An Earth Day Event for Building Community

Earth Day is still two months away, but it's not too early to start planning an event that highlights the importance of preserving the natural world—and that can draw the school and larger community together.


Earth Day is still two months away, but it's not too early to start planning a big event that highlights the importance of preserving the natural world—and that can draw the school and larger community together. One way to do this is to organize a "Procession of the Species," which I once witnessed in Olympia, Washington. This spectacular event celebrates our connection to nature and to each other. (For a related, classroom-based activity, see “Thinking Like a Mountain.”)

Creativity, imagination and joy were clearly on display during the Procession as people of different ages and abilities moved and danced their way through the streets of Olympia. They wore costumes made to represent Earth’s remarkable diversity of plants and animals. Some people carried banners decorated with Earth-related symbols; some played musical instruments. Thousands lined the streets to cheer them on.

While this type of procession is colorful, lively and fun, there’s more to it than pure entertainment or even Earth Day awareness. The Procession is a catalyst for building rich relationships in various areas of a community. It’s open to everyone and offers multiple ways to get actively involved. It’s also free—for those who participate and for those who come to watch.

I recently asked Eli Sterling, the founding director of the Procession, to share some thoughts about how schools might get involved in organizing the event in their communities. Sterling talked about how students and the community could benefit from the project. The Procession, he said, “has an almost magical way of enhancing the cultural exchange we have with each other and with the natural world. It does this by engaging the imagination, creativity and sharing.”

The Procession, according to Sterling, is a type of peace demonstration—a demonstration of kindness and inclusiveness. “It’s not a parade. When people conquer, they parade; but when people are liberated, they process,” Sterling explained. “A procession isn’t about you. It’s about something larger than the sum of each of us, i.e. community.”

Following are some guidelines and suggestions for schools interested in organizing a Procession of the Species in their own communities. These guidelines are based on the mission and parameters of the Procession, as outlined on their website, but they also include some specific ideas Sterling offered during our discussion.

  1. Design the project to include a diversity of ages, identities and abilities.
  2. Encourage expression and celebration through various artistic mediums: music, dance, 2-D and 3-D art, or other suggestions.
  3. Encourage participation from different neighborhoods, community groups and schools, recognizing that everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn.
  4. Build in enough time and support to create—and share—meaningful works of art (e.g., costumes, banners and invitations).
  5. Decide which art projects to create individually or as a group.
  6. Have older students work with younger students.
  7. Be an example of sustainable practices by emphasizing the use of recycled, natural and donated materials for art project construction.
  8. Follow the three rules designed to inspire, nourish and protect the Procession's cultural evolution of imagination, creation and sharing:
    • Keep political commentary to a minimum. The Procession is about celebrating and building investment in the community rather than promoting a particular agenda. Focus, instead, on art, music, movement, dance and social interaction (e.g., smiling and waving).
    • No pets or other animals, with the exception of service animals.
    • No motorized vehicles, except motorized wheelchairs.

If possible, dovetail the Procession into other community endeavors in a manner that honors or contributes to the success of those undertakings. Examples might include cleaning up a neighborhood park, developing a community or school garden and converting a car-dominated street to a walkway for pedestrians. As Sterling explains, linking the Procession to other endeavors contributes to a community’s identity and makes the concept of community more tangible. Keep in mind that the intent behind the Procession is to create a long-term cultural exchange rather than a short-term, entertaining event or a political protest.

Communities often recognize Earth Day with educational programs and celebrations designed to increase understanding and appreciation of the natural world. The Procession of the Species is designed to do this—and more! Consider planning a Procession or other event that can help your school and its surrounding area come together and appreciate the many ways we can all contribute to building an inclusive and caring community.

Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.

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