It’s no overstatement to say that 1995 was a watershed. During that single year, several ideas and events converged to bring River of Words into being.
The first was the appointment of Robert Hass, a longtime champion of literacy, as U.S. Poet Laureate. Around the same time, freelance writer Pamela Michael was hired as a consultant to International Rivers Network, a grassroots group in Berkeley, California, committed to protecting the integrity of watersheds. Meanwhile, the Academy of American Poets had just declared April—the month in which Earth Day occurs—to be National Poetry Month. The first National Poetry Month would be April 1996.
All the elements were in place. Now: how to arrange their confluence?
A friend of Pam’s had told her that Robert Hass was interested in environmental issues. “Come up with an idea and I’ll introduce you to him,” she suggested. Pam did have an idea: an environmental poetry and art contest with an annually changing theme. When she presented it to Hass, he agreed immediately that it was a terrific idea. “But let’s make the theme ‘watersheds,’ and keep it watersheds,” he said. “Learning about our own watersheds gets to the essence of how we have to understand our homegrounds. Let’s get kids’ imaginations working from that perspective right from the start.”
To prepare for the first contest, a small team of volunteers, assisted by poets, scientists, educators, artists and conservationists, created a curriculum guide that was distributed free to teachers across the country. Pam and her team encouraged teachers to partner with one another — a science teacher and an English teacher, say — as well as with others in their communities-bird watchers, writers, park rangers, water department employees, photographers, farmers. From the start, River of Words was as much about building community partnerships as it was about education, nature, and the arts.
The next step: getting the word out. A list of thousands of arts and environmental organizations was posted online to connect teachers with local resources. A mailing was sent to more than 3,000 grassroots watershed-related organizations. The group contacted every state arts council in the country and provided them with River of Words materials, encouraging them to do similar outreach to the schools. Through the American Booksellers Association, River of Words provided bookstore owners with ideas for displays, events, and activities. The idea was to involve as many facets of the community as possible in exploring and learning about that particular place: Who lived here long ago? How did they feed themselves? Where does our water come from? Where does our garbage go? What stories, songs, poems, tall tales and art has this place inspired?
Five months later, thousands of entries began to pour in — from public, private and parochial schools in nearly every state; home-schooling families; after-school programs; 4-H clubs; Scouts; nature centers; youth clubs; and libraries.
Over the following years, as the contest grew and spread, it was implemented in innovative ways. One small town in New Mexico sponsored a riverbank cleanup and poetry reading, which has become an annual event. In California, an elementary teacher had her class visit a senior citizens’ home that stood alongside a creek. The students interviewed the elders, many of whom were lifelong residents of the area. After exploring the creek together, the students returned to their classrooms to write poems and paint. When the seniors received copies of the children’s work, they were so inspired that they invited the class to return with their families and teacher the following month. To the surprise of the students, the seniors threw a party for them and read poems they had written in response to the children’s work.
When Robert Hass was appointed Poet Laureate — the first ever from west of the Mississippi — he realized he had an opportunity to bring attention to two issues that were of great importance to him: the environment and literacy. He convened an unprecedented six-day gathering in April 1996 at the Library of Congress to celebrate American nature writers, the natural world, and community values. It was at this event — the largest ever held at the Library — that the first River of Words Contest winners were honored.
In the years since that event, River of Words has formalized its affiliation with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. An annual award ceremony for River of Words grand prize winners and their families in the Library’s Jefferson Building each spring draws an enthusiastic audience of Washington residents, teachers, and public officials. The contest now accepts entries from children all over the world and honors an international grand prize winner at the Library ceremony. Many states conduct their own River of Words contests in conjunction with the larger contest each year, as well, awarding local prizes.
Continuing to build on the “activist” model on which it was founded, River of Words relies heavily on networking and partnership development. There is now a Girl Scouts “Water Drop” patch, developed in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. River of Words poetry and art is reprinted in magazines, books, annual reports, and newspapers; and exhibits of the winning art are shown around the world. River of Words spun off from International Rivers Network (now known as International Rivers), becoming an independent nonprofit educational organization. In 2003, River of Words opened Young at Art, one of the first art galleries in the United States devoted to children’s work.
In July of 2011, River of Words became a part of the Kalmanovitz School of Education at Saint Mary's College of California. The college established The Center for Environmental Literacy to house River of Words and named ROW co-founder, Pamela Michael, as the director.