Community as Classroom: What I’ve Learned from Westwood

Colorful leaves crinkle under my dirt-covered feet on a crisp fall afternoon. The sounds of birds chirping, wind blowing, and laughter surround me. I look at the girl standing next to me, a triumphant smile on her face after successfully descending a steep dirt slope in Ethan Allen Park, a community park in Burlington, Vermont. The three other middle school students are equally as enthusiastic about their adventure. Another boy is leading the way through this park that he knows better than I do. The teens have begun to take ownership of this park, building structures and intimately getting to know every creature that shapes this community. Instead of me teaching them the many bird species we encounter, the students show me what has meaning to them. A college student learning from twelve and thirteen year olds. This is community building.

Sitting in the University of Vermont library on a cold and cloudy Monday afternoon, I cannot help but draw comparisons to my experience working on community projects in Denver; the curriculum design with Inquiry Hub, the community green infrastructure presentations around Denver, and the Via Verde Project in Westwood all inform and provide meaningful context to my learnings and experiences here in Burlington. Since leaving Boulder, I drove back to Maryland to visit my family and then back to Burlington, stopping in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Topsfield, Massachusetts along the way. I jumped right into training for Wilderness TREK, an orientation program for first year students. I led a 6 day canoeing expedition through the Saranac Lakes region of the Adirondacks. It was nothing short of incredible. Upon returning from the Daks, I had a few days to gather myself and catch up with friends before the fall semester kicked off.

And here we are, already at halftime. How time flies… I did not want to end my time with CEDaR without doing a wrap-up post. Two months later, here it is.

Our canvassing project in Westwood in early August was unlike anything I had done before. Quite honestly, I was intimidated by knocking on residents’ doors and asking them questions about trees. We worked with the Park People, a volunteer group with members who have canvassed previously, and Groundwork Denver, an organization that works with low-income communities and engages Denver youth in education and community service opportunities. You can check out more on the Park People and Groundwork here: http://theparkpeople.org/Who-We-Are/About-Us and http://groundworkcolorado.org/.

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Groundwork Denver youth and volunteers from Westwood tour the neighborhood

We started with a guided tour of the Westwood neighborhood, led by Walk2Connect and Cool Connected Westwood. Residents could mark places on a map where they wanted trees, where more art should be, and where they saw safety concerns. The tour was a celebration of Westwood’s character and a means to bring together community partners. The following week, we began canvassing. It was a valuable learning experience for both me and the students I worked with. Both girls lived in the Westwood area and were able to help translate when my Spanish was a bit too rough. At first, the three of us let Marylin, our Park People volunteer, do most of the talking. But by the end of the day we were all marching up to the doors and enthusiastically asking residents about trees. It felt like a co-learning experience; I was pushing my boundaries as much as they were. By the end of the four days of canvassing, we had become a known presence in the neighborhood, and had many meaningful interactions with the many community members who bring so many unique and valuable perspectives to the table.

The answers we received from residents were more helpful than any outside intervention would have been. We found that many people wanted trees, but the old piping infrastructure in Westwood was problematic to tree planting. Some homeowners do not have spigots, and others were forced to have trees removed after the roots began breaking through the pipes. Some people could not afford to maintain a tree. Some want space for their flowers and vegetable gardens. Others just like their yards the way it is. Alternatively, we had many positive responses, even from people who could not take trees. We found that in Westwood trees are desired for the shade and beauty they provide, the benefits they provide for the environment and air quality, and a few highlighted the consequential reduction in energy cost. It was so valuable to interact face-to-face with so many residents in Westwood and hear first-hand what ecosystem services were most important to them. Projects are most effective when the solutions come from within, and I believe that listening and responding to the needs of residents will ensure sustainable growth of the Via Verde.

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“Migrant’s Heaven,” an exhibit from Colorado’s Latino Ecofestival in Westwood

 The time came for me to pack my car and return to the east coast, and I was reluctant to leave before the canvassing project was over. However, I left with confidence in my team’s ability to finalize the project, synthesize the results, and come up with an effective plan moving forward. The many faces I have met, voices I have heard, communities I have been acquainted with, and advice and tools I have been given are invaluable. My passion for community-based education and development has only been strengthened through this internship experience, and with great enthusiasm, will only continue in my future pursuits here in Burlington and beyond.

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