The inaugural Explore Academy, 2019
Read about the first year 


Norte supports citizens of all ages to advocate for a positive impact in their community. The Explore Academy engages and activates youth ages 13-18. It is an opportunity for students to change the world, beginning with their neighborhood and community.

The program centers around the hands-on, feet-on-the-street annual fall class, Explore Your Neighborhood, Shape Your Community. The class is a six-week course that is student-directed and inspired. Students gain an experiential understanding of how the built environment changes over time, how it impacts our lives, and we all have a role to play in shaping it.  

This program is a spinoff of our annual Advocate Academy and similarly geared at providing tools and training for engaged citizens to impact change.

2019 Explore Academy students in the field


The curriculum focuses on getting out and exploring the community as much as we can. A key goal is to have fun. Observation, group dialogue, creative writing, drawing, photography, videography, interviews, and interactive lectures and discussions are woven together with class choices. Participants may also adopt an advocacy project that lives beyond the course. When they adopt a cause, Norte will be there to help.

Students graduate with advanced participatory observational skills, an informed passion for community engagement, and the ability to apply their insights as citizen advocates for happy, healthy, strong communities. This course stands out on a college application!





Explore Academy is made possible by a partnership Traverse Area Association of Realtors and a Smart Growth America grant from the National Association of Realtors.  The program was co-created and is co-facilitated with Megan Olds of Parallel Solutions. If you are interested in donating to the program’s scholarship fund or in becoming a corporate sponsor, please email Gary Howe at

Advocacy Bootcamp – We can bring the Explore Academy to your community as a Norte Advocacy Bootcamp These training sessions are customized for an organization or community. If interested in hosting an Advocacy Bootcamp, please email

2020 Course Outline

  1. Your Neighborhood, Your Community – Perspective-busting exercises can expand the way we experience our surroundings. Once we see some things, those things cannot be unseen!
  2. The Constructed Neighborhood – Hone observational skills and construct the language of the neighborhood. What values are hidden in built environments?
  3. The Experienced Neighborhood – Out on the streets, experience the way spaces can create isolation, exclusion, or belonging.    Why does this space make us feel so ___?
  4. The Mobile Neighborhood – Jump on public transportation and see what’s up with mobility. Public infrastructure is dedicated to moving us around like busy ants. Are we getting anywhere?
  5. The Delightful Neighborhood – Quest for things that surprise and delight us most in our neighborhoods at the penultimate meetup. Advocacy can lead to changes big and small, fast and slow, and it can make things stay the same. 
  6. The Neighborhood Experience – This course in advocacy grows from participant-defined goals and projects. At our final meetup, we explore the past, present, and future efforts of Norte’s inaugural Advocacy students. The final meetup is just the beginning.


Megan Olds has dedicated her 20-year career to community growth and development, land and water conservation and restoration, food and farming systems, housing, transportation, and access to nature and outdoor recreation. She was a former Director of Regional Planning at Networks Northwest, and served as a past board member of the Michigan Association of Planning and of Michigan’s Complete Streets Advisory Council. She worked for seven years as the Associate Director and Director of Development for the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. Pairing her professional experience in community and organizational development with a personal zeal for building trust and openness in decision-making, Megan founded Parallel Solutions in 2014. You can find out more about her firm’s services, clients, and recent projects at


Gary Howe brings over 10 years of direct experience in creating and advocating for public policy and planning processes that support healthy transportation and socially-engaging public spaces to his role as Norte’s Advocacy Director. He served as a City Commissioner for the City of Traverse City from 2013-2017, in addition to serving on the Planning Commission and Parks and Recreation Commission, and on the boards of Neahtawanta Center, SEEDS, and International Affairs Forum. He is also a writer and New York Times-published photographer with over 20 years of teaching experience in China, Taiwan and Traverse City, including 15 years as an adjunct instructor at Northwestern Michigan College. You can see some of his photography on Insta at @GLH_Image and follow his writing and advocacy on Twitter @GLHJR.


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