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By Andres Jimenez, Urban Program Coordinator, Birds Canada

Deadly pandemics, disappearing biodiversity, racial disparity … You don’t need me to tell you that we need a little hope right now! In the middle of all this, students from a high school in Markham, Ontario managed to confront the headwinds, finding hope and sharing it with the world.

Before COVID-19 arrived in the province, Milliken Mills High School, Birds Canada, and a group of Ontario artists had been planning the biggest bird parade the York Region District School Board had ever seen. It was on track to be an epic Earth Day Celebration dedicated to birds.

Then, the pandemic hit us. Five of us sat in front of our screens: three artists, one teacher, and myself. There was a moment when we floated the possibility of giving up. How could a parade be adapted to an online format? Would the kids be motivated enough to join? Would the teachers be able to pack this extra activity into their busy schedules? If so, how would we put this together?

Eventually, the silence was broken by Chris Williams (or Coach, as the kids call him): “We need to keep going. The kids need it.”

With this call to action, a seed of hope was planted, and what followed next was magical. In less than three weeks, over 1000 people came together to produce a bird-inspired art gallery for the world to see and enjoy. The culminating piece is a three-minute video called “I am a Bird”, which delivers a heartfelt message of hope from 600 high school students – the same “Gen Z” so many adults think is entitled and lazy.

Artwork: High School Student

The team was determined to deliver a powerful conservation message on behalf of birds. Students were invited to submit their work online in a range of artistic forms, imagining life from a bird’s-eye view. They responded with an overwhelming and incredible array of artwork. Working remotely, the students created more than 300 poems, songs, pictures, paintings, and videos, combining art and science to help us better understand the world around us. The multi-faceted project was created by the students with Birds Canada, Shadowland Theatre, and an Indigenous knowledge-keeper. Students researched, learned, problem solved and, most importantly, created an emotional bond with the nature around them, demonstrating clearly that the arts are a natural ally for conservation.

We thank the Ontario Arts Council for their generous support for the project. And thank you to all who worked to bring the project to life: the teachers, staff, and students of Milliken Mills High School; the York Region District School Board; and the artists, Anne Barber (lead artist), Brad Harley, Ben Lee, Chris Wilson, Sequoia Erickson, and Allan Colley.

To you, I extend an invitation to watch “I am a Bird,” enjoy the gallery and share this inspiring story with the world!

Artwork: High School Student