The UWCA summer-school program has introduced the Mississippi River to more than 5,000 ethnically diverse students, many of them students of color living in high levels of poverty.
• 77 percent of the participating students report that the experience changed their attitude about the environment and science.
• 70 percent of their teachers say they witnessed far deeper engagement in the students’ work after completing the program.
We gathered around the campfire, roasting marshmallows and chomping on s’mores, telling jokes and a ghost story. Fireflies danced through the gathering darkness, and Renuke remarked that “they look like a celebration.” By 10 pm, the students were in their tents, and there was some quiet chattering late into the night. The 7 am wake-up came early. Several students hugged their guides; three boys who were strangers before the trip hopped up on one of the tables to sing and dance. Mike Hastert gathered us all for a photo, and he sent it out to everyone within an hour of our return.
Precisely how this trip will affect these kids and their choices in the future is uncertain, but the value of the trip, however intangible, is hard to overstate. “These are gateway experiences,” says Greg Lais, founder of Wilderness Inquiry. “We don’t expect one trip will change someone’s life, but it will provide access. Sure, the Boundary Waters are great. Yellowstone is amazing. But we have tremendous opportunities to be in nature right in our own city.”
Paul Labovitz, superintendent for the Mississippi National Park and Recreation Area (MNPRA), points out the untapped potential that the Mississippi River offers all of us in the Twin Cities. “Most people don’t appreciate that there’s a national park—the MNPRA—in their own backyard,” he says. “The UWCA is a wonderful way for us to get these kids on the river. Out there, it can feel truly wild. In some stretches, there’s not a car or person in sight. That’s the first step to getting them to care about this magnificent place.”
For some students, their Wilderness Inquiry experience not only gives them an appreciation of the natural world, it gives them a job. “One thing that never gets talked about when we consider outdoor education is the opportunity for careers, especially for ‘non-traditional users.’” Lais says. “This is a seven- or eight-billion-dollar industry screaming for diversity.”
Staff member Josh Garabunda, who is African American and organized the Cleary Lake trip, first experienced these adventures as a public high-school student. He then became a volunteer and eventually worked his way into a career as an outdoor guide.
The collaborative nature of the program has also allowed each partner to reach out to a broader group of funding sources. A recent fundraiser sponsored by Wilderness Inquiry and Mississippi River Fund, hosted by Garrison Keillor and Mayors Coleman and Rybak, drew a standing-room-only crowd. The EPA, the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, and a range of corporate foundations, government, and nonprofit organizations are continuing their support as well.
Because the program has had some success, it’s now on the radar of other public schools looking for innovative ways to get their kids outdoors. “Barriers come down in the wilderness,” Lais says. “This is not just about conservation, it’s about the kids. And people from all sides of the table are emboldened by our success. The schools, park officials, politicians, parents, [and] volunteers are all stepping up and saying that they’d like to get involved. These kinds of experiences are crucial for everyone.” He pauses for a moment. “But stewardship isn’t the entire point—being a complete human being is.”