Building Community Through “Green” Student Engagement

“Creating communities for the future created by those of the future”

That seems like common sense. Shouldn’t those who will live in the future have a say in what is looks like? Pathetically so, seldom do they. On the contrary, the future normally is designed by those near or at retirement age often mirroring what the past was like seen through their rose-colored glasses. Young people, especially those not yet of voting age, seldom get a say in the matter. Minors are looked at more as pieces of property with few rights rather as than active civic participants with voices to be heard.

Everywhere communities systematically lose their “best and brightest” as they graduate and go off to college. This is especially problematic in rural areas. Communities can only hope they will return or they can recruit other communities’ “best and brightest” to fill their pipeline. Communities attempt to attract outsiders by mortgaging their towns with subsidies and promises to attract businesses from elsewhere – only to create unsustainable “houses of cards” supported by the fleeting benevolence of these corporate carpetbaggers concerned only for their own pocketbooks. This competition amongst neighboring towns for false hope of prosperity leads to nothing but broken relationships and broken dreams where there should be cooperation and collaboration.

From early ages our young people go to school, school they’re required to attend by law. Isolated in irrelevant silos seven hours a day, often behind locked doors – they are cut off from their community and its prospects of a future there. The connection between school and community is nonexistent. After over a decade behind these locked doors, the top students graduate (hopefully) leaving to go to college – probably never to return. They leave behind a community they never knew, not really knowing what it had to offer. They leave behind potential opportunities, opportunities often right outside the locked doors they couldn’t wait to escape from.

What if this didn’t have to happen? What if the brain drain was replaced with nurture and development? What if irrelevance was replaced engagement? What if the future of your community was built on those who were raised there? And while still young and accessible (mentally and physically), what if these future leaders had a say in what their community was going to look like? What if they had a vested interest, ownership, in their community from the start? Would they still leave? Would you have to try to attract others from elsewhere? Probably not.

Lake Mills cafeteria

The Center For Green Schools

Recently I was introduced to The Center for Green Schools via Mark Swiger. Participating “green schools” reduce the environmental impact of school facilities, both buildings and grounds, while having a positive effect on student and teacher health, and increasing environmental literacy among students and graduates. Working directly with teachers, students, administrators, and their communities, green schools create programs, resources and partnerships that transform schools into healthy environmentally conscious learning environments.

Green school learning environments show students how the connection to their environment both in school and in their community, is not only important … but imperative. And hopefully they take this awareness from their years in school and turn into to a lifetime of environmental stewardship. And through the Green Apple Day of Service program The Center for Green Schools is taking this instruction to the streets through inclusive community service projects, often those organized by students. 

Using School Sustainability as a Tool for Community

Up to this point in my discussion of Community 3.0 and my concept of community empowerment, I’ve focused on the core of civic engagement being small business. These Front Porch gathering spots are the focal point of Community 3.0‘s model for direct participation societal evolution. While I still stand by this – maybe my thinking has been too limited … stuck in one of those silos I so dread. While I’ve included schools and students, they’ve normally been limited to being recipients of the Solutions I’ve presented through the model. However one youth concept I’ve modeled is “Millennials Rising”.

“Millennials Rising” is an opportunity for a community to listen to and utilize the younger generational perspective. Under the model young people, often students, are given an organized to debate, formulate and present issues relevant to not only them as an age group but also the community as a whole. Through the Anti-Congress, younger generations are given a physical forum to strategize how they can be a positive part of their community, beyond the walls of their schools. These students will have the opportunity to beautify their community and make it more sustainable. As “foot soldiers of change,” the young participants of “Millennial Rising” will be empowered to create a community that fits their needs and desires, not just those of their parents and their parents’ friends. 

Our idea of civic infrastructure needs to be broadened. Think more of it as a Cerebral Infrastructure.” By this I mean accommodation for the physical and mental spaces self-employed and small business owners (young and old) need to congregate, collaborate and create – molding the future for themselves and those around them. They want coworking sites and makerspaces. The Millennial generation wants bike paths and sidewalks and trees. They want places. They want their towns, cities and neighborhoods designed for them and their fellow residents … not for cars. They don’t want to be an afterthought, a nuisance to the automobile culture of their parents and grandparents. We need to look beyond tradition and what worked in the past to “now and ahead.” What might have worked a decade ago, may be obsolete today, let alone tomorrow. Hell, maybe their parents and grandparents would even like these new places too given the opportunity.

It’s easy to envision the benefits a project like “Millennials Rising” would have for the young people and students involved. These benefits would also extend to their peers since their futures and needs coincide.

But we can’t understate the benefits that would be had by the community as a whole.

Not only would the community be best positioned to prosper in the future, increased community retention rates in the younger generations would fill employment pipelines. This is especially important in smaller towns and rural communities where much of the work force is reaching retirement. This fact is amplified by the demographic realities of the extraordinary large Baby Boomer generation and their average age being seventy years old. Combine the thinning of the labor pool and increasing health needs of this age group – the health industry in particular is in the middle of an employment shortage crisis. Darren Walker, St. Vincent Healthcare vice president for human resources, hears from job candidates that Billings (where I live) lacks the infrastructure they expect. St. Vincent is the second largest healthcare organization in the Montana and Billings has a population of 100,000. Imagine the problems smaller communities have retaining or attracting young talent.

At present in Billings, Montana, the lead city planner is composing a twenty year long-term plan for the community. While on face value this process may seem prudent, a closer look shows it to be very problematic. To begin with, the planner is retiring later this year. What accountability does she have in it if she’s not going to be around to see its execution? Shouldn’t the one doing the creating also be the one implementing it?

During the course of the plan’s creation, she’s held public input meetings. In a recent meeting she was surprised at the public’s insistence on the inclusion of sections on education and conservation, neither of which she included originally. This is alarming, especially in regards to young generations, where these two areas hold very high priority. In addition, there’s been no indication any efforts to include these younger people in the drafting of it. These are the people who will have to live with this plan (if they chose to stay).

The Billings’ head planner, and indirectly the rest of the city’s leadership, is taking an approach that is the antithesis of what I’m proposing here. And it’s not a stretch to imagine the adverse effects it will have on the retention of young talent in the future.

While “Millennials Rising” attempts to include young people in civic decision-making and placemaking by giving them an organized voice, there is still the process of reaching out to them – extending that welcoming hand from the community. This is easier said than done. But what if they came in unison – as leaders in their own right coming from a place that was an example of progressive sustainability and forward thinking. What if they came from the green schools they attend or have attended bringing with them their knowledge of “how to do it” in an environmentally positive manner. And what if they came as active participants willing to help the community for everyone. Two excellent examples of how this can work would be a collaborative between a Green Apple Day of Service program and the worldwide clean-up effort put together by Let’s Do It! World, of which I’m coordinating for the United States.

Building Community through Student Engagement

What if we took “progressive sustainability and forward thinking” to include all aspects of a community’s well-being. What if we created a systemic approach of integrating the future needs of the community with those of the students as well as the current adults. And what if we made it a priority to identify points of engagement that would connect each individual student with an aspect of their community where they feel they can involve themselves with and make a positive contribution. These “points of engagement” would represent ownership in their community, present and future. They would then want to see it through to the end while becoming a long-term fixture in the community … a community they helped design and build from the time they were young.

Suppose you were designing a school to help students find their own clear end — as clear as that one. Say you were designing a school to elevate and intensify longings. Wouldn’t you want to provide examples of people who have intense longings? Wouldn’t you want to encourage students to be obsessive about worthy things? Wouldn’t you discuss which loves are higher than others and practices that habituate them toward those desires? Wouldn’t you be all about providing students with new opportunities to love? (“Putting Grit In Its Place” David Brooks, New York Times)

Now imagine if these “opportunities to love” where connected if not embedded in the community where the students live. The concept of triadic closures stresses the importance of a three-way bond. Relationships that extended to three connections are much stronger and more resilient. The triadic relationship between students, small businesses and the adult residents in a community provides the foundation for a community – today and tomorrow. Building off the knowledge they learned in their sustainable green schools, students can cement their bond with the real pillars of the community, locally owned business through collaborate civic projects or Solutions. These relationships will also serve in a mentoring and apprenticeship capacity, to be taken advantage in the future as employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. This triad closure will create an integrated partnership that will form the basis of a community’s well-being efforts.

“Just as important as the actual accomplishment of creating a new asset for the community is the message sent to people living there: Good things can happen in this place. One of the biggest problems for poor communities, is that “we teach young people to measure success by how far they can get away from these neighborhoods.”

It’s absolutely crucial to let people know, “you don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to have a better one.” (Majora Carter — a strategy consultant, entrepreneur and grassroots real estate developer who played a pivotal role in bringing back New York’s South Bronx)

Solo flower

The Roadmap to Your Community’s Future

Imagine your community not populated by silos and generational division. Imagine your community being designed and built for all its citizens, regardless of age or status. “Building Community Through Student Engagement” is a plan to do just that.

  • Increased school performance: Create an environment for students that seamlessly connects schools to the outside community resulting higher engagement and performance (i.e. graduation rates).
  • Higher talent retention levels: Create an integrated community building platform that breaks down silos and connects students with adults for collaborative activities that transform communities into future looking places students will build on after they graduate.
  • Enhanced elderly care resources: Create an integrated community perspective that transcends generations ultimately helping older residents as much as younger as more elderly health care is needed due to demographic changes.
  • Increased environmental resourcefulness: Play off Green Schools to create a community mindset of conservation and resource maximization regardless of generation.
  • Expanded worldwide contribution: Create a foundation for students to build a better world as a whole for themselves and others by introducing them to sustainable practices and connection to the community and beyond.

Not all communities look to the future. They want to remember the past, even though that past may not have been quite as rosy as they would like to think. Change is hard. Handing over the reigns to the next generation is not a science, but an art. But whether we know it or not there is an artist in each one of us. Sometimes we just have to let those coming after us with their naive optimism, show us.

Let’s take those rose-colored glasses we’ve used to look to past … and give them to our children and grandchildren so they can point them to the future. We may even enjoy the ride.

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You reach me on Twitter at @clayforberg and the Center for Green Schools at @mygreenschools.

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As a part of the Community 3.0 platform we’ve put together a roster of several examples of what can come from Front Porch collaborations. These examples represent Solutions to many common needs and opportunities a community may encounter, Solutions that can bind the relationships between the generations – young and old alike.

 

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