Chloe Nunn, C. Isabel Núñez Lendo, Michael Schrenk, and Wendi Pillars wrote this post.
One hot summer’s day several years ago, I, Chloe, stood knee-deep in the warm, clear waters of Point Judith Pond, Rhode Island, surveying my wards: young campers away from home, probably consuming far too much sugar and getting almost no sleep. But in the moment, they were joyfully splashing around, mostly getting along with one another, and overall enthralled by their discoveries of the day: a delicately colored swimming crab, an elusive pipefish, and—my personal favorite—a horseshoe crab. As I took a breather from the clamoring kids’ questions, I glanced over at my co-conspirator in this marine science madness. Educator extraordinaire Prentice Stout stood carefully explaining to a promising young photographer how his camera worked and what to do to capture a circling bird. I smiled at the way he endeavored to include as many small learners in this explanation as possible and fuel their inexhaustible curiosity. He inspired my eventual career in marine science when I was their age and taught me how to share my passion with others, but I think most importantly he taught me how to explore questions that sit at the intersections, be they the intersections of scientific fields or ways of knowing. To carry on this exploration, I am still learning, but I know that I can do so only by including others in my journey.
Prentice passed away in 2021, but his legacy of including diverse voices in marine science lives on in his students, mentees, and anyone else touched by his infectious obsession with marine conservation, particularly horseshoe crabs. I can say, without a doubt, I wouldn’t be a National Geographic Explorer without his inspiration and support. And being an Explorer has led me to incredible places, doing incredible things, even mid-pandemic.
One such thing is the Constructive Visions project, born out of a collective need for global change at a time of challenging isolation accompanied by loss and grief. The next portion of this blog post represents the collective voice of the authors. It has been a challenge of the Constructive Visions project to bring together so many voices without creating a confusing cacophony. Despite time differences, global disparity, and some technological barriers, the collaborative project, supported by the National Geographic Society, brought together over 50 Explorers and other contributors over the course of two and a half years. The group consists of storytellers, artists, scientists, educators, conservationists, technologists, and Indigenous knowledge-holders. Like resilient systems in nature, the project is a testament to the ability of its members to support the regrowth of broken Earth systems and to share in the triumphs.
To do this, the group reflected on humanity’s current relationship with our home and identified where we would like to go: How can we better respect ourselves, one another, and our planet? How can we all be better stewards of sustainable living? These questions brought attention not only to challenges we face but also to the challenges of others, which we need to consider if we are to achieve a more sustainable world. The diversity of knowledge, culture, and language contributing to this project was necessary to fuel our learning from one another’s different lived experiences. In developing our methodology, we put aside our specific ideologies and disciplines in an attempt to escape from our geographic and intellectual silos and work with our hearts, heads, and hands. No one approach will solve all, so this project takes place in the magical intersection of the contributors’ perspectives—the oneness in our similarities and differences—to provide a platform for ideas that feel meaningful to us and for society.
Educators in our midst pointed to the fact that this method of finding common ground across geographic, political, and other boundaries can be used in educational institutions to stir important conversations about what the future holds and how we can work as a global community to overcome challenges. Importantly, educational institutions frequently become the link from global to local and back again. As concepts taught in class cover large themes, made relevant with local examples, they are taken out into homes of families whose members go off on their own adventures interacting with the world near and far from home. They are the perfect setting for the outputs of our international collaboration to transform into tailor-made, local action.
But what are those outputs? What did we produce after setting out our ideals and methodology?
We had to get creative. For some of us, that was an ambitious task, as it required stepping out of our comfort zones of academic rigor and technical writing. The first goal was a realistically hopeful book, split into chapters covering topics relevant to our areas of expertise, such as pollution, nature, climate change, and food waste. Given our flexible and open-minded methodology, this goal shifted somewhat, prompting us to rework products that had already taken hours of time to create. Sometimes our differences in ways of working made conversations tense; this was a good indication of how passionate all the participants were, and are, about the project.
So the question remained, what kind of book were we creating? We knew we wanted to bring to life abstract ideas, making them digestible for others on a human level, which would help transcend politically divisive conversations. And for that we would need storytelling. Ultimately, we built and created an experience placing the reader where design, artistic approaches, collaborative decision-making, and commonality converge.
Our stories are fictional tales imagining the future, for better or worse, through artistic narratives primarily aimed at young people ages eight to 12. There are 10 chapters written in different voices, aiming to move away from the idea that reconnecting with nature is novel. Rather, our connections with nature are deep and known well already by many brothers and sisters for whom it sits at the center of their worldview.
After much deliberation, we decided to publish the stories on an interactive and beautiful digital website, which allowed us to take full advantage of the multimedia components contributors had worked so hard to produce. This platform offers us the ability to update the content, gives the project longevity, and makes it accessible to students from around the world. With 30 educational partners from over 20 different countries and 300 students between them, we have already seen the stories spark additional creative outputs from numerous youth writing letters to bats and rhinos, illustrating a dugong’s future, and drafting their own hopeful visions of the future.
We are thrilled that many students and teachers have already read, enjoyed, and engaged with our stories. It is important to consider the things that need to change, because the challenges that lie ahead are likely to be far greater than those we have faced before. Nurturing our youth’s ability to think creatively and holistically about the problems at hand gives us hope for those future challenges.
Storytelling has the power to elicit change as well. We know that scaremongering isn’t effective, so that left us with hope. While not downplaying the devastation the COVID-19 pandemic has left, we wanted to offer readers a realistic hope, for things that genuinely could be. Stories also let us dig into different cultures and cut across time zones to connect experiences across space and time. We hope that reading about positive visions of communities from across the world will provide inspiration and hope for your own communities and students.
Our wish is that this hope will breed action to achieve the envisioned changes in communities and societal systems. This could happen in a myriad of ways. Educators and students: as catalysts of change in your communities, we would like to call on you to lead these actions.
- Read our stories with your students to empower them through connections with the broader mission of the project and the international community we are continually building
- Connect with at least one voice presented in the book that challenges, enlightens, or provokes, and consider how it encourages you to dig deeper into the topic. What interests you most and how can you pursue further knowledge?
- Have students respond to the challenges we face through a lens of optimism in creative and unique ways that adapt our work into locally relevant resources and actions by exploring their own perspectives and draw on innovative ways of thinking and doing
- Develop long-lasting curriculum pieces inspired by our book in collaboration with other educators in the National Geographic community and with our Constructive Visions educational partners
- Provoke discussions about how different approaches to problem-solving and living that may be seen as primitive are, in essence, tied closely to the land and form a powerful basis for reexamining our identity as it relates to nature—what’s important now?
- Take on at least one of our Challenges or Activities and tell us what other resources we could produce/co-produce with educators that would be of use
We’d love to hear from you, especially if you do any of the above!
We are including our educational partners in the creation of new materials toward our goals of engaging 10,000 individuals and 5,000 educators. We hope to be able to provide our partners with funding in the future so their students may take action!
We have also launched a virtual book tour that offers everyone the opportunity to hear an excerpt from our stories, read by an author, and discuss the topics with the project team.
While the webbook is complete, the work we are doing is not. Over the last two years the presence of team members has ebbed and flowed with their capacities. It has created an adaptable team that is continually responding to fresh perspectives, and we endeavor to maintain this style through new and unique ways of working together.
The featured image is by Laura Nunez, who describes it as “my personal view of what the collective consciousness represents, an aggregate of all the knowledge of the world created by humans throughout our history.”
Chloe is a transdisciplinary marine ecologist and social scientist, oceanographic consultant, science communicator, and National Geographic Explorer.
Isabel is a marine scientist and conservationist who specializes in coral conservation and restoration and is also a National Geographic Explorer. Her holistic and creative view on life has helped her find her inner strength and realize that we are all deeply connected.
Michael is an engineer and educator working to connect schools and communities to impactful conservation and sustainability efforts.
Wendi is a mom, lifelong brain-changer and educator, author, and visual strategist who believes creative and collaborative actions are imperative for the wellness of our planet.