Engaging Young People to Improve the Environment with Earth Force’s Dr. Lisa Bardwell

November 7, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Dr. Lisa Bardwell. She’s the President and CEO for Earth Force. Welcome to Green is Good, Lisa. DR. LISA BARDWELL: Thank you so much for having us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re so happy to have you on today and share all of the great work you are doing at Earth Force. But before we get there, you have a fascinating journey to share with us leading up to becoming the President and CEO of Earth Force. Can you share with our listeners a little bit about your story and journey leading up to Earth Force, and how you even got here? DR. LISA BARDWELL: Sure. I’m a recovering academic, and my dissertation, actually, was really focused on being so concerned that the way we think and present environmental issues in the classroom and in our communities is often so big and overwhelming that people kind of throw up their hands and say, “I’m going to live for today. I don’t think I can figure out a way to help make a difference.” My dissertation, actually, looked at how you present issues and how people think about them and work on them in a way that is exciting, reinforcing, and optimistic. Well, I was introduced to Earth Force at the very beginning in 1997, when they were developing local sites, and lo and behold, the educational strategy that Earth Force uses engages young people in approaching environmental issues in the way that my dissertation told me ought to work and be effective. For the last 17 years, I can tell you that process that we help people use to work together on environmental issues works. It validates the research and the kind of geeky stuff I did in a real world context, and I couldn’t be more excited at getting to bridge that and to really try and help address issues in communities I care a lot about, about issues I care a lot about, and getting to work with young people who I really care deeply about. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just so wonderful. When did you join Earth Force, Lisa? DR. LISA BARDWELL: It was started in 1994 by Pew Charitable Trusts. I joined it in 1997. JOHN SHEGERIAN: 1997. So, you’ve been there running the organization for now 17 years. DR. LISA BARDWELL: It’s a little more complicated. At the time, I helped start a local site in Denver, and then in 2008, maybe, I was asked to run the national organization, so it had local offices and a national entity, and I worked at the local site and built that up in Denver, Colorado, for the first about 10 years. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. For our listeners out there that would like to follow along and learn more about Earth Force, please go to earthforce.org. Share with our listeners, please, the mission and what actually is going on at your great organization, Earth Force, Lisa. DR. LISA BARDWELL: I think the big vision of Earth Force is that we have a nation where young people are really actively involved. They’re sitting at the table and helping make decisions and positive change in their environment and their communities and schools. So, our mission is that we engage young people as active citizens who improve the environment and communities now and in the future. The thing that I think I am really excited and pleased about the work we do is that we recognize that you can’t just throw a program at an educator or a community partner or a group of young people and think that they can accomplish that, that our other commitment is to really working at a community level and bringing together those entities, be they businesses, faith-based, schools, other nonprofits, so the grown-ups, to be honest, to get their act together to really create a shared platform for young people to step into leadership roles to effect change in their communities. We’re convinced we don’t have to wait until you’re 18 to be a change agent and to bring marvelous energy and creativity and commitment to addressing some of the issues that we face. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so great. What does Earth Force mean? Everyone has different definitions of environment, of sustainability. How does Earth Force define environment, and how does health figure into that entire holistic definition? DR. LISA BARDWELL: Sure. So, we’ve kind of adopted the environmental justice definition of environment, which is really very place-based, so it’s the place where we work, play, and learn, some people add pray. So, it really grounds our work in young people looking at what is around them. When you do that, especially if you’re working in urban settings, that’s going to include clean air, clean water, the ability to recreate, to be able to have safe places to walk, so clean indoor air. At that point, you begin to really think about not only the environment as that kind of natural animals, trees, you really begin to think about how does that affect humans and the life and the quality of life that we have in our communities? I have to credit young people for really pushing that in our growth and our understanding about how we do this work because their process that we support and train adults to facilitate with young people starts with a community inventory and young people looking at what are some of the strengths and what are some of the challenges in their communities. Inevitably, they come back with those kinds of issues that really touch very directly on human health. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Explain what you mean in terms of it’s project based and how you engage youths into projects to create platforms that give them opportunities to become young leaders. DR. LISA BARDWELL: Our process is really focused on kind of the notion of we have a very deep commitment to being a democratic nation and really helping build those civics skills. The process is really six steps, and we train and support formal and informal educators and partners in really supporting this. It’s a group of young people who work together to go from identifying an issue in their community that they care about, that’s so critical. They’ve got to be passionate about it, and helping them figure out how to really look at the political and social landscape in their communities to figure out who do we need to work with to address this issue? What’s been done before? What are some resources and strategies that we could use to actually effect change for the long-term? They do this in a school context. You can integrate so many of the disciplines into how the young people actually go through this process and do this work. You’ve heard me mention research skills. They have to work together. They actually have to make decisions together, but it’s around an issue that they care about, which is so critical. Then it’s also really, really important that they get to actually implementing that project, and that because we use a process that we call criteria-based decision making, they really have brought criteria to bear on their decisions, so ideally, they’ve done a project that they can accomplish in the timeframe they’re given with the resources they’re given, and that they do a reflection at the end that says, “What did we accomplish? What else needs to be done? And how do we share and celebrate the work that we’ve done?” I think an example might be more useful too, or more helpful. I’m going to pick one that I think is near and dear to maybe Electronic Recyclers International. We had a group of young people, so I said they start with an inventory. Many, many of our programs start with young people looking at a watershed in terms of a local river or a local lake. They often go out and they do water quality monitoring and they do an assessment of just the health of that body of water. These young people were doing that inventory, and noticed that their local creek really had become a dumping ground. When they did an inventory of some of the trash they collected, they realized that a lot of it was electronics. So, folks were throwing their computer screens, whatever they couldn’t dispose of, they had to pay or whatever. So, their project was to actually work with their local community to set up an electronic recycling program. So, in their mind, they’re solving the issue of addressing dumping in their local waterways by creating a community alternative that had people bringing their electronics to a more appropriate disposal strategy. We’ve had another one. We had some young people who were looking at drinking water in their community. Because this is such a balanced process, we really force them or encourage them to look at the full picture. We had young people who were worried about they discovered that there was lead in the drinking pipes in a lot of their homes. This was an older neighborhood and quite low-income. Of course, the first thing young people would think is, “Oh my gosh, we have to sue. We have to sue the water company.” But you do your balanced research, you really think about how did these systems work, and they learned, of course, that old homes had lead water in the drinking pipes, and that in many of these homes the owners were not going to be able to afford replumbing their homes. So, these young people decided they were going to target a most vulnerable population, which is pregnant women and young people under six, and they raised $5,000 to distribute water filters to 100 of those homes and of course the concomitant this is why we’re doing this and this is why it’s important. That process for those young people, it’s one of my near and dear stories. It turned a group of young people, in their school they were seventh graders. Much of their school had given up on them because they were such a disruptive, challenging class, and doing this process and realizing that they had a critical role in helping others and in changing their communities, I literally, with the results for these young people, person by person, is astonishing in terms of how it changed their perspective on their academic performance and why they’re in school, on how they work together, and on their really almost their right and responsibility to step up in their communities. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. Those are two great stories. If you have just joined us, we’ve got Dr. Lisa Bardwell with us. She’s the President and CEO of Earth Force. You can check out all their great work. You can also donate and support all their great work at www.earthforce.org. Lisa, these two critical points that I want you to discuss and share and basically define for our listeners out there that I’ve read about you and how you frame the issue and also frame the solution. You talked a little bit in your previous stories about looking at the full picture. You have really taken a holistic view of the environment. I want you to share what you mean by holistic view with regards to the stories you were just sharing, but more important, I’ve seen a term that you’ve put together called uncommon collaboratives, and I’d love you to unpack for our listeners and explain how uncommon collaboratives can be one of the keys to solution making with regards to sustainability and our environment for the months and years ahead. DR. LISA BARDWELL: When we talk about uncommon collaborative, we really are bringing to the table how critical it is that all of us, and that includes businesses, schools, parents, faith-based communities, so I’m talking at the adult level, that we really get our act together and figure out how to share an agenda and a vision for working together. The uncommon collaborative is really — and I think we’ve dedicated ourselves in the last few years to really trying to figure out how do you get those entities in a room to figure out how are we going to collectively bring the resources, the expertise, the energy, and a shared vision to really get something done? In working with young people, I’ve seen how frustrating it can be when you cannot figure out how to navigate the system because there’s people who are territorial, they’re in silos, and they’re not talking to each other. One of our efforts is, and the image I have of it, is that — and we have a beautiful graphic of this on the website — is that we’ve got these organizations and entities holding up a world where young people really can play a deep and profound leadership role in shaping the future of our communities. But if we don’t do that together, if we don’t commit to creating that uncommon collaborative, it’s very, very difficult, not only for young people, obviously, but for all of us. If some of you have heard of the term of collective impact, it’s not new, but there is definitely a movement of folks recognizing that we are so much more powerful and have so much more potential in accomplishing something if we get over those barriers and the silos we create, and figure out how to work together. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love that. I’m on your website now. For our listeners again who want to support and learn more about Earth Force, it’s earthforce.org. I’m on the website. You have Green Schools Connect. Can you explain Green Schools Connect and the green efforts you’re making with youth and how that’s also moving the needle? DR. LISA BARDWELL: Yes. So, Green Schools Connect, if you imagine this world where we’re creating this uncommon collaborative, one of the places where that uncommon collaborative could so move the needle, is around schools. Green Schools Connect is really an effort to build an uncommon collaborative that supports school districts in becoming more sustainable. That means our moniker is that we envision all schools as shining examples of sustainability. Not only are schools a centerpiece in our communities and exemplars of that, but we’ve actually helped schools move the needle, not only on purchasing and operations, but on an integration of curriculum around sustainability, a culture that embraces that, and young people helping drive how our schools function at that level. If you think of a school, the heartbeats that are in a school are young people. Their behavior and their commitment to the sustainability and the sustainable practices of their schools are what are going to really, really make those changes. What Green Schools Connect does is it’s a regional effort that brings together six to eight school district teams across, again, that uncommon collaborative, purchasing, operations, curriculum, parents, young people, to really work together with teams from the corporate sector, government agencies, nonprofits, to really think about what are some explicit projects that they can work together on to begin to change how school districts approach sustainability. We’ve done our first one in Minneapolis, and we’ll be rolling out two in January and February in Denver and New Jersey. I hope I’ve captured the excitement of getting that cohort of folks in a room to dream about how they can change the policies and practices, and really sharing strategies that can transform and save money, of course, for their schools and school districts. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We have about two minutes left, Lisa. Can you share what events you have coming up of importance that you’d like our listeners to know about? DR. LISA BARDWELL: We are celebrating our 20th anniversary this year, and we’re very excited about that because as a nonprofit, we’ve made it. It’s also the 25th anniversary of a very wonderful partnership we’ve had with General Motors, where we work in every community in the U.S. and Canada where they build something, and support this collaborative partnership program to engage young people. As I mentioned before, we have the Green Schools Connect events coming up in Denver and New Jersey in early 2015. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great. That is just awesome. For our listeners out there who want to learn more, go to earthforce.org. Lisa, this is the last minute-and-a-half. I’m going to leave it to you for any shameless plugs or anything you want to discuss for our youth around there from around the world, not only in the United States, any pearls of wisdom or any other last thoughts you want to have for our listeners. DR. LISA BARDWELL: I think I want to say, and this is my voice to adults, that one of the challenges to youth engagement in environmental issues is us, in that we need to really begin to embrace the opportunity and create space for young people to step up, because they’re energetic, creative and hardworking, and care deeply about the present and the future. I hope folks will join me in that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s awesome. I hope they do. To join Lisa, please go to earthforce.org. Support, learn more about, and get with their program. Lisa, thank you for improving sustainability through uncommon collaboratives. You are truly living proof that green is good. DR. LISA BARDWELL: Thank you. Take care.