Stories from Latino Earth Partnership: The Power of Community Engagement |
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Waters of Wisconsin Program Blog


Stories from Latino Earth Partnership: The Power of Community Engagement

Wed, 06/22/2016 - 8:57am -- Joey Zocher

This is the second in a two-part series on the Latino Earth Partnership (LEP) initiative of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) Arboretum Earth Partnership, following last month’s entry “Stories from Latino Earth Partnership: A School Rain Garden.” LEP promotes collaboration between educators and Latino communities by engaging youth and families in culturally based ecological restoration. Environmental stewardship is integrated with culturally authentic resources, Spanish language curriculum, and citizen science process skills like data collection and analysis, habitat restoration, and water stewardship.

In Milwaukee, Earth Partnership is offering a one-week LEP institute at the Urban Ecology Center-Menomonee Valley Branch in the summer of 2016 for teachers and youth interested in ecological restoration, Latino cultural connections, and environmental stewardship. City partners in leading summer institutes, community events, and citizen science projects include the Urban Ecology Center, Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, and Escuela Verde. The essay below is written by Joey Zocher, a teacher-advisor at Escuela Verde.

Steve Laubach, UW-Madison Arboretum



Like many people, I have learned some of my most important lessons outside of the classroom, often through projects involving a body of water. I taught high school biology for ten years as a teacher for Milwaukee Public Schools before taking a position to help open the Washington Park Branch of the Urban Ecology Center. After a few years in a management position, I knew I needed to go back to teaching but was frustrated with the structure of the traditional classroom. I wanted to empower my students to transform their communities in ways that were relevant to them. To me, this is the goal of true inquiry-based science. I was lucky enough to find a team of educators who share my vision to plan and open Escuela Verde, a project-based public charter school in Milwaukee with a focus on sustainability and social justice.

In the very first issue of Environmental Education published in 1969, noted environmental educator William Stapp wrote a seminal article that stressed the importance of an educated citizenry. According to Stapp, it is vital that "the citizenry be knowledgeable concerning their biophysical environment and associated problems, aware of how they can help solve these problems, and motivated to work toward effective solutions." When Escuela Verde opened in 2012, we felt this statement was still valid, and that the biggest area of need for most students was the motivation to work toward solutions. Rather than blaming our youth for not caring, we realized our educational system offered few opportunities for youth to practice offering solutions to issues concerning the biophysical environment. Therefore, we developed a curricular model called Youth Participatory Eco-Justice Action Research (YPEAR) where students match their interests and skills with a community need. At Escuela Verde, seniors are required to carry out a yearlong senior thesis project as a graduation requirement that explores solutions to a community need.

During the 2014–2015 school year, senior Connor Mitchell developed an outstanding project entitled, “How Does Knowledge of Technology Affect Student Use of Technology in Projects?” When starting to plan for his senior thesis, however, Connor was not extremely excited. This is not uncommon. Connor’s passion was skateboarding, and he loved shooting and editing skateboarding videos. Connor began to draw on his videography skills by offering workshops that taught students and staff how to create and edit videos using Final Cut Pro – a means for people in our community to share our knowledge in a more exciting way. This focus moved him closer to a research project, but there was still something missing.

Students and Staff from Escuela Verde on a bike and skateboard trip tour of the Kinnickinnic River with SSCHC Staff.

Students and Staff from Escuela Verde on a bike and skateboard trip tour of the Kinnickinnic River with SSCHC Staff.


The project really came into focus as our school took a biking and skateboarding trip to the local Kinnickinnic River to learn about riparian restoration work of the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers (SSCHC). At this time, Latino Earth Partnership had also been working with Escuela Verde, SSCHC, and the Urban Ecology Center to improve water quality in the Kinnickinnic, one of the most threatened rivers in the United States. Through funding from Wisconsin Sea Grant and the Wisconsin Improving Teacher Quality program, the coalition held teacher professional development institutes and related community events to share resources for implementing schoolyard rain gardens.

Connor loved the stories behind what the SSCHC’s work, and particularly appreciated the bike trails the organization added along the river. When he heard SSCHC Community Engagement Specialist Iris Gonzalez share her dream to put together a video of the Kinnickinnic River restoration projects, Connor volunteered to help. He had finally found an authentic community need that resonated with his own interests. Connor, his advisor Cynthia Gonzalez, and Iris met with Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong, Maria Moreno, and Steve Laubach from Latino Earth Partnership (LEP). LEP in turn connected Connor with Reynaldo Morales, a UW-Madison graduate student and digital storytelling professional. Connor then put together a dedicated student crew to work with Reynaldo to create a storyboard, and then film and edit the Kinnickinnic River restoration documentary.

Escuela Verde students collecting data on the Kinnickinnic River.


Connor and his Kinnickinnic River Film Project crew knew very little about the river’s watershed before the project began. They decided on five sequences for the film: (1) Historyand Place, (2) Present Day/New Neighbors/The 16th Street Neighborhood, (3) The Revitalization and Restoration Plans/Rainwater Management and Community Resilience, (4) Aspects in which the Neighborhood was Contributing to the Restoration Plans, and (5) Leadership and Hopes for the Future.

While they were interviewing neighbors and business partners, they learned how the demographics in the area changed from primarily European to Latino. They also gained critical understanding of the environmental justice issues related to drinking water, basement flooding, and lead poisoning, and were inspired by how much local citizens cared about their river. The final video, which moves between Spanish and English subtitles accordingly, was shown at several community events.

At the screenings, Connor was glowing as he talked about lessons learned from the project: “I started off doing this project because I had to do it to graduate. But then I kind of just came to the conclusion that if I have to do this I might as well like what I'm doing. So then I started to enjoy teaching students. … It just came more naturally and I really liked that.”

Developing a new understanding of the value of his project demonstrated that Connor deepened his environmental literacy skills by practicing and supporting interdependence with both his classmates and the river. He even continued to work on the project after he graduated from high school, bringing what he learned to his undergraduate studies in the UW-Milwaukee film department.

Connor proudly holding his acceptance letter from UW-Milwaukee.


In many ways, Connor’s senior thesis project helped transform him from a reluctant high school student into an actively engaged citizen. Additionally, his project inspired students at Escuela Verde to further study the Kinnickinnic River as it undergoes its transformation, and we continue to work with SSCHC on river stewardship. Just as we work to restore the shoreline by removing the concrete channels of the Kinnickinnic River, we must also work to restore learning by reconsidering traditional educational systems so our youth can learn what is relevant and important to their lives.

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Stephen Laubach ​is an outreach specialist for the UW-Madison Arboretum Earth Partnership program and a writing consultant on cooperative conservation projects​.

Joey Zocher is a teacher-advisor at Escuela Verde. With over a decade of experience teaching science in Milwaukee public schools, Zocher believes Escuela Verde’s student-centered, project-based learning approach to teaching and learning is the missing link to student success.

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