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Convergent Evolution!

Written by Ken Leinbach
    Thursday, 30 May 2013
Convergent Evolution!

"Who would have thought just a decade ago, when we were still in our double-wide trailer, that our "Milwaukee Idea" of solving a social problem in a park with kids' education and the magical connection to nature would have the kind of national impact we are experiencing today? I certainly never did, but I am humbled and proud to represent Milwaukee and our simple yet profound idea. And isn't it cool that this idea evolved here in a Midwest industrial town? This is not Portland, Oregon, Boulder, Colorado, San Francisco, Boston or New York. Somehow this adds credibility to our story."


This "From the Archive" post was originally published in the May/June 2011 edition of our newsletter. Please enjoy this glance back at our past.

San Diego, California: Whoa ... what was that? I was way the heck out there in big swells, totally alone in a sea kayak off the Pacific coast of California. There it was again ... must be a dolphin -- tubular shape, perfect arched trajectory out of the water with hardly a splash at re-entry and as big as my sea kayak ... yikes! There it is again hardly ten feet away ... geez, I hope it's friendly. Wait, look at those eyes, that is no dolphin! I never knew a SEAL could be so big, Wow! Plus I never realized a seal would "porpoise" out of the water exactly like a dolphin. Cool ... a perfect example of convergent evolution! I live for moments like this.

Convergent evolution is when completely different species (like the seal and the dolphin) independently evolve the same physical characteristics and behaviors based on their need to adapt to similar environmental conditions -- in this case moving efficiently through the cold Pacific waters. I love exploring and making connections, learning not from a book but from experiences. Experiences that drive even more curiosity.

I was in California to share our unique model of providing environmental education to urban youth with two growing organizations ... the Ocean Discovery Institute of San Diego and Olivewood Gardens of nearby National City. I happened to be writing this article three weeks later while in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, this time hired by the Lancaster County Conservancy.

Like the dolphin and the seal, if you caught just a glimpse of each of these three organizations in action, you might think they were the same as the Urban Ecology Center ... a vermiculture (worm composting) class with third graders at one, an impressive multi-cultural high school research program run out of a double-wide trailer (just like we used to!) at another, and a stewardship program engaging volunteers to remove invasive garlic mustard at a third (that plant really gets around!). Until recently, none of these organizations had heard of the other, or even of the Urban Ecology Center, yet all of us are responding to the same environmental and social conditions that exist in our respective communities -- low science scores for students in multicultural urban schools, limited access to nature, urban landscapes with abused green space that needs healing and a shared passion to inspire action toward a better environment. Each is filling a unique niche in the fabric of society. Convergent evolution ... in a different form.

While seemingly the same, under closer examination you find that we are each quite different. The dolphin and the seal may have a similar shape, share some behaviors and eat fish, but their differences are equally obvious. Olivewood Gardens is using gardening as a context from which to teach ecological concepts and good nutrition, the Ocean Discovery Institute has the ocean as its tool to engage students in science and new opportunities for work and learning, while the Lancaster Conservancy so far is mostly focused on land stewardship ... but all of them wish to do much more.

That is why we were brought in to help. Who would have thought just a decade ago, when we were still in our double-wide trailer, that our "Milwaukee Idea" of solving a social problem in a park with kids' education and the magical connection to nature would have the kind of national impact we are experiencing today? I certainly never did, but I am humbled and proud to represent Milwaukee and our simple yet profound idea. And isn't it cool that this idea evolved here in a Midwest industrial town? This is not Portland, Oregon, Boulder, Colorado, San Francisco, Boston or New York. Somehow this adds credibility to our story.

In addition to these three locations, we've consulted in Syracuse, Baltimore, Columbus, Eugene and Racine and had folks visit us for multiple days from Minneapolis, Dallas, Los Angeles and more ... crazy. The interesting thing is that we have done only a very limited amount of marketing. All these places find us by word of mouth or the internet.

Shara Fisler, Executive Director of the Ocean Discovery Institute, had this to say: "What I have learned about the Center is very exciting and probably the best model in terms of what we are working to achieve in the City Heights [neighborhood of San Diego]. I have toured over 50 projects throughout the country looking at examples, but have not seen the type of project that captures what your work does".

Dan Good, on the board of the Lancaster Conservancy, did a thorough internet search looking for an education program to emulate. He investigated over 30 places they thought might approach what they were looking for and when he found our site was, in his words, "Blown away". He visited the Center this past summer and then convinced their Executive Director and Board that they needed to bring Beth and me out for a visit.

I share all of this for two reasons:
1) because I think it is interesting. I'm guessing that in every city across the country there is some initiative evolving like ourselves to fill our unique urban niche, and
2) I think you should know that the support you provide to us is having a big impact ... not just locally, but nationally as well! Thank you!

Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Geez, look at that wing spread. It must be at least six feet from tip to tip. Black as night, that vulture is one beautiful flyer. Did you know that the old world vulture (those in Europe and Africa) and new world vultures (those in North and South America) look and behave almost identically, but in fact come from completely different genetic lineages? One uses the sense of smell to find carrion while the other uses the sense of sight, but beyond this hardly noticeable difference they appear identical. Yep, another example of convergent evolution.

Ken Leinbach

Ken Leinbach

Ken is a nationally recognized educator and leader in community-based environmental education. He currently serves as the Executive Director of the Urban Ecology Center. With his contagious energy, Ken speaks on a number of topics including: urban education, community organizing, environmental issues, finding abundance, the power of story, sustainable design, the need for "near-by" nature, leadership, fundraising, and green living. Ken holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Antioch College in Ohio, a Masters degree in Environmental Education from Prescott College in Arizona and received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the Milwaukee Instituted of Art and Design.

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