Teens Care for Their Local River, Their Way

How do you get distracted teens to take care of their local watershed? Peter Donaldson’s carrot is the opportunity to produce smart, hip videos and be the on-air expert. This is Peter’s story.
Powerpoint Presentation

Senior, Jacob Smith, addresses a packed hall for the Watershed Report screening.

Photo courtesy of Heather Meyer-Love

Right up until the private screening of the Watershed Report on the last day of June, I didn’t know if we would actually succeed, but was thoroughly inspired by the possibility that we might. What excites me about teaching is working at the edge of my competence. Teenagers grow and learn in the same dynamic way, at the boundary between grace and failure. We were natural partners.

At the screening, the students and I previewed the Watershed Report pilot version of four short video segments to a packed house of 150 key communicators. There was no more room to sit so people were standing along the back wall. For two days I had been training some of our leadership students to emcee the event. I would sit on the sidelines.

For weeks following the screening, we were inundated with emails from people who wanted the DVD, the strategy, the possibility that youth might lead us towards sustainable behavior through their own noticing of positive trends.

To arrive at this moment, I had recruited 22 high school leadership students to work with me for a year. We learned about watershed issues; analyzed sustainability trends within our watershed; and produced a series of short video reports intended for broadcast, the web, and public presentations.

Teenagers will sit up and make eye contact once adults value them enough to include them and their ideas in shaping local policy.

The students came from nine different high schools in five different school districts, all from within the ecological boundaries of the most densely populated watershed in Puget Sound. I drink this water. I pee here. This is where I park my car. My daughter wants to have her wedding in my backyard. The story of my watershed is my story.

The students said "I want to be part of that story." During our pilot year, in which I would deliver the “Watershed Address Seminar” to over 1,000 students, a select few would hang around at the end of class.  They had only five minutes passing time between bells, between the essential subjects of standardized curriculum, and they wanted something more.

Here's what I think about before stepping into a classroom of teenagers:

  • Be extremely present. I was a teenager once, and that guy is still part of me.
  • Be earnestly fascinated with my subject. And let the subject be a problem to solve, not stuff to know.
  • Be honest about the size of the challenge, yet infectiously curious about the solution. Paint a vivid picture about where we are headed—a positive future, one that requires us to show up.
  • Be local, relevant, and immediate. This stuff is happening as we speak, and in our own backyards. We are players in this story, and, therefore, powerful.

Students Working

Watershed Report students take care of the Cedar River by removing invasive species and replacing with native plants.  .

So, what is the Watershed Report? The mission we crafted reads like this: To inspire the next generation of watershed stewards through education, restoration, and public communications. Strategically, the Watershed Report contributes to a generational shift in stewardship behavior by establishing a new mental framework for living sustainably within our watershed address, and by broadcasting it through a variety of megaphones.

Here’s the strategy:

Collaborate with professionals. High school student leaders are trained in stewardship project management, sustainability policy analysis, public speaking, and video broadcast journalism. They collaborate with professionals to produce a series of short video reports that track local sustainability trends across sectors including school districts, city government, green business development, and habitat restoration efforts.

Craft data-driven messages. Along with a team of science and sustainability mentors, student cull accurate, data-driven messages from the annual reports of city governments, school districts, and agencies. Their research is supplemented with targeted surveys and interviews with key personnel.

With youth as the messengers, we set in motion an intergenerational expectation towards sustainability.

Feature youth as experts in hip, fast-paced videos. The Watershed Report is updated annually and  broken into short segments suitable for school seminars, public meetings, TV, and the web. Well-informed youth are the only narrators. There are no expert interviews or adult speakers. The style is charming, fast-paced, and informative. In producing the pilot, it was beautiful to see our six designated narrators learn to use a teleprompter and stay on focus, take after take. There were plenty of bloopers and lots of laughter. As a stylistic choice, we incorporated the bloopers into the beginning of each video segment to make sure that our audience knew that these people were real and that they loved telling a story they cared about. Another set of these same students spent four hours in a professional sound studio and improvised the entire sound track.

Highlight positive, leading edge trends. Only positive trends are featured, generating a gentle competition among local leaders. With youth as the messengers, we set in motion an intergenerational expectation towards sustainability.

 Peter Donaldson

Peter delivers hands-on seminar to freshman at Tahoma School District.

With one exhilarating year under our belts, we've learned a lot. People want to know what’s working. They want to know positive stories grounded in understandable, measurable data. They want to know and trust the messenger— somebody like them. Adult leaders seem to be clamoring for youth to catch up, speak up, and contribute their idealism and energy to unclogging the tired politics of “we can’t get it done.”

And, the awe-inspiring change I witnessed? Teenagers will sit up and make eye contact once adults value them enough to include them and their ideas in shaping local policy. This is what I call "curriculum in community."  Feeling valued, youth are naturally motivated to do good work, ask penetrating questions, and demand the best from the adults around them.

As a strategic storyteller and educator, this is what I live for. And the setting for this story is local, local, local … my watershed address.

Peter Donaldson wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Peter is a master storyteller and former teacher who serves as Program Manager of the Watershed Report, a new initiative of the Friends of the Cedar River Watershed. He is developing a new teacher endorsement for Sustainability Education with Antioch University, and tours the region with two one-man shows, Salmonpeople and The Life and Times of Leonardo da Vinci.


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