Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

Regional Networks Tale from the Field: River Cities

By Jen Schnakenberg, Amanda Schuster, Camila Rivera-Tinsley, Heather Berenson, Eva Barinas, and Kim Smith-Woodford

How does a group of 20 near-strangers in a Zoom room become a community of learners? How does a diverse group of practitioners in environmental education and allied fields begin to confront bias and center racial equity in their work? In both cases, the answer is one step at a time, using the simplest building blocks of our shared humanity: empathy, honesty, and, above all, kindness. What we learned as a regional cohort in the River Cities Environmental Education Learning Community (RCEELC) can also be applied to how we advance Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) work in EE going forward.

When we were awarded the National Science Foundation-funded BEETLES Region-Building grant in early 2020 we — the planning team from Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, The Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and the National Park Service — were excited to convene a short series of intensive in-person workshops, not only sharing learning but also our unique spaces with each other and participants from other organizations. Our project focuses on tools and practices environmental educators can use to confront racial bias and increase racial equity in our work. We knew there would be challenges in bringing together a diverse group of practitioners to confront difficult and uncomfortable issues, but we were excited to get started.

During the planning period in spring 2020, two things happened that caused us to simultaneously expand and simplify our approach. The COVID-19 pandemic, and our inability to meet in person, led us to plan a series of many shorter workshops that would convene over Zoom. The murder of George Floyd, and the subsequent protests in cities across the country, led us to put our own cities under the microscope, as a way of providing a concrete shared context for the need to center racial equity in our work. At the core, we wanted the regional learning community to be truly a community: a space of shared humanity, empathy, and honesty that provided a space for growth.

When the learning community first convened, in late September 2020, we were 26 small glowing rectangles in a Zoom room, representing a wide variety of Cleveland and Pittsburgh based organizations. Some of us had worked together for years; some of us had met at least briefly in real life or online; some of us were strangers to each other. What we knew we had in common was our work in outdoor environmental education or recreation, our desire to better serve learners of color, and our mutual willingness to give up a series of Friday mornings to learning and growing as practitioners.

Our first task was to collaboratively develop a “group charter” or shared agreement of how we would work together throughout the workshop series. Through small group discussion and a participatory whiteboard activity, we arrived at a set of core principles, with group-derived definitions for each. Interestingly, an initial proposed principle of Harmony was scrapped in favor of acknowledging productive struggle and willingness to accept discomfort and non-closure.

As we moved through subsequent sessions -on historical and ongoing racial trauma in our cities, on trauma-informed teaching approaches, social-emotional learning, and other topics – we returned each meeting to our shared principles. Over time, one core theme emerged, a powerful word not on our list of principles, but central to the enterprise of dismantling racism and injustice: Kindness.

We do not mean the widely-held interpretation of “kindness” as the notion of politeness, or “wouldn’t it be nice if we could all get along”; rather; we seek to dig deeper than the surface-level of manners and “niceness”. Our cohort’s shared understanding of kindness encompasses empathy, vulnerability, honesty, and relationships. Kindness includes accountability to ourselves and to each other. Kindness is a commitment. These are the values that we seek to operationalize in our programs and practices AND how we relate to each other within the community of learners.

Empathy: Truly listening to another person, validating their feelings and helping them unpack them (from trauma-informed approaches)
“This was a good reminder that we all come to any experience from our own unique perspective and the type of events that could affect people…Awareness and getting to know your audience are important. Are there other universals or general concepts to apply in creating safe learning spaces?” – RCEELC participant, reflecting on trauma-informed approaches

Vulnerability: Willingness to share and recognize where we have room to learn, change, grow.
“We are ever learning- no one has all the answers and the most helpful thing we can do for students and teachers is to continue learning “ – RCEELC participant, reflecting on the experience as a whole

Honesty: Sharing our truths and hearing others’.
“Sharing perspectives. Learning to identify your own understanding of our world. Finding language. All this and more can help create healthier, brighter communication and understanding. Crucial to the human experience and handling and participating in all the tumult in our lives and world.” – RCEELC participant, reflecting on a session

Relationships: Allowing for reciprocity, valuing each person’s unique contribution.
“It reminded me how important it is to see every person as an individual. Our work as educators often wants people to conform to a certain way of being. I want to really SEE each person.”- RCEELC participant during the final session

Accountability: Holding each other responsible to embark on the work we’ve talked about.
“This is where the work starts. The danger is that we don’t continue that fire to actively change the system and challenge what is happening.” – RCEELC planning team member, in wrap-up meeting

Commitment: Supporting each other in persevering in the face of obstacles and challenges.
“Racially biased practices have taken a long time to establish, and they will take a long time to dismantle…convenings like RCEELC [are] a way of keeping the drum beat, a water station along the way to reflect and refresh, a community of folks we know we can reach out to with challenges.” – RCEELC participant during open space discussion

“It’s our responsibility. Because if we don’t share, if we don’t talk about this, if we think we’re beyond this, things will continue to happen in this country and will continue. It’s literally our obligation to do this as educators….It’s our responsibility to children, to people. When you know better, you do better because you have the weight of the responsibility because you have the knowledge.” – RCEELC participant during the final session
Two organizations made progress with new initiatives as a result of discussions within the learning community. The Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park and National Park Service staff developed a two-pronged, in-community program: “School Yard Field Trips” (SYFT) and “School Yard Learning and Teaching” (SYLT) to better support students in preparation for visits to the national park. Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy reframed a planned lesson in the Conservancy’s From Slavery to Freedom Garden as an explicitly anti-racist learning experience. In both programs, the intention is to meet students where they are; to invest in building relationships over time; to help address trauma, discomfort in the outdoors and fear of the unknown; and to uplift and empower learners.

As we came to the “end” of our planned time together, the group — participants and planning team alike — was unanimous in wanting to continue to meet as a community of learners. Going forward, we want to build on the foundation we established together to create a forum where we can vet each others’ lesson plans and programs, experiment with improvements based on our joint learnings, and hold each other accountable for creating cultures of active kindness through our own environmental education practices.

This post is part of out Regional Networks Tales from the Field Series. Read about how other regional networks in the series here.

NSF LogoThis project was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation under Grant No.1612512. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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