By Seung-min Kang
Most people are fully aware that helping out our neighbors and the environment benefits everyone and deserves recognition. However, the thought of doing a good turn or even getting recognized for it often is not enough to attract people’s interest or ignite their sense of stewardship. If it were, people would clean up their local river after work rather than watch TV.
To raise awareness and promote community engagement in the local watershed, the Jordan River Commission (JRC), in partnership with Salt Lake County and the Center for Documentary Expression and Art (CDEA) in Salt Lake City, Utah, developed an innovative idea for a new outreach program funded by EPA’s Urban Waters Small Grants Program. Their project offers an approach which is not only valuable in meeting water quality goals for the Jordan River Watershed, but unique in the way it captures the community’s attention and encourages their active participation.
The Jordan River flows west of the city, in an area populated by a number of low-income, ethnically-diverse neighborhoods in contrast with the City’s more affluent, less diverse east side. Within these neighborhoods, a quarter of the residents are school age, ranging from 5 to 19. However, the river had never been a safe and healthy place for these kids to play, nor could the community enjoy the riverfront because of continuing problems with mounting garbage and illegal dumping, as well as declining water quality.
JRC and CDEA decided to clean up this “diamond in the rough” to allow kids and their families the chance to enjoy up close and personal the beauty of a clean environment. The partnership took a unique path — engaging neighborhood youth to positively impact water quality by increasing their awareness of the watershed and empowering them to make changes. Their 8-week long in-school Artists/Scholars-in-Residence program includes classes in environmental literature, photography, and writing. The program intentionally bucks the notion that all environmental learning programs are science-based. Yet it introduces students to the connections between science and history, science and art, and ecology.
This is a great chance for students who are not interested in science to interact with the environment while learning new skills. In addition, student’s photographs, stories, poetry and other information are integrated into the partnerhip’s mobile website, which is accessible for many low-income residents whose only access to technology is through their cellphones. Armed with just a smartphone, each student helps map the Jordan River trail and identify “interpretive stops” that provide information about the specific areas. All of the spots on the trail have a numerical stop number where people can learn about each stop by typing its number into the website.
The information these students have gathered is now being made available to thousands of Salt Lake County residents to encourage them to explore the Jordan River. Moreover, people can alert officials about maintenance or water quality concerns by using the “Report an Issue” button on the website. Thus, by using popular technology, JRC and CDEA leave the door open for anyone to be involved in exploring, cleaning, and maintaining the river.
Everyone should have access to public rivers, and it is up to us to make sure that they are maintained for this generation and generations to come. This great program shows that people do care, and by empowering local students and using the right technology, JRC and CDEA are enabling affected residents to make a visible difference in their community and to take charge of protecting their watersheds.
About the author: Seung-min Kang is an intern in the Urban Waters Program in EPA’s Office of Water. She is from Seoul, Korea and attends Ewha Womans University, where she is studying English language and literature and plans to graduate in February 2015. Since she thought that she didn’t know anything about the environment, which is one of the critical social issues, she decided to work for EPA to challenge herself and learn.