Amy Brown’s Environmental Education Journey
My name is Amy Brown and I’m honored to share a little about my environmental education journey at North Cascades Institute. This Fall, I was invited to participate in a special event in Bellingham celebrating the publication of John Miles’ new book Teaching in the Rain—a history of the first 35 years of North Cascades Institute (purchase your copy via Village Books!) As part of the Alumni Panel, I shared my environmental education journey at North Cascades Institute and how it shaped my worldview and career path.
I am an alumnus of the Institute’s Graduate Master of Education program offered in partnership with the College of the Environment at Western Washington University; I was in Cohort 4 and graduated in 2006. I also worked at the Institute for 12 years managing Youth Leadership Adventures as well as a handful of Community and Neighborhood programs. It’s challenging condensing my Institute experiences from 2004-2018 into just a few anecdotes!
Here is my attempt:
Way back when, when I applied the graduate program and was interviewed, I remember being asked, “Where do you want to work after receiving your grad degree?” I immediately replied, “At North Cascades Institute, of course!” I couldn’t imagine working at a cooler and more inspiring place.
My early experiences at the Institute were perhaps a little bit different from most of the more recent graduates and staff. My cohort was the very first to move into the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center in 2005. We were SO excited! We canoed Diablo Lake, hiked the trails, planned new programs, and sat on the dock with Jeff Muse—the Learning Center’s first Director. He rattled off endless fascinating facts and statistics about the place, everything from how many rocks had been moved to how many native plants had been planted to how board feet of timber were used in construction.
We were ready to turn the key and get started! But the Learning Center opened much later than expected, so instead we lived at Clark’s Cabins in Marblemount while we taught Mountain School, which was based out of the Newhalem Campground. We taught a lot in the rain and it was marvelous. We had a butterfly class with Saul Weisberg at Newhalem where it rained the entire time – I think we saw one honeybee during that entire excursion. It was still fun!
We didn’t end up moving into the Environmental Learning Center until July of that year. It was a cool time, and also pretty chaotic. It turned out that no one actually knew how to run an Environmental Learning Center! We had to figure it out together. So, we rolled up our sleeves and dove in. We managed mice infestations in our housing units, fire alarms going off in the middle of the night, brand-new programs we weren’t entirely sure how to run, and tons of curious folks stopping by asking “What is this place??”
From Canoe Camp to Youth Leadership Adventures
My Leadership Project was called Canoe Camp. There was no curriculum, no goals and objectives, no risk management plan, no gear to loan to the kids, no detailed itineraries, zippo. Figuring out nearly everything from scratch turned out to be one of the best learning experiences of my life. I eventually wrote a proposal to expand the program to include backpacking, stewardship projects, and leadership development for kids who lacked access to these kinds of opportunities.
Lucky for me, we received a grant to start a similar program and they hired me to spearhead it. It was called North Cascades Wild, and my small team and I recruited every student, wrote the curriculum, led every 10-day trip (four per summer!), picked up and dropped off the students before and after every trip, including driving as far as Tukwila, hired staff, figured out training, packed food, and so much more. One thing I learned—and that shaped my worldview—is that I will never work that hard again (ha!).
North Cascades Wild eventually morphed into Youth Leadership Adventures and I ended up managing the program for 12 years (in a much more sustainable way). I also helped to develop the Northwest Youth Leadership Conference with an incredible team of staff and graduate students.
Graduate M.Ed. Program Capstone Project
My Capstone Project, “Adventure Education and the Practice of Caring” focused on creating mindful adventurous experiences to create learning that ultimately results in change for society and communities. The practice of being mindful, of being intentional in our actions and our words, of wanting to make the world a better place, all while exploring beautiful and inspiring places, these are all lessons that were imprinted on me at North Cascades Institute. These ideas still resonate in my soul.
In my time at the Institute, I was especially impacted by the idea of what it means to be a “naturalist.” I love the simplicity of it—slow down, ask questions, be curious, notice what’s around you, take care, be humble, and most importantly, share your stories.
We don’t all have to be experts, but instead strive to wanting to learn and share joy together in beautiful places. And then, make those places even better through volunteer stewardship. This I felt was one of the most important lessons I could impart to these kids most of whom were experiencing wilderness for the first time.
Today I work at Western Washington University as the AmeriCorps Program Director for Washington Campus Coalition for the Public Good which seeks to promote education equity and foster civic engagement while solving critical community needs in the areas of environmental stewardship, food security, medical and mental health access, and academic engagement, especially for marginalized students and communities.
I am so grateful to the Institute for the pathway it created for me to get here!