Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods Opened Smith Nature Symposium with Our Future Speaks, Featuring Local Young Leaders

Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods welcomed youth of the distinguished nature and community-based program, Cool Learning Experience (CLE), for the opening of this year’s Smith Nature Symposium.

Brushwood Center believes it was important to start the Symposium, a seven-part live-streamed series exploring current environmental issues, with these voices of the future. CLE (partner of Brushwood Center) is based in Waukegan, IL and nurtures children’s well-being through innovative learning programs that foster healthy relationships between families, the community, and the natural world. These talented nature buddies collaborated both virtually and live to create structural art and spoken word that reflected their life experiences. Their collective presentation, titled Black, Brown, and Green, explored their visions and actions for a more just and sustainable future.

“CLE was honored to be the first to bring youth voices to a Smith Nature Symposium. Their thoughtful art and powerful poetry spoke to the realities of our changing world. We know those who joined us were inspired by their bravery, creativity, joy, and resilience!” shared CLE Executive Director Barbara “Coyote” Waller.

For over a decade, CLE has helped students grow a love of the outdoors through eco-excursions to local treasures like Lake Michigan. While CLE youth typically create work connected to outdoor experiences and environmental stewardship, these expressions spoke to the challenges of connecting to themselves, one another, and the natural word amidst a landscape marked by the COVID-19 pandemic. The innovative instructional strategies of their coaches, Jackie “Frog” Lopez, Angye “Bumble Bee” Zamudio, and Deeksha “Flourite” Pagar were on full display as the youth showed how they brought the “Outdoors, Indoors.” The students also revealed their secrets to building community, celebrating nature, and inspiring well-being through a digital platform. For this special event, the 6th through 9th grade students joined forces to bring Smith Nature Symposium attendees a peek into their inquisitive minds and a deeper understanding of how CLE serves families, educates children, and cares for the world around us.

The 6th and 7th grade Planet Protectors earned their moniker from their serious study of environmental, food, and social justice issues that cross national and international borders. This summer’s deep dive into the life cycle of plastics empowered students to be vocal environmental stewards at home and in their community. Although digital, students connected to nature through experiments with local water sources, independent time outdoors, and growing plants. Their online blog was a safe space to exchange ideas, share feelings, and give tips on everything from recipes for food scraps to how to reduce landfill waste. When not posting on their blog, these budding activists were learning healthy ways to communicate across cultures about the tough topics in today’s headlines.

CLE’s eldest group, the Future Champions, was made up of 8th and 9th graders poised to make their mark on the world. Like their namesake says, these nature buddies engaged in forward-thinking activities related to future career choices. Along with designing their own websites, they led an ongoing oral history project, Talking the Wauk, that centers on the Waukegan lakefront and its surrounding community. Through interviews and research, these students amplified a diverse cadre of voices that re-imagined their city and their place within it. The Future Champions truly became ambassadors for nature and are ready to continue their journeys exploring the world and diverse career pathways with confidence, creativity, and critical thinking. 

“Brushwood Center was proud to partner with these future leaders and share their visions. We know that CLE’s work is life-changing and inspires the next generation of environmental stewards,” said Catherine Game, Executive Director of Brushwood Center.

CLE has been positively impacting lives since 2008 when two First Baptist pastors hosted the first CLE summer learning program to link children and their families to nature with the belief that what one cares about, one cares for through actions and words.  Brushwood could not have seen a more fitting group to commence the Smith Nature Symposium, which was created to celebrate nature, the arts, and individuals who have connected their communities to the environment and deepened understanding of the natural world. 

This year’s Smith Nature Symposium is virtual for the first time, which presents an exciting opportunity for Brushwood Center to reach as many people as possible with these timely discussions. Ticket prices are “give what you can” with a free option available for students and those who are unable to donate. The series began on August 13th and culminates in the Smith Nature Symposium Awards Ceremony on Friday, October 9th, with honorees Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern and Masters of Ceremonies Bill Kurtis and Donna La Pietra.

All funds raised from the Symposium directly support Thrive Together, Brushwood Center’s COVID-19 crisis response for a more just and sustainable future. All presentations are available in English and Spanish.

To learn more about the series visit

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