The first weekend of November marked the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s 13th annual Chesapeake Watershed Forum in Shepherdstown, WV. The event was a whirlwind of workshops, socializing, getting lost in the yellow, autumn forest and learning about what brings us all together under this year’s theme, Connecting Our Communities: Celebrating Diverse and Innovative Partnerships.

In past years, the forum has opened with inspirational keynote speakers. This year put a new spin on things and the Opening Plenary included an interactive program by Jenny McGarvey, in the Alliance’s Richmond office. The presentation focused on teaching the audience about the history and importance of the Chesapeake Bay watershed through varying forms of art. McGarvey’s presentation included a dance video, watershed-related art exhibits, and a poem, which she read aloud.

Jeff Holland, the West and Rhode riverkeeper, showed off his musical skills with a celebratory song about chicken necking on the Bay. The interactive portion involved attendees using their own artistic abilities.

McGarvey taught us how to draw a cognitive map representing what we envision when thinking about the reason we got involved in the environmental field. The goal of the exercise was to help attendees connect with the broader picture of why we are working in this field, and remind us why we love the Chesapeake watershed.

From there, we all went our separate ways to find the workshops that best fit our interests and curiosities. The workshops were divided into seven different themes: organizational development; science and restoration; JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion); connecting communities; innovative partnerships; environmental education; and the Chesapeake Monitoring Cooperative.

The amazing workshop leaders came prepared to lead 90-minute informative and thought-provoking programs. They inspired their audiences to learn more about building confidence in the workplace, as well as help younger attendees navigate what topics they would like to pursue in the future. One of my biggest takeaways from the forum was becoming aware of my personal responsibility of furthering Chesapeake restoration work, but that I wouldn’t be able to do it without help from others — whether they are coworkers, community members, businesses or congregations.

The Alliance and the U.S. Forest Service also announced the recipients of the 2018 Chesapeake Forest Champion Awards. They included Matt Keefer of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry, who received Greatest on the Ground Impact; Jennifer Gagnon of Virginia Tech and the Virginia Forest Landowner Education Program, who was honored for Most Effective at Engaging the Public; and Rick and Kathy Abend, who were named Exemplary Forest Stewards. While the awards were specific toward Forest Champions, the winners provided inspiration for everyone to take local action to create a healthier Bay through environmental stewardship.

On the second day, the workshops ended with a three-hour field experience. Some of these workshops entailed exploring outside such as a tree identification class or a dairy farm tour. Other programs included Making Pictures that Make People Care, Water Quality Monitoring 101, One-On-One Mentoring and Bay Journal: Reader’s Roundtable.

The field session led by the Chesapeake Collective really stood out, providing lessons on diversity, inclusion and privilege. We dove into conversations on not only what separates us, but also what brings us together. We learned how it can be easy to be blinded by our privileges and forget to notice our surroundings.

The Chesapeake Collective played a major role in helping the individual voices of the forum come together as one. The group had projects set up around the National Conservation Training Center campus that were made to foster a creative platform for diverse voices to express their vision and interest for a healthy watershed. Projects included observations with pictures that told people’s stories, community boards, letter writing, art, and greater participation in projects such as the field session.

While we learned how to work better together by being more aware, we also learned to have fun together. In the evenings, there were opportunities for socializing and meeting new people, through mingle bingo (mingo), poster sessions, the bar, fireside chats and musical jamming.

The poster session included 51 posters by this year’s Chesapeake Conservation Corps members and new professionals, as well as six posters from professionals. Winners for best poster included Corps member, Connor Lieu from The Nature Conservancy, and professional Alexander Reed from Washington County Division of Environmental Management.

Lieu’s poster was on the Implementation of Standardized Red Spruce Monitoring Protocol in the Nature Conservancy’s Western Maryland Preserves.

Reed wrote a storybook about the importance of our civic duty to not litter and to clean up after ourselves. Reed wrote in his poster abstract that he believes, “Using art and storytelling are two very powerful communication methods and can be used to explain the complex connections between environmental education and civic responsibility.”

On Sunday morning, attendees had the opportunity to participate in a “forest bathing” exercise. Before our meditative walk, the exercise’s leaders asked participants to write down something they wanted to think about while on the walk. I wrote, “to remember why I am here and to fully absorb my surroundings.” Getting a chance to take a step back from the hectic pace of the forum and to fully embrace nature reminded me of the cognitive map exercise.

We all had separate reasons for attending the forum, but those reasons are what bring us together and that’s why it is important to share and learn from others.

The opinions expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.