Protecting Our Sacred Water

One of the most important relationships we experience as people is with our environment. It is a relationship that is diverse and complicated. In fact, think of any prevalent issue in the world today that involves people. Have you got one? I imagine that, no matter what issue you thought of, there are a variety of conflicting opinions, challenges, and solutions associated with it. This complexity can be overwhelming, but it is an important reality.

When I think of environmental issues their intricacies always amaze me. However, I interpret this feeling as a positive and proof of the interconnectedness of everything. I get distraught when I listen to or watch people who are so set in their ways, they forget that the position that they take on an issue may negatively impact other people or the environment.

That is why I was pleasantly surprised by the message Carissa MacLennan, the Director of Education and Youth Engagement at the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada (JGI) was presenting at the 2013 Earth Day Youth Forum (You can read my article about it here). I caught up with her a few weeks after the forum to talk about her work with JGI.

Her seminar was for environmental educators and focused on an initiative by JGI and Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF) called "Protecting our Sacred Water" (PSOF). It is a resource to support educators and youth program facilitators who work with both Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal youth and would like to bring traditional ways of knowing into their program.

The objective of the LSF/JGI project is to help young people understand the interconnected nature of their communities and feel empowered to create change. Carissa notes that "almost all issues have dimensions that involve:  human physical health, human mental health, justice, education, the natural environment, economics; and any and every other aspect of our communities."  Aboriginal or traditional ways of knowing provide a vibrant framework for exploring and understanding concepts of interconnectedness. 

Carissa is someone who got involved with social issues at a young age (she was the leader of her high school's environmental club and active in anti-bullying and anti-harrasment campaigns) and is a constant traveler. She came to realize the need for understanding the complex relationships between economies, health, environment, rights, culture, society, religion, politics, etc. in order to make the world a better place.

Carissa recalls a particular experience in Rwanda:

"I spent the time better understanding my colleagues and their own visions for a developed Rwanda" says Carissa, "I listened to my Rwandese colleagues critique of the western discourse on international development. I walked away from this experience a much more humble and wise individual."

Engaging youth is always a challenge; but, I think that PSOF is taking a positive and impactful step by  engaging youth in experiential learning. Through its two components - a section for educators that shows them how to incorporate traditional ways of knowing, and a section dedicated to a 12 step action project process - youth begin asking questions that they need to receive further information on in order to better understand the complexity of the issue and take meaningful action. Through this approach; youth identify an issue they are passionate about, examine root causes of the issue through primary and secondary resources,  determine how they would like to take action, set goals to measure success of the action plan, and then evaluate their success.

One activity called the Research Map challenges youth to identify the who, where, and how of collecting the data  outside of the internet. This may involve inviting Elders into the program, creating and conducting a survey for the local community, going outdoors to do some hands-on data collection, or visiting a local organization already doing some work on the issue. The opportunities for connecting with the local community are endless. 

I think Carissa and the rest of the JGI have gotten two things right: They are emphasizing a sense of connectedness through experience. By encouraging students to experience the community around them, this program shows how allied a community really is. It does not downplay the complexity of being a part of a society that is linked to both itself and the environment, and it is also optimistic in providing youth a voice that is grounded in an experience of their community. By giving youth a voice through community engagement, this program could become a conduit for positive change on a large scale. If you would like more information, or find success stories and updates, check out the JGI blog.


Tom Wiercioch