The Declaration, Volume 1, Number 1: January – April 1996 [Partnerships]
To create a successful link with their local community, students at the University of Sunderland School of the Environment in the UK found that they had to ask an obvious question: What does the community want?
“It’s not enough just to guess what people want. You have to really ask. We’ve run two-hour environmental workshops where the burning issues the group wants to discuss are dogmess and litter,” said Judith Vardy, of the school’s Community Environmental Educational Developments program (CEED).
It was an important lesson. Over the past eight years, the organization has had great success identifying and meeting the environmental and social needs in its Northern England urban community. It turned a vacant lot into an educational nature space, engaged thousands of schoolchildren in urban nature projects, and earned accreditation to teach job skills in a neighborhood where unemployment tops 40 percent. The key to its funding and support has been to create partnerships with industry, government and other nonprofit organizations.
British Student Group Concentrates on What Community Needs
One of CEED’s earliest projects was the development of Hendon Nature Space. On land donated by the Acxiom company, CEED volunteers built a dipping pond, wildflower meadow, wildlife garden, and tree nursery. The nature space won the “Sunderland in Bloom” award for two years running and has become a resource for local schools. Now, CEED helps manage the site in cooperation with Grangetown Primary Services, a not-for-profit company that teaches employment skills to disadvantaged people.
Following a philosophy that links environmental health with human needs, CEED has linked up with the British government to address one of its community’s most pressing needs: unemployment. It has become the first British institution to offer national vocational qualifications (NVQs) in the environmental sector.
“CEED has really developed from being conservation/natural environment focused (although we still see these projects as core to our activities),” Vardy said. “Our projects such as the [vocational] courses and the student declaration have widened our interests to local people’s empowerment and national policies, respectively.”
To obtain their NVQs-which are considered a boost in job hunting-local residents go through CEED’s “Working with Nature” workshop. An easy-to-read brochure invites anyone who is 16 years or older and not currently working to apply to the program. Participants spend three days a week for 12 weeks learning hands-on conservation skills like hedge-building, while also developing new frameworks for thinking about environmental problems. The group takes an overnight field trip to a site of its choosing to reinforce lessons learned. These lessons range beyond environmental information to include first aid, video production, and job searching.
CEED also offers a six-week “Hitch Hikers Guide to the Environment” course to introduce people to environmental topics without requiring a long-term commitment. Both courses are funded in partnership with Gateshead College, University of Sunderland, and an organization called City Challenge. Although the workshops are tailored for CEED’s clientele, offering childcare and a schedule suited to parents of school-age children, benefits go to its organizers as well.
“We’re developing links with schools and colleges and trying to develop NVQs that CEED can help deliver,” says Derek Blair, a professor of environmental science who guided CEED’s founding. “That’s exciting because it’s meeting a social need, because it’s linking and harnessing the energy of students to these outside needs.”
CEED’s partnerships extend into Europe. Through the TEMPUS project, a dozen students from Krakow, Poland, came to Sunderland to study the creation and maintenance of urban nature spaces at CEED’s Hendon site. They will now apply their knowledge back home.
According to Blair, the parallels between Sunderland and Poland are “staggeringly interesting.”
“The unemployment rate in Poland is lower but growing, and the welfare support is different,” he says. “The general concept of urban nature space is rather alien, is as yet unknown in Polish cities. While they have magnificent national parks, in cities, the idea of converting derelict land is strange. They have low car ownership, so they cannot escape, particularly when the economy is so low. Therefore, urban nature spaces can provide escape.”
The Polish program is operated in partnership with Miedzywydzialowe Kolo Naukowe Ochrony Srodowiska, the Worldwide Fund for Nature UK, and British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, and several other organizations.
CEED reinforced its ties with other students by hosting a conference titled, “The Environmental Responsibility of Students in the UK.” The July 1995 conference produced a national environmental declaration for students, written at the conference through plenary sessions. Speaker sessions, case studies, and fringe meetings were designed to feed ideas into the declaration over the three days. There were approximately 90 delegates comprising students from higher and further education institutions, academic and service staff, and student union officers from a wide geographic region.
One of CEED’s most important partners is its parent, the University of Sunderland. Blair and his colleague at Sunderland’s School of the Environment, Tony Alabaster, have helped make the university a leader in environmental education and institutional awareness. Sunderland was the first UK institution to sign the Talloires Declaration of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future. Its environmental policy statement identifies 20 different areas for continuous improvement, ranging from providing students with environmental education in their academic programs to designing energy-efficient buildings to encouraging links with the community to promote environmental responsibility.
Dr. Anne Wright, vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Sunderland, said: “The mission of the university centers on promoting learning, research, and training through partnerships between staff, students, industry and the community. Inherent within this is a commitment to awareness of the effects of the University, and of human activity in general, on the environment. CEED plays a crucial part in our environmental partnerships.
“Signing the Talloires Declaration was an important step in our program of staff development, academic activity, managing our own environment-related activities, and recognizing our social responsibility. Sunderland students last year organized the first UK national student conference on the environment, demonstrating their commitment. We will continue to make environmental responsibility a key are of concern and activity in the future.”
Becoming a registered charity in 1989 was a catalyst for CEED’s growth, Vardy said. The credibility granted by government recognition opened the door for private donors to become involved. In addition, says Blair, CEED strengthened personal ties with the community by inviting the bishop of Durham, a government representative, and other eminent people to be honorary chairpeople of the group. At the highest level, the group has received recognition and funding from the European Community in several contexts.
“As far as offering advice,” says Vardy, “CEED would say how important it is to have imagination, seize any opportunity, and think broadly.”