Some 100 classroom teachers, environmental educators and students are expected to gather next Thursday, Jan. 25, for the 25th annual Storming the Sound conference in Maple Hall, a charming brick-walled building in historic downtown La Conner. As they have for a quarter century, current and future educators from across the North Sound region will share environmental education resources and programs and connect with others in the field.
This year’s Storming the Sound is a milestone for the grassroots conference’s three founders: Glen “Alex” Alexander, Susan Wood and Britta Eschete. They said Storming the Sound hasn’t changed much over the years but the issues have. With Alexander and Wood retired, the organizers and attendees face decisions that will shape the next 25 years of the event.
A grassroots event
Storming the Sound has always been a conference organized by and for environmental educators such as K–12 teachers looking for classroom resources, informal and formal environmental educators, and students interested in environmental education careers. Alexander, who was the education coordinator for the Padilla Bay Estuarine Research Reserve (the Reserve) when Storming the Sound started, said the idea for a gathering came from one of his staff members, David Henry, who organized a small meeting of educators in 1998.
People For Puget Sound, a nonprofit organization that for two decades advocated to protect the land and waters of Puget Sound, collaborated with the Reserve in 1999 to organize the first official Storming the Sound, held at the Reserve’s theater. Thirty to forty people packed the small space, and participants brought food and drinks to share, potluck-style. Bellingham singer-songwriter and environmentalist Dana Lyons entertained.
“It was celebratory,” said Wood, who received the National Marine Educators Association’s Marine Education Award in 2023 and recently retired from her position as research education coordinator at the Reserve. “A lot of it was socializing — getting to know each other and who we are out there doing this work.”
The second Storming the Sound was held at the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Spiritual Center. One of Storming the Sound’s board members, Larry Campbell, who passed away last year, was a tribal elder.
“We could really see this momentum growing of how people wanted to get connected in person and talk about what was going on,” said Eschete, former outreach coordinator of People For Puget Sound and current events coordinator at Western Washington University’s Career Services Center. Eschete also serves on the board of the Salish Current.
This year: facing loss and grief
For the third year and every year after, Maple Hall in La Conner — just across the channel from the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community — has been home to the conference. Prior to COVID-19, the event had drawn around 150 to as many as 200 people from Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan, Snohomish, Island, Jefferson and Clallam counties. Organizers pivoted online for 2021 and 2022 because of COVID, but the virtual setting lacked the depth of connection that had always permeated the homegrown event. Participants were thrilled to be back in person last year.
Storming the Sound is a low-budget production — little money is spent bringing in speakers, and the participants always determine the agenda. There are no criteria for presenting and anyone can propose a topic, from a formal PowerPoint to a simple conversation.
This year’s keynote speaker, Lindsay L. Huettman, will discuss how environmental educators can cultivate resilience in a time of ecological loss and grief. The talk’s subject represents a trend that Wood said she’s noticed over the past 25 years.
“The issues have gotten more serious,” Wood said. “Climate change has been an enormous environmental issue that we’re all tackling.”
Despite more dire environmental topics, Wood said, Storming the Sound remains a hopeful, inspirational, and celebratory gathering that reminds participants they’re not alone in their work, that they’re part of a community working together to inspire a love of nature and environmental stewardship throughout the region.
“There’s tremendous value in looking around and seeing what other people are doing and learning from each other, working together, building alliances and coalitions, and doing programs together,” Alexander said. “There’s so much benefit in that, strength and resilience.”
At a pivotal moment
Storming the Sound is confronting a quarter-life crisis. The future of the conference is uncertain as core planners retire or prioritize other work. Eschete, whose responsibilities in her role at Western take most of her time, is curious about what this next chapter of the conference holds.
“I feel like we’re at the point of a pivotal conversation,” Eschete said.
Wood and Eschete said one of the goals for this year’s conference is to find out what attendees want Storming the Sound to look like going forward and to identify leadership that can help realize that vision. Part of the afternoon will include a gathering of long-time participants to discuss who might be able take the helm, or whether the conference should simply take a bow and close down at 25 years.
“There are a lot of resources out there that are online that people can find,” Eschete said. “But there’s so much value in people coming together and having one day of conversation and networking and connecting.”
Storming the Sound 2024 will take place on Jan. 25 at Maple Hall in La Conner. The nearby United Methodist Church and the Civic Garden Club will also provide meeting spaces for attendees.
— Reported by Rena Kingery
Also see “Devastating wasting illness of influential, iconic sea stars still a mystery,” Salish Current, Oct. 21, 2022