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Seeding A New Future For Arizona’s Incarcerated

Two students prune a desert willow in the Whetstone garden.

Two students prune a desert willow in the Whetstone garden.

The speed limit on south Wilmot road is 50 miles per hour. Both sides of the road are lined by a mix of open Sonoran Desert, housing developments, and prisons. Occasionally, you will see guys in orange clothing picking up trash and filling potholes along the road. This drive will take you to many units in the Tucson Prison Complex, including the Whetstone Unit where an unconventional class takes place.

The Whetstone unit holds about 1,500 incarcerated men, most of whom are nearing the end of their sentence. Whetstone is a minimum-security prison, usually housing people with drug offenses or reduced charges for good behavior. All of these men will be going home in the next five years, some of them after being in prison most of their adult life.

The first time I entered the Whetstone Unit, I was going to sit in on a sustainability class and maybe share some gardening tips. I had no idea what to expect. Television gives us a very specific image of what prisons look and feel like. I assumed what I saw on TV wasn’t the whole truth, 

One of the ten plots in the Whetstone garden.

One of the ten plots in the Whetstone garden.

but I did not have any information otherwise. What I experienced that day was some of the most attentive and respectful students I have ever met. A class of twenty men were excited to hear what I, a twenty-year-old college student, had to say, and wanted nothing more than to plant and tend to a garden. I left with the immediate feeling of needing to return. These men were students in a class, but they were also fathers, brothers, sons, and people who had way more life experience than me. I had much to learn from them, and they wanted to hear more from me.

Fast forward three years and I am now the Program Coordinator for the Whetstone Prison Project (WPP). The WPP teaches a 12-week sustainability workshop at the Whetstone Unit twice a year. The workshop frames issues of climate change, environmental justice, and green infrastructure skills through garden-based learning. Ten University of Arizona interns create and teach educational content for the incarcerated students, and work on verifying and connections with housing resources to aid our students in a smooth transition back into society. The project aims at lowering Arizona’s recidivism rates by interrupting the prison industrial complex with environmental education. 

A student admires a passive water harvesting system that was created by classmates.

A student admires a passive water harvesting system that was created by classmates.

The WPP was born out of the knowledge that education can break cycles of poverty, that we are in a critical moment in combating the climate crisis, and that the United States of America has the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world. This information has shaped a project that allows incarcerated and university students to come together to discuss what safety and sustainability truly mean, and learn from life stories of each other. The importance of showing up for your community is the center of our work, and we are making strides to a safer and more sustainable world along the way.

AAEE Celebrates Earth Day!

The year is 1970. Over 500,000 copies of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring have been sold in over 24 countries, civic engagement is on the rise, and awareness of the connection between environmental and human health has entered dinner table conversations in homes across America. Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin, announces a plan for a “national teach-in on the environment,” and the idea for Earth Day is born. April 22, 1970, and over 20 million Americans take to the parks, auditoriums, and town halls to join the national conversation about how to address the growing concerns. Earth Day unified voters from all parties and walks of life, legislators came together and signed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into law, and the nation united for the health of the planet and generations to come.

Forty-eight years later, in honor of these national commitments and in pursuit of our organization’s vision, AAEE joined millions across the globe coming together to celebrate the Earth and engage in these same conversations, collaborating with communities to reconnect with and protect our natural resources. For Earth Day, the AAEE co-sponsored the Kid’s Earth Day Celebration in the heart of downtown of Prescott, Arizona. With a focus on Nelson’s original “teach-in” concepts, the kid’s area was dedicated to learning through exploration & fun.

Over 280 children from the Tri-City Area surrounding Prescott attended the event with their families, indicating well over 200 seeds planted, faces painted with local critters, natural bird feeders made, nature objects explored, healthy snacks consumed, environmental scavenger hunts completed, and so much more! AAEE also gave away free nature-based kids’ books to any young Earth Day explorers stopping by our table. 

Like all of AAEE’s work, this event was made possible by collaboration with formal and non-formal environmental education organizations of Arizona and the efforts of dedicated volunteers. This year, we united with four other programs: Educational Expeditions, the Center for Nature and Place-based Early Childhood Education, Yavapai Cooperative Extension SNAP-Ed, and the Prescott Community Gardens, to collaboratively create an interdisciplinary and exciting space for kids. Environmental Education students from Prescott College designed and prepared many of the activities as well. Big thanks to those 15 student-volunteers that showed up armed with green bandanas, 60 paint brushes and gallons of paint, 1 guitar, 2 pirate costumes, 200 pine cones, pounds of peanut butter, a wild assortment of nature objects, and a whole lot of enthusiasm, collaboratively creating a day filled with enough Earth celebration to inspire us all year long. Nelson’s dream for a “national teach-in” with communities coming together united by environmental education lives on.