A River Runs Through It

November 23, 2016
Three Civic Fellows pursue summer internships connected to the James River

The James River runs through Virginia’s capital city, aptly nicknamed the River City, and through the hearts and minds of Richmond residents. This summer, it also ran through the Civic Fellowships of three University of Richmond students who undertook academically grounded internships related to environmental education, advocacy and stewardship of the river.

The Bonner Center for Civic Engagement awarded Civic Fellowships to Alexa Williams, ’17, an environmental studies major, to intern with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), with Dr. Mary Finley-Brook (geography, environmental studies and international studies) as her faculty mentor; Ashley James, ’18, an environmental studies major, to intern with the James River Association (JRA), with Dr. Malcolm Hill (biology) as her faculty mentor; and Natalie Somerville, ’17, an international studies major, to intern with the James River Park System, with Dr. Todd Lookingbill (geography, environmental studies and biology) as her faculty mentor.

During her CCAN internship, Williams worked to raise awareness about environmental issues CCAN argues will negatively affect Virginia waterways, including Dominion Virginia Power’s proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Dominion’s disposal of coal ash generated by its coal-operated power plants. In April, Dominion began releasing treated coal ash wastewater into the James River through a process approved by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality but hotly contested by many environmental activists.

Williams researched these environmental issues, lobbied a Congressional delegate and helped plan and participated in several large protests, including a protest at Dominion Riverrock, an outdoor sports and music festival held in Richmond along the James River.

“This was a new, eye-opening experience for me,” Williams said. “Many Virginians who attend Riverrock have no idea that the rivers being celebrated are also threatened by the company running the event. This was disheartening, but also solidified my resolve to make citizens aware of environmental threats to their state.

“One of my favorite internship projects was compiling a list of local breweries, bakeries and vineyards in the region, hoping to unite them as a coalition for clean water in the state, as these industries rely on local, fresh water for survival. Bringing together different companies and interests in the same community was an interesting way to work on an issue, rather than only rallying environmentalists.”

Coincidentally, James’ favorite JRA internship project grew out of JRA’s opposition to Dominion’s release of treated coal ash wastewater into the James River.

“I heard JRA grant writer Beth Roach say JRA wouldn’t be taking money from Dominion because of the coal ash controversy,” James said. “So JRA needed to raise $50,000 to replace Dominion’s donation. This prompted me to undertake a project to collect data from former JRA program participants about their experiences and how it affected their learning.”

As a self-described “guardian of the James River,” JRA offers river-based-education expeditions for youth designed to promote conservation and responsible stewardship of the river. James hoped if the data she collected from past program participants validated positive learning outcomes, it could be used to support JRA grant-writing efforts.

“I conducted a literature review on the benefits of environmental education,” James said. “Then I wrote the survey questions, submitted the survey to UR’s Institutional Review Board for vetting and emailed the survey to 150 program participants from the past five years. I collected 54 completed surveys—more than the 30 percent necessary for sound data analysis.”

Respondents reported overwhelming favorable learning outcomes from their JRA expeditions, including 100 percent reporting that the JRA taught them ecological benefits of the James River. The data will provide good fodder for the JRA’s education team, grant writer and annual report.

Like James’ JRA internship, Somerville’s James River Park System internship focused on recreational and educational programming for youth. But unlike James, Somerville interacted directly with youth, leading and co-leading many of the park’s outdoor programs.   

“I have done sports all my life—hiking, camping, rock climbing, canoeing, kayaking,” Somerville said. “The James River is my favorite place in the world, so getting to be outside and active on the river every day was my dream internship.

“I worked with kids from community centers and summer programs and helped them get comfortable with the river or with biking on the park trails. The best way to learn something well is to have to explain it in simple terms to kids. I loved seeing them learn about the environment.”

Back on campus, Somerville has been sharing her knowledge of the James River with residents of Earth Lodge, a Living Learning Community for students interested in the environment. As an Earth Lodge intern, she chose some of the residents’ reading materials and facilitated discussions on environmental leadership. She also collaborated with UR’s Outdoor Adventure and Recreation Program to involve Earth Lodge residents with the James River Park System, helping plan or co-lead events such as kayaking excursions and invasive-plant-species removal.

Williams and James have continued their environmental work as well. Williams is creating a story map to track the environmental impact of six Dominion power plants for an independent study with Dr. Finley-Brook. James is working as an intern in UR’s Office of Sustainability.

All three Civic Fellows agreed their summer internships and research affirmed their love of nature and their commitment to environmental stewardship.

Somerville spoke for many when she reflected on her relationship with America’s Founding River: “The James River is home. It is peace and rest. It is an escape for me, away from the busyness and stress and chaos of most of life.

“Sitting beside the river, on a rock in the middle of it, or right in the water itself allows me to get lost in the sensations: light reflecting off the surface, rhythmic movement of the current and flow, sounds of the gurgling and trickling water. The James is a comfort and, while it isn't always necessarily a safe place when traversing the lower rapids, it is a safe place for my heart, mind and spirit.” 

Photo: Left to right, Ashley James, '18, Alexa Williams, '17, and Natalie Somerville, '17, enjoy a beautiful fall day by the James River.