Even through the uncertainty of the pandemic, organizations like Ecology in Classrooms & Outdoors (ECO) and Wisdom of the Elders have continued to care for urban natural areas and help interns and students connect to nature.
The two organizations partner on a program at Wahoo Natural Area, which is tucked between Johnson Creek and Willamette National Cemetery in East Portland. The natural area is managed by Portland Parks & Recreation, a third partner. The natural area is part of the lands that have been home to Indigenous peoples since time immemorial.
Metro was able to support the partnership with a Nature in Neighborhoods grant thanks to voters investing in nature by passing a parks and nature local-option levy.
Wisdom of the Elders, an Indigenous community organization focused on education and environmental sector job training, has brought several cohorts of paid interns to the site over the past two years to tend plants, conduct site assessments and build trails. The goal is to help the interns in the program gain conservation job skills and tie those to Native peoples’ traditional ecological knowledge.
“We need to know where the western science and the STEAM concepts connect to traditional ecological knowledge and lift both of them up,” says Adrienne Moat, Wisdom of the Elder’s workforce development coordinator. “It’s important to know the plant scientifically and also spiritually.”
The natural area welcomes students from nearby elementary schools in East Portland. ECO brings environmental education lessons to elementary students, starting in the classroom and then going on field trips to natural areas. “We’ve been able to take kids to natural areas in their own neighborhoods,” said Sarah Woods, the acting executive director of ECO.
Since getting the Nature in Neighborhoods grant, ECO was able to bring nearly 900 students to Wahoo. The kids toured the site, putting their classroom knowledge to practice, and, best of all, getting their hands dirty putting native plants into the ground.
Those field trips had to stop when the pandemic began. Often, grant programs run off strict adherence to a contract or agreement, but ECO, Wisdom of the Elders and Metro worked together to adapt the program. That allowed ECO to create virtual field trips that gave more than 400 students the opportunity to experience the site. One internship season had to be canceled by Wisdom of the Elders, but they were able to use the grant dollars to pay their professional conservation crew to complete projects at Wahoo.
Even though the pandemic limited both partners’ plans, the young people they serve will still have another shot to experience the natural area. Both the young adults in Wisdom of the Elder’s internship program and the students in ECO’s field trips have the opportunity to come back to the site a year later to see how their work has helped strengthen the natural area.
Woods says that experience helps solidify two key lessons: “Nature is all around us. We want to help students understand we are a part of nature, and not separate from it.”