The Nature Consortium - Environmentalism Through the Arts

Bryan RMarch 12th, 2008
By: Bryan R

February and sunshine are two words that dont usually mix in the lexicon of most Seattlites. Be it through fate or good fortune, we found ourselves basking in a sunny, but slightly brisk, February day on our first visit to the Nature Consortium. This environmental and outreach focused organization is one of the newest additions to our list of supported non-profit organizations. We met with Nancy Whitlock, the ambitious and informative director of TNC, and along with several other staff members, we chatted about the organizations various projects, hardships, and achievements.

Originally founded in 1998 as a local arts festival, the Nature Consortium has since morphed into an organization that aims to teach environmental lessons through hands-on conservation projects and the creative arts. Although everyone is welcome, there is an emphasis on outreach to at-risk youths in several of King Countys neighborhoods. After ten years of growth, the Nature Consortium has become a dynamic and valuable asset for our area.

This unique approach of using the arts to teach environmental lessons sets the Nature Consortium apart from other environmental non-profits. At first glance, the paring of the arts and environmental lessons may seem a little unconventional. We asked Nancy to fill us in on the connection. After a small and thoughtful pause she replied, [so] many artists receive their initial inspiration from nature. Theyre inspired to create and be artists because of what they get from the environment and nature.

Youth at Art poster
Youth at Art poster

To get their message out, the Nature Consortium uses a wide range of artists to lead lessons that touch on both the arts and the environment. Making and expressing this connection between the arts and the environment is a challenge so the Nature Consortium needs a particular kind of artist. Specifically, TNC seeks out artists want to take their inspirations to the next level. These artists dont just want to present their works to others. Instead, they also want to share the very thing that motivated them to create in the first place: their inspiration. Theres also a practical side to it as Nancy succinctly puts it, It [art] is sometimes more effective than just a talking head. This makes a lot of sense especially when your primary outreach group is a room full of energetic kids.

However, one major challenge of the Nature Consortiums approach is that forging a link between art and nature can be a bit of a struggle. But, as Nancy explains, I dont see much of a separation between art and the environment, or art and nature, because I feel like they are so intertwined because nature is very artistic in itself. Many people dont see the connection at all, so we have to explain what the connection is.

To accomplish this mission, the Consortium has three primary programs: the Youth Art Program, an Urban Forest Restoration Project, and an annual Arts-in-Nature Festival. Dating back to 1998, the Festival is the Nature Consortiums founding project. An eclectic experience, the festival usually runs through a weekend in August (the 23rd 24th for 2008) and showcases art created by the students from the Youth Art Program. In addition, local artist from other organizations, such as the West Seattle Chamber Players and the Phfffft! Dance Theater, also give performances.

Initiated in 2000, the Youth Art Program provides environmental and cultural art classes and field trips for at-risk youth, ages 5-19, living in lower-income or subsidized housing. The variety of classes offered are incredibly wide and diverse. Classes include painting, printmaking, jewelry, cuisine, poetry and dancing just to name a few. Field trips include opportunities such as exploring the urban forest restoration site and visiting the local dance troupes from Seattle.

Lastly, the Urban Forest Restoration Project aims to help restore the largest stretch of continuous forest in Seattle, the 500+ acre West Duwamish Green Belt, with the aid of students as well as artists who engage in performances for the work parties. Despite all their hard work and planting thousands of conifers, the majority of the green belt is still in need of restoration due to the impact of many non-native, intrusive plants.

Their restoration efforts have also blossomed in a rather unexpected way. Thorn to be Wild, a student-directed short film documenting the green belts restoration, will be screened on March 22nd and includes original songs and scores created by the students.

Despite many successes, the organization has also experienced some difficult hurdles. Like all non-profits, the Nature Consortium has the challenging task of raising and securing funds. Just last August, the Seattle Housing Authority, one of the Nature Consortiums largest supporters, was forced to cut the Consortium out of their budget due to federal budget cuts. While not a fatal blow, this cut put the Nature Consortiums Youth Art Program at major risk.

In response to the situation, the Nature Consortium mobilized staff, students, teaching artists, parents, and others to petition the Seattle Housing Authority with letters illustrating the impacts and numerous benefits the youth program had on the children. In their Fall 2007 newsletter, the Nature Consortium included a number of quotes from the students letters. Mytintie, age 12, wrote, I think its a tragedy to throw all of our hard work away. I got better at singing and doing what I love with this art program. It keeps kids from the streets and is a great way to meet new people. It has done a great deal for us. Please keep it alive. Likewise, it was clear how much the programs meant to Mary, age 14, when she stated, I had bad grades but got help and understood more than I did before. The Nature Consortium taught me about nature. All I have to say is it changed my life Faced with this kind of outcry, the Housing Authority reconsidered their budget and re-instated their yearly funding for the Nature Consortium..

Since this experience, Nancy and the other staff members of TNC have been able to breath a sigh of relief. As Nancy reflected on the situation, she realized that the children were provided another valuable lesson: the importance of activism and being involved with decision-making processes. This certainly was an unexpected bonus to one of their largest challenges yet.

When asked why there was such a strong outpouring of support from the students, Nancy replied, Nature is common ground for all kids. They love to be outside and they love to play. Perhaps this is why the Nature Consortium works. Its fun, its educational, and its meaningful to the youths. Can you really ask for anything more?

The Nature Consortium started with a fresh approach to environmental education by using the arts as their primary outreach medium. It was a new and somewhat untested approach, but the risk has clearly paid off. Over the last ten years, they have served over five thousand youths, one thousand artists and have become an extremely beneficial force in the greater King County area. Here at Chef Seattle, were proud to support the Nature Consortium and all the services they provide.


Nancy Whitlock, director of the Nature Consortium
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