FAIRBANKS — President Barack Obama came to the Arctic one year ago to see the receding glaciers and eroding coastline, and both those things he found, but he also found something else that caught his attention: the people of rural Alaska who are dealing not only with the lack of ice but also the lack of economic opportunity.
The focus of the president’s trip was undoubtedly climate change, but by the time he had returned to Washington D.C. he had hit upon another idea.
“John Muir said that to really care for a place you have to know about it and experience it,” said Sierra Club Regional Director Dan Ritzman on Thursday.
The same goes for people. During his presidency, Obama has put considerable effort into youth development, “especially in urban areas with African American youth and Latino youth and Native youth, and he said ‘We’ve got to get these groups connected,’” said IslandWood Senior Vice President Martin LeBlanc.
That’s where LeBlanc and Ritzman come in. The pair were in Fairbanks on Thursday, along with a handful of other program facilitators and 18 young adults, as part of the youth development program Fresh Tracks.
The 18 young adults participating in Fresh Tracks come from two general areas: About half come from various rural Alaska communities, such as Arctic Village and Barrow and Shishmaref. The other half come from various communities in the Los Angeles area, from Long Beach and Compton.
Fresh Tracks is a pilot program supported by the White House and created in partnership between various companies, government agencies and nonprofit organizations with the goal of connecting youth from different cultures. Like Obama’s visit to Alaska, the program spends much of its discussion on the environment, but for Fresh Tracks that conversation is less of the focus and more of a lens through which to approach the real goals: leadership, stewardship and cultural competency.
People are tied to place. During the roughly two-week program, participants will spend time immersed in each others’ homes, alternating between excited host and nervous outsider. After spending several days together at IslandWood camp in Washington state getting to know and trust each other, the participants were set to travel to Los Angeles and then to Fairbanks and Arctic Village in Alaska.
Sharoni Little, a professor at the University of Southern California who has been involved in the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, helped select some of the young adults to take part in the program.
In selecting the young people to participate in the program, the program facilitators were really looking for young people who are excited and eloquent about sharing their culture and the challenges facing their communities, Little said. Those attributes were important not only because the participants would have to share with their peers in the program but also because those young people will need to return home and share the other perspective with the people in their own communities.
“How could I also grow a group of leaders in my own community, both in support of my peers in Alaska but for our own issues?” Little said. “So out of those seven of us from Compton or those eight of us from Alaska, exponentially we will have a greater impact.”
Fresh Tracks hopes to help develop those leaders and to broaden their perspectives by showing them other cultures first hand through the eyes of other young people who live there. If the program is successful, its creators hope to expand it further.
On Thursday, halfway through the program and just starting in Alaska, Fresh Tracks participants could already point to numerous examples of how their peers have helped alter their perspectives. The group arrived in Fairbanks on Thursday, and over the next several days planned to fly to Arctic Village, return to Fairbanks and spend time in Denali National Park. They will fly out Monday.
Fresh Tracks was created by IslandWood camp, the Sierra Club, Children and Nature Network’s Natural Leaders, REI, the Campion Foundation, Zumiez, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Southern California.
Contact staff writer Weston Morrow at 459-7520. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMschools.