National Youth Summit - The Dust Bowl

October 17, 2012



On October 17, 2012, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) partnered with the National Endowment for the Humanities, WETA television, and Smithsonian Affiliations to present the National Youth Summit on the Dust Bowl. The program, related to Ken Burns’ new film The Dust Bowl, connected thousands of high school students and united them in a national dialogue regarding the Dust Bowl’s legacy on both the environment and the culture of the United States. Students discussed the importance of environmental awareness and the effects humans have on the natural world. In recognizing the Dust Bowl as an ecological disaster of primarily human origin, young people worked together to imagine ways a similar catastrophe could be avoided. Together, students across the country generated ideas for how each of us could be a responsible steward of the delicate environment in which we live. Students left the Summit with a better understanding of the Dust Bowl and the role of science and citizens in national policy.

Modeled on the successful Summit presented on the Freedom Rides in 2011, the National Youth Summit on the Dust Bowl included a live webcast from Washington allowing young people to engage with a distinguished panel of experts to discuss the history and legacy of the Dust Bowl. In addition to the students in the live audience in Washington, the program brought together students in Regional Town Halls at ten museums around the nation, who participated in the webcast and then discussed local environmental issues with experts at each museum. PBS affiliate television stations around the nation filmed students at each of the Regional Town Halls, providing videotaped questions for the national panel and a short film documenting the program. Hundreds of thousands more students watched the Summit in their schools and homes and engaged electronically over the internet. The "dust bowl," words coined by an Associated Press reporter in 1935 to describe the southern plains that rain had forsaken, was one of the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history – in which the heedless actions of thousands of individual farmers, encouraged by their government and influenced by global markets, resulted in a collective tragedy that nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation.

It was a decade-long natural catastrophe of Biblical proportions, encompassing 100 million acres in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico – when the skies withheld their rains, when plagues of grasshoppers descended on parched fields, when bewildered families huddled in dark rooms while angry winds shook their homes and pillars of dust choked out the mid-day sun.

It was an epic of human pain and suffering – young children struck down by "dust pneumonia," self-reliant fathers suddenly unable to provide for their families and mothers unable to feed them, followed by the largest exodus in the nation’s history, as 2.5 million desperate Americans left their homes and faced an unknown and often cruel future.

And it is also the story of heroic perseverance; a study of the roles and limits of government; and a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us – a lesson we ignore at our peril.

Students learned the history of this important episode in American history, but they also looked to the present as they discussed crucial issues that face the nation today. The Summit inspired students to explore the choices we have and the consequences that follow in production of food, fiber, fuel, housing and infrastructure. Agriculture in the Dust Bowl region today relies on irrigation from the Ogallala aquifer, which has transformed the High Plains into one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world. Water use in the region, however, exceeds the rate of recharge to the water supply. As one of the modern legacies of the Dust Bowl, students considered how to balance the need for food for a growing population against the risks of aquifer depletion. Other issues like fertilizer use, soil conservation, herbicide and pesticide use, genetic engineering, and organic farming and the slow food movement were raised during the Summit.

Participants in the National Youth Summit on the Dust Bowl

  • Moderator - Cara Santa Maria is the science editor for the Huffington Post and has taught university and high school biology and psychology. Her research interests range from clinical psychological assessment to neuronal cell culture techniques and the mechanics of neurogenesis in the zebra finch. Her passion for science education has led to appearances on Larry King Live (CNN), Parker/Spitzer (CNN), Geraldo at Large (Fox News), I Kid (TLC), as well as a pilot for an HBO science program that she co-produced and hosted.
  • Ken Burns is a celebrated American documentarian who gradually amassed a considerable reputation and a devoted audience with a series of reassuringly traditional meditations on Americana. Burns' works are treasure troves of archival materials; he skillfully utilizes period music and footage, photographs, periodicals and ordinary people's correspondence, the latter often movingly read by seasoned professional actors in a deliberate attempt to get away from a "Great Man" approach to history. Like most non-fiction filmmakers, Burns wears many hats on his projects, often serving as writer, cinematographer, editor and music director in addition to producing and directing. He achieved his apotheosis with "The Civil War" (1990), a phenomenally popular 11-hour documentary that won two Emmys and broke all previous ratings records for public TV.
  • Cal Crabill, who survived the Dust Bowl growing up in Holly, Colorado, near the Kansas border, is featured in the Ken Burns film The Dust Bowl. A naval navigator in WWII, Crabill worked briefly for Walt Disney Studios and later attended UC Berkeley on the GI bill. He taught high school math for more than 30 years and co-authored three best-selling textbooks, one of which is still used today. After retiring, Crabill built homes — three for himself and dozens for Habitat for Humanity — and plays trumpet in a big band orchestra.
  • Roy Bardole is a 5th generation farmer from Rippey, Iowa. Along with his two grown sons (Peter and Tim) and his wife Phyllis, Roy farms about 1,400 acres of soybeans and corn. An innovative and progressive farmer Roy was an early adopter of precision and no-till practice. He is active in the promotion of American soybeans domestically and internationally serving as the Chairman of the United States Soybean Export Council and a Director of the United Soybean Board.
  • Deb Peters is a research ecologist for the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Peters works to improve the science of predicting and preventing ecological disasters. Peters’ research area is the Southern Plains, where the Dust Bowl took place. Some of her research projects include: Management Technologies for Arid Rangelands and Rangeland Management and Technologies. She has written many articles on the topics of managing grassland ecosystems, wind erosion, and the effects of climate change and the possibilities of reversing desertification.
  • Glenn Roberts is the founder of Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina, which grows and mills one of the most diverse collections of heirloom grains in America. In 1998, Glenn followed a dream to resurrect the antebellum Southern cuisine that comprised the Carolina Rice Kitchen, by founding Anson Mills. He began by producing a 30 acre crop of the nearly extinct Carolina Gourdseed White corn, a species that had dated back to the 17 century. After extensive research on growing and milling practices of the antebellum era, Roberts has managed to resuscitate over a dozen heirloom mill corn species, as well as Carolina Gold Rice and “Thirteen Colony” Red May wheat.

Regional Town Hall Locations

  1. Heinz History Center (Pittsburgh, PA)
  2. Oklahoma History Center (Oklahoma City, OK)
  3. Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (Fort Worth, TX)
  4. History Colorado (Denver, CO)
  5. Sonoma County Museum (Santa Rosa, CA)
  6. Miami Science Museum (Miami, FL)
  7. National Mississippi River Museum (Dubuque, IA)
  8. Durham Museum (Omaha, NE)
  9. Museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society (Pierre, SD)
  10. National Steinbeck Center (Salinas, CA)

Video Preview

Watch The Dust Bowl Preview on PBS. See more from The Dust Bowl.