Douglas Gayeton’s Lexicon of Sustainability educated thousands about the basic terms and principles that define sustainability in our food system. Now, Gayeton is inviting motivated teachers in schools throughout the US to join the food literacy education initiative Project Localize™. Learn how a group of inspiring high school students from Iowa ‘hijacked‘ Gayeton’s artwork to become the original ‘Localizers,’ and what happened when they took their art to policy makers in Washington, D.C.

Filmmaker and photographer Douglas Gayeton and producer Laura Howard-Gayeton gave sustainability a vocabulary when they created The Lexicon of Sustainability. Their digital, almost three-dimensional, images of people, animals and earth in agriculture made a bridge between sustainability as a concept, and sustainability that you can see in photos and understand through the words written on them in a chalky white scroll.

The Lexicon of Sustainability’s ‘information artworks‘ debuted in community-curated pop up art shows throughout the US, educating thousands about the basic terms and principles that define sustainability. Mike Todd, an environmental education teacher at Ames High School in Iowa, was one of the volunteer curators to host a Lexicon show. Todd’s passionate 11th grade students helped to organise the event, and the community came to view it. Both Todd’s students and the locals were impressed with and intrigued by Gayeton’s images, but, in their opinion, something was missing from the photos: none of the farms pictured were in Iowa.

Iowa is home to 30 million acres of farmland and ranks first in the nation for corn and soybean production, growing 2.1 billion bushels of corn and 525 million bushels of soybeans. Todd’s students were curious if their state had a local, sustainable food system like the other states they were seeing in the photos. As it turned out, Iowa has a beautiful web of local farmers, an alternative story of Iowa agriculture worth documenting.

So, Todd asked Gayeton if he would show his students how to document Ames’ hometown farmers in the Lexicon’s likeness. California-based Gayeton obliged and flew to Iowa. With cameras in hand, Gayeton, Todd and 75 of his students visited three farms and began to document what sustainability looks like in Iowa, and to map the state’s sustainable food system. With this trip, Project Localize was born.

Gayeton explains, ‘When students complete Project Localize, they are no longer just passive recipients of information. They become artists, historians, activists and journalists.’

After the students visited the farms, they sat down at their computers and began to upload the thousands of digital photographs they had collectively gathered. Gayeton mentored them closely via Skype calls and emails from California. Over the course of the next few months, disjointed images, potentially mundane, were transformed into thought-provoking collages, addressing key theme in sustainability.

Throughout the process of uploading and editing, the students continued to talk to the farmers to ensure that their white scroll – telling the stories of the watershed, terrior, permaculture, or the intricacies of a soil food web – was accurate and easily understood.

Gayeton recognised that this experience could be replicated in schools across the country, and he wanted to give more students the chance to learn about the food system in this way.

He took what he learned from the Ames students and with his team, developed a formal guide that would allow teachers – across diverse disciplines and geographical areas – to guide and encourage their students to become the next plucky bunch of Localizers.

The Lexicon of Sustainability is now looking for 25 exemplary teachers and schools to participate in Project Localize. While Gayeton won’t be flying to every school for a hands-on tutorial, the support teachers will receive is extensive. The programme guide includes a curriculum, syllabus, Lexicon term list, a tutorial for creating information artworks, a regional food mapping system blueprint, a public event planner and social media toolkit.

‘Through this programme, students with interests in art, science, event organising, government and policy, agriculture and farming, as well as those interested in food are engaged in a single project that exposes them to new and different things. My students learned more through Project Localize than they ever would have had I assigned them work,’ says Todd.

In addition to the guide, each Project Localize teacher will be assigned an advisor, art coordinator and journalist to work with their class. The ultimate hope is that the students who create Lexicon artwork, and share the art in the community, will become a new generation of food literate citizens and our future leaders – which is exactly what happened with the Ames High School group.

‘The biggest lesson I learned is that anyone, I mean anyone, who has a passion for food or sustainable living can speak out and inform others,’ says Cassandra Kramer, a senior at Ames High School.

Kramer, along with a handful of her classmates took what they learned to Washington, D.C. They rolled out prints of their artwork in front of key stakeholders in food and farming policy. They told Senator Jon Tester, the White House Council for Environmental Quality and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that they deserve to know where their food comes from.

The leaders’ response?

They invited the students to participate in a Farm Bill meeting in November and left the door open for the students to come back whenever they wanted. Internship offers were extended. What’s more, The Lexicon of Sustainability hosted a public exhibit of the students’ artwork in the Smithsonian Metro Station for one month, typically trafficked by 23,000 commuters daily.

‘I never thought some students from Iowa would end up contacting Douglas Gayeton and start making images ourselves,’ says Kramer.  ‘It’s crazy when you think about it! If you are passionate for something, go for it, and tell others about it too.’

Nominate a school, a class or a teacher and learn more about the food literacy programme at http://www.lexiconofsustainability.com/localize/

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