Monday, July 25, 2016

On the Trail of Gene and Imogene

By Sage Passi

The enthusiasm of young people can be very contagious!

Gene Whipple and Imogene Silver are two special young people whose creativity and passion for the environment inspired me when I first met them.

It is very gratifying to witness the enthusiasm young people express in addressing water and habitat issues and to see what emerging generations are able to accomplish. I often wish I had more opportunities to discover and follow up with students as they move into adulthood to discover how these experiences influence their own directions, post high school plans and career paths. Every so often I am lucky when someone I have worked with in the past reemerges in a new context. Magically and with some kind of serendipity, I cross paths with them and discover that they are engaging in environmental activism that builds on what we have worked on together in the past or heads off in a new direction.

It’s been encouraging to learn how Gene and Imogene's involvement has continued to grow and diversify since I met both of them in the midst of their work in watershed service learning projects in St. Paul a number of years ago.

Gene Whipple

You may remember Gene if you followed the Ripple Effect stories about our 2015 LEAP Award winners. Gene and his family were awarded a LEAP award for a rain garden project that Gene got involved with at his home in response to a request by nearby Battle Creek Middle School students who sent out a letter to residents near their school looking for a yard where they could install a project together. Gene also persuaded his neighbor to participate in this project, having witnessed a rain garden being built at his own school some years before when he was a student at Crosswinds School in Woodbury.

Gene Whipple and his father Alan Whipple install erosion blankets in their rain garden in St. Paul.

Gene Whipple's rain garden in the summer of 2013.

The route that Gene has taken since we first crossed paths has continued to build on this theme of environmental action. This winter I was happy to learn that the LEAP team had arranged a special award ceremony for his family, since they were not able to attend the ceremony in November. Gene was coming home from college to accept the award so I took the opportunity to reconnect with him and catch up on what he’s been doing since he left for college.

Gene picks out a hand-crafted bird bath as a gift
for winning a LEAP Award for his family's rain
garden project he built with Battle Creek Middle
School students and his dad in 2010.

Gene graduated this spring from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, with a degree in Sustainable Community Development. This major is one of the first of its kind in the nation. Through an interdisciplinary approach, students study the three elements of sustainability —  environmental, social and economic — in a comprehensive and holistic manner, blending the concepts of community organizing, urban/rural/regional planning, local and international economic development, and ecological restoration.

Several summers ago Gene worked with the National Forest Service to create and maintain a native seed nursery that is used for harvesting seeds for restoration projects. Gene said that he has always had a love for and interest in plants. In recalling the experience of talking his neighbor into participating in the rain garden project that he and the Battle Creek students installed between their two yards, Gene recounted a conversation that he had with Clarence, his neighbor, while he convinced him to collaborate.

Clarence posed the question,

“Is this going to be a problem with my grandchildren?”
Gene’s response was,
“This is going to be great for your grandchildren! They will be able to watch the butterflies!”

A monarch is drawn to a meadow blazing
star in Gene's rain garden.

Gene has sought out other opportunities to continue his environmental activism. While still in high school, Gene visited the Will Steger Wilderness Center during a service learning week. He said he found it fascinating to learn how a wilderness community functions every day. He had the good fortune of being able to return there to spend a summer during college taking care of the gardens at this center in the boreal forests in Northern Minnesota near Ely. The center is designed to be “a living example of viable carbon solutions and ecological stewardship, a demonstration center for devising new solutions to the seemingly intractable issues we collectively face.

 Will Steger Wilderness Center
Photo credit: John Ratzloff

Gene has been working for the past couple years at the Chequamegon Food Co-Op in Ashland. I asked him what he likes about the community of Ashland. Gene responded, “I like living in a small community where you know everyone but there’s also a mindset of a larger community. People here have an artistic sense and are full of ideas and at the same time we are so close to the wilderness. There is a culture of both activism and volunteerism in the community that responds to any sort of threat to the lake or environmental crisis.” He cited a recent rallying of action in response to the floods of the past weeks when the Bad River Reservation flooded and people stepped up to help when the roads to the reservation were cut off. 

Imogene Silver

Imogene Silver is a student who I first met when she was in David Barrett’s sixth grade class at Farnsworth Aerospace School in St. Paul. At the time, the Watershed District was delving into the first phase of research about the role of carp in the Phalen Chain of Lakes. Education about carp was infused into much of what we did in the classroom and in the field during those years. In the midst of our service learning lessons at Farnsworth, we were preparing to witness the large scale seining of carp on Lake Gervais.

Farnsworth students watch the results of a large scale carp seining on Lake Gervais.
Imogene, an artist, took us all by surprise and initiated the design and sewing of a group of amazing hand puppets. She created an adult carp puppet and finger puppets representing young carp that fit inside the female carp, one for each finger. She also crafted a blue gill puppet and a prop that represented carp eggs made from small pompons hung from a wooden stick so that this native fish’s role in eating carp eggs and helping control their populations could be illustrated. Her puppet artwork was the exact ticket we needed to teach about carp in an imaginative way. I don’t know if she realized at the time how much of an impact her artistic contribution would make.


Farnsworth students uses Imogene's puppets to dramatize
the role of carp in degrading water quality.

A few years later, Imogene reemerged, this time at WaterFest. I heard there was a Johnson high school student who wanted to exhibit a science fair research project at our event. I said, “Great!” When the day arrived, there was Imogene displaying her science fair project. Her topic: 'The Effects of the Antibacterial, Triclosan on the Aquatic Organism, Water Daphnia'. Imogene learned about the dangers of triclosan when she attended a talk on the State of the Mississippi River presented by staff from the Friends of the Mississippi River and the National Park Service at a watershed district recognition dinner she attended with her mother. She presented her research at a regional fair and won a trip to Houston to compete at an international science fair and then brought her research to the public at WaterFest.

Triclosan is a common ingredient in a variety of household personal care products, including liquid antibacterial soaps, dish detergents and toothpastes. Unfortunately, most of the triclosan in these products is washed down the drain, where the wastewater disinfection process converts triclosan into a chemical that causes dioxins to rapidly accumulate in the Mississippi River.

Despite research that shows these products provide no benefit to consumers, their use is proving to present risks to animal and human health including interference with thyroid and reproductive systems in laboratory studies. For an update on triclosan click link: triclosan.

So where did Imogene reappear next?

Urban Roots volunteers took a break to warm up by the fire at Phalen Freeze Fest.
Imogene Silver (center) is in the green scarf.

This winter, as I headed to Lake Phalen to take part in a night event, Phalen Freeze Fest, I saw a group of young women gathered by one of the fire barrels warming their hands. They were helping set up and doing a lot of tasks out on the ice that would engage the pubic on the lake during this winter celebration. There, standing by the fire in the midst of this team of Urban Roots high school volunteers was Imogene. I also later discovered that she was the performer inside the costume of the giant merganser puppet, Shingebiss, who played the main character in the pageant that night.

Imogene played Shingebiss, the wily Merganser who takes on Winter Maker.

I called Imogene this summer to find out what she’s up to now. She said she's in her fourth year working for the Market Garden program for Urban Roots. In this paid internship, youth plant, maintain and harvest small-scale crops within urban gardens. The program promotes entrepreneurship by teaching youth interns to manage gardens and crops for distribution to community supported agriculture (CSA), Farmers Markets, Roots for the Home Team, food shelves, restaurants and small-batch food preservation for seasonal sales. Program participants are also involved in creating sales and marketing materials for the Farmer’s Market and other retail outlets.

Urban Roots also hosts another intern program focused on conservation. These interns support and improve green spaces around the East Side, and participate in the restoration of local parks through removal of invasive plant material, native seed collection and installation of native plants. They learn hands-on skills through the installation and maintenance of rain and pollinator gardens in public and private spaces. Youth also engage in citizen science projects, such as insect surveys, water sampling, and forest inventories


Imogene and some of her garden bounty.

Since Imogene will be completing her last year of high school this year, I decided to ask her if she had some thoughts on what she might like to study in college. Her answer - engineering as it relates to sustainable energy. Talk about that spark of energy she has! I hope I can keep up with what she does next!

It’s been a special treat to catch glimpses of Gene and Imogene as they mature. It’s inspiring to see what they're doing with their energy and enthusiasm as they find unique paths to grow, learn and instill their passion for the environment in new directions. 

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