Reflections by Tina Nilsen-Hodges
Founder, Principal, & Superintendent

Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.
– Robin Wall Kimmerer, from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants

There is no single project, no one picture, that evokes the heart and soul of New Roots Charter School more eloquently than the Cayuga Wetlands Restoration Project.

Inspired by the traditional ecological knowledge of the people of the Cayuga Nation, New Roots students and staff are seeking to improve water quality along the southern shore of Cayuga Lake by restoring important wetland features that were lost with changes in the land made to create the City of Ithaca as we know it today.

In October 2015, New Roots students leading Capstone and Honors projects petitioned the City of Ithaca Department of Public Works to plant three native wetland species on a 50’x50’ plot, citing the success of the Arcata Marsh wastewater treatment facility in Arcata, California and the initiative to use traditional Native American ecological knowledge to restore nearby Onondaga Lake.  Buoyed up by the enthusiastic support of our city officials, they set about designing experiments, researching and procuring native plants, applying for grants, and rolling up their sleeves – and pant legs! – to wade into the muck in service to their vision.

Using indigenous knowledge and scientific understanding in concert to restore balance in natural systems disrupted by the forces of 20th-century industry and commerce, the first phase of their bioremediation project involved establishing a demonstration plot to show how a wetland can to serve as a protective buffer between human activity and the lake.  In May 2016, an enthusiastic team was ready to take on procuring plants and establishing the plot.

In August, over 100 community members gathered by the shores of the lake to celebrate the establishment of our wetland garden.  The occasion was honored by the presence of Haudenosaunee leaders Chief Jake Edwards of the Onondaga Nation and Chief Sam of the Cayuga Nation.  Chief Edwards offered the Words that Come Before All Else in Onondagan, after which Congo Square Market vendor Roy Despeigne’s delicious food was enjoyed by all to the accompaniment of reggae music.  Filmmaker Ira McKinley videotaped the event, capturing the reflections of the people present along with the setting sun.

This project was set in motion when science teacher and education for sustainability coordinator David Streib and our dean of student life, Jhakeem Haltom, attended a Traditional Ecological Knowledge walk on Onondaga Lake hosted by SUNY ESF, where the professor, scientist, and author Robin Kimmerer has established the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.   New Roots education intern and Cornell junior Mara Jacobs supported the coordination of this school-wide project to engage students at all levels and in all classes,  using it as a catalyst for reflecting on the relationship between people and the places they call home, and exploring how our human and natural systems impact and shape one another.

It has also been an opportunity for us to experience what Robin Kimmerer describes in Braiding Sweetgrass:  we are members of ecosystems that have a role in contributing to their wellbeing.   This is a stark contrast to our 21st-century belief in humans as masters of the natural world.  The message is:  we can be healers, too.  

The relationships that come out of this inspiring endeavor can heal rifts in relationships between people, and strains of discord within ourselves.  The group of young people who carried out the project were a microcosm of a world of difference:  black, white, native American, bi-racial, young women and men spanning the socioeconomic spectrum.  They forged lasting relationships with each other – and new ways of seeing themselves — through their common goal, discovering new passions and establishing a new relationship to this place along the shore of Cayuga Lake where the cattail, calamus, and arrowhead are now taking root.

On one recent fall day, as leaders in their AP Chemistry and college credit-bearing Contemporary Science and Technology classes, these same students paid it forward by getting into the muck along the edge of Cayuga Lake with a group of middle school students and teaching them to plant cattail. Conducting further scientific investigation as the wetlands plot develops, they are gathering evidence to determine the feasibility of more widespread bioremediation to address the pervasive and persistent pollution problems plaguing the southern end of the lake.  

Now in our eighth year, New Roots is poised at the leading edge of education for sustainability, healing the relationships between people and planet one student at a time.  We are finding that edge by circling back to the origins of the relationship between people and this place, gratefully inspired by the wisdom and ways of people who lived here sustainably for many generations.  We are integrating the best that science and technology have to offer us, moving forward into the 21st century with informed optimism and the confidence that we can restore the natural world that sustains us.

In this spirit, I seek to restore balance in the story of “growing New Roots” in Ithaca.  Planted in the midst of controversy, our tender shoots have taken root and our labors are bearing fruit.  We have survived and thrived through the during these turbulent first years.   This is the story of our homegrown approach to education for sustainability, an education for our time and our place, growing one student at a time.

As the sun set over Cayuga Lake that beautiful August evening, I listened to Chief Edwards reflect on how the natural world around Haudenosaunee young people is animated by the telling and retelling of the Words, heard him tell the origin story of the World on Turtle’s back.  I breathed in the wind rushing from the lake and had a moment of experiencing the intimacy between people and place of the Haudenosaunee worldview.  Healing our relationship with the planet, as Robin Kimmerer says, we heal ourselves.  I feel blessed to be part of this good work.