom and letting people express in their own medium how and why they connect to our environment.

Link to Voices of the River