How our volunteer and education programs work on climate change

by Ashley O'Neill Prado, Laura Mann Hill and Sophie Downey

Our Stewardship and Education program philosophy is based on the fact that people who learn more about and find their own ways to connect with the places around them will be more likely to protect and steward the environment. (Photos: FMR, Rich Wahls, Dodd Demas, Tamar Patterson)

The FMR Stewardship and Education team engages people through fun, hands-on activities. We provide great experiences for our volunteers and students, but most importantly, we connect people to why it's essential to be stewards and caretakers for this place we call home.

Here's how our volunteer and education programs plant the seeds for climate change efforts through each event and partnership.

Learning about place

Because not everyone has equal access to parks, green spaces, and outdoor education opportunities, our programs are essential supplements to a typical classroom experience. And even beyond our education programs, each event we hold is educational. The classes, groups and volunteers we work with are bound to learn more about where we live.

Whether we’re tending one of our restoration sites or stenciling storm drains on the streets of St. Paul, the topics we cover at our events are simple but impactful. Volunteers and students learn about restoration practices and the history of their parks and green spaces, and they share their knowledge with friends and neighbors.

People young and old learn how to read a forested area — is that a healthy forest or is it overrun with buckthorn and garlic mustard? Before attending one of our programs, many volunteers don’t know that the storm drains in our cities lead directly to the Mississippi River without any filter.

Our education and volunteer programs also directly teach people about climate change, actively involving them in solutions like restoring areas in the city that provide respite for people and critters alike and planting climate-resilient trees.

Planning and planting for the future

Part of our restoration process includes collaborating with FMR's ecologists to plan for and adapt to climate change. Each year, volunteer and community groups work with us to plant trees that are predicted to grow successfully in a warmer Minnesotan climate.

At events like these, we talk about how adding some climate-resilient species to riverfront restoration sites will keep our riverfront forests healthy. If one species doesn’t fare well with increasing temperatures and other climatic stressors, the other species can grow in its absence. Having a diverse community of trees and other plants creates more resilient forests that will have a better chance of surviving climate change and provide fewer opportunities for invasive and weedy species to become overgrown.

We also talk about the many reasons why forest resilience matters. While tree-planting creates habitat for our local wildlife, trees are also crucial for clean water, clean air and overall happiness and health for humans.

In the Twin Cities, people of color and low-income communities are subjected to disproportionately higher levels of pollutants than other Twin Cities residents. In a study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 91% of Minnesotan communities of color and Indigenous communities and 46% of low-income communities are exposed to high levels of air pollution (Environmental Racism in the Twin Cities). The restoration efforts our students and volunteers support across the metro can help reverse this trend.

Nature primes activism

In our education program's Cultural Landscapes lesson, we recognize that everyone feels connected to the outdoors differently. Even though some people enjoy hiking and camping, others might value time outdoors walking their dog at the dog park or playing soccer. Whatever people love about the outdoors, we build on that experience to talk about climate change and our responsibility to take care of the environment.

We know that as people strengthen their relationships with the Mississippi River, the land and the earth we inhabit, they're more likely to take care of those places. Spending time outdoors and feeling connected to nature in general has been correlated with increased environmental stewardship behaviors like signing a petition about climate change or volunteering to remove buckthorn.

Many volunteers join our River Guardians advocacy program to take action (online or in person) on issues that affect green spaces in our metro communities and the health of the Mississippi River as it faces threats from climate change.

Our Stewardship and Education team’s goal is to foster stewardship in all metro residents, regardless of how one connects to the outdoors. We build a diverse community of environmental activists by engaging young people with outdoor restoration and service-learning experiences, hosting events with community partners, and creating space for everyone to connect in the ways they feel most comfortable.

Join us

We hope you join us to volunteer at one of our many stewardship events each year or reach out to us about an educational program for your school or group. Our volunteers and participants are the Mississippi River's stewards for current and future generations, and our work to protect and restore this great river and its communities wouldn't be possible without you.

Read more Stewardship and Education program updates.