Environmental Leadership: Why It Isn’t Easy To Explain What It Is We Do

Environmental Leadership: A Students Perspective On Sustainable Summer and Why It Isn’t Easy To Explain What It Is We Do

We recently published the 2017 issue of Amaranthus: The Journal of Youth Environmental Leadership. In it, one of our alumni, Layla, now a college student at Bucknell University, reflects on her experience in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

She writes:

Our job was to trek through the jungle under the watchful eyes of the forest while pretending to make a difference. We debated oil drilling in the Amazon as if we were doing something about it. The eyes of the forest laughed at us as we passionately argued with the wind for the forest’s right to exist.

When I returned to America, enlightened by my experience, I was asked a simple question: ‘What did you do?’ I didn’t have an answer.

Layla goes on to articulate in a very profound and introspective way just how impactful the program was for her. However, the fact that she couldn’t provide an easy response to the simple question of “What did you do while in Ecuador?” and pondered the appropriateness of debate in lieu of “taking action” is actually not that unusual.

This summer, thousands of high school students will travel to another country to study a language or engage in a volunteer project. Those experiences beget easy responses to the “what did you do” question: I practiced my Spanish in a homestay or I helped paint a school.

Layla could probably have responded with something along the lines of “I studied environmental issues in the Amazon,” and that would have been a somewhat accurate assessment of the experience that most people would understand. But it is also inadequate.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Sustainable Summer is that it is a program only for “environmentalists” and students that plan to study environmental science or a related field in college. However, we believe that strong environmental leaders must also be “global citizens” and much of our program is actually designed around these principles. But if Layla had returned to the US and told people that she had spent two weeks learning about global citizenship in the Amazon, she would surely have been met with a more quizzical look than if she had mumbled something about studying environmental issues or simply said nothing at all.

This leads me to the related dilemma expressed by Layla – that by traveling to the rainforest and passionately debating approaches to conservation one is only just pretending to make a difference, but not actually doing anything about it.

As educators, our responsibility is to prepare students to act in ethical and informed ways in the future academic and professional careers. We certainly ask students to “make a difference,” but to do so in the context of their own communities – not the Amazon rainforest. Instead, we leverage that experience of being in the rainforest to foment understanding of how the world works; commit to participation communities, locally and globally; respect and value diversity; and develop an appreciation of the necessity and difficulty of making ethical choices, among many other “global citizenship” program goals.

In other words, we’re preparing students for the long haul, which is perhaps not so much in vogue these days of 140 character tweets, billion dollar tech start-ups, and the ever-present mirror of social media where peers seem to be always “doing something” more important than you. But we think it is important. If you’re a parent, student, or educator that agrees with us, we invite you to learn more about our program’s objectives and see if it could be a good fit for you.