VIC LEIPZIG AND LOU MURRAY
A few weeks ago, I took 20 Orange County Conservation Corps members
to the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art to see the fabulous Egyptian
This group of mostly Hispanic inner city kids works on
conservation projects while earning their high school diplomas. The
trip to the Bowers, generously funded by a grant from the museum, was
part of their education.
Corps members have lives vastly different from mine, and see life
very differently. For example, one of the displays in the Egyptian
exhibit is a model of a funeral barge ferrying a mummy up the Nile.
These model boats were placed in the tomb with the deceased. The
mummy's family was depicted on the barge with him.
When I saw a woman and a small boy on the barge, I assumed that
the woman was the wife of the deceased, and the small boy was his son
or grandson. The corps member standing next to me saw the small
figure as the mummy's little brother because, in his experience,
people his age die -- generally in gang violence.
It's a sad comment on life that these young people expect to die
violently, or expect their friends to die. I hope to show them a life
with more hope and better prospects.
It was the second time this summer that I've taken a group of
corps members to the Bowers, and again I was amazed at how strongly
the corps members responded to the art. They appreciated the fine
craftsmanship on the antique Spanish weapons and loved the Mayan art
But they reacted most positively to the plein-air art gallery. The
oil paintings fascinated them.
The corps members didn't have to tell me how much they enjoyed
their trip to the Bowers. They bubbled with excitement as we left.
Some said they had no idea places like that existed, and they wanted
to see more. Others said it was a much better experience seeing it as
an adult than as a third-grader.
Best of all was a comment from one of the teachers at the corps.
He said that no educational approach the teachers had tried had
worked on one particular corps member. But this young man was so
excited by his trip to the Bowers he couldn't stop talking about it.
It was a remarkable experience to see the Bowers Museum through
the eyes of my corps members. Some of them lagged behind the tour in
groups of twos and threes over certain exhibits, discussing them in
very animated fashion, discussing how the paintings were made or how
a certain object might have been used, calling me over to get
Their teachers said the classroom was chaos upon their return, as
they all talked at once about the experience. Art reaches these kids
like books can't and brings history alive for them.
Don't ask me why, but I really relate to the "teenage Hispanic
gang member on probation" demographic. Incredibly, several of the
kids have commented that I'm one of them. As one corps member said
last week, "She knows what time it is."
Apparently, that's the latest street talk for "she's cool." I took
it as a compliment.
Vic is greatly amused by my work. He's also a bit concerned. Not
for my safety, although this gaggle of big, tattooed guys with shaved
heads can be intimidating if you don't know them.
He's worried they'll be a bad influence on me, and I'll come home
with multiple body piercing and wearing chinos hanging below my butt.
I took a group of corps members to go bird watching at Bolsa Chica
last week. The kids all talked at once, pointing at this bird and
that, asking why the snowy egret was shaking its feet in the water,
asking if I could please find another long-billed curlew for them to
look at, and looking at the round stingrays swimming right below us.
Most of these kids have never been out of the inner city, and
coming to Huntington Beach to work on restoration projects at Shipley
Nature Center and Bolsa Chica is an eye-opener for them. If they
learn to love and appreciate nature, my hope is that they'll want to
preserve and restore it.
Corps members come from different backgrounds. They haven't all
been in trouble with the law.
Some are very bright, come from privileged backgrounds and were
just bored with school. Some are disruptive and didn't fit into the
traditional school system. Some had to drop out of school to support
their parents, siblings or their own children. Some have language
barriers to learning.
What they have in common is a desire to work, while earning their
high school diplomas. For me, it is one of the biggest challenges of
my life to reach all of these kids with their diverse backgrounds and
make sure that they get an education that is meaningful to them.
Over the three years that I've been working with corps members,
we've accomplished a lot of good restoration work.
Most of my kids have graduated with their diplomas and gotten
jobs. Some have gone on to college. A few have gone back to drugs or
jail. One was murdered.
But overall, it's been the most satisfying thing I've ever done
with my life -- to get the habitat restored while restoring human
* VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and
environmentalists. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.