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Plaster Creek Stewards stepping out: Connecting Grand Rapids with Sarnia, Okayama

Plaster Creek Stewards has been recognized for environmental advocacy, and shares accolades with other award winning programs worldwide for efforts to educate community and facilitate action to restore vital watershed.
Norman Christopher, Gail Gunst Heffner and Gayle DeBruyn

Norman Christopher, Gail Gunst Heffner and Gayle DeBruyn /Courtesy of Gail Gunst Heffner

Underwriting support from:

/Peter Adriance

Written by by Gail Gunst Heffner and David Warners

In late October, two members of the leadership team of Plaster Creek Stewards traveled to Canada to give a talk, “Caring for Our Place: A Multifaceted Approach” at the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery in Sarnia, Ontario. While it might seem a bit strange for an art gallery in Sarnia to host a talk about watershed restoration in Grand Rapids, this talk was one in a series sponsored by the gallery to highlight their major fall exhibition, "Our Own Back Yard" by artists Mary Abma and Lyndal Osborn.

Using a variety of media (including beeswaxed herbarium specimens, collections of small specimens of shells, seeds, twigs and more, as well as natural sunlight photo-impressions of local wildflowers), these two artists call attention to the beauty and wonder that is present all around us, but which we typically overlook. Their work also serves as a haunting reminder that nature is fragile and our actions can have a lasting impact, so we need to take seriously our charge to be careful custodians of our place.

Part of the public description of this exhibition reads:

“Standing as a monument to the future, 'Our Own Back Yard' offers a poetic narrative on the social consequences of complacency and neglect toward the environment. The often destructive trace that we leave on the environment as we plow through our day cannot be swept under the rug and forgotten. If a monument causes the viewer to pause, and in this way functions as an obstruction or interruption to the repetitive, mindless and often thoughtless activities of the day, then the work of Abma and Osborne in 'Our Own Back Yard,' is a monument of hope.”

Since much of the work of Plaster Creek Stewards is focused on inspiring people to shed their complacency and neglect for Plaster Creek, and instead join in the exciting and hopeful work of restoration, this presentation fits very well into the theme of the exhibition. 

This was actually the second time that Plaster Creek Stewards has collaborated with artist Mary Abma. In January of 2012 Gail Heffner and Dave Warners taught an interim course at Calvin College called "Exploring the Arts to Foster Creation Care." During this time Mary Abma was hosted by Calvin’s Center Art Gallery to do a similar exhibition called "In My Own Back Yard." Mary was a guest lecturer in the class and the students helped with setting up her exhibition, including making soil wafers (from Grand Rapids soils), using seeds from Michigan native plants and filling wine glasses with rain water (collected in Grand Rapids during rainstorms)- all focusing on the uniqueness of our place. Mary’s moving sculpture, "Triptych Altarpiece" encourages viewers to notice and pay attention so that it leads to caring for their place.

Place-making and sustainable development ~ Grand Rapids, a designated Regional Centre for Expertise in Education for Sustainable Development

Grand Rapids has received many awards and recognitions in recent years and one that we should be particularly proud of came from the United Nations University. In 2007 Grand Rapids and the Community Sustainability Partnership, chaired by Mayor George Heartwell, was designated a Regional Centre for Expertise (RCE) in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). 

There are 129 RCEs throughout the world with only two cities in the United States—Grand Rapids, Michigan and Portland, Oregon—active in the global network of RCEs. The RCE initiative grew out of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development which was launched in 2005. The 2014 UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) marks the end of the UN Decade of ESD and so this year’s meetings celebrated the achievements of the Decade, identified lessons learned while also setting the stage for the future of ESD by showcasing initiatives, key players, networks and ideas that the Decade has stimulated. 

The RCE-Grand Rapids was represented by three members of the leadership team (Gayle DeBruyn, Kendall College of Art and Design; Norman Christopher, GVSU and Gail Heffner, Calvin College) at the Global RCE Conference on Education for Sustainable Development in Okayama, Japan. Representatives of RCEs from all over the world were present to deliberate on recent accomplishments and to affirm continued commitment to pursue sustainable development at the local level. 

RCE-Grand Rapids received two Recognition Awards at the Okayama conference including GVSU’s project on Jobs in the New Economy and Plaster Creek Stewards’ work of involving the local community in restoring the much degraded Plaster Creek watershed. Plaster Creek Stewards, an initiative of Calvin College, received an "Outstanding Flagship Project" award (the top category) for "linking education and research initiatives with opportunities for residents to take restorative actions." It's very exciting that the work happening in the Plaster Creek watershed and in the broader Grand Rapids community is considered on par with other award-winning projects on sustainable development throughout the world.

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