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Navigating Our River Communities: Mississippi River Stories by Twin Cities Teens

November 25, 2009Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on Navigating Our River Communities: Mississippi River Stories by Twin Cities Teens

Young people from disadvantaged communities within the Twin Cities have been involved in restoration of Mississippi River natural areas for years through programs of the Community Design Center of Minnesota.  The long-standing Green Team program in St. Paul brings together youth from the city’s Hmong, Hispanic, African-American communities with gardeners and nonprofit restoration ecologists to clear invasive vegetation species and replant areas of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.  In 2008, the Green team concept expanded to Minneapolis, where youth worked with staff from the National Park Service Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization to begin ecological restoration work at the Father Hennepin Bluffs Park, located on the east side of St. Anthony Falls.

Ceramic artist Anna Metcalfe, a graduate student earning her MFA at the University of Minnesota, approached project coordinators in early summer with a new idea: why not ask the program’s members to draw and write their “river story” on paper outlines of boat shapes, which Metcalfe would then fire into a series of “story boats,” each illustrating an individual’s expressive relationship to the Mississippi River?  The coordinators agreed that the expressive opportunity offered by the story boat project provided the students a chance to reflect in a different way about their evolving relationship with the river that they had been working with all summer.  Metcalfe held workshops for both the Minneapolis and St. Paul teams, collected their drawings and writings, and fired a series of clay boats, nearly 60 in all.

Toward the end of the summer, students had the opportunity to see their boats as artistic objects, co-created between themselves and Metcalfe.  Many of the drawings were exquisite, and the stories quite moving accounts of the students’ ongoing emotional and personal attachment to the River. This is just one example of the transformative work that can take place when a bright student, active community partners, and engaged teens all work together.

The process begins with the program’s members drawing and writing their own personal “river story” on paper outlines of boat shapes.

Metcalfe then fired the stories into a series of “story boats”.

Metcalfe held workshops for both Minneapolis and St. Paul teams, collected their drawings and writings, and fired a series of clay boats, nearly sixty in all.

Toward the end of the summer, in 2008, students had the opportunity to see their boats as artistic objects, co-created between themselves and Metcalfe.

Images courtesy of Anna Metcalfe.

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A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.