New York City school group visits to learn about Great Lakes issues

During the week of April 15, a group of students from the Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (LREI) in Greenwich Village, Manhattan visited Traverse City and spent time with FLOW executive director, Liz Kirkwood. The students were studying water pollution and plastics, and their research led them to travel to the Great Lakes. Teacher Britt Schwikert shares what the group learned from their visit and reflections from the students.

Hi! My name is Britt Schwikert and I am a high school Spanish teacher at Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (LREI). We are an independent school located in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, New York. Since 1921, LREI has been a leader in progressive education. From pre-K-12th grade, students develop the tools to explore increasingly complex challenges — intellectual and personal, local and global, philosophical and practical — and build the skills and resolve to pursue real solutions. 

In alignment with our school’s mission, each year our junior class divides into small research groups of ten to twelve students to study an issue they’ve selected and wish to learn more about. Our group’s topic was the study of fracking, pollution, and plastics in our environment. Below is a blog post written by my students that highlights our key takeaways from our week long trip in Traverse City this past April.

Our essential question before we began was, “What are the impacts of pollution from fossil fuel extraction and plastics production on various communities, and how do these impacts relate to climate change/climate disaster? How are these issues interrelated?” However, we’d like to start by offering a reflection on the research process itself, and do so using a metaphor inspired by our time at a water treatment facility in Traverse City. We’d like you to consider the research process as a filtration and clarification process. Water can sometimes be quite murky, filled with lots of floating materials that seemingly have no connection to each other, so much so that there’s no real clarity. However, through filtration processes, unnecessary materials are sorted and removed, revealing water we are able to see through clearly. Likewise, we started out looking at three interrelated topics: fracking, plastic production, and plastic pollution. However, as we refined our research and met with folks in Traverse City, we pivoted and began to focus more on water pollution (including plastic and microplastic pollution) and water scarcity.

We got to this point through collaboration, research, and discussion. Our larger group split into four smaller groups to research different locations and specific issues that each location was facing.  Throughout this process, we met together as a large group to discuss our findings and narrow down our search. Students then began to research locations in the United States where they could gain more insight to these issues, as well as how they are interconnected. That research led us to the Great Lakes and the Traverse City region. We, as students, had a particular interest in microplastics, and hoped to explore and understand in deeper and more nuanced ways than the national conversation allows from afar. We decided to travel to Traverse City because we were excited to meet with key shareholders in these discussions, such as FLOW. 

Throughout our one-week trip, we learned about many meaningful and impactful topics, ranging from the impact of access to healthy water on different demographics to how state legislation, compared to federal legislation, affects water. We learned something particularly interesting and obvious: Water health is an issue for everyone. Water is indispensable for human sustenance, and its absence would lead to the mass extinction of many, if not all, organisms. Because of water’s importance for everyone, and arguably everything, the health of our water is an issue that everyone should actively try to solve.

We also learned about the multiple obstacles that are holding back effective change to help protect water resources. The biggest problem is that it is not seen as much of a pertinent issue compared to more social issues such as abortion or immigration. This means less funding for water infrastructure and aquatic ecosystem protection, but also that regulations to protect these systems are lacking as well. An example of this is that Michigan does not have statewide Septic system ordinance. This means it is left up to counties and townships which as we have seen in Flint, Michigan, can cause serious problems for the people living there. The final problem is that plastic is just so useful. It is strong, resistant, affordable, and relatively light. Our whole society is hooked on plastic, and until a truly viable solution can be made on a big enough scale, it will be the primary product that continues to hurt our ecosystems

Obviously, there is no singular effective way to actually create change in a short amount of time as individuals, but there are still courses of action that the government and we as individuals can take in order to prevent even more microplastic harm. 

Firstly, it is important that we address big corporations and ensure that they are being held accountable. Big corporations and businesses are responsible for most microplastic pollution, however somehow the blame has been shifted towards the people for being completely responsible for these issues through greenwashing. While there are actions that we can take in order to help the problem, it is imperative that we hold corporations accountable for the harm that they are causing.

Secondly, the government should ensure that every community has easy access to clean water. One of the ways they can do this is by ensuring that all communities have access to Wastewater Plants so that their water is fresh and treated properly. While Traverse City has access to excellent filtered water, thousands of Americans don’t have access to clean water or infrastructure like this in order to ensure they don’t get exposed to sewage and other harmful pollutants. The government should be working towards ensuring accessibility to infrastructure that ensures that everyone has equal access to clean fresh water. 

Lastly, for us it is absolutely crucial that we bring awareness and educate others about the impact that water pollution has on the community. Environmental issues tend to get overshadowed by other societal issues, however environmental issues are also societal issues that impact different communities in different ways. By spreading awareness and educating others, we can take steps forward in preventing even further harm from water pollution, advocating pollution, advocating for the protection of water, and how to ensure that everyone has equal access to clean water.

We’d like to again thank FLOW, and Liz Kirkwood specifically, for taking the time to meet with us and share about some of the great work FLOW is doing in the region to ensure clean water access for all. We hope to return again in the future!

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