ENGLEWOOD — As the climate crisis sweeps the earth with wildfires, rising temperatures and hazy skies, a local art program is taking inspiration from an Afrofuturist author’s works to guide the next generation of environmental leaders.
Hours after an erratic storm thundered through Chicago, swarms of 6-year-olds made Hamilton Park, 513 W. 72nd St., their playground on a recent afternoon.
Clay formations molded with sticks of cinnamon, grass, leaves and berries dried on the ground near their feet as they played games and colored a park flag in vibrant colors.
The chaos — and the fun — is a typical day for children at the Young Cultural Stewards and ArtSeed program, a Park District initiative for youth ages 5-15 that blends nature and the arts to teach local children about climate and racial justice.
Youth in six neighborhoods — Back of the Yards, Albany Park, Little Village, North Lawndale, Englewood and the Southeast Side — can participate in the program this summer.
The city program pulls its inspiration from the Earthseed trilogy. Written by award-winning science fiction author Octavia E. Butler, the two-part series chronicles the life of a Black teenager who uses the natural elements to lead her community to freedom in a bloodthirsty apocalyptic future not too far from the present day.
Through storytelling, music, movement, dance and art invention, youth develop innovative methods to rethink their relationship to the earth and how to be mindful of their environment, said Simone Reynolds, an ArtSeed teaching artist.
“I think we are planting seeds of knowledge and community care,” Reynolds said. “It’s important to teach children how to find, explore and imagine new ways to be kin to the earth.”
Melana Bass, an ArtSeed teaching artist and lifelong Englewood resident, grew up steps away from Ogden Park, one of the locations of the programs.
She always loved the creative arts, but at “almost 30,” conversations about the environment or the current climate crisis weren’t part of her daily routine before joining the program, she said.
Creating a nature-based curriculum has been a “fun challenge,” Bass said. She’s learning alongside the children from the other teaching artists, too.
One lesson in the program is to give something back when they take from nature, Bass said. If they pull from the trees, plants or the ground to create a project, they thank nature for “giving up their place in the ecosystem for us to use” or pour sprinkles of water in return, Bass said.
It’s a lesson she’s taken home to tell others, Bass said.
“A lot of these parks I grew up seeing or coming to,” Bass said. “It’s a special thing to impact the kids from the community you come from. A lot of the morals and ideals of the program have been phenomenal, not just for the kids, but for the facilitators as well.”
Projects at the ArtSeed program have ranged from designing environmental justice campaign posters demanding “clean water now” to nature lamps stuffed with nature’s ingredients.
Producing art doesn’t always have to involve toxic materials, said Sarai Bernice, an Englewood resident and program steward at Artseed. Most projects require materials that can disintegrate “instead of just adding more trash to the world,” Bernice said.
Shakers — made using cans from the Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange and dried elements — helped children learn to use elements to create sound and instruments.
In early July, children made nature sensory jars with glitter and items from nature to learn how to use nature to relax and regulate their nervous system.
“When nature is a backdrop, or you spend all your time inside or on a screen, it isn’t a priority,” said Bernice. “I hope kids keep these tools even for their regulation. If they need to go outside, take a walk or be around trees, they recognize that as a way to support your nervous system and emotional state and can be reciprocal.”
ArtSeed artists are also uncovering innovative ways to teach youth about the climate crisis, Bass said.
When the city had the worst air quality in the world late last month, the program was canceled. It was shut down again on July 24 due to hazardous air quality conditions.
Instructors don’t shy away from conversations with youth about the climate but instead “meet them where they are,” Reynolds said.
“People think climate justice or nature conservation is only something people with degrees or older adults understand, but children are with nature more than most of us,” Reynolds said. “We have open conversations about what we can do together to make things better. Together we can make a change. We know there are systems in place that make it challenging to breathe clean air, so what can we do as a community?”
For younger children, Bass makes the lessons more interactive by having them “take a deep breath and unpack what would happen if they couldn’t, or there were things in the air that prevented it,” Bass said. The same goes for a world without clean water or trees, Bass said.
“These are themes they need to know not as kids, not as adults, but as humans in the world,” Bass said. “We’ve been doing our part to integrate real-life examples so the kids understand that it’s not just certain groups. Every species on earth needs resources from the earth, water and clean air.”
As Englewood residents, leading the local Artseed program is uniquely enriching Bass and Bernice said.
Hopefully, it has a lasting impact for generations to come, they said.
“Using art in this program makes learning about climate justice accessible, exciting and creative,” Bernice said. “And art is important in social movements. Teaching these skills and making these connections at a young age can help kids build on that work as they get older.”
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