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Engaging Youth In Stewardship

A generation ago, most kids grew up spending lots of free time outdoors—those connections to nature are how many people first learn environmental ethics. And back then, there weren’t so many exciting activities competing for teens’ attention. Environmental educators and mentors have had to change their approaches.

So when West Virginia Rivers Coalition planned a pilot youth engagement program focusing on two Chesapeake Bay tributaries, we did a lot before we put pen to paper. First, because our goal was to use youth engagement to help build watershed groups' capacity, we surveyed our Eastern Panhandle watershed partners. They said they needed help reaching out to young people and their parents. They hoped teens would be ambassadors to other teens and parents.

We teamed up with two amazing West Virginia watershed partners, Warm Springs Watershed Association (WSWA) and Friends of the Cacapon River (FCR). Together, we set about trying to create a program that could be replicated across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The resulting program is OneWatershed, a program to empower youth as ambassadors and leaders that we marketed as a film school. Our recruitment invitation says it all: “Are you an aspiring storyteller or filmmaker? Want to learn to make films and produce news by telling the stories of Warm Springs Run and the Cacapon?

Our planning team identified a terrific retired television producer, Jack Kelly. Jack’s first idea was to dump any notion of using conventional cameras. “If we want kids to make films on their own, and upload those films the web,” he said, “we’ve got to train them how to use those things in their pockets or backpack.”

Those “things,” of course, are phones and tablets.

And so Jack, WSWA’s Kate Lehman and the FCR’s Rachel D’Agostino planned out a weeklong film camp. In addition to the technical elements of filmmaking and editing, the workshop hosted people with stories to tell: a sportsman whose life has been enriched by the Cacapon, a retired sewage treatment plan operator, a local fifth generation business owner, and more.

WSWA and FCR took on the task of helping to identify these interview subjects. The West Virginia Conservation Agency and Department of Environmental Protection’s Watershed Improvement Branch presented on watershed topics as part of the morning “briefings”—sessions that sparked curiosity in our filmmakers.

Each group also planned events that could be filmed for stories. For example, WSWA conducted a stream monitoring program that was filmed by students.

Seven teens attended the pilot program. They all say they learned way more than they thought they would. But it’s safe to say we adults learned so much more from our teen filmmakers: about how kids naturally know how to collaborate with people different from them; about how they are capable of using technology to explore being human—not detract from it; and how their approaches to environmental stewardship are going to different than their parents’, and that’s okay.

We’re sorting through the practical lessons of the pilot, especially how the model can be both effective and replicated watershed to watershed.

We’d love to hear from watershed groups in West Virginia who are engaging youth in stewardship and leadership. Check out some of our short videos at www.wvrivers.org/news/onewatershed, and let us know what you think.

David Lillard is special projects manager with West Virginia Rivers Coaltion. Reach him at dlillard@wvrivers.org or 304-876-2860.

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