Report on a community conversation on educating for global sustainability

November, 2007

Guest Column

Report by Mary Lee Morrison Ph.D., Founding Director, Pax Educare, Inc., The Connecticut Center for Peace Education

Hartford, Connecticut June 2007

Out of concern that our present pedagogical efforts so often do not provide our students with appropriate skills to deal with complex problems using systems approaches, and out of deep concern for the future of our planet, a group of educators, part of a loose association called CACE, Connecticut Alliance of Concerned Educators, applied for and received funding for a Community Conversation on educating for global sustainability. Our Conversation was held in June 2007, hosted by Watkinson School, a local private, independent day school in Hartford, Connecticut, one of whose administrators was on our planning team, and who is the board chair of Pax Educare, Inc. Our aim was to integrate our work into the educational initiatives occurring worldwide through UNESCO and the Decade for Education for Sustainable Development.

   Our concerns were that the complex nature of understanding and dealing with global sustainability requires educational approaches which move beyond focusing exclusively on issues related to the environment. A more holistic approach is needed, to include issues of economics, peace and justice and social concerns. Youth need to feel that their actions can have an impact on making change, in the midst of issues that are quite complex and can engender difficult emotions, such as fear and helplessness.

  Funding for the Conversation was provided by the League of Women Voters of Connecticut, whose funding came from a Connecticut based family foundation, the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund. The LWV provided mentoring throughout the planning process. The planning team consisted of 20 individuals, educators from both formal and informal settings, students and concerned individuals from the community. We tried to get as much diversity as possible in our planning team, ethnically, geographically, socioeconomically and in age.

  Each member was charged with the task of extending specific invitations to 5 individuals to the Conversation, keeping in mind our goal of diversity. We had additional publicity in the form of a web site, a newspaper notice and publicity among each of the planning team’s own networks. We ended up with over 90 people at the event, representing a culturally and economically diverse group, including teachers, school administrators, students, parents, home schoolers and immigrants. We had children as young as age 2 participating.

  The aim was not to provide the audience with solutions, but the purpose of the Conversation was to give a space, within a uniform format throughout small groups and large group gatherings, to voice concerns and to come up with ideas of how to address issues related to education for global sustainability. Some of the ideas we incorporated were based on the UNESCO Education for Sustainable Toolkit (web site listed below).

  One of the challenges we faced was the use of the term “sustainability”. It means many things to different people. We tried hard to define this, within the context of our using it. The idea of the Conversation was to not provide a forum/outlet for fear, anger and hopelessness, but to focus on positive, concrete ways individuals within their own communities might move forward in the light of the very many global challenges we face with regard to our planetary future.

The following queries guided our planning:
(1) what kind of lifestyle would we like for ourselves and for our children 20-40 years hence?
(2) what will the world community need to be like to deal with resource scarcity?
(3) what kind of education do our children need to cope with these issues?
(4) what can we do locally to begin implementing changes in education to provide our children with the capacities to deal with the future?

    The Conversation lasted 4 hours. We gathered in the late afternoon for a light meal, provided by a local vegan juice bar, whose owner was part of the planning team. Food served was organic and locally grown. Networking began over food, and soon after we gathered for a large group introduction, in the school’s attractive amphitheater, beginning with a brief power point. This powerpoint was developed by a key member of the planning team, who is also at this time maintaining the web site (listed below). The idea was to help people understand, as much as possible in a brief time, some of the complexities of the issues, without engendering fear and a feeling of powerlessness.

  Participants had been divided into small groups of about 20 each prior to the event to maximize diversity in age, gender, socio-economic status, ethnic and culture. Moderators for each group had gone through a 5-hour training with the funding organization, and each group had a recorder who also had been trained.
The planners had come up with four choices for the conversation that were introduced into each group, each of which was more like a focus for points of discussion, to guide group dialogue: curriculum, school community, green schools and community programs. Any or all of these topics could be addressed within each group setting. Ground rules for each group were set, including equal participation, listening with respect, each person having an opportunity to speak, agreeing to disagree, disagree with ideas, not people and to stay on task. One of the tasks in each group was to come up with areas of agreement, to find common ground, as well as disagreement.
Following the small group discussions, we convened again as a whole and groups reported back on their process, listing key areas which would point toward future action steps. The newsprint sheets were taken home and data was compiled by a member of the planning team. The results fell into 5 following areas for future action, emailed out to the list of participants, i.e.:

1. Dialogue/advocacy with policy makers who may have stakes in education for sustainability
2. Develop activities to better address the needs of low income communities with respect to education for sustainability
3. Develop community programs through libraries, community centers and senior centers
4. Share strong existing school programs with other schools that have less developed sustainability programs
5. Set up home schoolers’ network for sharing resources and curricular ideas 

A follow-up gathering was held in October, this time held intentionally at a space in one of the lower income neighborhoods of Hartford. About a third of the former participants came, and an additional few participated who had not been part of the first group. The idea of this gathering was to continue the energy and momentum by encouraging participants to, in turn, organize their own community conversations and action projects, thus creating a sort of “domino effect”. Using a similar, though scaled down format as the June Conversation but focusing on the five action areas developed at the June Conversation, participants self selected particular groups. After a couple of hours of discussions, concrete action steps were identified. A sample of what emerged follows.

1. Dialogue/Advocacy group-focus on the university and K-12 schools, building on the strengths of initiatives that are already underway, including the “greening” of several area colleges and collaboration on peace studies initiatives to include sustainability. An intentional commitment to share ideas and resources among institutions was pledged.

2. Addressing the Needs of Low Income Communities- the group decided to start “small” with a painted trash can project (with the tentative name “Yo limpio Frog Hollow”) to initially be limited to specific blocks and then consider subsequently scaling up the project, involving as many community members as possible in this largely Latino neighborhood in Hartford.

3. Community Programs- sponsor Sustainability Support Groups using the book The Low Carbon Diet - How to Loose 5,000 Pounds as a template for groups to model. By January 2008 the group set a goal of launching a minimum of five simultaneous support groups in different towns in the Greater Hartford region.

4. Share Existing School Programs/Working With Home Schooling Networks-these groups combined, since similar motivation and interests emerged. The use of the internet as a tool for sharing and networking emerged as a strong theme. One member volunteered to work on the development of a web site.

My thanks to Bill Upholt for material used in this report.
Community Conversation web site
UNESCO Sustainability Toolkit