Imago has encouraged sustainable living in the city for more than 40 years

The Imago nature center is almost impossible to stumble on by mistake. Tucked back in the woods down a small dead-end street in East Price Hill, the ecological organization is certainly off-the-beaten-path.

In its 40-year history, Imago has earned a place of influence among earth-loving Cincinnatians. And, today, it is holding fast to its original mission to model sustainable living and to cultivate a deep connection to the earth in the middle of the city.

The need for connection to each other and to the earth
Jim Schenk with ecovillage resident Deborah Jordan in 2012
Jim and Eileen Schenk created Imago in 1978.

Through their experience as social workers, the couple sensed it was important to connect people to nature in a holistic, healing way. Imago became a somewhat amorphous, umbrella name for multiple ecological programs they launched over the next few years.

The young Schenk family lived in East Price Hill where Eileen (and three generations before her) had grown up. In 1988, Imago acquired seven acres of land a few doors down and across the street from the Schenks’ home on Enright Avenue. The land had been slated for redevelopment after plans for a new public school fell through but they bought it instead. This first acquisition is where Imago’s nature center stands today.

Over the next few decades, the Schenks went on to tackle other projects in the community surrounding their home. One was as the development of the Western Wildlife Corridor (WWC), a nonprofit nature conservancy land trust formed among like-minded neighbors in 1992.

Around that same time as the WWC launched, the nonprofit Price Hill Will began as a project of Imago. It was launched in response to community input about needs and desires for the neighborhood. In 2004, it became its own entity and continued its work without the Schenks’ direct leadership.

The Schenks’ vision was always for community and connection. One big dream was to form an intentional community dedicated to sustainable living. This dream of an “urban ecovillage” first particularized in 1998 with a strategic plan for developing the Seminary Square Ecovillage along Warsaw Avenue.

The plan was extensive, involving multiple community partners, property development, parks and greenspace projects, and ecological infrastructure. Unfortunately, the project proved too broad for such a large and complicated urban setting and, though some smaller neighborhood projects moved forward, the formal plan was abandoned.

The ecovillage dream didn’t die, though. The Schenks realized that the perfect setting for this community was their own street, Enright Avenue, where Imago’s nature center was located and where a large percentage of residents were already ecologically-minded. Over time, the ecovillage was patchworked together with old and new households who jumped in on the vision. In 2004, the process for incorporating the Enright Ridge Urban Ecovillage formally began.

A new era for Imago takes shape

Imago is a small organization led by a small staff, a hearty volunteer board, and many other faithful volunteers. It is not a sleek, sexy, suburban nature center and it’s not trying to be.

The facilities are modest, with offices, restrooms, and indoor meeting space all centered in what is, essentially, a two-story garage. Things like fences, benches, and sheds are often hand-made by staff and volunteers, made from reused and repurposed materials. Hiking paths are cleared but not meticulously manicured. It is a discreet pocket of wilderness hidden in the middle of the city, and it’s free and open to the public.

In 2005, when the ecovillage was really taking shape, Jim and Eileen Schenk decided they were ready to formally step down from leadership at Imago to focus more time on the flourishing ecovillage.

Chris Clements was on staff at the time. He had been at Imago since 1999. He was a college friend of the Schenks’ son, who he’d met at the University of Cincinnati. Now a few years post-college, he had been recruited to help develop Imago’s environmental education programs for local schools.

Clements had studied biology at UC, thinking he might like to be a scientist. But it never panned out.

“I didn’t have a really strong plan,” he explains, “which is why I did a lot of post-graduate internship type of things. But I kind of had a freak-out moment when I realized I didn’t want to be a scientist anymore but I didn’t know what else I was going to do.”

Clements had never intended to make a career of environmental education. And he never intended to work with kids. But he loved biology and the humanities and, after a few coincidental stints at nature centers, the career started to make more sense. When Jim Schenk decided to exit, Clements agreed to take on the executive director position.

Same Imago; different Imago

Clements seemed qualified for the job even though he’d only been at Imago a few years. If nothing else, he says, he knew more about the day-to-day operations than anyone else did. On paper, the transition would be seamless. In reality, things were a bit more complicated.

For one, Clements was only twenty-seven when he took the job. And his personal life was “tumultuous” at the time.

 “I don’t know that I was especially qualified,” he admits. “In fact, I would say I was incredibly underqualified to do it.”

There were leadership differences to work out, as well.

“Jim, being the visionary that he is, the board was able to follow his lead on a lot of things,” he explains.

“When I came aboard, I just didn’t have the same sense of vision that he did, but the board hadn’t adjusted. It took us a while to figure out what I needed help with or, frankly, when I needed help at all.”

The Schenks’ ubiquitous influence caused some tension, as well. Clements blames some of the tension on his own immaturity, but some was certainly a matter of sheer proximity. Jim and Eileen did live, literally, down the road. And Imago and the ecovillage have always fostered a lot of co-mingling. It wasn’t that Jim was still exercising control, Clements says, but he was simply around a lot.

Clements struggled to find the space to develop his own vision for Imago. He wanted to honor the past and do right by the Schenks, but he also needed to take his own path in leadership.

“It was really hard for me, as a more linear thinker, to wrap my head around [Imago]. Even if our current programs were all related, I needed to have things in ‘boxes.’ It took me about five years until I found something that made sense to me.”

A different kind of nature programming

In his time as executive director, Chris Clements has worked on fine-tuning the mission of Imago and its values, crafting more clear program goals. By definition, Imago now has three main focus areas — youth education, the nature preserve, and sustainability.

The education department is focused on developing deeper relationships with schools and their students, providing regular outdoor experiences and environmental education. While many of these programs used to be offered at Imago’s nature center, most are now on-site in outdoor learning stations at schools where students can have greater access to them. Imago also has after school programs and a popular summer camp program for kids ages 4–12.

The preservation of land has always been central to Imago’s mission. Since the first seven acres were acquired in 1988, Imago has added a few more adjacent and nearby parcels of vacant land to create a nature preserve now totaling 37 acres. The bulk of this land is open to the public for hiking along a simple trail system. Last year, Imago launched an Art in Nature program featuring art installations along the trails.

Imago’s sustainability programs are how visitors can engage with deeper topics related to ecology and sustainability organized around themes like “welcoming wildlife” and “curbing consumerism.” These programs are presented in ways that are accessible and non-threatening, even for beginners.

Clements says that many of the people who attend these programs will never do things like buy a hybrid vehicle or install solar panels. So they need simple, tangible ideas for how to shape their lives to be more ecologically-minded. And, by spending time with like-minded people at Imago, they get to be part of a community that celebrates small successes along the journey.

“Being a nature center in the middle of the city means teaching through a different lens,” Clements says, one that understands the challenges of lower income residents in urban areas. Clements has even incorporated Spanish signage around the nature center, a nod to the growing Spanish-speaking population around Price Hill, as well as his own Puerto Rican heritage.

More than anything, he tries to keep things fun and positive for everyone because Imago has always been more about people than programs.

Clements says that this “human aspect” of sustainability has always been central to Imago’s identity. The programs are scientific, but not sterile; political, but not hostile. When the Schenks started the organization, they built a sense of “humanity” into it all, he says.

Different Imago; same Imago

It’s now been over twenty years since Chris Clements landed at Imago. A lot has changed in that time, but not really.

The years have gone quickly, he says. He has grown into the job and the organization has grown around him. Ten years ago, he even bought a house in the ecovillage and moved to the street. His life and Imago’s are now bound together.

The Enright Ridge Urban Ecovillage continues to expand its influence around East Price Hill and Cincinnati, developing its own projects such as an urban farm and a storefront market and bar nearby.

Price Hill Will has since established itself as a driving force of community development in East, West, and Lower Price Hill.

The Western Wildlife Corridor now protects nearly 200 acres of natural habitat along the Ohio River Valley, west of downtown to the Indiana border.

And there, tucked away in the woods on Enright Avenue, is Imago.

Sadly, Eileen Schenk passed away at the end of 2020.

Jim still serves in an advisory role with the organization.

Chris Clements says the essential mission of Imago is still the same as it was forty-some years ago — to promote community, sustainability, and connection to the earth. It’s exactly what the Schenks envisioned. He just helped by adding a few more pieces to the puzzle.
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Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.