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FEATURED ARTICLE

Taking Steps for Change by Writing about the Environment

By ANN BOMBERGER

Ann Bomberger, PhD, teaches Composition and Literature at Gannon University. The GreenEriePA.org project, which she leads with Environmental Science Professor Michelle Homan, PhD, aims to encourage citizens of Erie County PA to act on impulses for environmental good. The site aims to make it easy for people to take the next step of environmental awareness and action, whatever that may be for them. The site itself is designed to make it easy to find out recycling information, environmental groups, CSAs, green events etc in Erie County, Pennsylvania.

The enthusiasm in the room percolates: “There could be an events calendar.”

“And a Facebook page!”

“Interactive maps so that users could find bike trails and green businesses.”

“Videos!”

“Don’t forget Twitter.”

My stomach lurches.  I teach full time.  I have a child.  How am I going to keep track of all the green events in Erie County, Pennsylvania?  And run a Facebook page?  My partner from the Environmental Science department looks equally uncomfortable.  We are at a stakeholders meeting of environmental nonprofits, businesses, and governmental agencies. A meeting we called to determine the scope of http://greeneriepa.org.  How could we say “no”?  But how could we say “yes”? 

That day we were cautious about what we promised, but a year later in the year the site launched: a site with over seventy five articles on Erie County environmental assets, an events page, and a Facebook page with 119 followers.  The maps and videos are coming.  We’re still not sure about Twitter.

Many large cities have green guides that help promote community environmental assets and point users to local environmental resources (for example,
http://www.city.pittsburgh.pa.us/pw/assets/green_guide_web.pdf
and http://www.seattle.gov/environment/cag/index.html). 

Smaller cities and rural areas, however, often don’t have the resources to develop such portal sites. Already thinly stretched green nonprofits have trouble communicating their own message to the public let alone bringing together the messages of a variety of community stakeholders.

Greeneriepa.org started with a grant from the Erie Community Foundation. I teach in Gannon University’s English department and Michelle Homan teaches in the Environmental Science and Engineering program. The English department sponsored a work study student line to update the events calendar. We used the grant funding to hire graduate students in English and Environmental Science to research, draft, and create the website and to collaborate with us and community partners on the shape of the site.  Other articles came from service-learning projects in writing-intensive undergraduate classes. We recently received a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to continue our work.

Remembering the pangs of fear I felt that day of the initial stakeholders meeting is important because students encounter fear as well, and as teachers, we would be remiss to ignore that fear.  That fear can be useful to help spur change, but too much of it can impede learning.

The anxiety in the classroom escalates. A student remarks, “Antibiotics are in the lake we get our drinking water from.”

“And fertilizer from runoff.”
 “I don’t drink water,” another student quips.
“Water is in everything,” the student counters.

Contemplating issues like climate change, water pollution, and air quality is downright scary. The ability to make change in these areas is often out of any one individual’s hands.  It’s very normal that students feel paralyzed at the thought of such topics and want to switch their attention to more comfortable realms like their friend’s romantic melodrama.

But service-learning teachers are familiar with these kinds of difficult conversations—whether it be about climate change, poverty, or something else.  We also know it is the combination of reflecting on these challenging issues and helping students take concrete steps for good that brings the power of service-learning.  High quality service-learning programs, among other things, provide students with “Increased sense of self-efficacy as young people learn that they can impact real social challenges, problems, and needs” (Roehlkepartain n.p.). In other words, well-structured service-learning opportunities help students have faith in their ability to make change and teach them skills needed to make change effectively.

Paul Rogat Loeb’s Soul of a Citizen tells stories of regular, imperfect people who worked for social justice and accomplished amazing things in the process.  His work aims to inspire through narrative and help give people a sense of self-efficacy. He notes, “We’re . . .taught to doubt our voice—to feel we lack either the time to properly learn and articulate the issues we care about, or the standing to speak out and be heard.  To get socially involved, we believe, requires almost saintlike judgment, confidence, and character—a standard we can never meet ” (6).

Loeb knows very well the power of stories to empower people to act. When students write for the GreenEriePA.org project, they have distressing moments like the one described above as they learn new information.  However, they also see the many unsung heroes in their own community who are regular people working hard to combat difficult environmental problems.  There are drug disposal programs to help keep some of the antibiotics out of the water.  Non-profits like Lake Erie Regional Conservancy preserve land. They also learn concrete steps that they can take to protect the lake.

Writing these articles brings their attention to the ways that everyday people cultivate their own mindfulness about the preciousness of resources through their use of cloth bags, community gardens and other means. By publishing the articles the students write, we value the work that they put into informing the community. Some students even get to see the power of their words to impact others when their article is liked on Facebook.  

Our student workers have gained even more valuable learning by navigating challenging, genuine writing and technological tasks throughout the course of many months of hard work. Catherine Weikel Bryan, the English Graduate Student who is the GreenEriePA webmaster notes, "It's a whole different world today than it was when I developed the experience in website creation that prompted the GreenErie team to ask me to be their webmaster as well as a contributing writer. The internet is a complex and dynamic place, full of intricacies that can often be intimidating, but it has also become a cornucopia of knowledge, written largely by the kindness and advocacy of others, available to help anyone to express themselves. What we've learned is that all it takes to make your voice heard today is the curiosity to seek out what you need, the willingness to sort out confusion, and most importantly the courage to just set out and begin."

There is strength that comes from doing something you initially didn’t think you could. We were giddy the first time we learned that between 80 and 310 unique visitors went to our site per day in the last month. It also warms our hearts when we hear from community partners like Jessica James, the Millcreek Township Recyling Coordinator.  She notes, “The GreenEriePA Website has not only been an asset to me as an individual and new homeowner in the area, but also been greatly beneficial in aiding the work I do at Millcreek Township in the Recycling Department.  Not only do I direct residents to check out the informative links and videos on composting and recycling, but am able to utilize the community calendar to post public events.  Ann and Michelle have certainly exceeded the expectations of Erie’s environmental community in creating this hub of eco-friendly tips, “green” businesses, and outdoor recreational fun all wrapped up into one interactive portal.”

Taking on big community-based projects—like creating the portal for green initiatives in an entire county—takes a lot of time, in the relationships developed with community partners, the attention to drafts of student writers, in learning new technologies, and in crafting a plan for social media. But accomplishing challenging tasks and setting even bigger goals for the future can be an exhilarating process.



Works Cited

Loeb, Paul Rogat.  Soul of a Citizen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Print.

Roehlkepartain, Eugene C. “Fact Sheet: Benefits of Community-Based Service-Learning.” National Service-Learning Clearinghouse Website. December 2007. Web. 4 June 2013.


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