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Participation as a supportive framework for cultural inclusion and environmental justice
Nature-related and culturally-relevant art activities provide an avenue for children’s active participation in their urban communities
Young people, preschool through high school, actively participated in urban initiatives focusing on democracy, environmental justice, and cultural inclusion. These initiatives were based on children’s right to participate freely in cultural life and the arts and to express their opinions about matters that affect them. Nature, in addition to providing a setting for the children’s safety and exploration, also provided a means for understanding issues and developing ideas.
The children who participated in these initiatives live in the two contrasting cities of Boulder, Colorado and Salinas, California. While Boulder is a relatively affluent city, approximately 23% of the population live below the federal poverty line, including many Latino children and youth. Salinas is a predominantly low-income community where approximately 75% of the residents identify themselves as Latino. More than 10% of the Salinas population are undocumented residents and thus unable to access health care or food assistance. Since 2009, Boulder (through Growing Up Boulder) has had an institutional framework in place for children’s involvement in local issues that affect their lives. The city of Salinas -- like most US cities -- does not. Growing Up Boulder is a part of the Growing Up in Cities’ work which emphasizes the engagement of children and youth from marginalized populations. In Boulder, this includes children who are low income, recent immigrants, and Latino youth.
Three participatory urban projects are described in this article: a civic area planning project in Boulder, a photovoice project that emerged from the Civic Area project, and a preventative mental health project in Salinas. These projects had different objectives, processes, and outcomes, but each was designed to give voice to children as valued members of their communities. Each was also designed to promote a sense of inclusion, connection, and belonging through the medium of nature and the arts. Artistic methods used to accomplish these goals included nicho boxes, photovoice, and garden art. The nicho box is a form of folk art common to the Southwest US and was used with the Boulder project to provide a culturally relevant form of self-expression. The project in Salinas focused on the arts and gardening. While these projects differed in their goals and outcomes, they demonstrated how children’s rights to participation can be exercised through culturally relevant practices that bridge social and environmental justice.
The children and youth participating in these projects showed a 126% to 780% increase in feeling heard, believing that their input mattered, and that they contributed to their community. They expressed the importance of having opportunities to share ideas, to express themselves, and to make their city a better place for people and for nature.