Conservation nonprofit invests in bilingual outreach, education

Third-grade students from Austin listen to Simone Ballard of the Colorado River Alliance as she speaks in Spanish. (Photo courtesy Colorado River Alliance.)

R. Brent Lyles has been in environmental education his whole career, from the time he taught seventh-grade science in a poor, rural county in North Carolina to today as executive director of the Colorado River Alliance.

The nonprofit is tasked with advocating for the Colorado River, the source of Austin’s water and an economic engine of Central Texas and beyond.

But as a nonprofit, the organization has had to make careful decisions about how it spends its resources. Rather than see that as restrictive, however, the Colorado River Alliance puts a laser focus on delivery of programs that will have the most impact – and reach the biggest audience.

The stakes are high. Nearly 15 percent of the state resides within the Texas Colorado River Basin, so the alliance constantly seeks ways to extend its educational programs across that area.

One of its signature programs, the Barstow Speaker Series in Austin, gathers state and local policymakers, scientists, business leaders and educators around a specific topic, and also livestreams, records and publishes those events online so that stakeholders along the river can view and participate.

“We might all come at it from different perspectives,” said Lyles, “but in the end we’ve all got to be on the same page about keeping that river healthy.”

The nonprofit is also using technology to bring the river into classrooms and communities.

Its Texas Colorado Rolling Exhibit, or “mobile river,” is a 42-foot trailer tricked out with an interactive science museum. The curriculum around the mobile river and the trailer itself were created in collaboration with the Austin school district and Austin Water, and was launched in April 2015.

Because many of the schools in the district can’t afford field trips, the mobile river travels to campuses, using a multimedia approach to connect students with the river, quantify their own water use, and learn about being environmental stewards. This month, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality honored the mobile river with a Texas Environmental Excellence Award.

“What sets this project apart is the innovative way they are delivering water education to students along the Colorado River,” said Brian Christian, a TCEQ director and chairman of its awards committee. “The alliance has provided thousands of young people the knowledge they need to protect and conserve our water.”

Lyles said a commitment to engaging everyone along the river also drove his recent decision to invest in bilingual staff and materials.

“One of the things we discovered was that of the 2 million people who live within the Colorado River Basin, one-quarter of them speak Spanish,” said Lyles. “So how do you engage everybody in the conversation about how to keep that river healthy? You don’t do it all in English.”

Not only that, there are about 24,000 students in Austin school district learning English, most of those being Spanish speakers. To serve these students, Lyles said he has hired bilingual staff, sought bilingual interns and volunteers and, as needed, paid for Spanish lessons to staff who work with students. It’s cost more time and money, said Lyles, but educating the entire community is the nonprofit’s core function.

“The future of the river depends on the engagement of the whole community,” said Lyles. “We cannot afford to exclude any of today’s residents or tomorrow’s water leaders.”

PHOTO: Third-grade students from Austin listen to Simone Ballard of the Colorado River Alliance as she speaks in Spanish. (Photo courtesy Colorado River Alliance)

NOTE: This article is published through a partnership with the Austin American-Statesman, which first published this story on March 26, 2017.

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