STORIES OF NOW: Focus on Nature (Guelph, ON)

VignetteFocus on Nature (Guelph, ON)

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“Inspiring young people to explore and connect with nature through photography.”

“STORIES OF NOW” is part of a project ArtBridges is working on with Judith Marcuse Projects’ ASCN (Arts for Social Change Network) and ICASC. It is about gathering and sharing stories emanating from the field now and about what issues and areas of focus matter.

In conversation with: Simon Bell, Executive Director, Focus on Nature, November 29th, 2021

If you could tell a story about your community-engaged arts initiative now, this year, what would the story be about? What are the main themes?

SB:  Our story is one of adapting to the new reality of school lockdowns and pivoting to remote learning. Focus on Nature’s mission is to inspire young people to explore and connect with nature through photography. We do this primarily by offering full-day nature photography workshops in schools. This allows us to reach the broadest possible audience of children, regardless of their financial ability to participate.

Pre-pandemic, our program was expanding each year to include schools in Hamilton, Halton Region, Waterloo Region and Guelph-Wellington, where we started in 2010. By 2019 we were touching the lives of nearly 7,000 children each year in Ontario. In 2020, with the arrival of Covd-19 and schools locked down, our reach collapsed to just 90 children and we knew that we had to re-invent ourselves.

We began by creating short video modules based on the Elements of Design, photo composition and photo editing. This proved quite popular with teachers, so we expanded the Focus on Nature Online web portal to include more videos, check-in quizzes and photo challenges, all in both French and English. We added a Teacher’s Lounge with access to extension activities and resources that teachers could use while students were learning remotely. In 2021, we had 80 teachers and about 2,000 students signed up!

What are the main issues your community-engaged arts initiative faces? (e.g., social justice, environmental justice, pandemic-related, operational, financial, HR)

SB: The main issues have been the need for staff and volunteers to work remotely and of course there’s the financial impact the pandemic has had on the organization. We’ve had to restructure to a smaller staff and we’ve developed new skill-sets to work in the digital domain. Fortunately, we live in Canada where government support has been generous. We have benefited from wage subsidies and youth employment programs. The Ontario Trillium Foundation and the City of Guelph also provided community grants to help us continue developing our online platform and promoting it.

How has your initiative been addressing these main issues?

SB: Without our annual fundraising events, such as photo exhibits and garden parties, we were in a tight financial situation last spring. Our Board of Directors rallied to start a GoFundMe campaign and encouraged our supporters to donate more than they usually do.

The campaign was successful, allowing us to prepare summer camp programs for Oakville, Guelph and Waterloo, plus our first virtual summer camp. Camps were smaller and campers had to wear masks and stay 6 ft. apart when indoors. Still, everyone had a great time and created some wonderful photo-art. Some of the fun can be seen in our online summer camp photo gallery.

How has the community of participants that your initiative engages with evolved in the past year (if at all)?

SB: Everything we did with them until June was online. This was a drag as we couldn’t to interact in-person with the kids at all. It was hard for teachers as well. We loaned cameras and students could use their cell phones as well. One teacher said that three of their students had poor cellphones, so the teacher picked up our cameras and took them over to the students at home. As part of a project about human impact on the environment, they took pictures of litter, quarries, sunsets and butterflies. We then created a photo gallery of their best shots to share with the public. Covid restrictions have not allowed us to have our photo exhibits in galleries as we normally do. So newsletters and online exhibitions are the way we’re doing this now.

How is your organization engaging with your community right now? (Logistics, pandemic public health and safety guidelines & policies, changes in the way we gather)

SB: Now that schools are reopening to in-class learning again, we are dealing with Covid-19 health protocols that vary widely between school boards. Some schools do not allow any guest presenters, while others will allow us to meet students but only outdoors and online.

So we’ve redesigned our school workshops to a hybrid format, combining outdoor and virtual learning and it seems to be working. In October and November of 2021, we delivered 63 workshops, giving 1520 children an opportunity to explore nature as visual artists. We expect more schools will allow this hybrid format for their students in 2022 as the threat of Covid-19 recedes. The future is unpredictable but we’ll keep adapting to meet the needs of teachers and students for outdoor arts programming.

What are one or two new projects your initiative implemented this year?

SB: The Principles of Design online course for high school students is new, allowing us to expand our reach to teenagers. We were working with grades 3 to 6 originally but now, with so many kids suffering through the pandemic, we thought “why not grades 7,8, 9 and 10”? This is one adaption. We’re also developing a new module for Indigenous Studies, featuring the work of Indigenous photographers in Canada and in other countries as well.

What is your initiative doing new–digitally–compared to pre-pandemic?

SB: So much has changed because of the pandemic. Since our staff and volunteer board members are located in multiple locations, we didn’t see each other too often. Now we are actually collaborating together more than ever by adapting to new technologies such as Zoom, Canva and Slack.

There’s been a learning curve for sure but teachers and students have adapted to using Google Meets, Drive and Photos to engage with our workshop teams in the afternoon, after we’ve taken them on their photo walk with cameras in the morning. They all have Chromebooks in the classroom now and we’ve changed our program to engage with them remotely. Who knows…this might become the “new normal” going forward!

Is there a recent achievement, wonderful moment, or quote you’d like to share about your initiative or its impact?

SB: When the wage subsidies were announces in April 2020, I wrote to Prime Minister Trudeau to thank him. Next thing I know his office called to ask if he could mention Focus on Nature in his daily briefing! It was the first time our name ‘Focus on Nature’ was heard from coast to coast to coast! And then CBC News called and interviewed me live that evening, allowing me to tell our story more completely.

Recently, a parent recalled that her son said “it will be so boring – focus on nature…. but it was the best day of school I ever had!”, and that he’s now taking pictures of nature all the time. Check out some other comments by teachers and students on this webpage.

For some video content, check our YouTube Channel. There you’ll find my CBC News interview and a playlist of my Photo Safaris among other things. You can see some student photos on Flickr as well.

In conversation with Seanna Connell, ArtBridges

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