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Cultivating Youth Scientists in NW Arkansas

Youth Guardians of Conservation NWA (YGCNWA) is on a mission to provide high school students with authentic, real-world, scientific leadership experience.

Occasionally, we get the honor of introducing new local organizations to our audience. Today, that organization is Youth Guardians of Conservation of Northwest Arkansas (YGCNWA). Co-founded by high school science teachers, Matthew Holden and Cameron Simpkins, YGCNWA is working to equip students throughout Northwest Arkansas with experiences that will allow them to become the next generation of conservation leaders. Their plans are pretty rad, learn more by checking out our Q&A below.

What inspired the creation of Youth Guardians of Conservation?

It emerged from our mutual passion for the environment and education. We noticed a lack of opportunities for local youth to get involved in authentic conservation research experiences and wanted to utilize the resources of Northwest Arkansas (universities, state and federal agencies, corporations, etc.) to provide new and unique opportunities for students to actively participate in research and conservation at the local, regional, and global level.

How did your personal journey's lead you to this effort?

Cameron: Matt and I have a common passion for the environment and education. Matt interned for me as a student teacher for my AP Biology courses while he was pursuing his Master of Arts in Teaching. Prior to becoming an educator, Matt worked as a wildlife conservation biologist and saw the importance of conservation first hand. Having taught in multiple school districts in Arkansas, I have been exposed to varying attitudes toward environmental education and toward science research in general. It's amazing how many young people (or not-so-young people) have not spent time in their own backyards! Curiosity can be a practice that is embedded in our daily lives. After completing my undergraduate degree, I realized the responsibility of an educator to facilitate the practice of curiosity. And when I took on Matt as a student teacher intern, I wanted to model that facilitation. What we found was that two things got in our way—funding and the four walls of the classroom. When we put our two environmentally-concerned heads together, YGCNWA was conceptualized. We want local youth to get involved in authentic, real-world research conservation experiences, to discover how conservation and science affect them personally and empower them to become the global conservation leaders of the future

What are your primary goals?

  • Foster global citizenship through meaningful and authentic cultural and scientific experiences for local youth
  • Making these experiences as accessible as possible for all students and families
  • Practice sustainable tourism by carefully selecting and monitoring the locations of our expeditions
  • Support sustainability and conservation efforts in Northwest Arkansas
  • Offer opportunities to build partnerships with local environmental supporters and create access to local environmental experts
  • Educate our project participants about local and global environmental issues
  • Provide students and families with opportunities for environmental stewardship
  • Create environments where participants feel safe and comfortable
  • Develop programs with purpose, focusing on enrichment and education at the core
  • Raise awareness about how science research can affect policy, economics, local communities
  • Engage in real science research experiences

What needs are you serving or gaps are you seeking to fill?

We hope to bring educational, cultural and research experiences to the students and families we serve. Specifically, we select actions that move ourselves and participants forward in a pattern of progression, from Education to Research to Culture. Through this model, we are looking to engage two core groups in the community:

Underrepresented Youth in the Sciences

We want to reach students who are traditionally underrepresented in the sciences (women, African Americans, Latinx) because many of these students do not ever consider the possibility that they could become scientists or conservationists. Often, because they are not exposed to people that look like themselves in these occupations. We want to provide these students with opportunities to work with scientists and professors that they can relate to, and thus increase the likelihood of them being inspired to continue in science research.

Rural Youth in the Sciences

We want to reach as many students as we can regardless of location, however, many students in rural areas may have never left the state or had a chance to participate in authentic science research. We want to provide opportunities for these students, especially if they have never considered becoming a scientist or conservationist.

What experiences are you hoping to deliver?

High impact science experiences. These could include field trips to labs or field stations to work with real-world scientists and experience the research first hand, international trips to conduct conservation research while learning about a new culture, in-class presentations or demonstration labs conducted by scientists, professors, and graduate students.

It is our hope that these experiences will create "hook moments" or "aha moments" where students feel inspired to become future conservation leaders.

As an example, in June of 2020 we will be taking a group of 21 students down to Costa Rica to work with the Holbrook Travel and the Latin American Sea Turtle Organization. Leatherback sea turtles are an endangered reptile with a 100-million-year history! Students that participate in this experience will work side-by-side with researchers to collect data on leatherbacks and help protect their nests. Matt was recently awarded the EPI's Costa Rica Sea Turtle Ecology Teacher Fellowship. There are less than 100 educators around the globe selected annually for this fellowship.

How can the local community get involved, support these efforts, and learn more?

We are actively partnering with a number of local businesses on upcoming fundraising events, which will be posted on Facebook.

Direct charitable contributions would go a long way toward helping provide scholarships for youth to participate in our regional and international experiences as well as help us secure research materials (pipettes, beakers, test tubes, reagents, incubators, etc.) and field supplies (nets, quadrats, transmitters, environmental quality probes, etc.) for youth-led research projects.

Lastly, we are always seeking collaborations with partners: University of Arkansas and NWACC professors, local research lab, undergrad and graduate students, and local like-minded organizations.

Any parting words?

As we often remind students, you could know all there is to know about cancer and never cure it. Then you could use all that education, engineer a cure and test it via ethical valid research, and that still would not be enough. The key to positive change is when the research reaches society, in the constant back-and-forth of the conversation between culture and science.

We aim to motivate students to integrate environmental stewardship into their lives at home, in the community, and across any path they may travel. Join us!

You can learn more about YGCNWA at Follow them on Facebook HERE and Instagram HERE.


A Region that Puts Love Into Action

Northwest Arkansas is a region gaining wider appeal as people flee larger metros in search of a lower cost of living and a better quality of life.

The appeal of Northwest Arkansas can be derived from the data. For instance, a family making $42,000 in Northwest Arkansas would have to make $100,000 in San Francisco to maintain the same cost of living. And, as a recent study by the Walton Family Foundation points out, "95% of residents reporting being 'very happy' or 'fairly happy' with the region." But what lies outside of the correlations? Let's attempt to get to the heart of the matter.

There is something beyond the dollar signs, something that doesn't show up in surveys, that sets this region apart. A kind of way-of-being or aura around the economic calculus, that emits from those who call this region home. We propose it is this⁠—a strong sense of community⁠—that sets our region apart. An intangible thing, probably best captured and felt in stories like the one below.

"Springdale Community Comes Together To Make Local Girl's Birthday Party Special" - KFSM

The local news shared 150 headlines this week, but this one stuck out and seems to perfectly encapsulate Northwest Arkansas' essence.

Here is the story, as shared by the girl's mom:

"I'm Stephanie, Shamai's mom. We had a birthday party for my daughter this past Saturday and we invited 20 kids to celebrate, but only two showed up. When we saw that our time was running out on our reservation, my family and I decided we'd invite the community. So I posted to Facebook that I still had room for 17 kids to join us to celebrate my daughters birthday and share a great time. Everything was paid, so we wanted to enjoy it.

The response was touching, families started to fill the room! Some couldn't stay, but stopped by to wish Shamai a happy birthday. The gestures of kindness were very sweet. Our community is amazing, and I'm so grateful this happened. We learned a great lesson from this, you find kindness where you least expect it!"

The Most Memorable Moment

Stephanie was kind enough to share a few words with us about her experience.

Q: What particular moments stuck out for you after the community showed up?

A: The most touching moment was when the first family, a mom and her daughter, showed up. They were on their way to see her father who had terminal cancer, and she just stopped to wish Shamai a happy birthday. I cried, because she took some precious time to do that.

Stephanie also informed us that they were so moved by the turn of events that they are now reaching out to local organizations about donating Shamai's birthday presents to less fortunate children in the area.

If that doesn't make your heart melt, we don't know what will.

This is Northwest Arkansas.


An Epilogue to the Inaugural Prologues Storysharing Salon

On Sept. 26, eight humans positively impacting the region came together to share their prologues with the community.

"Stories...protect us from chaos, and maybe that's what we, unblinkered at the end of the 20th century, find ourselves craving. Implicit in the extraordinary revival of storytelling is the possibility that we need stories — that they are a fundamental unit of knowledge, the foundation of memory, essential to the way we make sense of our lives: the beginning, middle and end of our personal and collective trajectories. It is possible that narrative is as important to writing as the human body is to representational painting. We have returned to narrative-in many fields of knowledge-because it is impossible to live without them." - Bill Buford, The New Yorker [Art by Brothers Hilts for David Delgado]

Honoring the Human "Before-Word"

Prologues was designed as a humble effort to use storysharing to learn more about and from our fellow community members, to strengthen community networks, and to give visibility to all the good happening around us while supporting the people who make it all happen.

Often we see impact within our community, but we don't ever get visibility into the context about how that impact came to be. Additionally, as community-builders, rarely do we have the opportunity to reflect on the sometimes very small coincidences or nuances that have led us to becoming part of a much larger vision or our everyday purpose-driven work.

It is our belief that the simple act of storysharing can become a powerful platform for connecting people to one another and to our broader community. To that end, we recently brought together eight leaders catalyzing positive change in our region to share their backstory with the community.

The Setting

Black Apple Crossing made for the perfect unobtrusive backdrop for our first convening of storysharers and listeners. Along with raw brick walls and worn wood floors, the space is spiced by fruit & pepper trails leading to a farm-to-glass cider bar in the back. Our inaugural Prologues started with casual drinks and chat and settled into storysharing. By unspoken understanding we all recognized when we bear witness to a personal story, we are being invited to step into an individual's vulnerability and truth. Not a single guest took that invitation lightly.

Recap video courtesy of John Wayne Pharr

The Epilogue - A Series of Short Reflections

"Re-humanizing humans, an interesting concept...yet this is exactly what Prologues accomplished. Being on the receiving end of the personal truths from the people executing invaluable work within the community I live in, reminded me of how powerful people's voices truly are. 20 images with 19 seconds of narration each was all it took to ensue laughter, joy, tears, and ultimately, understanding." - Jacqueline Perez, Teen Action & Support Center

"If we want to build diverse and inclusive communities, we need to actively procure safe and mindful spaces where a variety of voices and preferences feel free to express and be themselves. The relevance of the prologues, in my opinion, is not in who is speaking, where or for how long, the relevance is in the concept of creating room for these interactions to take place. Like a living library or a work of art, Prologues offers the opportunity to exchange ideas, express ourselves, share the essence of who we are, become vulnerable before a room full of friends, strangers and familiar faces, and grow through that vulnerability.

Our entire community needs spaces for this vulnerability to surface, leaving behind the mask of the "persona" we somehow have become, and go back to the essence of who we are, that place where the differences between us start to dilute. Northwest Arkansas needs this kind of event. Diversity, inclusion, collaboration, empathy, all start with communication and an honest reflection of the difference that exists between the kind of community we say we want to be and who we really are." - Rogelio Garcia-Contreras (Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at University of Arkansas)

"Prologues showcased the breadth of experiences, imagination, and compassion we have in NWA. I was really excited to see an initiative that embraced storytelling and its ability to explore resonances, harmonies, and productive tensions across a wide range of perspectives. In a region like Northwest Arkansas where we are large enough to have diverse range of knowledges and origin stories, and small enough to share them in intimate settings, Prologues has so much potential to build community and mobilize those connections toward mutual growth." - V. Jo Hsu, Assistant Professor of English at University of Arkansas

"Storytelling magically activates our brain and senses in a unique way that we can almost feel what the tellers are feeling. Prologue creates the right setting to learn more about their lives, experiences and challenges. It also gives us permission to be transported to a new place in our imagination." - Daymara Baker, Rockin' Baker

"I wanted to say thanks for last night! It was so beautiful hearing everyone's stories. You curated an amazing cross section of storytellers, and I met so many interesting people and shed more than a few tears. Looking forward to going to all of the future Prologue events!" - Monica Diodati, Bentonville SOUP

"'So, what do you do?' is often the first question we ask new acquaintances. As a community, we rarely get to know each other as full people first. Prologues replaces the age-old question "what do you do" with a deeper conversation about who we are. I believe that true impact ignites in the moments we understand one another as individuals with full stories & full lives. We build community first through building deep individual connections." - Brody Parrish Craig, TWANG

"Being a Prologues storysharer gave me an opportunity to reflect, helping me think about experiences that shaped my journey in life. It was inspiring to hear the walks of life from the other storysharers. The event showcased the diversity that exists right here in the region and was a reminder of all the different paths through this life we might take." - Nelson Peacock, Northwest Arkansas Council

"I was grateful to participate in the inaugural Prologues program, as it gave me a chance to think creatively and to share a part of myself that I, a very new NWA resident, have not yet shared with anyone here. It was a great opportunity to hear the stories of many great leaders in our community, shared in a more informal, low-stakes format that inspired openness and understanding." - Allyson Esposito, NWA Regional Arts Council

"The Prologues was a fantastic event. Hearing these stories was a good reminder of the incredible people we have in Northwest Arkansas, and I think that's something to be proud of." - Blake Binns, Good Advice

We invite you to save the date for the next Prologues storysharing salon, tentatively scheduled for January 16, 2020. RSVP below to stay updated as we organize the next event.


Calling All Foodies: Doing Good Never Tasted So Good!

These upcoming fundraisers will feature the culinary creations of seven different local chefs⁠—giving locals the opportunity to have a some delicious food and make a difference at the same time.

From brunch to hors d'oeuvres to dinner, you may work up an appetite just at the idea of supporting these local causes.

The Art of Welcome Dinner Featuring Chef Matt McClure

Dinner at 21c Museum+Hotel in Bentonville on Saturday, September 28th benefitting Canopy Northwest Arkansas

Celebrate our region's proud culinary history with a three course meal, courtesy of The Hive's award-winning Chef Matthew McClure. In addition to the dinner, the event will include art and storytelling. Through performing arts, you will experience the culture and diversity our newest Arkansans bring to Northwest Arkansas. You will also hear personal stories of resilience and triumph, and learn about Canopy's vision to see refugees and the community thriving together.

Learn more and purchase tickets HERE.

An Evening at The Farm Featuring Four Local Chefs

Dinner at the Apple Seeds Teaching Farm in Fayetteville on Saturday, October 5th

This intimate farm dinner benefit will be held at the Apple Seeds Teaching Farm at Gulley Park. Guests will enjoy cocktails & hors d'oeuvres in the garden, live music and a multi-course dinner featuring local products and gourmet delights prepared by local chefs: Jason Paul of Heirloom at The 1907, Michael Robertshaw of Persephone on Wheels, Matthew Barclay of Bordinos, and Heather Artripe of Ozark Natural Foods.

Proceeds will support Apple Seeds and the school children in the region that participate in their educational programs across Northwest Arkansas. In 2018, Apple Seeds reached more than 10,000 school children through its school and farm-based educational programs.

Learn more and purchase tickets HERE.

Sunday Brunch with Chef Simon Brown at Native American Cultural Celebration

Brunch at the Museum of Native American History (MONAH) on Sunday, October 6th benefitting Partnership With Native Americans

The brunch will be the featured event on Sunday of the Native American Cultural Celebration. With a performance by the Cherokee Indian Baptist Choir, guests will be invited to dine on delicious food prepared by BlakeSt's Executive Chef, Simon Brown, listen to live music and learn about the work of Partnership With Native Americans, their new campaign, and food sovereignty. During the brunch, guests are encouraged to explore the silent auction with a number of items up for grabs. As the only paid-ticket event of the celebration, all proceeds from the event will benefit Partnership With Native Americans and their on-going work to help build strong, self-sufficient Native American communities.

MONAH's Native American Cultural Celebration will celebrate the diversity and enduring spirit of Native traditions and cultures. Native artists, actors, leaders, advocates and more from across the country will come together in Bentonville to celebrate their individual cultures and experiences while providing an opportunity for the local community to learn about Native American cultures that are thriving and surviving today. The headlining presenter for 2019 is actor Wes Studi, who will receive an honorary Academy Award this year.

Learn more and purchase tickets HERE.

Taste of the Mountain Featuring Chef Justus Moll

A culinary tour at Mount Sequoyah on Saturday, October 12th

Lastly, join the Mount Sequoyah Center in Fayetteville for a culinary tour of the Mountain! Guests will travel across their campus and make stops in five locations. Executive Chef Justus Moll will prepare five small plates that will be accompanied by perfectly paired wine, beer, or cocktail. Non-alcoholic tickets also available. The final stop will have an extra drink and live music to enjoy!

The Mount Sequoyah Center is a community space where all are welcome to enjoy the grounds. They are a multi-faceted space with lodging, dining, event, meeting, and recreation space for the community and visitors. It is a non-profit that welcomes other nonprofits, individuals and businesses to host programs, as well as producing its unique programs such as summer camps, swimming, and tennis.

Learn more and purchase tickets HERE.

Just a few more ways you can Impact Northwest Arkansas!

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