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FROM ANGER, TO IDEA, TO ACTION
WHY did one woman's first snorkeling experience in the Florida Keys cause her to become an ocean steward by using the arts to tell others about our planet's ocean crisis? Below are the details of Cynthia Pannucci's journey of translating anger into positive, passionate project ideas, that eventually materialized. Cynthia is the artist founder/director of Art & Science Collaborations in New York City.
In 2001, during Cynthia's first ocean reef snorkeling trip at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park off the coast of the Florida Keys, the guide gave the group a brief talk before they could go into the water. He told them they should not let their hands, fins, or bodies touch the reef. That ocean reefs have a very thin, protective membrane, and if it was damaged, that area would die and eventually the entire reef would die; that these reefs are the homes and spawning habitat for local fishes and also help protect the island from hurricane damage; that it can take hundreds of years for reefs to re-grow; and that 2/3's of our global reefs are either already dead or extremely endangered. With this new information firmly impressed upon her brain, Cynthia took a deep breath and dropped below the surface of the water. [Oh, they were 3-miles from land!]
Immediately, she was surrounded by darting schools of beautifully colored fish that seemed to move through/around her without any perceivable physical adjustment. She had entered a world that she had only seen on television and in National Geographic magazine. It was so captivating that her 45-minute snorkeling session was over in what seemed like the blink-of-an-eye. She had been "hooked," over the next couple of years, winter vacations were spent snorkeling around Key West and the Dry Tortougas, and she had long conversations with people who had spent years living in the Caribbean and on sailboats. Although they had seen first-hand, the loss of the richness in their local marine biodiversity over the past 20-years, they were not worried. To them, the ocean was so vast that it could restore itself. Not convinced, Cynthia began to educate herself by visiting ocean conservation organization websites online. She learned that what people in-the-front-lines were saying about the state of our oceans, was very different.
In June of 2003, after 2-years of independent research on the health of our oceans conducted by The Pew Trust in Philadelphia, the Pew Oceans Commission Report was released. The report states that our nation economically benefits from our oceans being healthy [tourism, fishing industry, recreation], and that more than half the U.S. population lives in coastal counties with a population increase by 25 million people expected by 2015. The report's main concern however, was with documenting the numerous, persistent, and mostly human treats to the ecological sustainability of our ocean's health. [see The Problems on these web-pages]
The big picture of what Cynthia learned about our oceans is that there is indeed a "crisis." That what was once considered to be an "inexhaustible and resilient natural resource, is in fact, finite and fragile."[Pew Report] That the human impact from lack of education about, excessive extraction from, and pollution of our oceans by people, businesses, and governments around the globe [especially over the last twenty years], has left us with a global marine ecosystem that can no longer bounce-back without our help. We must take action now to create ocean management plans and global agreements based on marine ecosystem research, instead of being based on the interests of those directly benefiting economically from this extraordinary natural resource - one that belongs to all of us and for which we are all responsible. As the Pew Report also states: "economic sustainability depends upon ecological sustainability."
During most of 2004, armed with this new scientific evidence, Cynthia began to envision an art-science project that would reach the public in new ways about what is at stake if we don't act now. It seemed to her that scientific data and pretty pictures of our undersea world have not been enough to stimulate action. What began slowly to emerge in her mind's eye was a group of separate art-science components, each using a different artistic form to address different ocean issues. She named the project "Beneath-the-SEE" ["SEE" was used because the destruction of our oceans is happening out-of-sight of most people and under the surface of the sea.] ASCI's Beneath-the-SEE project was being designed to lead with the heart, capture the imagination, and use art to deliver science in dramatically expressive ways. When the concepts for each of the components were flushed-out enough, she presented the project materials to top marine research scientists, to appropriate artists and technologists, and to aquaria and cultural center directors. To her amazement, no one said "no," all pledged their advice and/or direct involvement.
In early December of 2004, buoyed by the positive and enthusiastic response from the marine science community to ASCI's Beneath-the-SEE project, Cynthia went to Washington, DC. She had heard from an ASCI member that the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History had recently begun the development of the largest, permanent exhibition in its history, The Ocean Hall. A young woman who had just joined the project team in the public outreach area was very interested in learning more about Beneath-the-SEE. The meeting went well, but when asked if we had a youth component for our project, Cynthia had to say "no." However, meetings with potential artistic talent for two different "SEE" components were successful. And, the head curator for the Ocean Hall committed to taking the photo exhibition component if it was offered as a traveling exhibition, but they would not be able to provide production funding. Also during this trip, Cynthia learned that NOAA was developing a new funding program for ocean literacy. This was exciting!
Early March of 2005, found Cynthia back in Washington. This time, her mission was to share the Beneath-the-SEE project with various department heads at NOAA [the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce], seeking feedback and potential partnerships. She made the phone calls and surprisingly, appointments were easily obtained and doors opened wide! Unknown to her, just a couple of weeks earlier in September, the President's US Commission Ocean Policy Report had been released to the public. The people at NOAA were eager to see if Cynthia's project offered a fresh approach to ocean literacy. During these meetings, Beneath-the-SEE was commended for its scope and vision, however no partnerships or money was promised. Undaunted, she spent the next several months preparing for and submitting a grant request to NOAA's ocean literacy RFP [Request for Proposals]. ASCI did not get the grant. She surmised that it had to do with the fact that it is very difficult to prove the "effectiveness" of public awareness programs [which is critical for government funding], and also that ASCI had no track record in the area of collaborating with marine scientists.
While she was still in Washington on that trip, she also visited the regional office of UNEP [United Nations Environment Programme]. They had just published beautiful, color documentation materials on their global youth programme called TUNZA, about environmental education through the arts! This meeting went exceptionally well and eventually led to receiving a strong letter of support for the Beneath-the-SEE project from the Director of UNEP at the World headquarters in Nairobi. More art talent was lined-up in New York, and UNEP's support letter was helpful in gaining sponsorship commitment for "SEE's" fashion show component from AVEDA, the women's natural beauty products company. The work of keeping ASCI going and personal health issues consumed the last half of that year.
However, by the end of January 2006, Cynthia's luck had changed, and she was in Normandy at the National Aquarium of France attending the third international conference of WON [The World Ocean Network]. This opportunity was provided through the financial generosity of Leonard Sonnenschein, Director of the World Aquarium in St. Louis, and also a co-founder of WON. Leonard believed in Cynthia's vision and felt this opportunity would offer global contacts to help forward Beneath-the-SEE. It was exhilarating for Cynthia to meet so many marine scientists, aquarium directors, ocean filmmakers, and people working with ocean conservation NGOs who shared a passion about finding ways to restore our ocean's health and trying to agree on the best ways to get the message to the public. She found the most support for using the arts to facilitate their communication goals, came from those representatives from developing nations [where illiteracy is high]. Whereas, those from developed countries [USA, Europe, Australia, and Canada], were less responsive and obviously still supported the old paradigm of "if people know the facts, they will act."
But Cynthia made some great personal connections with people who DID share her vision, and hopes to be working with these people in the future when Beneath-the-SEE is ready to travel to different parts of the world. Actually, one of these contacts became the education advisor for "Fishes Feed Us", and another, who recently joined UNESCO in the Indo-Pacific Region, lent the prestige of his office. But, by far, the most impactful part of this experience was a comment that Jean-Michel Cousteau [son of the famous underwater explorer and filmmaker, Jacques Cousteau] said during one of his presentations at the conference. He said that teenagers were responsible for finally persuading their parents to vote for and pass the automobile seatbelt law in the European Union. Although Cynthia had worked with kids and families on art projects in all types of public settings for over 10-years in New York City, she does not have children of her own and therefore did not know how "persuasive" they can be when they want something!
By the Spring of 2006, Cynthia had immersed herself in memories of working with teens and the online educational resources available to them about our ocean. She dreamed-up and developed a Teen Ocean Literacy Project for the seaside town on the west coast of Florida where she had moved in 2003. The project was a richly diverse, art-science, informal education program devised to be entertaining and use various art forms as a vehicle for "deep learning" experiences [research, dialogue, conceptualizing, creating, as well as formulating and publicly sharing the results]. The education component [provided by NOAA's website resources for teens and teachers] would be based on the essential principles and fundamental concepts about the functioning of our oceans and how humans are directly dependant upon the sustainability of its health.
Cynthia saw this as an exciting educational project, but also as an easier way to initiate ASCI's larger Beneath-the-SEE project, and the community public awareness-building aspect was very strong part of it. The project was to be conducted by teens in an after-school community program and the Girl Scouts reviewed the proposal and set-up a meeting. Their new facility was perfect and they already had an informal environmental program, but it did not involve the ocean. The meeting went well and the organization was to get back to Cynthia with the "next-step". As it turned-out, the education person at the local marine laboratory/aquarium told the Girl Scouts contact that I was being an "alarmist," there was no "ocean crisis," and that the performative/street/public literacy assessment aspect of the proposed project was "using the kids" to get Cynthia's "personal message" about the oceans to the public. [The definitive, collaborative, global research project and results of the Dalhousie Report were not published until November 2006: "By 2048 all current fish, seafood species projected to collapse."
Discouraged by this odd interpretation of her Teen Ocean Literacy project, she ended-up learning a lesson about politics and economics instead! Most of the businesses in this affluent seaside community relied heavily on tourism and communicating messages about a "sick" ocean was not what they wanted to hear. So, just as water flows around all physical obstacles, she decide to create a simple, "doable" art-science project for our oceans, that did not require any money, only her time via her organization, ASCI. It was the idea to create an online exhibition called "Artists For The Ocean." This would be the beginning of ASCI's efforts to mobilize the global arts community on behalf of ocean conservation and increasing public awareness. We posted the CALL on our website and over the last year, have been collecting online submissions from artists around the world. Soon ASCI will be putting together a small group of "exemplars," and will seek funding to globally promote the project, produce the online exhibition, and perhaps publish a coffee-table book of documentation.
In November of 2006, Cynthia received information about a funding opportunity from the World Aquarium/Leonard Sonnenschein who had funded her trip to the WON conference in France. Although the grant was small, only $2,500, there was an express interest in youth and public awareness. This was the chance she had been looking for! The grim findings of the Dalhousie Report about our collapsing ocean fisheries had made an impression on her -- she wanted to use art to publicly highlight this ocean issue. However, dead fish are not exactly aesthetic, nor do they ignite the imagination and inspire action. She learned that there were human consequences to this ocean problem and they involved children on the other side of the world. Viewing an ocean problem through the eyes of children who were experiencing it first-hand, and providing them with creative ways to voice their concerns, was the human element that sought. With this concept in-mind, she began envisioning what was to become ASCI's "Fishes Feed Us" project. Cynthia applied for and received the grant [from what is now called the Conservation of the Oceans Foundation], and along with the help of several global partners, from January-June 5, 2007, the "Fishes Feed Us" project became a reality.
At the beginning of November 2007, Cynthia was invited to give a presentation of the "Fishes Feed Us" project at the 32nd Pacem in Maribus [Peace in the Ocean] Conference, "Women, Youth and the Sea" in Malta. This conference was organized by the IOI [International Ocean Institute] and its mission was to address the empowerment, roles, and involvement of women and youth within the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals Strategies, Options and Challenges related to the ocean protection and sustainability. There she met many individuals with which she'd like to work with in the future about using "Fishes Feed Us" to engage youth in ocean stewardship and initiate intergenerational learning about our ocean crisis. http://www.capemalta.net/pim2007/
The above information is being shared so that youth, or anyone who feels impassioned with a mission, does not get discouraged when meeting obstacles. One's journey is seldom a straight-and-narrow-path, and some fine ideas can be birthed along the way!
"Brain Coral" animation by Leo Rayfiel, 8th grader at ICE, NYC
[Institute for Collaborative Education, a project partner]
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