Roberta Burnes, Environmental Education Specialist at the Kentucky Division for Air Quality and a longtime KAEE member, has recently been named a Green Community Leader and the first participant to complete KAEE’s Green Community Leader eeCredential.
Designed to equip participants with the skills needed to collaborate with their community and help address the environmental issues they face, the eeCredential explores an array of settings, partnerships, and opportunities that help participants shift their work more fully into communities. For Roberta, this topic was just what she was looking for; the community engagement area was the final subject in the NAAEE’s Guidelines for Excellence series she needed to complete. She was also inspired to participate because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with state government agencies, has been encouraging staff to do more community engagement work. “It was a really timely training,” she says, “and I believed it would help me be more useful in my role at the Division for Air Quality and at a departmental and cabinet level as well.”
A Deep Dive into Equity Work
The Green Community Leader eeCredential includes four eeCourses: Community Centered Environmental Education; Sound Environmental Education Principles; Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Environmental Education; and Capacity Building & Long Term Change. Of the four courses, Roberta found most impactful the course on Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI). She says that even though the topic isn’t explicitly a topic included in the Guidelines for Community Engagement, “it’s interwoven throughout those Guidelines. Every aspect of them talks about the principles we covered in JEDI, and it's integral as much as environmental education is integral in any kind of education.”
A Marathon, not a Sprint
Early during the second course of the eeCredential, participants begin to brainstorm ideas for their final project, a Community Environmental Education Action Plan. The assignment is for students to develop an action plan that can be implemented in partnership with their community to support ecological integrity, shared prosperity, and social equity. “We were asked to identify communities we might work with and do a preliminary inventory of assets and needs for a chosen community,” Roberta says. “Then, throughout the remaining courses, we developed and refined our plans as we engaged with possible partners in that community.”
Roberta says she’s always been a “jump-to-the-finish-line type of person,” and that when she began brainstorming about possible plans and partners, she realized that developing the right project might take longer than she’d imagined. “The patience required to do community engagement was one of the biggest challenges for me,” she says. “Several times, I needed to completely pivot while designing my project. All the elements kept changing; it was sort of like a food web, with all these different parts constantly changing. I had to be super flexible.”
As the project development unfolded, Roberta says she clearly saw that it was “a perfect model for what the course was trying to teach me–which is that this work takes time.
This work takes investment. It takes commitment. It takes patience. And you're never going to get to a magical finish line because it's an iterative cycle that just keeps growing and blooming and growing.”
The eeCourses in this eeCredential required a different type of involvement than many others, Roberta says. “I feel like half of my time was spent thinking. Thinking and visioning and reworking my thoughts about community engagement."
She says that while, like environmental education, community engagement work involves systems thinking, “it's a different way of systems thinking. It's not just systems related to the environment. It’s human-ecology systems thinking. It's how humans impact the environment, but also how humans work to improve the environment. And who are those humans, and who of those humans do I need to find and connect with? For me, so much of the program was going through that thinking process.”
This process not only pushed Roberta out of her comfort zone but inspired her to get more directly involved in environmental issues in her own community.
“The program has given me confidence in some of the local neighborhood environmental projects that my neighbors are doing,” she says. “I revisited an annual cleanup that I helped get started 20 years ago. There's also an environmental issue in my neighborhood that I’ve started to help people be aware of. I’ve had to try to figure out the best way to educate folks about this issue–not as a professional person working for the state, but as a resident of my neighborhood. I’ve had to think about how best to give people tools to participate in the public comment process.”
She says the learning process has made her think deeply about partners, connections, community, and how important it is to stay engaged. “If there's an issue or a problem or a challenge in your community, keep that conversation going,” she says. “That's the only way we create change.”
Roberta says that after completing the eeCredential, she feels like a different person than she was before she began.
“I've planted a lot of seeds, but they're only just beginning to sprout after all that work. And that's cool. I realize now that that's the whole point of this program. You're not going pull off some fantastic event and be ‘one and done.’ It's a process of relationship building that will continue, hopefully, for as long as I’m doing environmental education.”
Learn More about the eeCredential Program