It was a calm I hadn’t felt since relocating three months ago from the California Central Valley. During a field trip to the Seattle unit of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park for my urban ecology course, our cohort was lucky enough to descend underneath Seattle and peek into the underground basement, part of a network of Seattle’s mid-19th-century history. That morning consisted of a place-based lesson in Pioneer Square where we walked the streets, exploring the changed urban landscape since the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. Entirely made of wood, 31 blocks of Seattle’s first buildings were destroyed, initiating a new strategic plan for the city’s rebuilding. Because Pioneer Square had originally been built on tideland, flooding in lower floors was common and was an issue addressed in the new plan for redevelopment. Also, it was now understood that a city made entirely of wood was probably a bad idea. In the city’s rebuild, streets were raised one to two stories higher than the original grade, leaving a network of underground passageways and basements that were originally ground level. This regrade established what is now known as The Seattle Underground.
In these underground passageways, the morning chill radiating from the cracking brick, I stood in the space between a city’s history and its current reality. This unique experience inspired me to think about discussions in my urbanizing environmental education course and what my role is as an educator. How do I educate a modern generation while still honoring a dynamic history? How can I address the significant and sometimes adverse history of a place while still teaching students to positively move forward?
I think back to an experience I had this past summer in my practicum with the city’s Urban Food Systems Program. We had just prepared soup for lunch, and while I could only think of the delicious flavors and fresh ingredients, one student, a newcomer to the United States from East Africa, was a bit apprehensive. In the moment, I decided to convince the student that although the produce in the soup was unfamiliar, he should try something new and be open to enjoying new foods. I realize now that I immediately settled on the idea of assimilation and conformity instead of understanding where the student’s uneasiness had arisen from, regretfully overlooking a valuable teachable moment. My experience in Seattle’s underground has since allowed me to gain a new outlook on that moment, enhancing my competence as an educator. When the city was rebuilt, the historical footprint that is now underground was not forgotten, but rather used to support and enhance the new and improved landscape. In retrospect, I would have used that moment at lunch with my student, as an opportunity to integrate a historical perspective, where the student could have shared his ties to cultural foods and traditions. I think of lessons with Dr. John Haskin of Islandwood and how he encouraged us to always be mindful of opportunities for meaning-making and culture-building. What would a soup at his home taste like? What vegetables grow in his home? What would he add to the soup so that the flavors were more reminiscent of where he comes from?
As I journey through the UEE program, I am recognizing the importance of self-critique and reflection. I see now that it is essential to create that space for students to reflect on their own identities, prior knowledge, and culture, and understand how it informs their current reality. It is also essential that I get comfortable with being uncomfortable if, as an educator, I am to unlearn traditional pedagogies that have too often not considered all students. Present-day Seattle is physically and figuratively supported by the influential history of the people and the places that came before us and has refused to be buried or forgotten—a stark reminder of the responsibility of educators to retain the voices and stories of the past while progressively nurturing the innovative young minds of future generations.
Denaya Shorter is an alumni of the Urban Environmental Education program.