Urban Boatbuilders Partnership Brings Canoe-Building to the MWMO

This summer, the MWMO is partnering with Urban Boatbuilders and East Side Neighborhood Services on a boat-building project here at our Stormwater Park and Learning Center. Over the course of nine weeks, members of the Mississippi River Green Team and teens from ESNS are putting in approximately 70 hours of work to build a beautiful skin-on-frame wooden canoe.

Instructor Christopher Dunham shows Mississippi River Green Team members how to attach the cant ribs to the canoe frame.
Instructor Christopher Dunham (center) shows Mississippi River Green Team members how to attach the cant ribs to the canoe frame.

Urban Boatbuilders has been doing these types of projects for more than 20 years. The canoe builds are designed to give participants an opportunity to connect on a deeper level with local waterways by creating a vehicle with which they can travel on the water. They also help teach the youth new skills — not only technical skills, but also soft skills like teamwork and how to interact with supervisors.

The MWMO and ESNS typically offer different types of youth programming, but all three organizations share a vision of providing youth with opportunities for success.

“I have never been part of a trifecta like this” says Urban Boatbuilder instructor Christopher Dunham, “every partner has something unique to offer.”

Many of Urban Boatbuilders’ youth participants enter the program with a limited personal connection with water. Some have not had the opportunity to learn how to swim; others have a fear of waterbodies. Often, they grew up without access to local lakes and rivers. Such things are true for many of the Green Team and ESNS participants as well.

“A lot of times, walking down the path at the MWMO is the closest our youth have ever been to the river — and they have lived here most of their lives,” said Michaela Neu, MWMO youth and community outreach specialist. “This opportunity allows them to think of a different way to interact on the water.”

Mississippi River Green Team Supervisor Peter Swan and team member ??? work on pieces of the canoe.
Mississippi River Green Team Supervisor Peter Swan and team member Lina work on pieces of the canoe.

Building Boats and Changing Perceptions about Learning

Urban Boatbuilders offers two types of hands-on learning experiences for youth: an apprenticeship program and community partnerships programs. The former provides paid employment training to underserved 16-19 year-olds youth facing barriers to success. The MWMO is participating in the latter program, which places Urban Boatbuilders in spaces that youth already occupy, like schools, juvenile corrections facilities, community organizations — and now, a watershed management organization.

A completed Wilderness Traveler canoe. (Image courtesy Urban Boatbuilders.)
A completed Wilderness Traveler canoe built by Urban Boatbuilders. (Image courtesy Urban Boatbuilders.)

The boat under construction at MWMO is a “Wilderness Traveler Canoe” — a classic, two-person, 17.5-foot-long wood-frame canoe. Youth are divided into crews that are responsible for different aspects of the construction. Once the frame is constructed, it is covered with a waterproof skin. This type of canoe build is the most technically challenging one that Urban Boatbuilders offers.

The completion of each project is celebrated with a boat launch, in which students put their newly built boat in the water for its maiden voyage. For many youth, it’s their first experience on the water.

Urban Boatbuilders’ programs provide a space for youth to develop technical skills through woodworking, and also to gain social and emotional skills that will prepare them to pursue their future goals.

“Any type of hands-on learning, especially making something beautiful and functional, is really critical for youth confidence-building and deconstructing ideas about what they are capable of,” said Collette King, programs director at Urban Boatbuilders.

Participants gain experience with communication, teamwork, problem-solving and goal-setting. They also gain a sense of accomplishment as they see their project to completion.

Developing such skills depends on creating a safe learning environment for youth.

“[Boatbuilding] is an opportunity to deconstruct perceptions about learning,” King said. “Because so many students do not thrive in the typical high school environment, giving youth a positive experience with learning can change how they want to move forward with their life.”

MWMO staff members working on the canoe.
MWMO staff members recently had a chance to help build the canoe.

A Different Kind of Learning Environment

The youth participants from East Side Neighborhood Services attend Menlo Park Academy, an on-site alternative high school that partners with ESNS. For Emily Kastrul of East Side Neighborhood Services and Menlo Park, working with Urban Boatbuilders seemed like a natural fit.

Mississippi River Green Team members and their supervisor helping build a canoe.
Mississippi River Green Team alumni and Supervisor Peter Swan assemble pieces of the canoe’s keel.

Kastrul said Menlo Park is “not designed like the typical high school because so many of our youth have trauma around school and weren’t served by their school. We knew Urban Boatbuilders would be a positive place for our youth and that they would be comfortable with this type of learning.”

A safe learning environment requires positive mentorship. An important aspect of the boatbuilding process is that it allows youth to establish positive relationships with the adults in the room. Green Teamers also appreciate the opportunity to get to know their Green Team supervisors in a more casual setting. And both Green Team and East Side youth participants are big fans of their Urban Boatbuilder instructor.

“Christopher is very welcoming. He makes us feel comfortable,” says Stuart, a Green Team member.

This collaboration is also intended to show Green Team and East Side youth that there are people and employment opportunities in fields that aim to protect and improve water resources.

“Bringing Urban Boatbuilders to our interpretive space allows us to connect with our youth audiences through a customized program that does more than just foster development of new skills or knowledge; it also connects them to our place and messaging.” Neu said. “We want to bring youth to this space through more customized programs and show them that there are people working for water.”

The partners look forward to working together in the future, supporting youth with employment opportunities and avenues for success.

Stop by the Stormwater Park and Learning Center to see how the boat is progressing, now through the end of September. We’re also recording the entire project in a time-lapse video. You can see an update on our progress below:

*Update 11/27/2018: The full time-lapse video is now available on YouTube.

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