State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


How the Eco Ambassador Program is Transforming Environmental Education

youths holding signs supporting environmental causes
In September 2019, many Eco Ambassadors took part in a ‘Fridays for Future’ strike at Bauer Center, Millburn, NJ. Photo: Radhika Iyengar

Two and a half years ago, Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Development embarked upon an environmental education initiative that envisioned building a bottom-up, grassroots movement to equip young people with skills to address the environmental crises they see in their communities. It would do this by tapping into social networks and informal connections.

Led by Radhika Iyengar, Haein Shin and Tara Stafford Ocansey, the Center for Sustainable Development’s Education team saw environmental challenges from a local perspective and thought the topics and the solutions should be local as well. The team conducted its first environmental education meeting in 2018 at a public library in the community of Millburn, New Jersey — a suburban area with abundant informal networks and social capital — and the Eco Ambassador Program was born.

The Eco Ambassador approach incorporates two ideas: How do you use science to inform your day-to-day decisions, and what are the skills required to become an environmnetal advocate in your community? These two principles lay the foundation for the Eco Ambassador programmatic framework as developed by the Center for Sustainable Development (CSD) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University.

The first environmental education workshop kicked off with a sharing session on why the environment matters at all to each participant. The goal was to raise awareness about environmental challenges while facilitating the connections between and networking of community members that want to share knowledge and engage in hands-on projects to improve their immediate environments and contribute to larger, more systemic solutions. The overall framework of the program was to merge science knowledge with eco-activism, including a Design for Change model of “Feel, Imagine, Do, Share” to guide participants from imagining to executing an environment-themed project.

Around 20 youth of all ages discussed their own topics of interest and passions, ranging from plastic-free public school cafeterias, a single-use plastic ban, recycled electronic batteries, recycling bins and waste bin segregation for school playgrounds, community-wide composting awareness, and more. The students took on their passion projects, conducted interviews, researched on the internet, spoke to scientists at Columbia University, asked questions to experts and practitioners, and finally presented their work at the 2019 International Conference on Sustainable Development at Columbia University. The program has continued thus far with a vibrant community researching, connecting with Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists, doing community-based work, advocating and helping to form policies at the township level. Many Eco Ambassadors presented their public comments and posters at a meeting when a single-use plastic ban resolution was being discussed at the Town Hall.

New agendas emerged as a natural response to organically emerging needs. Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future inspired a big strike in the small town of Millburn. Many Eco Ambassadors and their parents decided to walk out of school. The school district’s superintendent sent out a note on safety concerns and it was clear that the movement was district-wide. The town’s Green Committee, the Environmental Commission and the School Parent Teacher Organization Committees Green team all worked together, boosted with the social and environmental capital that we had created.

From the modest origins of CSD’s Eco Ambassador Program, many more community-wide, action-oriented research projects have taken place in Millburn, with spin-offs in high schools and middle schools in Connecticut and New York. The activities increased as the needs increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students were eager to talk every day at 4pm on topics as wide-ranging as art therapy and art-as-activism, citizen science, energy efficiency, nutrition, and eating local. The program now has more than 40 session videos that are shared regularly among community members, which can be viewed on our Education for Sustainable Development YouTube Channel. An article documenting the Eco Ambassador Program was recently published in UNESCO’s Prospect journal.

This community-based concept organically transformed into youth activism and workshops that are organized by the Center for Sustainable Development. Every community has a unique identity which is formed by its people, history and its physical landscape. Its richness of knowledge can be leveraged in many ways. CSD’s youth-led workshop brought many of these local perspectives and contributed to the richness of its discussions. The workshop agenda included topics that the youth are interested in and helps young activists practice and build concrete skills for advocacy, including goal setting, community mapping, campaign planning, storytelling, lobbying, messaging, and volunteer recruitment.

Based on this grassroots initiative that defined its own needs and set its own agenda, another offshoot program sprang up as a means to utilize the community education framework for addressing public health concerns at the community level. In partnership with New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Uptown Hub, a Public Health and Community Education track was created within the Hub’s Learn-Try-Apply program to envision community-based education strategies to address students’ public health concerns.

In a little over a year, the Eco Ambassador Program has reached over 100 active participants of all ages (5 years to 50-plus) through its various workshops, events and activities, and around 500 engaged through the videos and remote activities spanning multiple continents. Going forward, the program will expand its outreach using social and environmental pillars of activism, citizen science and policy advocacy as its tools.

The journey so far into CSD’s Eco Ambassador Program model has shown that environmental education is successful if it is based locally, organically developed, and designed to leverage social networks that are committed to the cause with the genuine intention of fostering and cultivating personal, social and professional relationships. These relationships help to support one another and continue to grow their base of committed activists and allied decision-makers in the continued endeavor. These interactions need to be based on the right combination of individual passion, local community knowledge, and scientific, engaging facts and knowledge about key issues, that leverage the interests of individuals into collective purpose and knowledge, and facilitate action toward local sustainability solutions. Our overarching goal is to build a sense of community and shared responsibility. This approach combining action with community-building can push forward and sustain budding activists’ desire for further action into practical and meaningful activism over the long-term.

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