Uniting arts, community, and schools for the environment

Jen Kramer, 6th-grade teacher at Guilford Central School collaborates with Sara Coffey of Vermont Performance Lab on The Confluence Project.

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GUILFORD — Vermont Performance Lab is launching The Confluence Project, a new collaborative effort that demonstrates an in-depth model for bringing arts, youth, community groups, and educational institutions to the civic dialogue table to help create a deeper engagement around environmental and social issues in our community.

The Confluence Project takes a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to the study of water by linking visual and performing artists with the community development and natural resource planning work of Windham Regional Commission (WRC) and public programs of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center to support 5th- through 8th-grade students in three Windham County schools located in the towns of Brattleboro, Guilford and Marlboro. Through development of activities including school-based artist residencies, talks, student work, workshops, and performances that all center on local watersheds, the project will deeply engage youth and the broader public in the issue of local watershed protection.

On Dec. 7 and 8, VPL kicked off this collaborative effort with its first Confluence Project Institute where teachers, artists, WRC staff and leaders of other local environmental and conservation groups shared ideas and made plans for school-based activities in the upcoming year at the Guilford Central School, the Marlboro Elementary School and Hilltop Montessori involving three teaching artists: visual artist Gowri Savoor, environmental teaching artist Judy Dow, and dance-theater artist Lida Winfield.

"It was so exciting to bring all of our collaborators together for the first time," said VPL Director Sara Coffey. "The diversity of perspectives allowed us to think creatively about how we can infuse the arts into the work of our regional planning commission and local partners to help build innovative strategies for fostering greater civic participation around watershed study and grassroots conservations efforts, while also supporting dynamic new models for student education in our schools."

In addition to providing students and community members with a direct experience of environmental projects focused on study and restoration of the watershed, The Confluence Project will also create a process for collaboration that is replicable through development of a curriculum resource guide and other materials for teachers, and establishment of regional connections that will carry forward after the project activities are completed. The project is able to securely experiment with these regional connections, since there is strong community momentum for this work. The Green River Watershed Alliance is a newly-formed watershed group that unites regional partners to take a fresh look at issues like flood resilience, conservation and restoration. These two initiatives are working in tandem to mutually support and raise awareness of innovative relationships between the arts, watershed science, and civic engagement.

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"Along with boosting flood resilience and improving water quality, one of the key goals of the Green River Watershed Alliance is to help communities create a watershed identity," said Emily Davis, Natural Resources and Water Quality Planner at WRC. "Environmental education and public art programs highlight the connection between people and place in the watershed, and really celebrate that. When we connect this work to activities like buffer plantings, water monitoring programs and conservation easements, we foster an important relationship between youth, communities and the Green River that has a lasting impact on conservation efforts."

"It was amazing to participate in The Confluence Project Institute and be part of such diverse group members who could each bring their own stories, and share their practice and expertise as it relates to this collaborative effort," said Jen Kramer, 6th-grade teacher at Guilford Central School. "The planning adds richness and depth to my work in the classroom, and I'm thrilled to know that we are helping our students develop the values of environmental conservation and community engagement through our participation in this project."

The Confluence Project is made possible, in part, with support from the Fresh Sound Foundation, the Windham Foundation, The Thomas Thompson Trust, and the Vermont Arts Council. Support for the WRC's participation in the project has been made possible in part through a grant by the High Meadows Fund.