A note from Julie
The suffering of others, animals, and children led me to this work and I will never stop trying to bring about change.
I made the decision to act in my NYC apartment in 2005, but the seeds of action were planted long before. For as long as I can remember, guided by remarkable parents – art, animals, nature have been the prevailing themes in my life. They remain so today with the added layers of appreciation, gratitude, experience, awe, worry, distress, and sadness.
The influences of my youth began with the wonders of the world from our family room’s TV in Des Moines, Iowa. Dad would herd us in to watch Jacques Cousteau’s The Undersea World, Jane Goodall’s research and observations of chimpanzees at Gombe in Tanzania, and many looks at life around the globe.
Outside, was a meadow and river and forest full of wonders to explore. Fox, deer, wild turkeys, hawks tolerated our dogs, horses, goats. Winter, spring, summer, fall presented a textured landscape, thrilling skies, delicate wild violets.
Beyond home, there was travel. Visits to a man of stunning beauty, Charles, a Native American sitting in his chair with his dog by his side in Colorado every summer taught me ‘reverence’ before I understood the meaning of the word. I had to question how those feelings could be coupled with feelings of guilt. Why was his story so sad? What happened?
I later learned the painful realities, past and present, of Native Americans, African Americans, early Hispanics. I learned of untold and misunderstood histories as well as ancient wisdoms that had been ignored to the detriment of the world.
I may have been alert to such wisdom due to what I felt at home. The tenderness my dad exhibited toward other living things, the love he felt for his family, the responsibility he held as a physician towards the community. He did his work, experiencing life’s daily complexities and loss, always from his heart and with authenticity, while never letting go of his quest for fun and joy.
Approaching 40, I attempted to balance my interest in textile design while trying to get a foothold in the conservation world by volunteering. Then, living in Cambridge, MA, I attended lectures at the Peabody Museum where I met respected scientists and conservationists. They gave me helpful guidance how to get involved. I attend the annual Earthwatch Institute meeting in Boston. I talked to the amazing representatives who were standing next to their posters displaying their conservation work. I definitely gravitated toward work in Africa and the great apes. I had the thrill of listening to Silvia Earl and was so impressed by her in every respect.
Now with leads on how to work in Africa, I began lining up volunteer assignments. During a winter holiday with my family, I sat on the beach with my dad going over my proposed itinerary hoping he would support me both financially and emotionally. I could tell while reading through the things I would be doing and exposed to, he wanted to be there right alongside me.
And so, I went to Africa!
I arrived determined to jump full force into conservation doing all I could to guide people to a better understanding of why we must strive to live in balance with nature.
I think I can say this is how I approached my work in Africa. I hoped I could do this for others in order to protect wild animals and their habitats. My hopes exploded once I got to Africa with the help of my phenomenal team.
I met others who recognized how people, steeped in tradition and their domesticated animals, are often at odds with wildlife for precious natural resources. In Cameroon’s Mefou National Forest and Zambia’s Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, I witnessed firsthand the sad results of the illegal bushmeat and pet trade. Each primate cared for at sanctuary, means that other individuals or an entire family have been wiped out. Due to their intense emotional connection with each other, these sentient beings would never allow the removal of one or more family members. Surely, many or all members were killed, eaten for needed sustenance, and/or sold at market.
The final chapter of my volunteer work, in Rwanda’s Northern Province, allowed me to immerse myself in the Virunga Volcanoes region and the protection of the critically endangered mountain gorilla. I explored the connections between the mountain gorillas and the people of the region in order to examine the cultural aspects of well-being. I hired and collaborated with an extraordinary young woman, Valerie Akuredusenge, as a translator, and later in many more capacities. Valerie and I worked side-by-side – our students frequently asking if were we sisters – until I left Rwanda in 2013. She is my sister and I love her.
I adopted an approach to community conservation at a very personal level with an emphasis on using art as a way to digest serious issues and in turn express ideas with family, friends, and community. The communities we worked with are affected by human‐wildlife-conflict and in Rwanda could most directly affect the health of the mountain gorillas. With no buffer zone, people and animals at park boundaries are in constant contact, increasing the risk of disease transmission.
And so was born, the Art of Conservation; Creating a Healthful Connection between People and Mountain Gorillas in 2006 and aligned with a One Health conservation approach focusing on the understanding of the interconnectedness of humans, animals, plants, and our shared environment and how their unique needs overlap. Eric Mutabazi, a gracious and talented artist joined Valerie and me as we began our partnership with Rwanda’s Park and Tourism Office who identified schools in the Volcanoes National Park area in need of our initiatives.
The team soon increased and we added two substantial community initiatives to the already demanding daily education program. The projects were Save the Forests Briquette Initiative, an alternative cooking fuel project, and our youth sports program which included an annual 3K Gorilla Fun Run and free weekend tennis clinics for children.
OUR UNEXPECTED DAYS IN THE CLASSROOM
The team and I carefully prepared for all we intended to cover in each session. We loaded the truck to the brim and on top, found places to squeeze in and off we went on the bumpy volcanic foothills to our partner schools. We were greeted by eager beautiful children. They would run to the truck, help carry in the multitude of materials of the day, whether it was the large gorilla stuffed animal or the baskets of art materials and of course, the iPod and speakers. They fell into the regular practice of finding their name tags and helping classmates find theirs. Usually, we rearranged the room so that we worked in the round. Later, at the carpentry market, we had round tables with chairs made. It was important to us that the classroom be an inviting place for sharing and creativity. All of this… was as if we prepared and performed a 3-hour mini-opera every morning of the week for 7 years.
Displays of student development, trust, and confidence appeared before our eyes. It didn’t take too long, with lots of guidance from the team, that the students learned all materials needed to be returned. Materials must be shared. Materials need to be taken care of. If you felt like grabbing a drawing board, do it. If you needed to remind yourself of the English word for ‘environment’ go ahead and go to the Word Wall. In other words, resources were all around us to utilize. Once our art activities really got rolling, it was a thrill to witness the kids getting into good habits. They would pick up their watercolor paint sets, retrieve all of the materials they needed, sit down at their desks, perhaps taking in the music for a moment, perform a relaxing breathing exercise, and then dive into their work. Often they would lift their heads and share with their classmates; frequently they would be so engaged the classroom fell silent. Those were the delicious moments of a coming together of learning, development, and exploration for us all. We had become a true learning community.
The team and I would get back into our truck and head down the mountain to the office. We were either too exhausted to speak or we would laugh forever about the poignant moments we experienced together; the quiet observations of one student or the profound energy felt as a group….
It reached a point in those first years when my team approached me with great concern. As a group, they expressed that they ‘could not’ move away from this group of soon-to-be Art of Conservation graduates…. that they’ve become too attached to them. They believed the students had become dependent upon us. I understood their feelings but had a responsibility as the leader. Every day we stepped into the classroom, we gave it our all, but we also had to take a leap of faith that we had done our all for each child and they would be ‘ok’; more than okay, they were enhanced by the amazing and generous love and expertise the staff gave to them. We had to trust our work and the investments made by the students. It’s hard to let your beautiful little fledglings fly away, isn’t it? But if you can honestly recognize that you did absolutely everything you could to help someone else, and on top of that make it a delightful experience, then you’ve done spectacular work, every moment well spent.
The reader may notice in our lessons here, I had a hard time ‘whittling’ down examples of the kids’ art and photos documenting the learning process. The voice in my head said, just pick the top 3 best examples of that particular lesson. Well, it’s hard! So at the risk of ‘loading up’ this site, I trust you’ll have an appreciation of that difficult task. Going through the 1000s and 1000s of files, I smile, I see the student’s name, think of his/her face, their darling, funny, sweet, endearing actions. I think of how Valerie, Eric, Innocent, and other team members who nurtured the development of the kids in a way that I, from a different place, could not have achieved. So, you see, the gratitude I have for being able to do this work, the gratitude I have toward my team, and the trust in the kids and their families… is immense. More than that, this work has been a gift to me.
In 2013, Valerie, Eric, and her team members turned our international organization into a Rwandan-based non-profit. I utilized my experience in Rwanda to survey regions that could benefit from our education programming and ultimately decided on Tulum, Mexico. The evolution of these projects has a global efficacy. This next step, the Save the Gorillas Curriculum Project, is our awareness which we bring to you and welcome your participation and feedback.