Students head out for a scavenger hunt at Fort Worden on the opening day of YHP 2022 in Port Townsend.
Imagine spending a handful of your summer days at a decommissioned nuclear production complex – one that helped usher in the positive aspects of the nuclear age but also produced the plutonium for bombs dropped on Japan to end World War II.
That’s exactly what a group of teens will do when they head to Tri-cities in July to participate in the Washington Trust on Historic Preservation’s annual Youth Heritage Project (YHP).
An education in place-based historic preservation
Each year, this free immersive summer camp descends on a different Washington historic site to learn about the land, heritage, culture, and communities that shaped it. In doing so, the YHP hopes to spark youth interest in the historic preservation professions.
“The project allows students to get firsthand experience with cultural resource management, historic preservation, and public history type work,” says Huy Pham, Preservation Programs Director for the Trust on Historic Preservation. “We’re trying to bring history and place-based work outside of textbooks and show that history is tied to a place or a site and the people that inhabit, visit, or have family or community heritage there. We want to show that place-based historic preservation is an active field that requires both stewardship and a labor force.”
Understanding and preserving state history
Since 2014, Youth Heritage Project (YHP) camps have taken place in state national parks, Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, Fort Vancouver, Port Townsend, and other locations.
Pham says this year’s YHP participants will be exposed to more than history during their time at Manhattan Project National Historical Park, also known as Hanford Nuclear Site. The last nuclear reactor closed down at this complex in 1987.
“We get a lot of students interested in history, but historic preservation and cultural resource span across multiple disciplines,” he says. “This year in particular we have a lot of touch points on science, ethics as related to World War II and the Cold War, and place management as it relates to tribal relations, the site cleanup, and environmental concerns of place stewardship. So this year’s camp is a lot more complicated than our previous ones.”
Learning through collaboration
Clara Moore, a high school sophomore from Mercer Island, attended camp in Port Townsend in 2022.
“My big take-away was collaboration,” Moore says. “It was a great experience to have many different perspectives as well as voices collaborating to create a final project.” She is hoping to be selected for the Hanford camp.
“I think an experience and education about a nuclear site is extremely important —The Manhattan Project and its connection to Hanford is very relevant to Washington’s history,” says Moore. “I do not have much existing knowledge about the nuclear site, so I will be bringing a blank slate and many technical questions.”
A difficult heritage
Project organizers say they will not shy away from the elephant in the room: How plutonium production at this site in the 1940s devastated the lives of millions of people 5,000 miles away in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
“One of our primary speakers introducing the week is a third-generation atomic bomb survivor,” Pham says. “There is both a heritage and a family history story to be told and to be sensitive around, but we cannot ignore it, or isolate it, or to treat that history in a vacuum.
The place is very scientific, it looks like a NASA site. But, we need to talk about the implications of American history as tied to the people overseas that we impacted, as well as native indigenous tribes here.” The Hanford Site is located along the Columbia River in southeastern Washington and was originally inhabited by Native Americans, including the Wanapum Band and the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse Tribes. For more on the Hanford displacement, go to the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History.
Pham says kids will be asked to ponder “What does it mean going into the land that they stewarded and using it for such a morbid result?
“And what about the communities that have grown there,” he added. “Handfor and Tri-Cities were used as a labor force community. How do we recognize that reconciliation, that history?”
During the four days at the Hanford Site, students will explore how different histories and resources shaped the community. Through scavenger hunts, hikes, site visits, boat trips, museums, tours, and other activities, they will consider how remembering, preserving, and sharing stories from the past can help shape the future.
Students seek solutions
Each student participant will also be paired with a local organization to hammer out a potential solution to a real-world issue that is currently impacting the community around the site. Their solutions will be highlighted in a special presentation on the last day of camp.
The Youth Heritage Project is free to selected students and is managed through a partnership with the National Park Service and the Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, the Department of Energy, Tribal Nations, and local community partners. The deadline for student applications is May 15, 2023. Learn more at preservewa.org/yhp.
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