Students descend the massive staircase in front of Richmond Community High School, and take a short walk over to a leafy garden plot on Woodrow Avenue. This is the green team, an after-school program that promotes conservation. Everyone here is ambitious, self-motivated and a big-picture thinker. But today’s order of business is down to earth. A rickety tool shed needs paint. Badly.
After some discussion, the students decide to mix poetry with practicality. They’ll cover the shed with a mural of a long-eared bat. To the surprise of everyone present, several species like the bat have returned to wetlands behind the school, after a cleanup of Cannon Creek. It’s just one part of their multistage plan, using conservation and eco-art to revitalize the surrounding neighborhood.
“We’re constantly trying to get people on board with environmental work,” says Mikaili Lee, a senior at and the team’s crew leader. “You have to make something that looks really good. People walk up to us and volunteer because they see what we’re doing.”
Giles Harnsberger, director of the nonprofit Groundwork RVA, says environmentally conscious art can transform neighborhoods across Richmond. She’s organized such teams at several high schools, hoping to make conservation projects part of the city’s growing cultural capital. Turning tree huggers into artists may be the best way to create the next Scott’s Addition or Church Hill, she says.
“I believe that neighborhoods like Highland Park are on the cusp of change, and that you can actively empower those residents,” Harnsberger says. “I want to show these kids that change can happen from below.”
Mayor Dwight Jones and Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille have taken notice, meeting with the teams to observe the marriage between conservation and art. There’s been a bit of a learning curve. Green team supervisor Summer Schultz says the city accidentally filled in parts of Cannon Creek in an “improvement project gone awry.” The city-owned property is undergoing maintenance to accommodate North Side pedestrian and bike traffic.
But the students managed to nurse the creek back to health, and they’re determined to keep it that away.
“We’re learning to communicate our needs to the city,” says Tyasha Casey, a senior at Community High and a green team member. “One of the main needs being, ‘Let us create something that’s both beautiful and educational.’”
To that end, the green team is designing a small amphitheater near Cannon Creek that can serve as host to musical acts and a farmers market. It will double as an outdoor classroom. While students sketch plans, Harnsberger and designer Tyler King are on hand to offer creative insight. Not that the students need too much guidance. They’ve already built ornate box houses for bats and birds, which dot the surrounding neighborhood.
It’s also hard to overlook the challenging backgrounds that these students are overcoming. Some, like Lee, lack transportation. Others have been profiled by police when carpooling to conservation projects. There are other effects of poverty too, like the nagging desire to break out by performing well academically. Sandra Wheeler, a community partnerships coordinator with the Richmond Public Schools, says that support for Groundwork is based on student performance data. Some schools, like Community High, are opting to give students class credit for green team participation.
Now Harnsberger is working to give all the local green teams a central headquarters and van access, so that students can commit to building a personal set of skills. She’s getting a little help from friends. On Dec. 3, Ryan Rinn at the Storefront for Community Design was awarded $125,000 from the Robins Foundation. Rinn says Groundwork, Art 180 and others will share a 10,000-square-foot building at the Six Points roundabout.
“Our missions overlap,” Rinn says. “Groundwork is proven programming. Kids can go there to mix public art and design with conservation, leading to better career choices after graduation.” Lee, for example was selected this year for an internship at Yellowstone National Park, through the United States Youth Conservation Corps.
“We’re giving teens the opportunity to exercise both parts of their brains,” Harnsberger adds. “That makes for a highly effective learning environment, I’d say.”
On Saturdays, the green teams from Armstrong, George Wythe and Community high schools band together. Their collaborations are part community outreach, part performance art and part pollution kicker. They’ve designed a pocket park at Venable and North 25th streets, where hooped trashcans will beckon passersby to a game of “trashketball.”
Perhaps their most accomplished installation is a geological timeline which describes the evolution of Richmond. As visitors take the bridge to Belle Isle, they’ll encounter elaborate stencils of ancient plants, reptiles and eventually, humans. The timeline will work in conjunction with the Science in the Park. That audio series is narrated by Ralph White, the former manager of the James River Park System, and produced by local artist Vaughn Garland with Virginia Commonwealth University biology professor Anne Wright.
“We each decided to research a particular object from the past,” says Jonae Crump, a junior at Community High and a green team member. It started off like a typical school project, but ended up with students in a studio, carving their stencils out of linoleum. Their research fleshed out the audio tours, too.
“We got into this because we value sustainability,” Lee says. “But it’s a ton of fun, too, and we want to share that with other people in a compelling way.” S