Pete Seeger's Clearwater Joins D.C. Women's March and Wins Grant for Climate Change Education

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Alon Koppel
The Hudson River sloop Clearwater, launched in 1969 by folk music activist Pete Seeger, is a floating environmental classroom and its education programs reach 15,000 children and adults each year. 

Fifty years after it was launched by the late folk music activist Pete Seeger, the Hudson River sloop Clearwater remains on the front lines of environmental activism, from the streets to the classroom.

On Saturday, members of the Clearwater organization will join the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. in support of a wide-ranging agenda, which includes environmental justice.

Next month, Clearwater educators will begin a two-year process to create a climate change curriculum in schools in New York’s Hudson Valley, after receiving a $70,000 grant from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund, the Hudson River Estuary Program of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, The Birches Foundation and the Malcolm Gordon Charitable Trust of the Open Space Institute. The grant was announced Jan. 17.

Clearwater chose to ally with the Washington, D.C. [event] organized by Women’s March, Inc. “because it gives us the opportunity to participate in the formation and advocacy of national legislation in support of environmental justice,” the organization announced in a statement on its website. “Based on ongoing discussions with Women’s March, Inc., we expect this agenda to directly support current Clearwater environmental advocacy.”

Clearwater leaders acknowledge the controversies and schisms that have arisen around this year’s march. “We are aware that recently some chose to change, reduce, or cease participation with the Women’s March, Inc., due to claims of prejudice,” says the organization’s statement. “The Clearwater board and staff have decided to continue to participate with this international movement.

“We feel that the momentum and productivity of this event and the positive actions following it are something that we want to continue to be part of. We seek to contribute to the conversation that explores and resolves differences and know that those persist but it is only with constructive communication that we can move forward.”

Environmental justice is the focus of one of ten committees established by the Women’s March Network, the sister organization to the non-profit activist organization that was born out of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. All of the committees -- including those focused on reproductive rights, racial justice, ending state violence and defending the rights of workers, immigrants, the disabled and the LGBTQIA community -- are creating the Women’s Agenda, a federal policy platform that will shape the legislative priorities of the movement behind the march.

Clearwater’s newly funded educational initiative flows directly from Seeger’s vision for the vessel -- a 106-foot-long replica of a 19th-century sailing sloop -- when he first sailed it up the Hudson River in 1969. “We’re going to build a boat to save the river,” he said of his plans to educate people about the Hudson by allowing them to sail on its waters. 

Five decades on, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization is one of the nation’s oldest activist organizations with roots in music. It is widely recognized for its role in the decades-long cleanup of the Hudson, and for its long history of environmental education.

During the next two years, the Clearwater plans to engage 450 students and 100 teachers in the Hudson Valley communities of Newburgh, N.Y. and Kingston, N.Y., with the goal of creating informed and engaged environmental stewards. Through a combination of in-class workshops, shoreline and dockside programs, the Clearwater curriculum will help students understand how their community is affected by climate change, climate science concepts, local climate resilience actions and how they personally can reduce the threat of climate change. Officials in Newburgh and Kingston have made written commitments to participate in the curriculum.

The leaders of the project are Maija Niemisto, Clearwater’s education director and Eli Schloss, director of the sloop’s tideline programs.

"Clearwater is taking a lead on Climate Solutions education in the Hudson Valley,” says Niemisto. “We would like young people to understand what individuals and coastal communities are doing to prepare for climate change. Teachers and students will gain valuable insight into local actions taking place to adapt to the changing urban and rural environment."

As the Clearwater sails between communities on the Hudson River, it has long functioned as a floating classroom, promoting and promoting and creating access to waterfronts, historic sites, and protected waterfront lands as well as to the river itself. Its existing education programs reach 15,000 children and adults every year.

The new curriculum builds upon Clearwater's existing, onboard climate change learning station, which is part of The Sailing Classroom. A centerpiece of Clearwater’s education program, The Sailing Classroom is funded in part by the John T. and Jane A. Wiederhold Foundation.

Through the years, Clearwater has gained the support of scores of musicians, many of whom have performed at its annual fund-raising festival, including Arlo Guthrie, David Crosby, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, the Mavericks, Lake Street Dive, Tom Paxton, The Kennedys, David Amram, Tom Chapin and Ani DiFranco. Ahead of her appearance at the 2018 festival, DiFranco called the event “one of the shining examples of what a folk festival, quote unquote, can be. It’s community. It’s politics. It’s the intersection of art and society.”