Learning What Works in Community Sustainability Education

An Ecological Model for Whole Community Sustainability Education
In the last five months, our small city has had the privilege of hosting two of the most outspoken voices on the Internet regarding peak oil, climate change and financial collapse. In April, Nicole Foss spoke to an overflow crowd on debt deflation and building ‘lifeboats.’ In July, Guy McPherson spoke to a capacity crowd on climate change and some predicted consequences. Both talks had the following in common:
• the dominant hair colors of audience members were white and grey;
• most audience members left scared shitless;
• building community resilience is important in the face of climate extremes, energy price volatility, and financial collapse.

Nicole Foss and Raul Ilargi Meijer at our home in April. 
Raul Ilargi Meijer had some interesting back-of-the-house commentary on the first two of these during Nicole’s excellent talk, and shared the story of a community project in Australia that had recently impressed him. But like James Howard Kunstler and other Cassandras on the web, Guy, Nicole and Raul are much better at providing detailed commentary on the potential problems we face than detailed descriptions of how to respond to those problems. I do not see this as a flaw in their approach, but simply as outside their niche in what might be called the resiliency movement. Where these talented thinkers and writers leave off, others pick up. Like any natural ecosystem, diversity in the resiliency movement contributes to robustness and integrity.
But still the question remains: If building community resilience is a sound prescription, what does it look like and how does one make it happen? The Transition Movement offers some frameworks, but the Transition Town model failed in our city four years ago, and most people involved in it avoid talking about what happened. For our community, some different approaches to community resilience appear to be needed. One can find an endless stream of ideas and suggestions on the web that could theoretically work, but few case stories of actual successful initiatives or replicable models based on real experience.
With this in mind, we set out less than two years ago on a project to learn what actually works in our community, and to develop a replicable model for other communities to use as they see fit. The journey has been one of discovery and humility. Many of the ‘sure things’ we thought would work turned out to be complete failures, but other ‘shots-in-the-dark’ found traction in the community. Theory does not equal practice, and pre-conceived notions appear to be less useful than remaining open to any possibility. Ours is an ecological model for whole community sustainability education that is holistic, cooperative and adaptive.

Our first eco-thrifty renovation open house.  
The model is holisticin that it seeks to include every learner in our community from age one to 101, from unemployed to wealthy, from liberal to conservative, in formal and informal settings, and on multiple levels. The model remains open to any possibility that presents itself in a cooperative and adaptive manner, and to any potential partnership no matter how unlikely it may appear on the surface. So far, partnerships have included religious groups, health organizations, adult education centers, Maori groups, private businesses, community groups, newspapers, athletic organizations, schools, permaculture groups, and even the YMCA.

Teaching the science of sustainability to a home school group.  
As implied by this list, the model is cooperative in that it seeks out partnerships within the community for initiatives. It is designed to mimic mutualistic relationships between organisms in nature where both parties benefit. It seeks synergy in relationships where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Working together shares the load, and also surrounds us with positive people working for genuine change. Where mutualism and synergy do not exist, initiatives are abandoned, or as described next, modified.

 Aberfeldy School visits The Little House That Could. 
Finally, the model is adaptive in that each initiative must meet the above criteria for cooperative partnership or it will not ‘survive’ in that form. In an evolutionary sense, each initiative starts as the seed of an idea that is shared with members of the community. If the idea finds a partnership, it may proceed to become an initiative. If it does not, it is unlikely to be initiated unless revised. We recognize that in the process of evolution the vast majority of genetic mutations fail. This failure is not necessarily bad, only natural. Looking to nature for our ecological model of community education, we accept a high failure rate of ideas because we know that those that succeed and proceed as initiatives are the most robust in practice, not just in theory.

Sister Noelene talks worms on a community permaculture tour. 
We feel our model and the findings from applying that model may be useful to members of other communities on two levels. The first level involves using ecological design thinking to design an approach to whole community sustainability education as discussed above. Because this model is holistic, cooperative and adaptive, it can be applied to any community in the world. The second level on which others may be interested in this model is through the stories of the many successful community educational initiatives we have implemented over the last 18 months. The case stories illustrate the processes by which different initiatives went through, as well as describe the initiatives themselves. At present we can count over a dozen educational community sustainability initiatives, as listed below.
Connecting with teens at the Youth Forum. 
Over the coming months we will describe many of these initiatives, and in the process shed more light on our ecological model for community education. As always, we seek feedback and mutually beneficial partnerships to advance the model further.
Donated topsoil for the community garden in our front yard. 
Current community sustainability education initiatives:
Eco-Thrifty Renovation
       Blog (www.ecothriftydoup.blogspot.com)
       Open Homes
       Garden Tours
       Workshops
       Newspaper Articles
       Weekly Newspaper Column
Sustainable Schools Programme – In partnership with the Sustainable Whanganui Trust and funding from the Wanganui District Council.
       The Science of Sustainability
       Solar Sausage Sizzle
Whole Community Holistic Approach to Conservation, Health, and Education Now (WCHA RCHEN – Wacha Reckon?) Network of professionals working in these fields.
Whanganui Youth Sustainability Leadership Project (aka Keen Green Teens) – In partnership with the Sisters of Saint Joseph and the Sustainable Whanganui Trust, with funding from the municipal Waste Minimization Levy.
Castlecliff Conservation Club – Supported by the Port Bowen Trust.
Kaitiakitanga Community Garden – Supported by Loaders Landscape Supplies, Wanganui Garden Centre, Central Tree Crops Assoc., Bristol Seeds, and the Sustainable Whanganui Trust.
Zero Waste Events – Partnering with the YMCA and the New Zealand Master’s Games, with funding from the Positive Futures Trust.
Wanganui Permaculture Tour – In conjunction with the Australasian Permaculture Convergence 11, and Permaculture in New Zealand.
Wanganui Monthly Permaculture Gathering – In cooperation with the Sustainable Whanganui Trust.
Kaiwhaiki Eco-Village Planning – With the Kaiwhaiki Pa Trust
Community Education Evenings – In cooperation with the Sisters of Saint Joseph and the Sustainable Whanganui Trust.
Contact Nelson Lebo via theecoschool@gmail.com

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