A problem I have seen in the field of sustainability is that though sustainability is indeed making strides in our society and is becoming more prevalent in the minds of people, I feel that it is not being addressed in enough education and teaching in a creative ways. For sustainable practices to be implemented within our society, our people must have a stronger understanding of its importance; and our youth could be the answer to the long-term preservation of our world. What is difficult about implementation is not just finding a way to relate this information to young people so that they understand how important this work is, but also relaying it in a format that is more relatable. Performing arts could be the solution!
Several studies have shown the positive effects that performing arts offer to communicate sustainability concepts in an academic setting ranging from nursing to language skills. This is a topic that can be intimidating to many students but performing arts-based work has made the topic of sustainability more approachable, relatable, and keeps the message clear. Being someone who has worked in performing arts for roughly a decade, I have performed and helped create many pieces ranging from music to theatre with messages that needed to be heard. As river conservation is a major issue in Colorado, I felt that this topic would indeed be the best to showcase what performing arts can do as well as bring this issue to a younger audience.
What I decided to do with my senior capstone research project at Colorado Mountain College was to investigate methods of performing arts the 12th grade students at Glenwood Springs High School responded to best on the topic of river conservation. I focused on three forms of performance art: a song parody, a poetry slam, and a series of improv games with a river conservation theme. The session received positive reception from all the subjects with unanimous praise going towards the musical elements. It was so rejuvinating to see these young students become so involved in the work taking place and allowing their own true colors and personalities to shine. This was not only a time of learning and epiphanies, but also a time for all of us to look at these ideas and have fun with them in a creative way. The students relayed to me that while the information was not new, it affirmed the importance of river conservation and how perspective is critical to understanding all sides and finding an answer that is suitable for everyone.
This reaction of self-knowledge was exactly the answer I was looking for as many of us in this line of work know that opposition is not the answer, but an opportunity to create relationships and compromises. This demonstrated that performance-based teachings are not only effective in direct results, but ignite critical thinking afterward and if implemented in a large-scale setting could even prove to be more successful that even I would have predicted. In these findings on the merging of performance art and sustainability, I feel that we have again proven how impactful performing arts can be to informing people on imperative messages needed for our world and this research has solidified that notion for me and many others that are intrigued by this field. As one of my favorite singers of all time said, “I believe the children are the future, teach them well and let them lead the way.” It’s to make that statement a reality for sustainability and our world.
Travis Wilson is a recent graduate of Colorado Mountain College with a Bachelor of Arts in Sustainability. He is originally from the Western region of Georgia and has been in Colorado since 2013. Aside from his studies in sustainability, Travis also does various theatre and musical work in the Roaring Fork Valley having been involved in over a dozen productions and performances since living in Glenwood Springs. Currently he works in retail and is looking forward to starting internships and trainings this coming fall that will adhere more to his area of focus in sustainable communication, directing, and development.
By Jessy Stevenson, Wild Rose Education Intern, Spring 2019
Published in River Management Society 2019 Summer Journal
When I was 18 months old, my parents snowshoed 32 miles into the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness where we spent the months of January through April living next to the South Fork of the Flathead River. I made the journey in a backpack on my mom’s back and spent that winter in a tipi with my parents and our two canine companions. Before I knew that rivers had names, I learned what it was like to fall asleep to the sound of rushing water. Before I understood how rivers shape our landscapes, they shaped experiences that would instill in me a deep love for wild places and eventually form my land ethic.
I spent the rest of my youth on a small homestead in rural, northwest Montana. Growing up surrounded by an abundance of natural resources meant that conflict was also abundant in our small community. My parents worked hard to protect the places they valued, but above all they taught my sister and I to listen. Listen to the land and listen to the people. Seek to understand the things we each value and how they drive us to act the way we do. They taught us that listening is a form of respect and that solving complex problems starts with learning about and developing respect for the things we might not understand. Besides ingraining a love for telling and listening to stories, this lesson has influenced my education and passion for working in conflict resolution and place-based education.
Over the past two years, opportunities to learn about and work in place-based education and conflict resolution have become entwined with my interest in rivers and the unique challenges they face. In the summer of 2018 I was part of the 4th Biennial Student Congress on Public Policy for Land Management, a group of young people tasked with addressing and providing action-based recommendations for issues faced by our nation’s rivers and trail systems. From there, I received a scholarship to attend the 2018 River Management Society Symposium, a gathering of educators, policy-makers, managers, advocates, guides, recreationists, and people from across the nation with wide-ranging connections to rivers. River stories were traded in place of business cards at the symposium, filling the spaces between forums and presentations. I met Sarah Johnson, founder of Wild Rose Education, after a presentation on the River Studies & Leadership Certificate, quickly striking up a conversation on the value of place-based education before heading off to our afternoon workshops. A few weeks later, in the process of crafting an internship for my last semester as an undergrad, Sarah and I got in touch through the River Management Society. I wanted to work on a meaningful project that combined rivers and either education or conflict resolution, and Sarah had an idea that combined all three. We set up an internship through the University of Montana and created a plan to work virtually on a project - Sarah from her office in Colorado and I from Montana.
Over the next five months Sarah and I worked together to create a deliberative forum guide that focuses on addressing the challenges faced by our nation’s rivers. Deliberation is a method of communication that involves thoughtfully identifying and considering options from multiple perspectives. Recently, a number of frameworks or ‘guides’ have been created to help facilitate deliberative forums, in which interest groups gather to discuss options for addressing challenging issues. The role of deliberation in working to address environmental issues focuses on ensuring that all interest groups contribute to the creation of and can identify with at least one of the options discussed in the forum. In a world where education is growing more specialized and societies are growing more individualized, deliberation can provide an interdisciplinary approach to solving complex problems and building connections between otherwise divided groups of people.
The process of building our own deliberative forum guide began with an anonymous survey that was sent to an array of people across the nation, asking them to discuss their own relationships with rivers as well as their concerns for the future of those rivers. Responses from the survey helped us to shape a working draft of the deliberative forum guide, named Let’s Talk Rivers. The guide introduces the challenges of increasing demands on our nation’s rivers and lists three potential options for addressing those demands, each with a set of possible focus areas and trade-offs. While this guide takes the idea of an open framework one step further by addressing specific issues identified by real people across the nation, it is meant to be adapted.
After developing a comprehensive first draft of the guide and making edits based on comments and suggestions from a number of people throughout the process, we held a practice forum to test the framework. Sarah organized the forum, inviting an array of people with various connections to rivers as well as a trained facilitator with experience moderating deliberative forums. Unable to make the trip to Colorado, I joined the forum virtually. Sarah and I observed, taking detailed notes on parts of the framework that seemed to work well and those that needed improvement. Without a specific, local issue to tackle, the practice forum remained broad and didn’t fully encapsulate the diversity of perspectives usually present in this type of deliberation. Even so, observing the framework in action made it clear that inherent biases are almost always present and can exist in ways that are impossible to see until pointed out by someone else. Overall, participants in practice forum provided crucial feedback and were invaluable to the development of this project. We are honored to have worked with so many incredible people along the way and hope that this tool will be valuable to communities of all types; changed, adapted and shaped to help address the complex challenges faced by their rivers.
Rivers are dynamic systems. They create change and shape the places and people who depend upon them. The same should be true of education and the ways in which we approach solving complex challenges in a changing world. Collaboratively creating Let’s Talk Rivers has been both challenging and inspiring. The process has reminded me that approaching the unknown with humility and listening are still the most valuable steps in solving any problem. I am now a graduate of the University of Montana, having earned a B.S. in Resource Conservation with a double major in Environmental Studies and a minor in Wilderness Studies. I look forward to continuing to learn and work in the fields of education and conflict resolution, using the tools developed during this internship along the way. Rivers and wild places have shaped who I am and will continue to play crucial roles in my work and education.
There is a place, in the rhythmic wildness of rushing water, where there seems to be some balance. There's a clarity there, a constant stillness among the rumble, a quiet as the rest of the world is drowned out. And so, to rivers is where I return, letting opaque green fingers wrap around doubts, fears, stress and uncertainty, listening to the water and, for a few minutes, ceasing to search for truth in the world.