URBAN DIVERS: Biodiversity

Meet the urban divers who are connecting marginalized communities to the environment and changing the way kids see the world they live in.

Words: Anna Graizbord
Images: Courtesy of Urban Divers

Brooklyn isn’t necessarily the first place you’d think of as a destination for outdoor, nature-oriented activities. What’s more is that when you think of most outdoor or nature-related activities, for example, kayaking, there is a tendency to be geared and/or most populated by upper to middle class people. For the past 20 plus years, The Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy non-profit organization aims to change that paradigm for the residents of Brooklyn and New York City as a whole.

Ludger Balan, one of the founders of Urban Divers, explained that the formation of Urban Divers was rooted in the connections between simply living by the Gowanus Canal, spending lots of time in the classrooms of New York City, as well as his and his colleagues experiences volunteering in Cathy Drew’s Hudson River Project (a Chelsea-based non-profit organization). Though the River Project’s work was dedicated to stressing the importance and understanding of biodiversity, Balan sensed a serious disconnect between the organization’s purpose and making a more direct contact with the public.

At a birthday celebration in their Gowanus neighborhood, Balan and 15 of his diver colleagues decided to organize a flotilla clean-up of the Gowanus Canal. Through an entirely grassroots/guerrilla advertisement campaign (that was indeed greatly helped by the event being close to Earth Day), they were able to attract about 500 people to the event. Balan viewed it as a success— a statement that the residents wanted the water around them to be clean. From there, Balan and his colleagues formed more of an activist group, leading to the foundation of non-profit organization, The Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy.

Once of the most crucial elements in setting up the organization, and remains inextricable with its aims now, is that of engaging and educating the public. Though the Gowanus cleanup event stood as evidence that there were already people at least interested in having their local environment being kept clean, there was still the matter of giving people a specific skill set in order to maintain their environment, communicating the nuances of biodiversity (or just becoming, as Balan says, “environmentally literate”), as well as reaching out further to those who may not at first understand why they should be invested.  Balan says, that biodiversity, or “…[the] biological web of connection is important here. Everything is affected by something else. Getting people to understand that even an urban center is connected in this way [is important].”

One of the facets of the Urban Diver’s EnviroMedia Mobile, a traveling nature and Maritime museum, is that they partner with public schools, and are absorbed into the regular curriculum, offering up a rich array of resources that put children in direct waterfront contact with what they’re studying. Some of the workshops offered during the school year include the Estuary Ecology Field Trip & Workshop, On-Water Environmental Education, the School and After-School Field Trip Program, Live Beneath the Estuary and Urban Wings Over Water.

Workshops are also offered during the summer to both families and children (the Summer Children and Families Program Series), playing a large part in sparking interest within immigrant and low-income communities who may not otherwise be engaged or even targeted by these types of dialogues and activities. Urban Divers’ approach in marketing their programs to community members is essentially that having access to a clean environment is a practical, pragmatic idea at its core, and not just some self-satisfied college kid trend. Rather, as Balan asserts, it saves families and individuals’ money, it provides for lots of fun and inexpensive family activities, lowers healthcare bills and as a bonus, promotes feelings of joy about the place in which one lives.

In addition to the museum and workshops, there are also seasonal festivals and large-scale free public events that have even become a veritable tourist destination, attracting people from all over New York City, the United States and the world. These events include a more parent-oriented concert and movie screening hosted by the innovative and legendary artist/auteur Melvin Van Peebles, the Festival of the Ages which celebrates the histories of different continents and their respective historic relationships with the environment, as well as the Red Hook Maritime Bacchanal Pirates Festival. The latter festival features the Red Hook Pirates, an educational theater group who not only aim to teach children about science and history, but delve deeper in presenting an accessible view of how the world’s economic structure has changed, shaping and being shaped by the world’s natural resources.

Balan considers the successes of the work Urban Divers have done in that “…slowly, our ideas [have become] implemented in city planning. We started the whole discussion…people are getting out more, there are more local environmental organizations, people are kayaking more, there is more available for people now…people want to use the water more…the Gowanus canal especially….[and] more often, kids know what hawks look like.”

Balan says that the ultimate element underscoring all the work he and his colleagues do is the desire to inspire in children that the Earth is also something that belongs to them.

Click for more information on the Urban Divers.

Images courtesy of Urban Divers.

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