By Charlena Wynn
As the environment continually changes due human activity, there is a growing need to educate Americans on how they impact the health of the earth. For most, environmental responsibility and education has largely been seen as liberal, middle class, and a product of fear. Environmentalists have not been able to reach the majority of the population as their missions and goals often alienate the general public and their concerns. The National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) has changed that rhetoric with a mission to engage and educate all through their 300 million vision. This vision does not aim to convert or produce the same type of person but to rather link public health with the health of the earth through relevant environmental concerns and green practices for communities. Using relevant approaches to environmental education contextualizes environmental concerns and helps foster long-term green practices.
“There is a role for everyone to play.” That’s what Carol Watson, Senior Vice President of Programs, wants all to realize. Small changes leading to a big impact is the goal of NEEF, an organization created through the Environmental Education Act and a compliment to the Environmental Protection Agency of 1970, and dedicated to environmental education to encourage the public to make environmentally sound choices by creating and facilitating learning that is specific to community concerns.
Envisioning 300 Million Americans
The 300 Million vision, which has set a goal for 300 million Americans to use environmental knowledge in their daily lives by 2022 to secure the health of the earth and its people is a crucial part of NEEF. This vision for the future hopes to bring about conversations about the environment and collaborative efforts. NEEF is not in the business of conversion according to Watson. Instead, it aims to educate the public on the environment in a way that takes into account the environment in which people are living.
The 300 Million Vision seeks to create a more environmentally conscious America where the general public recognizes ways in which they are already making an impact on the health of the earth and creates practices that best fits their needs. NEEF feels there is no one way to be environmentally conscious; simple acts like recycling, taking part of clean up days, or conserving energy in one’s home are important ways that all can become involved in green responsibility. By working with people where they are, NEEF has created partnerships with people and empowered communities to continue to carry out practices that benefit the health of the people and the earth.
By working with those who may not identify as environmentalists, NEEF uses what people are already doing and recognizes those activities as environmentally friendly, shares Watson. By supporting the efforts that people are already taking, NEEF has been able to garner support for their mission. Building relationships and taking an interest in community efforts is integral to organizations who want to work with the public. People are more likely to engage with organizations that create activities around personal gains. The general public can be critical to conservation efforts and NEEF wants to continue to support education and engagements of culturally and environmentally relevant activities and programs for diverse communities. “We are willing to meet people where they are and what’s relevant for their communities,” states Watson. This entails programming and partnerships with corporations that highlight the efforts of the general public and center environmental justice on health benefits and personal advances. Creating apps for environmental education and encouraging teen-driven learning in STEM with customizable tools and technologies are just some of the many ways NEEF is creating a more accessible environmental education approach. Personal health within green efforts helps ground NEEF’s work with others and make the goals of 300 Million attainable as communities are able to see how the health of the earth correlates to their personal health.
The Foundation wants all to feel included in environmental justice efforts – big or small. By creating an inclusive mission, NEEF helps foster environmentally-relevant programming by way of four areas of focus: education, public health, public lands, and extreme weather.
Public Health and Partnerships
NEEF has found that educating the public and health practitioners on connections between nature and one’s well-being is beneficial in gaining support for their work. Focusing on what’s important to people helps organizations partnerships with the communities they serve. By encouraging green education, NEEF has shown communities the benefits of green living for their health, the growth of the community, and independence from fossil fuels. Ms. Watson is passionate about the benefits of solar energy for poor communities and communities of color who tend to suffer most during power outages. By using solar energy or other sustainable methods, these communities could live independently from fossil fuels which in return would save tax payer dollars and lead to greater health outcomes.
Corporate partnerships, such as Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., Samsung Electronics America, Inc., and Recreational Equipment, Inc. among others, enable NEEF to reach their goal for the 300 Million vision particularly for events surrounding Environment Education Week. Partnering with Univision has allowed for NEEF to reach Spanish speaking persons and provide culturally-sensitive environmental education to these groups. Samsung and NEEF awarded their first NEEF’s Schoolyard STEM lab to Nizhoni Elementary School in Shiprock, New Mexico. Closing the educational gap for students at Nizhoni Elementary and other schools facing similar concerns is one of the many ways NEEF uses community concerns to build relevant programming. The Schoolyard STEM lab enables students to work in an outdoor classroom to explore sustainability, aquatic life, and solar power. The Growing Dome greenhouse will be helpful for the students to make connections between the natural environment and Navajo culture. The lab provides a space for students to grow their own herbs and vegetables which can be shared with the community and used to make nutritious meals, which empowers the students and the community, and positively impacts the earth. The Schoolyard STEM has improved test scores and the general health of its students.
NEEF also uses Environment Education Week to join the nation together to focus on the environment through social media and contests. Their partnership with Nickelodeon led to the NEEF present’s “The Nickelodeon Get Dirty Challenge”, a video contest asking youth, ages 8-13, to show NEEF how they “get dirty for the environment.” Finding fun, creative ways to educate and engage the public with the environment is important to active green participation.
Educational resources and programs extend to practitioners of the health and sciences with tools necessary to help communities understand the influence of the environment on health. NEEF has trained pediatricians around the country with a focus on underserved populations and health concerns such as asthma. Healthcare providers are able to become informed leaders and understand the impact of the environments in which people are living they relate to the health outcomes for underserved communities and the general population as a whole. Providing online modules and webinars to facilitate the integration of environmental health with health care, healthcare providers and others are able to easily access the content.
The Benefits of an Environmentally Educated Country
While personal choice is important, a big outcome of NEEF’s educational programs has been its influence in inspiring the public and practitioners to lobby and influence policy change NEEF does not lobby and is nonpartisan. By helping develop and implement campaigns to equip the public with the tools to make effective change, practitioners and the public are able to work directly with policymakers. Watson states that policy is important, but educating the public to ensure on the ground action towards environmentally friendly practices are taking place is necessary as well. When the public and healthcare providers are more informed, they can make environmentally sound choices and work with policymakers on legislations that conserve and preserve public lands and enforce health conscious efforts for both the public health and the health of the earth.
Public Lands and Climate
Public lands allows for healthier outcomes for children, and cultural and national pride for the communities in which they live. Each person’s involvement leads to a great impact on land preservation. National Public Lands Day, which occurs annually the last Saturday in September, educates Americans about shared stewardship, build partnerships between the public sector and the community, and improves public lands for outdoor recreation. 175,000 people from individuals to Toyota employees participate in a day of environmental stewardship by preserving any green spaces local to their communities. This day of action totals to about $15 million in environmental stewardship work and savings. Showing the public how they can participate in preservation efforts instills pride and responsibility for community space. Protecting and preserving public lands is essential to creating safe spaces for children to play. The connections between public safety and environmental stewardship has created a stronger bond for civic responsibility concerning public spaces.
Environmental responsibility and education for NEEF is a lifelong goal particularly as it relates to climate concerns and extreme weather. Providing science-based facts on the climate allows for objective information to be circulated to NEEF’s audience. In partnership with the American Meteorological Society, NEEF has created Earth Gauge which provides environmental and climate knowledge to meteorologists to help increase the public’s knowledge to make environmentally informed decisions. This partnership allows for the public to learn about climate changes and patterns and their impact on communities, the link between environment and weather, and kid friendly activities that change topics monthly.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As for the future of the National Environmental Education Foundation, a new unit, Research and Best Practices is forming under the focus of process, awareness, building, and education. This project will compile information for the public, scientists, and practitioners on environmentally friendly efforts that are universal and easy to implement in everyday life. NEEF not only provides educational tools for civic engagement, but also financial support in the form of grants for capacity building. Financial literacy is also another component of NEEF’s financial support to encourage organizations to make smart choices for their nonprofits and programming that is green friendly and cost effective. Watson states that the grants help build organizations internal capacity to reach their goals. NEEF’s 300 Million vision is changing the way we understand and see green responsibility. By connecting people to the knowledge they use, environmentalists and other organizations can help people improve their quality of life and the health of the planet. Environmental responsibility not only means protecting green spaces, the air and water but also safeguarding the public’s health and inspiring small actions of change.
The National Environmental Education Foundation is the nation’s leading organization in lifelong environmental learning, connecting people to knowledge they use to improve the quality of their lives and the health of the planet. The 22nd Annual National Public Lands Day takes place, Saturday, September 26th, 2015. For more information on finding local public land stewardship opportunities, visit www.neefusa.org. Charlena Wynn is currently pursuing her Master’s of Arts in Liberal Studies at NC State University with a concentration in examining the construction of Blackness in contemporary United States museums.