From refugees to river, Explorer West 8th-graders take on issues near and far in this year’s ‘Change the World Project’

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

For a fifth year, before heading on to the next phase of their education, Explorer West Middle School (WSB sponsor) 8th-graders are working to change the world.

Teacher Tim Owens is again leading them through sustainability-related projects, on topics of the students’ choice.

With summer break nearing, the projects’ biggest events have just happened: Project presentations, first to younger students and then to adult panels, and a big assembly for the whole school.

We were invited to visit last Wednesday afternoon, which started with the assembly. It tackled four topics that were among those on which the students were focused this year:

First guest was Christina Guros from the “small but mighty” city Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. Its mission “to improve the lives of Seattle’s immigrant and refugee families,” and to ensure they have a voice in city matters. She added that her office is proud to be part of a city working to uplift the immigrant and refugee communities. Her role includes helping people through the process of seeking citizenship. She also explained that refugee resettlement has been declining here in tandem with declining affordability.

That was a segue to the second speaker, Maliha Mirza from Refugees Northwest, a program of Lutheran Community Services NW. Only refugees from Afghanistan have arrived “since the refugee ban began,” she said, also underscoring Guros’s point that Seattle’s unaffordability has led to refugees being moved into communities south of Seattle – from SeaTac, where her agency is based, to Tacoma. She came to the US as a child 18 years ago, 17 years old, not yet able to speak English; she and her then-7-year-old brother were placed with a foster mother who in turn didn’t know anything about their language or culture.

Rosario-Maria Medina from the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition followed, explaining her agency’s watchdog role. She showed an aerial of the river and asked students what they saw – the answers varied. She also enlightened the students on the fact that the Duwamish is Seattle’s one and only river. It has been changed, too, she showed, detailing its history – and the pollution that is finally being cleaned up, and that has led to a 13-year-shorter life expectancy than people who live in Laurelhurst. The cleanup effort still has almost 20 years left, said Medina, also explaining the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps (who we last saw at the Duwamish Alive! spring mega work party).

August 18th is this year’s date for the Duwamish River Festival, she noted, asking the students to “think about what we are putting in our river,” exhorting them to pick up litter, ensure cars don’t leak, “put healthy things on your body so it doesn’t wash off into the river,” and more. “Together we can have a healthy river,” she promised.

Finally, the students watched a film provided by the Thurston County sanctuary Wolf Haven, which was unable to send a rep.

Q&A for the guestsranged from questions about the complexity of the citizenship test – not just the civics/history questions, but also the personal/background questions – to whether wolves might try to bite you if you petted them. (Students whose project focused on wolves fielded that question and others, since Wolf Haven hadn’t sent anyone, and they got raucous cheers for their replies.) There was also a followup on the advice about body care; something you make yourself might be the best option, Medina replied.

A question from the sidelines: How can we be welcoming to refugees? Mirza said that in south King County, they have people who welcome refugees to dinner at their homes. They’d be open to residents up here participating in that program. She also added that she fosters refugees every year. Another question from an observer: As the national political climate changed, has it been harder to get services for refugees? Mirza noted that since so few refugees are being admitted, people who used to help them are losing their jobs. Guros added that the US used to lead the world in resettlements.

Teacher Owens added that “countries agreed long ago to help refugees …’they can’t go back, we have to take them in’ … if we don’t take them in, they are stuck in camps” or worse.

If you know or meet a refugee, Mirza added, talk to them … “they will appreciate it.”

Then – the presentations.

On Friday, students presented to a panel of experts; on Thursday, it was for the 6th and 7th graders. We sat in on one classroom’s first session, as Keira, Benno, and Jack discussed the Duwamish River.

“Why is it a problem? …. It’s one of the most toxic places in America,” she began, explaining that it’s a Superfund site and “highly polluted.” Their presentation also explained the effects on wildlife – including what is too polluted to be eaten, and how that affects other wildlife in the food chain.

Advisory signs are in 8 languages, though 20 lingual groups are in the area, so many people might not know they shouldn’t be eating what’s caught, the students said.

How to fix the problem? Better funding for the EPA, for one, the students said. They talked about groups including DRCC (whose guest presenter was in the classroom for the presentation). They talked about their canvassing for support – another key component of the student projects – 51 signatures, no one citing opposition, but 25 who said they wanted to find out more. Alki was the best spot they had for signatures; Admiral Junction, the worst, said Benno.

They also sent letters to U.S. House and Senate representatives; their only reply was from Sen. Patty Murray. They also made flyers to distribute with the information they wanted to get to people. In response to one question, they noted that people who blew them off claiming they were on their way to work “turned up across the street 20 minutes later.” They also mentioned having attended a symposium about the river, though they said, when asked, they did their work without visiting the river itself.

Other presentation topics were sustainable packaging, saving wolves, youth homelessness, police accountability, sex trafficking, helping refugees, and animal testing.

And congratulations to their teacher! The school announced, concurrent with this year’s Change the World Project culmination, that Tim Owens has been honored as one of the top six Washington State Civic Educators for 2018, as chosen each year by the State Legislature.

The announcement quotes him as saying, “I know that my students will go on to do amazing things with their lives, and having the critical background of civics will make them informed citizens.” He’s in his sixth year at Explorer West, his 20th year as a teacher – here’s his profile from the Civic Educator announcement.

1 Reply to "From refugees to river, Explorer West 8th-graders take on issues near and far in this year's 'Change the World Project'"

  • BJG June 5, 2018 (9:46 am)

    Dear Explorer West Middle School Students,You have been doing such great work for our community this year. You make us proud. Keep going. I’m still hoping your rain barrels show up everywhere.As for our poor polluted Duwamish River, thanks for looking at the issues that we as children never did. We crossed it. Some boated and fished in it for fun. (No one ate the ugly bullheads) We smelled the foulness of the river and the tideflats, but didn’t really understand for many years how sick our Duwamish was. You do and you wil be part of the solution. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. You’ll keep pressure on the Fed and the Superfund  focused on cleanup to allow its clean waters to flow again.  You all are just getting started. With your fine educators’ encouragement, I can’t wait to see what you scholars will be doing in the future!

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