Reflections on the first few steps towards a mission
“Can you point to the direction towards Tahiti?” asked Mau.
Nainoa pointed to the ‘star direction’ – south-southeast.
“Can you see the island?”
Nainoa said, “I cannot see the island, but I can see the image of the island in my mind.”
“Good,” said Mau. “Don’t even lose that image or you will be lost.”
An image was being conceived in my mind after 11 months of a total immersion fellowship spread across eight countries around the world. Affected by the destruction of environment and forests since childhood and inspired by stories (such as revival of Polynesian way-finding), I envisioned a million young people becoming environmental educators, re-envisioning environmental education in schools, and connecting millions of children to nature through eco-literacy.
This is mathematically possible. In India, 65% of the youth are below 35 years of age. This is a staggering 86 million and 730,000 young people! If a million of them – about 1/8th of this population – become environmental educators, a powerful youth-led environmental education movement can be created in schools. This, in turn, will lead to communities of active citizens taking care of earth.
This is practically achievable too. There are enough open-source learning materials on nature, though they might be worded differently – eco-literacy, environment, sustainability, conservation, permaculture and many more. There are hundreds of amazing educators too. The best practices, principles and facilitation tools to connect students with nature emerge from such people. In addition to these, many schools are now receptive to host-sustained environmental education programmes that not only highlight environmental values but also benefit the personal development of students.
However, bringing them together requires us to transcend ego and logo boundaries and what’s-in-it-for-me boundaries to move towards “What is best for the society and the world at large?” These thoughts in today’s volatile world become chaotic, especially when dealing with trans-disciplinary challenges in areas of environment, education, youth development and early childhood education. In such a scenario, the best practices emerge when we sense, respond and take action.
So, I took action when I came back to India after my fellowship. Having worked with children for over eight years, I launched a non-profit, citizen-action initiative called YOUCAN. Unfortunately, I had to call myself ‘the founder’, though I am actually a lead coordinator in creating a space for citizens to take part in environmental education.
Along with the support of a diverse community from a few parts of the world, we started to develop a youth-led environmental education volunteering programme called YOUCAN Ambassadors. We invited young people with an inclination to apply to this programme, save the environment and work with children in schools. An online soft launch received seven applications! We analysed the motivational factors that led them to fill a detailed application.
“I applied because I longed for sessions on nature during school. I aspire to revive my institution’s nature club,” said the first applicant.
“The Environmental Science class, as I remember from my school days, was something we saw as ‘another piece on pollution’ that we had to learn for some easy marks. Only later did I realise how vast, important and interesting the field was,” said the second applicant.
“I believe that change starts from the classrooms and educating the next generation of children about eco-literacy will be the first step towards the conservation of our environment,” said the third applicant.
Some were a part of beach clean-ups. One of them had conducted outreach programmes in schools. Some had no prior experience but were willing to learn.
Sensing a pattern in their motivational factors, I felt that the programmes too should stem from their motivation. I thought, “Why don’t we give some of the best practices, principles and resources and guide young people to design their own programmes? How can we craft a self-discovery process that enables them to find the storyteller and teacher in them?”
While asking such questions during the interviews, many issues were raised by the young Ambassadors. These issues concerned gaining knowledge on environment and conservation, the lack of guidance in designing a curriculum, retaining the attention of students, designing an engaging classroom and outdoor experience, working with different age-groups, facilitating citizen science projects and public speaking. While combining these through a volunteering programme would be an ambitious task, overcoming many of the challenges are possible with the available expertise.
But, at the same time volunteer-participation for such a programme is complex. Ambassadors have to design sessions, learn both content and facilitation approaches, approach a school, get the permission to volunteer two hours a month, introduce nature to children, facilitate activities, review their work, evaluate their progress – and finally, organise an ‘open day’ through which the students’ work is shown to a larger community.
Are these possible? I don’t know. What I do know is that we can identify, nurture and support the youth to become environment leaders. Can’t we find a hundred promising individuals to begin with, among the 86 million and 730,000 youth in India?
As I write this, a promising young individual is designing his own environmental education program that can inspire Ambassadors to work on their own. A dear colleague from Brazil is developing a training manual for the youth to become environmental education facilitators. Another dear colleague with many years of experience as a non-profit programme manager will be stepping in with her expertise, during the interim period. A nature center in Hawaii where I volunteered is helping us build outdoor nature-education pedagogies that can be used by people to form self-sustaining communities and connecting students and families with nature, in the process.
I am making a personal decision to pursue what I believe is right for the environment and forests I value. And I am walking with the image of a million young people becoming environmental educators, re-envisioning environmental education in schools, and connecting millions of children to nature through eco-literacy. This, in turn, will create conditions for communities to become active citizens taking care of the earth.
The author is an environmental educator and lead coordinator of the Youth Conservation Action Network.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.