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Miami students join artist Xavier Cortada’s climate change project

Miami students join artist Xavier Cortada’s climate change project

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Dozens of Miami Senior High School students shuffled from the scorching heat outside into their school’s freezing auditorium one Wednesday evening.

The small group of students weren’t there for classes, theater club rehearsals or detention. They were there to learn more about the rising sea levels that threaten Miami — and what they could do to stop it.

The April 27 town hall, which featured a panel of climate experts, was part of local artist Xavier Cortada’s The Underwater, a social-art project that teaches students about the impact of the climate crisis on not only Miami’s future, but also how it will affect their lives. It’s a continuation of Cortada’s Underwater HOA projectThis encouraged homeowners to raise their homes. Place a sign in the yard with the number in feet..

The Miami High program was just the beginning. Cortada intends to spread The Underwater Gospel to other Miami-Dade Schools and Communities.

“In 20 and especially 40 years from now, [students] are going to see a Miami that’s going to have real issues to address,” Cortada said of climate change. Through this project, Cortada hopes to “give them a chance to address it now. And I’m doing it by having them create a participatory art piece.”

Cortada has a long history of climate-focused activism and art. He launched The Underwater together with the Xavier Cortada Foundation, Creative CapitalAnd a University of Miami climate migration research group.

Cortada’s team took over science classes from Miami Senior High School, his alma maternity, leading up to the town meeting. They wanted to give students a better understanding of climate change and the tools to take action in their local communities.

Students were prompted with questions such as “What is climate change?” and “What are some alternatives to fossil fuels?” to begin the class. Cortada explained the definition of a climate refugee. Cortada then asked students if they had any questions about elevation and why it matters.

UseAn appTo find out their address, students entered it. Within minutes, students were sharing their numbers with their friends and comparing them. According to the app, Miami High stands at 13 feet above the sea level.

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A student uses her smartphone to access the Sea Level Rise Toolbox. This toolbox identifies the South Florida area as well as how different amounts intruding seawater in feet would affect different elevations. Daniel A. Varela dvarela@miamiherald.com

Students were given blue yard signs and Sharpie markers to write their home’s elevation number. Each sign has a QR code that leads to The Underwater’s website. As Cortada explained how sea level rise would affect Miamians’ homes and neighborhoods, several students began connecting the dots.

‘Engaging our communities’

Bernardo, a freshman from Miami-Dade was especially concerned about how the sea level rise could affect all of Miami-Dade. He learned from class that the porous limestone Miami was built on allows water to seep into inland areas like his.

He planted a yard marker reading 9.71 on his front lawn and hoped that his neighbors would scan the QR code to start a conversation.

“There’s still hope for Miami,” Bernardo said. “There’s still hope for the world to mend itself from the effects of climate change that we’ve put it through over this last century.”

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Bernardo, a freshman at Miami Senior High, walks home from school with his Underwater Marker in hand indicating his home’s elevation above sea level in Miami. Daniel A. Varela dvarela@miamiherald.com

Rolando Morales (a senior) said that the project helped to realize that while many community members have heard that sea level rising is a problem, few people know the severity of the consequences. He expressed his excitement about learning more about climate change and raising awareness.

“What I like about it is that you’re not only hearing about it, but you’re given options to participate in the solution to try and get involved,” he said.

Cortada considers The Underwater more than a high-school art project.

“It’s a continuum of my life work trying to use art’s elasticity as a way of engaging our communities and solving problems,” he said. “And Miami has problems.”

In 2006, while on a trip to Antarctica, a scientist handed Cortada a chunk of ice and said, “This is the same ice that’s going to drown Miami.” With some blue paint, Cortada turned that melting ice into a series of artworks called Antarctic Ice Paintings. Sixteen years later, those paintings are now the blue backdrop of each numbered yard sign in front of students’ houses.

Cortada stated that art is a powerful tool in climate activism and community engagement. A work of art can help people to see the issue in a way that is not possible otherwise. He said that art gives people agency.

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Rolando Morales, a senior at Miami Senior High, stands next to his Underwater Marker, which indicates his home’s elevation. Daniel A. Varela dvarela@miamiherald.com

“This is a project that’s going to continue until that chunk of ice reaches Miami, and that’s the truth,” Cortada said. “The truth is that it is an existential crisis.”

This is only a beginning.

The project reached approximately 2,000 students in their science classes and featured a town hall discussion to address the crisis. The panel included Katharine Mach, a University of Miami climate change scientist; Jessica Owley, an environmental lawyer at UM’s School of Law; Nkosi Muse, a Ph.D. candidate at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science; and Adam Roberti, the executive director of the Xavier Cortada Foundation. (Cortada wasn’t able to attend the town hall after testing positive for COVID-19.)

Each panelist focused on a different aspect in combating climate changes, from state legislation to local activism. On a screen were photos of students creating their own yard signs. They also drew hearts, fishes and seaweed, as well as their elevation numbers. “Let’s make a change!” one student wrote.

Mach, climate scientist, illustrated a dire situation of “supercharged extremes.” Hot days getting hotter, hurricanes getting stronger, high tidesIncreasingly.

But there’s good news, she said. We have the technology, like windmills and solar panels, to reduce emissions by at least 80 percent. The trick is making it possible.

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“Certainly, you all are much more effective than the old people on stage in rallying for action,” Mach told the students in the audience.

Matthew Porras was a 14-year old freshman who was among the few students who listened to the presentation. Matthew and Michael Porras, his twin brother, felt strongly about The Underwater. They came to the town hall in order to learn more.

Matthew stated that he was troubled about some things he saw in school. The climate crisis and the project were not the focus of everyone. Some even threw out yard signs instead of taking them home. When it came time for the Q&A portion, he raised his hand.

“Everyone here, I think, really cares about this project. We don’t want our home to be gone, right?” he said into the microphone. “So, if this project goes to fail, do you have any other plans?”

Roberti answered honestly.

“If your life was changed by this project, I would call it a success. I’m disappointed that this entire auditorium isn’t filled, sure, but I think that the work that we do is always evolving.”

The project is far from over, Roberti said, it’s starting point.

“I like that,” Matthew said. “Thank you!”

This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. This work remains under full editorial control by The Miami Herald.

This story was first published in May 19, 2022 at 6:00 AM

Sommer Brugal is the K-12 education correspondent for the Miami Herald. Before making her way to Miami, she covered three school districts on Florida’s Treasure Coast for TCPalm, part of the USA Today Network.

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