Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge Helps Urban Youth Learn How to Translate Nature's Language
Northeast Region, February 21, 2018
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Groundwork-Yonkers students celebrate the completion of the third annual interpretive workshop.
Groundwork-Yonkers students celebrate the completion of the third annual interpretive workshop. - Photo Credit: Daniel Correa
Youth take a break from learning to explore the White Oak Trail at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
Youth take a break from learning to explore the White Oak Trail at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. - Photo Credit: Roger Osorio, Groundwork
Caught up in her
Caught up in her "character" during a role play exercise, one student emphatically reminds other stakeholders of the importance of the American eel to her livelihood and family traditions. - Photo Credit: Roger Osorio, Groundwork

As part of Wallkill River NWR’s partnership with Groundwork-Yonkers, six students and two Groundwork advisors recently participated in an interpretive workshop intended to help build Groundwork’s capacity to form meaningful connections between Yonkers residents and their wild urban spaces. This is the third year the refuge has hosted the workshop, held at Great Swamp NWR. Participating youth were high school juniors and seniors that have been members of the Wallkill-Groundwork partnership since 2015, and this year’s workshop built greatly upon existing relationships and experience to elevate youth participation as ambassadors within their community.


The workshop kicked off with a fun game to introduce youth to staff and the career paths that brought them to work for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Matching articles from their past to each staff member, youth learned that there is no single “path” to a career in conservation, and got to build relationships on a personal level with career professionals.

The workshop itself focused on the principles of interpretation, and encouraged youth to think beyond their own experiences to the perspectives of community members they may encounter in their work. Sessions on audience-centered interpretation and facilitated dialogue taught students to bring an audience along by asking questions, presenting different perspectives, and giving time for reflection and meaningful discussion, rather than using the more traditional “instructive” approach. Role-play exercises, where each student acted as a stakeholder in a real-world conservation challenge, taught students that emotions and deeply-held beliefs must first be acknowledged, before “science” can hope to answer conservation and community conflicts. Discussions around diversity and inclusion, based on provocative readings from writer/professor Carolyn Finney, asked students and refuge staff alike to consider what role we each have to play in conservation, and in making all visitors feel welcome on our public lands. Closing with a discussion on career opportunities within the conservation field and employment opportunities available for youth, the workshop offered a significantly different perspective on how we in conservation relate to our larger audiences. Discussions around conflict, emotionally-charged topics, and diversity and inclusion build empathy and rapport between staff and students while providing youth with a new set of tools to act as leaders and ambassadors within their community.

Perhaps the best feedback came from Groundwork-Yonkers Executive Director Brigitte Griswold, who said that the student-led interpretive tours developed as part of the 2017 workshop and delivered to various groups of Groundwork partners, donors and active community members, had become “the highlight” of their experience, and were a significant factor in drawing more support for Groundwork’s broader efforts to connect community to wild urban spaces. There is interest from Yonkers Public Schools in incorporating the tours into school field trips, and Groundwork would like to see their youth fully running this and other similar programs in the future. It would seem that Groundwork youth are off to a solid start, and with several of the workshop’s graduating seniors interested in pursuing a conservation career, we see in their faces the future of conservation.

Contact Info: Marilyn Kitchell, 973-702-7266, Marilyn_Kitchell@fws.gov
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