Water Pedagogies: Pathways to an Inclusive Environmental Sector

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This is the eighth post in a series on water pedagogies edited by Sritama Chatterjee.

Toronto is shaped by water – from Lake Ontario to the rivers that mark the edges of the city. As a new immigrant to the city, much of this water was invisible to me. Settlement services focused on the basics such as housing, employment, and education. They gave no information on nature nearby or in the city, including bodies of water. It was by chance that I discovered Toronto Green Community’s Lost Rivers walks. On these walks I glimpsed the city’s natural, social, and political histories, but I did not see myself reflected in the stories. Led primarily by white leaders and focused on settler history, the walks attracted a mostly white, middle-class audience. As a racialized immigrant, I often felt out of place and left out of the conversations. The Lost Rivers walks were a microcosm of the larger problems with the environmental sector and its failure to engage with racialized communities.1 Environmental organisations tend to believe that nature is neutral2 and adopt a colour-blind approach to their work.3 In the process they alienate racially diverse peoples.

As a scholar and environmental activist, I volunteered at Toronto Green Community to better understand how to develop more inclusive practices in small environmental organisations. In this article, I examine its two volunteer-led water pedagogy programs: Lost Rivers and Rivers Rising. These programs illustrate the challenges and opportunities faced by small, volunteer-led environmental organizations as they attempt to engage racialized communities in their programs.

Environmental organisations need to critically examine who they represent, who is missing and why, and then work towards changing their narratives for ensuring inclusive community engagement. A human centered approach via storytelling and exploration of place helps displaced communities develop a sense of belonging, ownership and recognition that is often missing from universal approaches in the environmental sector.4 A more effective and meaningful strategy would be to understand the contextual issues concerning the community in particular neighbourhoods.5 It is only through adopting processes and procedures that are deliberative and inclusionary that environmental organisations can succeed in engaging racialized communities.6

For over 25 years, Lost Rivers leaders have walked the land looking for signs written by water on the surface for over centuries. They follow the now mostly hidden rivers and creeks in the city. Its five founding members developed the walks, and its landscape literacy practices. To complement their understanding of how water writes on the landscape, they delved into archives looking for maps, planning documents, and other records kept by early European settlers. They also collected oral testimonies of retired engineers, planners, and residents, to better understand the historical contexts of various urban planning measures and their effects on the water.

As an embodied practice, Lost Rivers volunteers lead walks along rivers and creeks that may be visible or invisible to the naked eye. Walking along the course of a waterbody, participants begin to sense the topography and read the landscape to understand how and where the water is likely to flow, where it disappears, and where it emerges. The walks show the integrated and intertwined nature of human and natural systems in the city, including the stories of people and communities, past and present, in relation to the lost rivers. The walks raise awareness of the waters flowing hidden under the built infrastructure of the city. As urban dwellers lose their connection with water sources, these walks help them reconnect the threads.

Built with information primarily sourced from colonial documents and records, as they were the only written records available, the original Lost Rivers information and website has been mainly settler focused. The original website contains few references to the presence of Indigenous, Black, and other people of colour on this land, and their relationship to water. This contributes to a sense of exclusion and alienation for these diverse communities.

Over time, Lost Rivers made some effort to reach out to diverse groups, but were challenged by lack of funding, capacity, and resources to make any long-term effective change. To overcome this, Lost Rivers began a process of transformation with a new program called Rivers Rising that was launched with the support of its parent organization, the Toronto Green Community and in partnership with First Story and Toronto Urban Growers. This new initiative provided space for Indigenous and immigrant voices to share their own water stories and perspectives. It connected a new and racially diverse audience with water ecosystems in neighbourhoods predominantly made up of people of colour. An important goal of Rivers Rising was to integrate new material that highlights the intersections between water, sustainable food, and urban development while encouraging positive interactions between newcomers and Indigenous peoples. Additionally, the project provided a platform for participants to tell their own stories through walks and digital audio/visual stories. This place-based pedagogical approach helped Toronto Green Community take their landscape literacy to previously overlooked neighbourhoods and communities.

Rivers Rising built on Toronto Green Community’s existing collaborations and partnerships with neighbourhood community organisations and leaders. The process involved more listening, learning, and understanding community needs. The group modified their outreach and communication strategies in culturally meaningful ways to make them more effective. Potential Indigenous and immigrant walk leaders were provided support in the form of training and resources. Importantly, trainees called Rivers Rising Ambassadors were paid honoraria for attending the sessions and implementing their own walks. Toronto Green Community was able to ensure a stable source of funding for the initial three years which was important to build trust and relationships with local community leaders. Those relationships continue and inspire new collaborations and evolving projects in which local leaders design and implement their own nature education programs that include walks and workshops.  

Rivers Rising training format requires volunteers to lead a tour of their neighbourhood and share their own stories of connection to the place and community. This is followed by more formal training sessions on the lost rivers and their connection to the city’s sewage system, environmental and social history, urban development, safety, and tourism. The new walk leaders are encouraged to visit libraries, archives, and websites to build their stories as well. The Rivers Rising walks encourage wider discussions on the links between the lost rivers, nature in the city, and the challenges of immigration, settlement, and settler colonialism. When the program was active, the Indigenous and racialized walk leaders brought in their own perspectives, cultural values, and experiences to the walks. They drew connections between water and place, transcending boundaries and blurring memories of home in the past and the present. The lack of continuity has disrupted efforts to spread the model to new neighbourhoods but provided the group insights into deliberative inclusive practices.

The Indigenous partners lead sessions on the Indigenous past and present in the city. During walks, they bring profound and transformative experiences through ceremony, song, drumming and their deep spiritual connection with the land and water. During a walk with University of Toronto’s graduate students, the Indigenous walk leader talked about the cultural significance of the Eastern White Pine to the Six Nations. While talking of the hydrological cycle, she mentioned that water connects us with each other across the globe and with the non-human world. The story of the Great Tree of Peace and water connecting us, resonated deeply with everyone in the audience as could be gauged by the conversations following it.

The immigrant walk leaders drew connections between their engagement with water here as well as in their country of origin. Often their stories shared memories of everyday engagement with specific bodies of water, including many of floods, droughts, and pollution. Some walk leaders from both Indigenous and immigrant communities had direct knowledge of the impacts of lack of clean drinking water, making them very aware of the importance of water. They felt a deep connection to Canada’s precious gift of fresh water, the need to conserve it, and to ensure that all communities have equitable access to it. 

Most Rivers Rising walks in the past have included visiting the nearest creek, park or trail, community gardens and fruit trees. The walks also paused at the various community and resource centres in the neighbourhood. The walks underscored the sense of pride the walk leaders feel about these community institutions that support people in various ways, such as providing recreational opportunities, resources for health and wellbeing, connection to nature, improving food security, and providing resources and networks for employment and education. Through their stories, the walk leaders highlight the social and natural reality of their neighbourhoods.

Toronto Green Community’s two water pedagogy programs highlight the importance of community-based discovery of water in the local landscape. Through deliberative action, Lost Rivers and Toronto Green Community has shown that a small volunteer-led environmental organisation can build equity and inclusion. They have shown that change is possible for other environmental organisations. Rivers Rising exemplifies practices that engage diverse communities by reaching out and developing relationships with neighbourhood groups and creating a space for them to share their stories of water and nature in their context. The embodied practices of walking, talking, storytelling and shared sensory experiences can be transformative in building a sense of interconnections between people, land and water.

Acknowledgement: I would like to acknowledge the support of Helen Mills and Jacqueline L. Scott in the writing of this article.

1 Jafri, B. (2009). Rethinking ‘Green’ Multicultural Strategies. Speaking for ourselves: Environmental justice in Canada, 219-32; Haluza-DeLay, R. (2013). Educating for environmental justice. International handbook of research on environmental education, 394-403.

2 Finney, C. (2014). Black faces, white spaces: Reimagining the relationship of African Americans to the great outdoors. UNC Press Books.

3 Nishime, L., & Williams, K. D. H. (Eds.). (2018). Racial ecologies. University of Washington Press.

4 Agyeman, J. (2003). Under-participation” and ethnocentrism in environmental education research: Developing “culturally sensitive research approaches. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education (CJEE), 8(1), 81-95.

5 Macnaghten, P. (2003). Embodying the environment in everyday life practices. The sociological review, 51(1), 63-84.

6 Agyeman, J., & Angus, B. (2003). The role of civic environmentalism in the pursuit of sustainable communities. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 46(3), 345-363.

Feature Image: A Rivers Rising Walk at the mural depicting the multicultural nature of Flemingdon Park neighbourhood. Credit: Author.
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Ambika Tenneti

Ph.D. Candidate at University of Toronto
Ambika Tenneti is a Ph.D. candidate at the Daniels Faculty, University of Toronto. Her research is focused on recent immigrant engagement in Toronto’s urban forest. An environmentalist by training, she has worked extensively with diverse communities in urban and rural India in the fields of environmental health and education. Since moving to Toronto, she has volunteered with several public and non-profit organizations. Her work with Toronto Green Community’s Rivers Rising and Lost Rivers programs have helped her gain fresh perspectives on urban ecology, community engagement, belonging, and Indigenous land relations. In 2021, she co-authored Nature Canada’s Race and Nature in the City Report investigating youth of colour and their relationship to nature in the city.

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