Comics in the Classroom, Environmental Lessons Made Fun

Stories shape us, our beliefs and our culture. Those seeking to create a better world must engage in self-reflection and explore the narratives that guide our lives. As we recently learned from Robin Grille, the time and place where our brains are most susceptible to influence is during youth. Positive and conscious effort put towards the healthy education of children’s developing minds is perhaps one of the best things we can do to create a better future. In an age where technology and media is everywhere, many education models are often boring for students. They want to engage, they want learning to be entertaining, colorful, interactive and some educators are embracing these growing possibilities to enhance education with all sorts of media, including comic books.

Teaching through story is universal across cultures since the beginning of time. Indigenous people sat around the fire through the winter learning stories and oral histories. Sacred texts like The Bhagavad Gita teach moral lessons through parable. Folk music around the world bring wisdom through ballads about love, war, and loss. Today we obsess about heroes and villains through movies, television, novels, and comics.

I wrote a piece called Comics Instead of Textbooks a few years back when I first learned that schools in South Africa were having great success teaching about the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela through comic books. In it I write:

A few years back I read an inspiring book by Valerie Kirschenbaum called Goodbye Gutenberg: How a Bronx Teacher Defied 500 Years of Traditions and Launched an Astonishing Renaissance. Valerie’s students had the worst reading scores in her district, so she began making the text more visually pleasing for her students. Changing the colors and font of text, enlarging important words, using forward and reverse italics and incorporating design flow into the reading assignments. Her students reading scores rose to the top of the district in no time!

Since that time the field of transmedia, which is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies, has continued to erupt across the planet. There are endless opportunities to use this technology consciously to shape a new narrative that includes social justice, environmental stewardship, and cross-cultural respect. Graphic artist, Charlie LaGreca is one individual who is leading the charge.

In a recent project in collaboration with the CUNY Center for Urban Environmental Reform (CUER) and the Environmental Protection Agency, a comic book was created called Mayah’s Lot. Written by LaGreca and Rebecca Bratspies this story is about a young girl who plants a garden in a vacant city lot but then learns that they want to use the lot for storing toxic waste. The story follows her on her journey of organizing people to become active in protecting their community. It teaches students the importance of getting involved, and the process of making positive change in their neighborhood. In true transmedia style, the comic book is accompanied with lesson plans for a range of grade levels that work with Core Curriculum and a video (animated by Norman Dillon) which is suitable for classroom adoption. You can download the comic here.

I had the pleasure of working on a similar project with famed illustrators, Bret Blevins and native artist Ryan Huna Smith that teaches the importance of following your dreams and honoring the interconnectedness of all life in nature. The story, called Giggle Bubble Dreams also encourages children to add color to other peoples dreams thus fostering a sense of cooperation and creative expression. Indian Super Hero, Frybread Man, shares historical wisdom about the origin of frybread, the deep cultural resilience of indigenous people in North America, and the importance of eating healthy food.

Stories and creative media are not just for children, but conscious attention should be directed at developing stories that positively influence their psychological and emotional development. What kinds of stories are you drawn to, and what does that say about your own deeply held belief systems? Together we can support each other to develop new stories and dream of a better future for all. The next step is to take action for the things we truly believe are possible and manifest them. We have never had access to so many tools and technology to create a better world, let’s do it!

***This post originally appeared on UPLIFT Connect***

Essencia Makes Walls Talk

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 12.47.25 PMArt changes the way we perceive the world. It’s no wonder that large companies spend millions of dollars littering our urban landscapes with billboards. Public murals, in contrast to advertisements, have the ability to teach, inspire, and even bring healing to communities. The Essencia Art Collective is raising awareness of the importance of water with a mural that is bound to inspire people well beyond the neighborhoods surrounding it. With members from across six continents, Essencia expresses itself from a unique and global perspective that continues to enrich the communities they work with.

The collective has run artistic projects with youth, first nations, refugees, immigrants, prison inmates, galleries, and festivals across the globe. Essencia encourages artistic storytelling, and expresses itself through muralism, street art, graffiti, graphic design, photography, video, music, poetry, dance and love!

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 12.51.41 PM  Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 12.56.32 PM

The project was headed by Canadian/Chilean artist, Shalak Attack and her sister Fiya Bruxa, who both co-founded and co-direct the collective.  Shalak’s husband Bruno Smoky  from Brazil (pictured with her below right) also assisted on the project as Artistic Director of the mural segment. Many renowned  artists like Chris Dyer and others were brought in to collaborate.

Taking it to the Streets is powerful, engaging youth is necessary, cultivating inspiration is evolutionary, and educating local communities is how we grow from the roots up to make positive change in the world. Check out the uplifting video below to see the mural in progress or visit here to see photos of the project.

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 11.36.01 AMThis is a continuation of a global awakening to reclaim our connection to the sacred, and we have seen this collaboration between artists, indigenous elders, and activists continue to build momentum and Unify over recent months. Artists like Ashely Foreman recently dedicated the proceeds from one of her paintings to Water Defense, an organization spearheaded by actor Mark Ruffalo to protect waterways. Artist Vajra also created a piece called Man in the Middle dedicated to Sea Shepard for their work protecting marine life. Ta’Kaiya Blaney, a 12-year-old Sliammon First Nation activist from Canada recently collaborated on the #Lovewater Campaign and was depicted in the Earth Revolution mural by Lmnopi in Brooklyn. No matter where you live or what you do, you are being called to participate in the healing that is so needed right now on our planet. What will you create?

I Speak For The Spirit of Water & Those Who Have No Voice

#lovewater Ta'Kaiya

“I can see clearly through the sentimental veil of childhood memories, the voices of my Elders that taught me about the water as a sacred being… I am here to tell you not to forget… that the human race is a dynamic of diversity, and in the end it does not matter who you are, your race, religion, or your wealth… for we all drink from the same world wide well. There is beauty in every drop of water and when water  flows TOGETHER… it is POWERFUL… WE ARE WATER, and together we create change.”
Ta’Kaiya Blaney, 12-year-old Sliammon First Nation from B.C., Canada.

Everyone, Everywhere, Together! Unify
Global Synchronized Prayer/Meditation/Ceremony March 22 #lovewater

A Peaceful World? Consider Childhood Through This Lens…

“How we treat the child, the child will grow up to treat the world” -Pam Leo  
It takes an amazing individual to reverse the scars from abuse and neglect. When parents feel loved and supported by the community around them, they are in a better place to nurture their children.
We have never lived in a better time for birthing a future filled with more peaceful, emotionally-secure, and loving beings than now.

Read the original article Parenting for A Peaceful World
Music by Culture Collective Contributors, The Just Deserts
Text by Robin Grille
Voiceover by Aja

Up Against the Wall, Community Healing and Public Art

Prescott, a quaint town surrounded by forests and mountains in Northern Arizona, has seen its fair share of national publicity in recent years. In 2010 the town was caught in the crossfire of a bitterly heated national debate about immigration which erupted over a public mural on a local school. Most recently the small town was rocked to its core with the loss of 19 of their brave young firefighters in the Yarnell fire. In the ashes of tragedy and division comes an opportunity for deep healing.


View of Sunset from Downtown Prescott, Courtesy of Jessi Bruget
They call it “Preskitt” and it’s known for its rodeo, its perfect climate, its down-home feel, its natural beauty, Whiskey Row Saloons, UFO sightings, Victorian architecture, cowboy poets, and one of the finest opera houses west of the Mississippi. Prescott has a proud history of being conservative. Barry Goldwater and George W. Bush launched their presidential campaigns on the steps of the Historic Territorial Courthouse. Pre-dating its conservative history the town was known for its brothels, cowboys dressed as indians called Smoki, underground tunnels, as well as many other strange and beautiful oddities associated with the days of the old west. Now it rests somewhere between the two extremes. It’s not too different from any other small town but it’s unlike any place you have ever been.

It is regularly listed in national magazines as one of the top places to retire, and was once mentioned in USA Today as one of the nations top 10 small towns for art. It’s no wonder that the housing boom caused the population of this town to jump 60 percent in 15 years from 1990 to 2005. Each new resident brought with them their own ideas about community, about art, and lifestyle.

Many of the newcomers were opposed to all the development during the height of the boom. In 2000, a small group of artists decided to establish a public mural that told the local history along Granite Creek. It was meant as an offering to the town. It was meant as way for the local community to assert their love for Prescott’s colorful past while reminding newcomers to respect its history and preserve its natural beauty.


Prescott’s “Art for All” Mural
The mural campaign took off over the next years with the establishment of The Mural Mice. Local students and community members participated in the creation of each mural. The Mural Mice developed a theater company as the self-funded campaign became more deeply integrated with education, history, and lore. Students researched the local species of plants and animals developing a natural appreciation and pride for their home. This went on for many years and was warmly received by the community at large.

Then the economic crash hit and immigration became a central theme in national politics. Local officials refused to allow the census to fly a banner written in Spanish, ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) were raiding Hispanic neighborhoods late at night, and Minutemen began showing up where Mexican day-laborers met for work in the mornings. SB 1070 was introduced and the polarization in the country as well as Prescott had reached an all-time high.

In 2010 The Mural Mice had decided to weave the theme of “diversity” into a local mural that was originally intended to focus on safe routes to school and all hell broke loose. The national media seized the controversy and the rest is history. The complexities of the situation were bypassed in the media coverage while a small town, a school, mural artists, and city government were caught in the crossfire. The public arts initiative died, and the murals stopped.

I have always believed that art has the power to heal and we all know that sweeping things under the rug doesn’t make them go away. So in 2011 I set out to make a film about public art in hopes to share all sides of the story locally as it relates to the turbulent times of our nation. A healthy democracy needs respectful public discourse, and the media tends to only focus on disparities. With the intention to focus on the beauty of public art, and a desire to bring healing, I knew that the controversy was an unavoidable part of the story.

As we entered the final stages of the film, one of the worst tragedies in Prescott history hit. When you lose 19 young men in a community this small, everyone feels it. The words “Prescott Strong” became a local mantra and there was a sense of unity for the first time in a while. The love and support that came from the rest of the country was unlike anything that this town had ever seen.

As I prepared to launch my last fundraising push on Indiegogo, famous artists from across the country began sending me signed art prints in support of the project. The paintings center around the themes of transformation, healing, and regeneration from Visionary Artists like Amanda Sage, Xavi Panneton (who spent his teenage years in Prescott), Carey Thompson, Mark Henson, Chris Dyer, Jessica Perlstein, and many others that are listed in my recent blog. Beautiful art, just like tragedy can bring one to their knees and call on us to dig to the deepest part of ourselves for healing and strength.

The Indiegogo campaign launched in late September and there was little response. I was upset to find myself in a familiar place of feeling the financial pinch to fund yet another creative project out of my own pocket, yet I understood why. People in Prescott love public art but nobody wanted to touch the subject. The community has suffered from the poor economy, recent controversies, and the loss of The Hotshots to wild fire.

While working on Taking it to The Streets a few days ago for Huffington Post, a friend sent me a link from a local newspaper. Mural Honors Granite Mountain Hotshots and Protectors “What!”, I thought, “a new mural in Prescott?”


Granite Mountain Hotshots Mural
Today I dropped by and caught Juliana Hutchins, who is not a Mural Mouse, as she painted The Hotshots Mural. My eyes welled up with tears when I saw it. I was overwhelmed with emotion. We talked about art, local politics, the recent mural controversy and she was well aware of the significance of her work which will be unveiled on November 16th.

Though there are many sides to the controversy, I am reminded that each one of us is powerful yet vulnerable. A larger force moves through all of us and true art is merely a reflection of that. Forgiveness brings healing.

This short blog barely scratches the surface of the subject matter, the film will take it deeper. Our Indiegogo Campaign fell short but we are still working away to make this a spectacular film that educates the general public about the importance of public art. If you want to learn more, you can visit our Facebook Fan Page, or donate at our website. The film is a Culture Collective production, so all donations are federally tax-exempt and deductible.

Watch the trailer below, join the conversation, share this with your friends and check out some of my recent posts. A better world is possible!

Everyone is Clothed in Stories!

The clothes you wear, your hair-style, the types of music you like, and the ways you choose to express yourself all tell a story about who you are to the rest of the world. Even your body shape/size/color was inherited through a long lineage of people from different parts of the world. Your ancestors diet, belief systems, and environment helped to shape the way you look and perceive the world today. Each of us embody many stories whether we are aware of what these stories are or not.

Human beings are different from most animals because of a part in our brain called the frontal cortex. This part of the brain allows us to consciously observe, mimic, and choose the environmental influences that shape who we are and who we will become. Our love of theatrical expression is not confined to the theatre, it is built into our genetics. Emotions and social interactions are our teacher. We experiment with our environment by manipulating external landscapes or indoor furniture like stage-sets. Learn the stories that make you who you are, and create new stories of who you want to be.  “Living Folklore”  is a good term for this concept because each of us have untold abilities to make stories come alive.

In the world of costumes, these ideas become embellished even more. Two of my favorite clowns borrow costume ideas from ancient and modern traditions of ceremonial expression.  The video below shows how Giggly Sprout and Gumbo Wobbly are sewn together with stories, using beads, sequins, and colorful fabrics.

You don’t have to be a “theatre person” to enjoy playing with characters. Within each of us there are many characters. Different social situations bring out different aspects of who we are and theatre is just a way to experiment with this concept.

Whether you have considered it or not, you are telling a story with every thread on your body. Who made your shirt? Where were the materials harvested? How was it dyed? What culture created the look and the pattern? Of course sometimes we just want to blend in and not think about it all.

Other times we want to feel the full power of knowing that life, itself is a story and we are the characters…

This article originally appeared at, please visit to learn more.

Teacher and Principal Pressured to Resign Over Students’ Presentation About Fracking

2013-05-11-earthguardians.jpgAt Evergreen Middle School near Denver, Colorado, young members of Earth Guardians made a presentation and sang a rap which has infuriated local parents and brought angry threats upon the school and the youth. Some are calling it “liberal indoctrination” others calling it “censorship,” the school has apologized, and what started out as a simple presentation by 13-year-old Xiuhtezcatl and his 9-year-old brother Itzcuauhtl has turned into a national story. The youths presentation included a rap that they wrote about the dangers of fracking stating, “poisoned the water, poisoned the air, poisoned the people, do you think that’s fair?” and included a call-and-response for the students, “When I say what the, you say frack. What the… frack, what the… frack.”

Earth Guardians is an organization started and run by youth (most under 13 years old) whose mission is, “…to educate and assist youth in becoming active caretakers of our precious earth, and to empower them in becoming outspoken environmental leaders, both locally and globally.” Earth Guardians achieve their mission through nature programs, environmental education, message-driven performances and community activism. From their website, “Earth Guardians provide youth with the knowledge, tools, and leadership qualities needed to envision and shape a healthy planet, one that we can all be proud to pass on to our next generations.”

A local teacher had learned about Xiuhtezcatl and Earth Guardians through a film produced by Peter Gabriels organization, Witness, and she thought that a presentation would be inspirational for her students. Witness features youth activists and promotes video advocacy. The short video focuses on our Public Trust, and the governments responsibility to make sure our air and water is protected while highlighting the work of Xiuhtezcatl and Earth Guardians.

Though natural gas burns cleaner than other fuels, the process for extracting it, known as fracking, is harmful to the air and the water. Toxic Trespass occurs when hazardous materials used on one property become airborne, or seep into the water-supply and drift (or trespass) from one property to the next, or enter our bodies without our consent.

Michael Green states in his recent post, Fracking, Health, and our Chemical History:

Though fracking companies keep their chemical use secret, a 2011 study identified more than 600 chemicals used in fracking. Many of these chemicals have never been fully assessed for health risks, but 353 were frequently cited in scientific studies. Twenty-five percent of these 353 fracking chemicals were linked to cancer and mutations; 40-50% can affect the brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems; and more than 75% can harm the skin, eyes, and respiratory and gastrointestinal systems.

The study also found that 37% of these 353 fracking chemicals could disrupt our bodies’ natural hormones, with impacts on sexual development, reproductive health and fertility. Health problems from these substances, called endocrine disrupting chemicals, can manifest at different stages of life – from neonatal and infant periods to the aging adult. Some endocrine disruptors can even have health impacts across generations…

The health of our democracy depends on an informed and active public, yet the content of what is taught or talked about in schools is often disputed. The oil and gas industries have the money to buy television ads, lobby our politicians to reduce EPA regulations, hire lawyers and public relations teams to tell us that fracking is safe. Does this make you feel safe? Are we truly informed when the ones informing us have a vested financial interest in the story they are selling us?

When your kids lives are in danger, do you stop to ask the government permission to protect them?” – Julia Butterfly Hill

ABC 7 News in Denver has reported that, “The district told 7NEWS it plans to distribute pro-oil and gas literature to parents so they have information from the other side.” Though students deserve to hear a balanced story, pro-gas marketing materials will not refute nor answer to the concerns of a growing number of citizens. If the chemicals they are using are safe, then why do they refuse to disclose what they are?

We all need energy, we all use various forms of gas and energy that involve varying degrees of risk for us and our environment. Accurate information about the risks is necessary to determine the cost to our environment and peoples health. The thought of censoring objection, or burying questions and concerns with glossy marketing materials defies the principles of critical analysis. The price we may pay in the long run with damage to our environment from these chemicals may be too much, but those with money to make in the short term don’t want to have a conversation with full disclosure about potential risks.

An uninformed democracy fails. When elected officials are beholden to lobbyists and financial interests above the health of the people, that is when people of all ages and backgrounds should be taking a stand and asking questions. In Colorado we have a collection of courageous young Americans leading the charge.

You would think that people would applaud them, but that’s not the case. The threats, insults, and harassment of these youth and their friends on The Earth Guardians Facebook Fanpage have been so inappropriate that some of the kids mothers have spent the days reporting and deleting hateful comments. Unfortunately in America, we have come to expect slander and character assassination when there is no other intelligent or factual response to someone that has exposed a hidden truth. When the anger and verbal aggression of adults is directed at a group of children through an internet site, it crosses a boundary and becomes bullying. I can’t think of any instance where bullying children is appropriate…

I spoke briefly on the phone with Xiuhtezcatl and he was more articulate and confident than most adults. He spewed more facts at me than I could keep up with and when I asked him what he felt about all of this he responded, “Obviously they are targeting a 13-year-old boy because we are speaking the truth. What they don’t realize is that it’s gonna effect their kids too if we don’t do anything about it.”

He told me that he does research on the internet, goes to conferences and learns as much as he can about the science because, “We are fighting for the survival of our generation and the health of the waters, the air, our community. We are fighting for kids everywhere.”

This controversial rap might just become the next hit single among youth across the country. At the request of the school district however, the video of the two singing at school has been removed. I’m sure that it will resurface again and again as Earth Guardians gain momentum and acclaim for their creative use of media, activism, and music. Below is another popular tune by Earth Guardians called, “Act as if Our Future Matters.”

Let us take their advice and live as if it matters. Let’s remember that our young ones are watching and we have a responsibility to be role models, support their expression and give them a voice in their future. In the case of The Earth Guardians, perhaps adults can learn a little from these kids about speaking up for the safety of our communities, the air, and the water.

Dreams: Why We Lust For The Mysterious

Did you ever have an imaginary friend as a child, or know someone who did? Whether it is the medicine man who speaks to plant divas, the child who sees fairies, the inventor who envisions something before it exists, or the composer who hears a symphony in a waterfall and then writes it; the mysterious nature of our subjective worlds allow each of us to tune in to aspects of reality that others don’t see. Something may be real for us but not validated by the outside world. I think all of us experience this feeling at some point. We live in a reality that is surrounded by mysteries, but our culture is obsessed with explaining them away. The mystery of our dreams remains untouched by the outside world.

Some cultures embrace the “Great Mystery” by understanding that what is known is dwarfed but what is unknown. Dreams allow multiple ideas (even conflicting ideas) to co-exist in the same moment. Dreams remind us that, even in the literal world, sometimes conflicting ideas can both be true. Do we have the ability to step back and allow all perspectives to inform us openly?

Anyone who has spent time making art with children or playing in nature with them has probably been awed by the wonderful worlds of imagination they inhabit. We have all seen art that has caused us to question the artist’s sanity or our own sanity, or the sanity. It is easy to wonder the sanity of our culture sometimes, or just laugh and cry at the colliding emotions that life stirs within us.

We all love to feel like there is something more, something beyond the reach of what is known that brings freshness to what has become mundane in our lives. Yet we usually resist it or push it away when it does present itself, choosing to reside in the comfort of what is “known.” Some dreams are better left as dreams and some realities turn out to not be as concrete as we once thought. Regardless, we are caught in the tides that wash us to the shore and pull us back into the dark depths of ocean waters. Perhaps allowing ourselves to accept this process will help us cope with the ebb and flow of our changing times.

“Life is not measured by what you know, it is measured by what you are willing to explore of the unknown and the inspiration you share along your journey.” A Box Of Secrets

At Culture Collective we are always exploring how stories continue to be the thread that holds the seems of our lives together, and celebrate the ways that media and art influence our cultural landscape. When our stories change, the reality we experience changes also. What do your dreams tell you and how do they affect the way you live in this world?

Stories come to us in subtle ways, inspired by dreams, a quiet moment in nature, or a good film. Yet we are still influenced by advertising that wants to convince us we are not enough, or that we don’t have enough. We accept judgments from loved ones that may be based in their own fear and jealousy, or their inability to understand the unique person that we are. Yet we ingest these stories and perpetuate them without barely time to consider if they are valid to our own heart. What stories have you ingested that no longer serve you?

If I told you that this post was inspired by a short and poetically beautiful film, would you want to watch it?

Over the holidays, my lifelong friend Chase Bowman shared a five-minute film he’d recently worked on. The film, Jolly Friends Forever More was written and directed by Kaz Phillips Safer. In 2010 she submitted her script to The Cinereach REACH Film Fellowship, which provides a continuum of financial, creative and professional support to emerging filmmakers developing vital, artful short films, and it was accepted. The end result is below.

When I spoke with Kaz about the project she raised the question, “What is it about the power of childhood imagination which normalizes (allows for) something that, in an adult, is pathological (unacceptable)?” I am still pondering the thought. Art is one way that adults continue to play like children for their whole lives. For some, sports and games is another way. For many though, dreams are the only place that imagination is expressed unrestrained.

Kaz asked me to make sure that due credit was afforded to her awesome team, including cinematographer Chase Bowman, production designer Deb O, choreographer Dan Safer, producer Christina King, editor Carter Carter, composers Anton Sanko and Joel Thompson, as well as actors, Sean Haberle and the amazing Arden Truax who played the little leading lady.. Give her website a visit, or go and see what other amazing projects she’s working on.

You don’t need to give up the responsibilities of adulthood in order to dream like a child. As we learn to accept and laugh at those parts of ourselves that we don’t understand, we may learn to accept those parts of others that we don’t understand. This compassion allows for the metaphors, the mysteries, and the magic to sprout new stories in our lives. I used to think I had dreams, but I have since realized that dreams have me. I like it that way…

Article originally appeared on Huffington Post under the title “When Dreams and Reality Collide” updated for Culture Collective

Arizona Murals Tell History, Stir National Attention and Controversy

Arizona is a state with a strong and diverse Latino community and an Indian population with a history that goes back over a thousand years. Along the East Coast of the United States, the newcomers from Europe arrived from the east in the early 1600s. In The Southwest, Marcos deNiza along with Estevanico (an escaped African slave), arrived in the current United States in 1539, a half century before British Colonies started in the northeast. Most of the cultural history of the Southwest comes from the Spanish and Indian influence yet, the British version of history is still primarily taught in the schools. In Prescott, Arizona, amidst much political controversy, public art has made national news while sparking an important dialogue about education, Native History, and racism.

Read The Full Article on Huffington Post Here