I came to the Forest Preserves of Cook County after a decade of work in grassroots non-profit organizations in Chicago. For a majority of this time I served my community, the Indigenous (Native American) community of Chicago, with whom I learned to see nature that is often missed by others.
It was during this time that one of my mentors took me on a walk through our neighborhood in Chicago. She began identifying traditional plants and told me that even though the landscape of Chicago has changed, our sacred plants are still found here. Experiences like this profoundly changed the way I think about education.
She reminded me that the land is our classroom.
Many Indigenous communities across the country are very purposefully reclaiming control of the education of their youth.
One way the Indigenous community of Chicago did this was to use the diversity of the community as a teaching asset.
Through an innovative design process based on self-determination, we brought members from many different tribes together to create a culturally based science curriculum. The result was encompassing and reflective of the multi-tribal community of Chicago.
I was a lead teacher and curriculum writer for this process, and through this experience I learned how to honor the tribal diversity of the Chicago Indigenous community. (Read more about this work in the paper Innovations in Culturally Based Science Education through Partnerships and Community.)
These experiences have greatly informed Citizen Scientists in Action!, a pilot program being initiated by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. The program’s emphasis on a community-based training model is an extension of the community engagement process that I was a part of in the Chicago Indigenous community. I designed Citizen Scientists in Action! for the Forest Preserve District’s Youth Education Outreach Program (YEOP).
Citizen Scientists in Action! aims to connect the public to one amazingly dynamic, and often overlooked, resource—the land.
The Forest Preserves of Cook County maintains nearly 69,000 acres of open land, for the education, pleasure and recreation of the public. Established in 1914, it is the oldest and one of the largest forest preserve systems in the nation. Many of these preserves are either within Chicago city limits or a short drive away.
As I progressed through trial phases last summer, it became clear that a program rooted in local ecological resources naturally allowed learning and story-building opportunities to emerge. The time out in the field, in this case identifying and tracking invasive species in both forest preserves and urban vacant lots, provided many opportunities for community participation. Participants weren’t just collecting data for the Forest Preserve District; we were creating knowledge and sharing experiences as a community.
The Citizen Scientists program focuses on providing educational opportunities for urban youth on the importance of environmental stewardship and introduces them to potential careers in science through participation in showcased citizen science programs.
YEOP staff train community members and teachers and co-facilitate the data collection and interpretation process. The data collected by students this year went to the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network (MISIN), a data aggregation effort targeting early detection and rapid response to invasive species in the Midwest. (Read more about citizen science models in the paper Public Participation in Scientific Research: a Framework for Deliberate Design.)
Let me share with you some words from a young leader who describes his experiences in the trial phases of the program and the great work he is doing in Chicago. Carlos Terrazo is a Community Organizer with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.:
Little Village is community located in the center of an industrial corridor on Chicago’s southwest side with the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal running through it. The focus of LVEJO’s work is to bring awareness to community members about environmental issues and reclaim green space in our neighborhood.
One of our awareness programs is a Toxic Tour of industrial sites that address these issues. Citizen Scientists in Action strengthened our awareness programs by giving us insight into the ecological assets of our community. During our Toxic Tours we now include historical and medicinal uses through stories of the plants that we identified during the summer program. We now keep milkweed in our gardens because it is a plant that is native to our area and attracts beneficial insects.
Another outcome was the information that we gathered from a major site in an abandoned public railroad track that we identified as a potential walkway and bike path for our community. By identifying the emergent prairie ecosystem of the path it helped us continue a conversation with the City of Chicago of our vision for that space.”
Carlos Terrazo’s experience is just one example of the way I hope communities will take something from this program and apply it in their own work.
Truly, for all of us, the land is our classroom.
More reading and resources
How City Kids Will Save the Planet
The ‘Extinction of Experience’—Is Education Dumping Reality?
You Can Get Your Students Outside — and Still Meet Your State Standards
10 Ways You Can Add “Vitamin N” to your Classroom & Beyond
Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative: A New Idea to Connect Urban Kids to Nature
What’s Good in Your Hood? Nearby Nature and Human Hope
How a Land Trust Helps Restore an Endangered Species, the Child in Nature
True Green: 21 Ways to Plant a City
The Forests Where We Live: Six Life & Dean Reasons We Need Our City Trees
How Prospect Park Shaped a Man
A Tree Grows in South Central