INNOVATE, Part II

The West is the new frontier, for ideas

  • Geneva Wiki, right, with students Crystal Sternberg and Mistey Ridenour, at a school where Native American students learn the basics and more.

    Coutresy Geneva Wiki
  • Justin Hayes and three good reasons for wanting to stop mercury emissions from gold mines.

    Ray Ring
  • Sherri Rice, director of a low-cost health program

  • “Design Principles” SKETCHES: Site Workshop and Civitas Urban Design + Planning, Inc. (Canada]
  • Spot.us inventor David Cohn believes in participatory journalism with all kinds of participants.

  • They don't just brew beer at New Belgium ... they brew methane gas from their wastewater, catch it in this "bubble" and burn it for power.

    Coutresy New Belgium
 

Editor's note: This is the second part of a three-part package online; the first part is here and the third part is here. The entire package was published in the March 16, 2009 print edition of High Country News.

'Positivity' for Native students

On the thickly forested Yurok Reservation in Klamath, Calif., in the back of a dilapidated building that once housed a liquor store and tackle shop, three makeshift classrooms now hold a handful of Native students and their teachers. The overhead heater shrieks like a banshee. Nevertheless, "there's something beautiful about an abandoned liquor store becoming a school on the rez," says Geneva Wiki, the energetic 31-year-old director of the Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods.

When these students graduate, they'll have a high school diploma and up to two years of college credit. That's a big boost for a kid from California's largest and poorest tribe, in which alcohol and drug use are common but college attendance is not. Nationwide, only about half of American Indian students finish high school, and less than 4 percent earn a bachelor's degree. "When we started, none of the kids could pass (a college-level English exam). Now our (graduating) students are at a 90 to 100 percent pass rate," says Wiki, who founded the school in 2005.

There are 11 similar schools for Native students scattered across California, Oregon and Washington, but Wiki's is unique in two respects. It's the only one that requires its students to demonstrate mastery of a set of skills and knowledge -- at the equivalent of a B- or better -- before they graduate. And Wiki believes in involving community members in every facet of her students' education.

A tribal brainstorming session helped the school decide which subjects to offer  –– not just math and science, but also cultural traditions and language. Students work in small groups with Yurok leaders to complete hands-on projects such as a community vegetable garden and a teen court system based on tribal law. At the end of every trimester, students present their work at a community celebration and tribal members score the projects.

"Research shows that, for Native students, there's a direct correlation between the level of community involvement and student success," Wiki says. Although the school gets government funding, most of its money comes from private donors, including Antioch University's Center for Native Education. And Wiki recently secured a grant from the Walton Family Foundation to help other tribes establish similar schools.

Wiki credits her ability to "model positivity and compassion and hope" for her students to her family, a long line of tribal leaders and activists. She's earned degrees in public administration and policy, and has been an administrator, teacher and policy analyst for various Native education projects. Some of her motivation comes from knowing that "in my family's history, we had bright, talented members that didn't make it through public education."

Wiki hopes that, within a couple of years, she'll find a permanent home for the school and increase the number of students from 25 to 100. As more graduate, their success may help overcome the perception of some tribal members that "if we're doing it ourselves, it must not be good," she says. She strives to show the students they can overcome obstacles and make different -- and better -- choices than their parents and peers. "Every day, they have to make the choice to do the right thing."

--Jodi Peterson,HCN managing editor

Innovator tidbit: Xcel Energy and some partners are installing the nation's first completely smart electricity grid in Boulder, Colo. -- residents will easily monitor all their energy use and make better decisions.

Green detective

Justin Hayes, one of the Idaho Conservation League's top staffers, first heard about the fish problem  in Salmon Falls reservoir in 2004, when Idaho's health agency posted warnings that they carried elevated levels of toxic mercury.

With Stanford degrees in human biology and earth systems, a wife who's a doctor and two kids young enough to be highly sensitive to pollution, Hayes decided his group should look into the problem. "We started asking questions," he recalls, "and surprisingly, nobody had any answers" as to why the isolated reservoir near the Nevada border was a mercury "hot spot."

So Hayes took matters into his own hands. He traveled upwind to Nevada, and then to San Francisco, Seattle and Salt Lake City. He peeled back layers of obfuscation by agencies and industry to help discover a potential mercury source: a couple dozen Nevada gold mines whose ore contains sulfur. When this ore is heated to extract the gold, large quantities of mercury can be released into the air.

The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency encouraged the companies to monitor and report their mercury emissions. But it wasn't required. And there were no limits on the emissions. The reporting was spotty, and many companies pretended they emitted no mercury.Hayes and his group, working with the Advocates for the West law firm, applied pressure in late 2004, threatening to sue unless the Nevada agency and the feds took a tougher approach. Hayes also got a mercury detector -- about the size of a saxophone case, with a tube that inhaled air -- and made road trips around Nevada, setting up downwind of mines and analyzing air samples. "People would drive by staring at me," he says.

He found dangerously high mercury levels. "We were the first people ever to go downwind of these facilities and collect data," Hayes says. "We 'outed' them, showing that their voluntary program was a sham."

Finally, in 2006, the Nevada agency imposed a mandatory program. It still feels loose: Companies must now monitor and report mercury emissions, with the goal of achieving reductions, but the deadline for installing the equipment is 2013, and the agencies still haven't set an emissions limit that all mines must meet. (Instead, each mine's limit is adjusted for the mine's technology.) Meanwhile, Hayes says, partly "because of our pushing it," many companies are now installing equipment to reduce mercury emissions. They've also calculated how much they emitted in the past -- a move that heads off prosecution for any fraudulent reporting.

Thus, Hayes says, it's now known that in 2000, Nevada's mines emitted about 20,000 pounds of mercury -- the equivalent of the emissions of 160 average coal-fired power plants. That probably helps explain why the heavy metal has been found in risky levels in many Idaho lakes and in Utah's Great Salt Lake. The companies have reduced their emissions to about 3,000 pounds a year, but Hayes' group still uses the mercury detector, because "we have to keep pointing out the flaws (in the emissions-control technology) and pounding on" the agencies to set a tough limit. Hayes, 40, has advice for other activists who might want to act like detectives: "Be curious and follow your nose."

--Ray Ring, HCN senior editor

Innovator tidbit: Tackling poverty, corporate sexism and teenage-driver text-messaging -- Santa Barbara's Miller-McCune magazine and website distill academic papers on such topics for mainstream readers (motto: "Turning Research into Solutions").

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