Founded in 2009 by Gail Heffner and Dave Warners (2019 UWLN Signature Award Winners), the Plaster Creek Stewards (PCS) form a collaboration of Calvin University faculty, staff, and students working with local schools, churches, and community partners to restore the health and beauty of the watershed. PCS—awarded one of the first Urban Waters grants— has been a part of the Urban Waters Learning Network since the partnership began in 2011. Focusing their work around community engagement, PCS has educated while building partnerships for watershed restoration and flood resilience.
Araceli Eikenberry-Mancilla—Program Assistant for PCS—is a connector, educator, and creator in the Plaster Creek Watershed. In her second year as Program Assistant, Araceli continues her work inviting residents and other community stakeholders into a deeper understanding of their place in the larger story of Plaster Creek. Since 2017 her work with Plaster Creek Stewards has included developing environmental justice curriculum and leading related discussions, drafting PCS’s Commitment to Justice statement; and facilitating interactive watershed education activities, presentations, and volunteer restoration projects for dozens of school groups and community organizations.
Prior to her work with PCS she served as a Community Connector for her local neighborhood organization, was a volunteer educator at Hoffmaster State Park, and applied the principles of Asset Based Community Development in an internship at a church in Memphis, TN.
Her love of connecting with people, creating, and understanding systems flows within and outside of her work. Much of her free time is spent sewing, writing, and making, both on her own and with others. She loves spending time outdoors, especially when it’s her or her friends’ first introduction to a new place or style of recreation. She looks forward to growing in her work in part-time education, and her love of farming and native plants inspires her to also pursue a future in native plant growing and regenerative landscape design.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
I would love to hear about your role at Plaster Creek Stewards. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
I’m the program assistant…and I work with the community—talking to organizations that we work with, connecting with volunteers in our watershed. [I also do] a lot of the education whenever a school, a house of worship, or a community wants to learn about our watershed, how they’re connected to it, and how they can get more connected to the creek. I also work on environmental justice curriculum building for some of the high schools that we work with each summer.
I also run part of our invoices for some of our fee for service projects, as well as our social media and website. It’s a fun balance of being behind the scenes making some things work, and then also being part of our face out to the public, both virtually and in person.
I’d love to hear a little bit more about the environmental justice curriculum. Did you build it out, or did you have something that you were basing it off of?
It was a lot of like minds coming together with research and thinking about what we wanted to include. We had anti-racism training in years past that was developed by a local middle school teacher, who was the supervisor for our Green Team students for many years. In recent years, we’ve been wondering how we can make this more robust….We can’t be doing work in the watershed without understanding all of the intersections of race and economic justice.
It’s critical to know that it’s all very place-based for us. From day one, the students get an idea of environmental justice just from doing a watershed tour. We start up in the farmland headwaters, move to some of the commercial and then suburban residential, and then urban residential, and then industrial again as we get to the mouth of Plaster Creek. So, they start bringing up these environmental justice concepts in a reflection of, “What did you see on this tour?”
We [also] partnered, to educate ourselves first, with Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim, [Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion] at Calvin University. She came in, did a cultural intelligence training for our staff, and then did the first year of cultural intelligence training for all of our summer staff, and our Green Team students as well. Taking a little bit of her cultural intelligence training along with some other ideas about environmental justice and feedback from the students, we wove together as a team this schedule of small trainings to build this broader image of environmental justice.
Another key part: We ask Chairman Ron Yob, who is the Chairman of the Grand River band of Ottawa Indians, to come and talk to the Green Team students every summer [so they can hear] about his experience [through] storytelling and what it’s looked like for him. We do this work of connecting with the community and making sure that people in our watershed are aware of the current presence of Indigenous people and their leadership. Meeting with him is always a great launching point for reflection on, “Hey, what did we learn? What did we pick up on?”
How did you personally come into this work? And what are your motivations to do the work that you do?
I have always loved being outside. Bugs were a core part of my identity as a child. When I realized people needed jobs, I figured I was going to need a job tromping around rainforests, like some researchers do. That’s what I wanted to do. I think I got to high school when I started realizing the people aspect of the whole environmental thing. Environmental restoration was a hot topic in my heart. I got to college and realized that research was not so much my thing, and, in fact, I’m way more in love with the people element, social justice. I started realizing those connections.
It was in my first year at Calvin that Dave Warners, from Plaster Creek Stewards, came and chatted with the floor I was on about creation care and outdoor recreation. He talked about the Green Team, [that] you get to mentor high school students talking about ecology and native plants and environmental justice and working on urban green infrastructure. All of those were like key buzzwords for me: this is something I want to be involved in.
I got a research position as a mentor for the Green Team students, while also working on some of the green infrastructure and research projects. Right before I was graduating, the position I’m in now opened up; it just seemed like a great fit coming right out of the University. So I applied. Now I’m in this role year round, and it’s been two years.
What keeps you motivated to do the work?
It is hard. I think it’s hard because it’s heavy, and sometimes it can also be hopeless. Even when I do have hope, it weighs heavy. But what does keep me, why I’m still here: It’s hearing a lot of the reflections of the young people that I get to work with. At the end of each [summer], we do a Green Team celebration where the students give their reflection on their work that summer. I always leave those feeling so excited about the hope that they have, the determination that they have, the work that they’ve done, what they gathered from the work they’ve done… That gives me hope, just knowing how they were touched or affected. It really touches me. It affects me, and it gives me energy to do this another year. When people get connected with water and own that for themselves, there’s a lot of power in that. There’s a lot of exponential power in that. It gives me energy and a little bit of hope despite the trends.
Also my peers. River Rally…that gave me so much energy. Anytime I’m with other people doing this work in other contexts—I think it’s easy to be geographically siloed—we’re in Grand Rapids, and that’s our space. But being with people who are doing this on…similarly small scales but everywhere all at once. It reminds me that we’re all in a watershed, and that watersheds are nested…We’re all connected in that way. It’s like, “ah yes!”
There are watersheds everywhere. There are communities everywhere. There are people with passion and power, and very different skills everywhere. It is an exciting reminder of what we are capable of as people who care about healing water and making our communities safe and healthy places.
Do you have a practice or anything that you use to keep yourself grounded?
I think being near the water is really good for me or just looking outside in seasons where I have time to just sit in a window and stare outside and meditate on the bigness of all of it. Any time I get out to see the water, I have a very emotional connection. I live near the Grand River now; so just getting out to that, seeing it, touching it. Same thing with Lake Michigan. I like to run around in the dunes, and then just hop in the water. I think that that encourages me, because for a second, I can just focus on the water that we’re working for.
I think all of us were very energized by River Rally; there was a large percentage of younger participants this year. I’d love for you to share a little bit of your experience with both the Urban Waters Learning Forum and River Rally as a whole.
The Urban Waters Learning Forum was great. Being in a room with people who are focused on …similar values, but different ways of looking at [the work] was really cool. Also the presenters that came up and talked, it was so apparent that what they were doing was very clearly motivated by their community. Coming to it as a nonprofit within a university in our community, and then thinking about how we can be more community-driven and get more community power in it…that was really exciting. That was really big for me to see who’s out there, how people are doing it, and then take back ideas for how we can ground ourselves even better as well.
River Rally as a whole was also really inspiring and energizing. I think the most exciting part for me was the pure friends that I made, the connections. I came to River Rally in a bit of a low, [questioning], “Am I really as invested in this work as I would like to be? Do I belong at something like River Rally, just being a part-time employee in this work?”
I wasn’t sure that I had enough of my skin in the game to be in this space. And then finding a group of friends—similar to me, being queer people of color—that was very affirming. That was a whole community that came together… [It was] very nourishing and soothing to that imposter syndrome. Saying things like, “your heart is in it. Your intention is in it…you are doing this…” That was inspiring and re-grounding.
Same with seeing other people in leadership positions…driving their organizations. It was really encouraging and exciting to know that there are other organizations out there doing really good things in all sorts of spaces. There are people out there doing good stuff like our organization; it’s cool to really get inspired by what other folks are doing.
What impact would you like to see you or your organization have in the next few years?
Continuing the work of connecting people with our water, and becoming cognizant of the way that our actions as humans on land affect our water, and how that affects other people, other creatures, other elements. We’ve realized, even if we clean up the creek overnight the next day, we’re still, as a society, doing the same thing. We’re still taking the same resources, causing the same harm, and the creek will be back to where it was very, very soon. The work that we’re doing is more about reconnecting hearts. It’s about relationships.
It always brings me joy when people send me articles about Plaster Creek, or tell me about things they saw in Plaster Creek in their backyard. [I would like to] continue doing that, to see people form an emotional attachment with this body of water and really regarding it again as a being worth emotionally and ethically considering when we think about how we live our lives. That is what I want to see: more people in the Plaster Creek watershed, realizing that Plaster Creek is their home and somebody that they love.
I also would like to see us in the next few years continue branching out. We come from a white place, a very white institution. We’re making progress, which is exciting. Between our commitment to anti-racism and our commitment to justice, we’ve always been very motivated by these things. We’re seeing it come out more in who we hire, our leadership, and who we work with. So I want to see continued growth that way. What does it look like for us to continue deepening our anti-racism work and our anti-racism learning as well? We’ve been working, and there is always more work to do, especially as folks coming with a lot of privilege, like I do.