By Diana Dunn
Nestled between the bustling streets of Oakland’s Chinatown and placid Lake Merritt sits Lincoln Elementary School– a place where talented, engaging, and adorable 3rd and 4th graders became watershed stewards. The students were part of The Watershed Project’s Riparian Lab. Twice each week, students in the after-school program marched like ducklings in a row down to Lake Merritt to explore their local watershed.
This year, there was a new addition to the program that made it even more successful. The Watershed Project worked alongside Maya Carson who co-founded Cycles of Change, a local nonprofit located in the East Bay. Maya is currently running the organization’s Watershed Ambassadors project. Maya took time out of her busy schedule to chat with me about the impactful partnership that was created at Lincoln Elementary School this year.
Maya Carson has an infectious smile, and I know this because after a few seconds of speaking with her I already have a grin sweeping across my own face. As we marvel at how the noon sun burns off the remaining clouds in the bay sky she informs me that this is one of the very reasons she was inspired to create the Watershed Ambassadors project. “I wanted students to know that nature is not only a jungle, or someplace far away, it’s here in our neighborhoods, in Oakland!” she explained. But there are so many other uniquely great components to Carson’s program– like the fact that she hires on and trains interns from Oakland High’s Environmental Science Academy to mentor the Watershed Project’s Riparian Lab students in community outreach to local businesses.
“Intuitively it felt right having 3rd and 4th grade Riparian Lab students see high school students from the same community who are interested and passionate about the environment, and who are educating the businesses within the community about watershed issues,” Maya said.
Maya is an avid bike rider, although her dark tendrils never show signs of helmet hair. She recounts an instance of riding her bike through Chinatown, and watching a business owner sloshing liquid in a bucket before dumping it into a storm drain. “I got off my bike and shared with him that those drains lead to Lake Merritt and eventually to the Bay, which he was surprised to hear, and said he was happy to change his habits.”
Thanks to Maya’s serendipitous encounter, twenty 3rd and 4th graders descended upon 45 local Chinatown businesses with outreach materials in hand. The notion that children can change business practices might sound ludicrous to some, but these pint-sized environmentalists actually make local business stop and listen! Twenty four of the business signed a pledge to dispose of hazardous materials properly and posted outreach materials on their business windows.
Maya says it best, “I want students to realize that the world is still beautiful, and that people still care, and it is worth making wise choices in our everyday life to protect our environment and our watersheds.”