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News: Place Based Discovery and Storytelling Along the Santa Cruz River

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Ironwood Tree Experience (ITE) has connected young people to the natural and cultural landscapes found in their Sonoran Desert community since 2005. ITE’s mission is to create healthy and resilient communities by making it possible for young people to engage with the natural world and be stewards of the environment. Through exploration of the natural environment, sharing place based stories, and collaborating with diverse community members, youth fall in love with the place the live and discover their role in the community.

For seven years, ITE has been honored to partner with the National Park Service, Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail (Anza Trail) in order to structure and facilitate dynamic youth internship stewardship programs along the Santa Cruz River and the Anza Trail. The objective of these programs is to offer Southern Arizona high school aged youth a chance to reengage with the place they call home and reimagine and diversify the predominantly colonial narrative that dominates the Borderlands and through the land that the Anza Trail traverses. Together ITE and the Anza Trail have connected with hundreds of community members highlighting the perspectives, and the hopes and dreams of our youth leaders. Two of our flagship internship programs are the Youth Ambassadors for Southwest Cultures and the Desert Youth Heritage Project.

Ambassadors for Southwest Cultures is a stipend, month-long place-based exploration of Santa Cruz River Watershed ecology, culture and economics within the Santa Cruz River Valley and Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. This internship is largely structured around the exploration of place, interpretative storytelling, project based learning, and collaborative experiences on ancestral land and public lands including National Parks and Monuments, the Tohono O’odham Nation, tribal leaders and other local experts as youth work to develop an informative multimedia story regarding the natural and cultural history of the Santa Cruz River. For many youth interns this is the first time in which human culture and ecology are considered in the same experience.


The Desert Youth Heritage Project is an advanced internship program, financially supported by the Anza Trail and in partnership with Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area. The program goal is to foster stewardship of the Santa Cruz River Valley by engaging high school age youth and the public in a shared understanding of the region’s cultural and natural heritage from the perspective of youth living in the Sonoran Desert. In this internship interns explore their community, interview family and community members, research information, and share their personal connection to the cultural natural environment as residents within the Santa Cruz River Valley. Youth interns employ multiple storytelling mediums to depict their intersection of environment, ancestry, community, and culture and then present their experiences to the public.

Both the YASWC and DYHP internships utilizes a methodology that guides young people through experiences in their community while gathering and sharing stories about their connection to heritage, place, and the natural world. These experiences help youth understand the unique role that they play in their community or their “niche”. The ITE storytelling methodology allows young folks to learn about the natural and cultural history of their home as active participants in the stories of place rather than simply being along for the ride. The methodology always starts with the cultivation of shared experiences such as hiking, camping and exploring nature in their community.

These experiences serve as the foundation for observation and reflection as interns explore how they connect to the world around them. The collaborative yet introspective process allows interns to take agency over their interpretive stories and research topics that are relevant to their interests and positionality. Ultimately this personal investment shines through as program participants share their knowledge and experiences with the broader community. You are invited to read the stories from past Desert Youth Heritage Project and Youth Ambassadors for Southwest Culture participants here.  If you are interested in learning more about Ironwood Tree Experience or either internship program, please visit the ITE webpage at!