Environmental conference appeals to youth

By Brandon Smith

Nature enthusiasts from across the country gathered in Chicago on Nov. 15 to exchange ideas about how to make the city

more eco-friendly.

The Chicago Wilderness Alliance, a group of regional environmental organizations, held its biannual congress at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt Road, where it hosted hundreds of panels on topics ranging from climate change and sustainable design to K-12

school curriculums and restoration of natural habitats.

Keynote speaker Juan Martinez, a board member of the nonprofit environmental group Sierra Club, was recently named an Emerging Explorer by National Geographic. He encouraged more than 100 students at the event to develop their love for nature as he did as a troubled young man growing up in South Central Los Angeles.

After struggling through classes, Martinez said he was urged to join his high school’s eco-club, which led to better academic performance. After he went on a trip to the Grand Teton Mountains, which are part of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, Martinez found meaning in his life.

Martinez is now the youth coordinator of the Sierra Club and leads a number of youth conservation awareness groups.

Darrell Williams, a Chicago native and former DeVry University student who left the school without graduating, does restoration work for Friends of the Forest Preserve, a nonprofit that works on the upkeep of Cook County’s forest preserves. He said Martinez’s story is similar to those of many kids growing up in the city.

“It was an extremely inspirational story,” Williams said. “I can relate a lot to growing up in a neighborhood like [Martinez’s]. I use the job I do now to go out in the world and see that my life is worth something, and [Martinez’s] words should reach to everybody in

that way.”

The congress held a series of concurrent two-hour sessions, during which experts spoke about a multitude of environmental issues.

One forum, called No Child Left Inside, focused entirely on Chicago educators and administrators and discussed the efforts to instill an appreciation for nature in students.

Approximately 70 Chicago teachers, parents, school administrators and members of nonprofit groups attended the session.

Daniel Kielson, founder and president of the Chicago-based BackYard Nature Center, an advocacy group for environmental awareness in schools, explained the importance of teaching kids

about nature.

“From the outset of starting this work, there was an issue of ecologists saying, ‘I’m not sure what goes on in the classroom,’ and teachers saying, ‘I’m not sure what goes on in the field,’” Kielson said. “So the immediate goal is to plan these curriculums before any students get outside. The work [of creating awareness] begins in the classroom, then it is implemented

out in nature.”

Patricia Bethke, coordinator of community education and outreach at The Morton Arboretum, in Lisle, Ill., was impressed with the effort some Chicago-area schools are making to encourage their students to spend time outside.

“I thought the session was very valuable,” she said. “[Educators] are doing exactly what they need to be doing to build scientific and technical skills outside of

the classroom.”

Martinez said the actions taken by the Chicago Wilderness Congress have resounded across the country and serve as a guiding light for every major U.S.

metropolitan area.