all in the same boat - finding environmental science in literature and film

Kaylee had to put the book down for a moment to think more about what she had just read. The senior at Kennedy High School and Rocking the Boat Environmental Job Skills apprentice was reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2013 Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. The final passage of a chapter entitled “The Gift of Strawberries” challenges the reader to ponder how “even in a market economy, can we behave as if the living world were a gift?” As an Environmental Science Program participant who has learned so much about the Bronx River’s own history of extractive economics and invested years in its repair, the concept spoke to her. “It really hit me. I had to stop reading. It was a ‘wow’ moment.” Kaylee was not reading this book on her own, but as part of Rocking the Boat’s Job Skills Book Club, and had others with whom to share her connection.


The natural sciences have long been one of the hallmarks of Rocking the Boat programming. No sooner than students had built wooden boats in the basement of an apartment building in the West Bronx, they were putting their muscle into rowing them out on the Bronx River gathering otherwise inaccessible environmental data and performing restoration work for a growing list of scientific partners. They have been proud to be the ones analyzing pipettes of river water, seining for fish and contributing to the record of local species, and growing mussels and oysters and then counting their survival rates, among many other projects.


With or without the constraints of the pandemic, students would not have been out at this unseasonable time of year. Yet, the winter pause is a great opportunity for students and apprentices to find inspiration, not in field work this time, but in relevant works of literature, such as this book. Environmental Job Skills Program Director Kris Mielenhausen couldn’t have been more pleased. “My kids have tons of school work right now, they’re stuck inside. I wanted to offer them different tools, a creative new way to think about science.”


Jasmine Benitez, leading the student Environmental Program, is taking a similar approach via the medium of film. Her students, mostly novice rowers, recently screened the acclaimed 2020 documentary chronicling the first African American high school rowing team from the West Side of Chicago, A Most Beautiful Thing. Jasmine led the discussion and saw instantly that her students related closely to the subjects of the film. Comments from Nani, a sophomore at Worldview High School, were representative. “It honestly gave me RTB vibes! That’s all I could think about—being out on the water. They were like family on and off the water, just like at RTB.” Another title in the series is Come Hell or High Water, a 2014 documentary based in coastal Mississippi with a strong environmental justice theme. Jasmine is excited to expose her students to these stories about people from different places sharing common experiences, and inspire them to change their personal and communal narratives.

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