The river as teacher: A preview of our paddling-centered summer youth program

ESI members in canoe on the river

Paddling the river has always been a part of our youth program. But this year, canoe trips will frame each week.

This summer, our environmental youth development program will look a little different. We're doubling the amount of hours we'll spend together. And we're prioritizing outdoor site visits and paddles. We want our fellows to experience the places we're working to protect and the people most impacted by environmental harms.

Our hope is that participants will build meaningful relationships with the Mississippi River through place-based experiential learning opportunities, and that they will feel a connection to the river that inspires stewardship and action. 

Our Environmental Stewardship Institute (ESI) summer program is a paid opportunity for high school-aged youth to explore environmental careers. We focus our work with BIPOC and underserved youth in an effort to diversify the environmental sector, which has historically been a white-dominated field. In its sixth year, the ESI program continues to grow in impact as we build stronger programming and partnerships to provide potentially life-changing experiences and career pathways for our participants. 

This year, we're intentionally developing our ESI summer programming to better help youth know, feel and care for the Mississippi River. We wrote in April about why moving with the river is important for our programming. Here's a preview of how we hope to facilitate connection with the river, and not solely recreational experiences.

Reading the river — experiential learning through weekly paddles

As part of our summer program, 25-30 youth in our Environmental Stewardship Institute will participate in eight full-day site visits — most of them paddling excursions — across the Twin Cities to learn about environmental justice issues, Indigenous relationships with the river, river infrastructure, agriculture, art and land conservation. 

Unlike reading or hearing about the river, or glancing out a car window at the water flowing beneath a bridge, paddling the river presents a way to get to know a place that is rooted in experience. Those experiences can foster a relationship with the river, beyond an abstract understanding. 

Seeing and feeling the water and its diverse attributes and uses shows us how connected we are to each other and the more-than-human world. As we paddle, we'll encounter scenic beauty, industry, wildlife, dams, limestone bluffs and signs of human impact on the landscape, some more obvious than others. When we paddle through industrial riverfronts like in North Minneapolis, for example, we'll witness crucial water and environmental justice issues for ourselves, accompanied by community experts to share the stories embedded in the landscape. 

Experiential learning like this can empower youth to make a difference in a way that simply reading, seeing pictures or hearing about environmental issues might not as we experience the sights, smells and sounds of the river. I know from my own paddling that being with the river in this way has the power to ignite feelings that lead to involvement and advocacy.

Through our weekly paddles, we'll learn from the river and bear witness to its teachings. The water will be our classroom. 

Paddling together to learn from each other

We'll also hear directly from experts who can provide context for what we're experiencing. On each paddle, we'll be joined by guests who can elaborate on things like the significance of sacred sites, farming practices, river infrastructure and the vital connections between land, water and people. 

Because we'll be paddling in community, our fellows will get a chance to ask questions and make connections with people working directly on environmental issues in the Twin Cities.

And as we paddle large voyageur canoes together, our fellows will get to talk about what we're seeing, sometimes negotiating different responses and opinions. Sharing our different perspectives and backgrounds will help us all better observe and think critically about patterns we see as the river unfolds before us. We'll learn from each other. Our conversations and our time together will help us develop perspectives and responses we might not have had if we were alone.

Not just the scenic stretches — thinking about our impact

Some of our site visits and paddles will be in scenic locations, like the Mississippi River Gorge, through Fort Snelling State Park and on Rice Creek, while other paddles will be on more industrial, polluted or developed parts of the river, like the stretch or river north of downtown or on the Minnesota River. 

This is intentional. As ESI youth paddle different parts of the river and various tributaries this summer, we hope they become curious about the differences. 

Instead of accepting the existing conditions and uses of the river as given, encounters with different stretches of the river — some scenic, some developed, some industrial, some with good water quality, some with poor water quality — can reveal what stories, histories and relations of power have shaped the landscape. We'll see that many conditions are the result of a series of human actions over time. 

Thinking critically together about how the river landscape was and is made in large part by people opens the door to consider ways we can advocate for environmental justice and a healthier Mississippi River. It opens us up to dream of what the river could be. 

Taking it slow

Finally, we hope that paddling the river provides a change of pace for our youth participants who have grown up in a fast-paced and high-tech world. In "Braiding Sweetgrass," Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that we have to unlearn hurrying and elevate slowness. 

Paddling is a meditation in motion, an opportunity to slow down and observe the world around us as we move with the river. 

At FMR, we know immediate action is needed to reverse the effects of human-caused climate change and to challenge the industries and systems contributing harmful chemicals to the river's flow. (We're doing this work, too.) Good science and policy are vital to improving the river and, in turn, fostering collective healing. 

But we also need to create chances for youth and others to experience the river themselves and to fall in love with the places we strive to protect, preserve and sustain. 

Join us

FMR's Stewardship and Education team is taking this task seriously as we strive to deepen loving, reciprocal relationships with the river. We hope that our ESI summer program helps youth continue to hone life skills, learn in new and different ways and think critically about the path forward.

Learn more about ESI here. Adults in environmental careers can help support this program by becoming an ESI mentor.

The generosity of our members and funders sustains our youth programming. Thanks to Berglund Foundation, Cargill Foundation, H.B. Fuller, Minnesota Beverage Foundation, Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, Trillium, Union Pacific, Xcel Energy Foundation and members like you. 

Explore all of our Stewardship & Education updates.

Upcoming Events

Tuesday, June 25, 2024 - 6:00pm to 8:00pm
Nicollet Island, Minneapolis
New date: Saturday, August 10, 2024 at 5 p.m.
Hidden Falls Regional Park, St. Paul
Wednesday, August 14, 2024 - 6:00pm to 8:00pm
Pine Bend Bluffs Scientific & Natural Area, Inver Grove Heights