EPNA Interview #7: Erica Stokes, West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District

This is a new series of posts in which I interview Portland personalities that are making a difference in connecting children of this region to nature. Richard Louv, the premier voice in the children and nature movement, has written several times about our natureful city. In Last Child in the Woods, he remarked on Portland’s Greenspaces program’s “call for the creation of a regional system of parks, natural areas, greenways, and trails for both wildlife and people;” PSU students’ research on possible greenroof design in downtown; and the 40-Mile Loop. In The Nature Principle, Louv commented on research in Portland on the health benefits of nature (outdoor “prescriptions”); profiled a teacher who worked as an assistant for a study of small mammals in an urban green space (Marshall Park); described Mike Houck’s work to make room for nature in a big city at a time when the consensus was that nature and wildlife were elsewhere, not within where people dwell; and how the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge provides access to nature via the bus system. There are other mentions of Portland, too. Patrick, Catherine, and I feel lucky to live in a city that values what the Earth gives to it. Moreover, we feel privileged to share this city with folks who strive to not only instill a love of nature into its citizens’ minds and hearts, but in providing better access to that nature.

Please contact me at darwinsbulldog@gmail.com if you have a suggestion for someone to be interviewed for this series.

Today I talk to Erica Stokes, the education coordinator with the West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District.

Hi Erica, welcome to Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas. Would you please share with us your background – education, jobs, etc. that relate to nature in some way?

In addition to a lifelong personal interest in nature, a good portion of my career has focused on environmental education work. I am a certified Montessori teacher and in my current profession as the Education Coordinator for West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, I work with children on a variety of outdoor projects including habitat enhancements and restoration projects.

Describe for us how you connect Portland kids to nature. Tell us about your programs.

My primary work focuses on partnering with schools within our District to create Backyard Habitat Certified gardens and edible gardens with students. I provide technical assistance, guidance, and funding for the projects, but the choices for plants, planting, invasive weed removal and the like are done by students and other school volunteers. It is important to engender a sense of ownership and responsibility amongst the school community to ensure the longevity of these outdoor classrooms.

I also work with other partners to provide professional development to teachers at these schools to help them take their work outdoors while meeting statewide standards.

Do you have any moments in nature from your childhood that left an impression on you?

I grew up wanting to be Jacques Costeau, watching Mr. Wizard, chasing lightning bugs, and climbing live oak trees. I can hardly think of a time when nature and science in general weren’t shaping my interests.

Do you have children yourself? If so, tell me about their relationship to nature.

I do not have children.

Describe for us something about Portland’s focus on nature that you think is valuable for the city’s youth.

As outdoor time during the school day continues to decline, I think it is wonderful that the City has a made a point to incorporate natural areas both large and small throughout its limits. Access to nature doesn’t have to mean a visit to a grand place; we are a part of nature and can support it by creating healthy environments both at home in our adjacent natural areas. Children have the opportunity to interact with nature while taking a walk down the street: it’s in the bioswales collecting and cleaning our stormwater and the vegetable garden at City Hall. Nature is around us all the time and it is our job as teachers to highlight this when working with children to cultivate their sense of wonder, awe, and stewardship for the earth.

Is there anything missing that you would like to see happen in Portland?

I think it would be great if more public school teachers felt comfortable and encouraged to work outdoors with students. Specifically, I would love it if teachers were supported to use outdoor spaces to meet standards rather than simply feeling obligated to use traditional curricula. I would like to see this incorporated into teacher training programs. I applaud all teachers who are making efforts to think outside of the box and go the extra mile in the current system where they are typically overworked and their schools underfunded.

Do you have any advice for parents looking to connect their kids to nature?

I would encourage parents to provide lots of opportunities for their children to explore nature in both structured and unstructured ways. Teachable moments happen all the time. Start simply: give your child a patch of the garden to work with where he/she can dig in the soil and explore, plant seeds, journal about what he/she sees growing, note the animals and invertebrates that come to visit the plants, etc.

There are also lots of free and inexpensive programs at various state and local parks available to families as well. I highly encourage parents to seek these out.

What is your favorite natural space in our city?

I love many places in Portland, but Tryon Creek State Park is probably my favorite spot to visit at the moment. I love how many native plants you can walk amongst while ambling down the various trails.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Erica!

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2 Responses to EPNA Interview #7: Erica Stokes, West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District

  1. Kim Silva says:

    Erica is wonderful! Thanks for sharing her interview.

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