Let’s Make Greta Proud: Reforming Environmental Education for Adults

Acronym: EE = Environmental Education; POC = People of Color

I spent most of my career in environmental education (EE) for youth. For 2 decades, I worked with and for kids of all ages in a variety of communities and organizations. I even went back to school to learn how to do all this better. I evolved my teaching to focus on environmental justice education for children, supporting schools and teachers to expand their climate change education to center the most impacted human communities and question all our roles in supporting that dynamic. Good stuff, right? Sure…but at the same time I was making these strides to reform EE for school kids, I didn’t even think about reforming the adult education programming I also led. 

read our related leader highlight:
marcos trinidad | center director of thr audubon center at debs park
Image courtesy of Rolling Stone.

Somehow in my mind these two spheres, youth and adult education, remained separate: formal youth education was for the hard work of engaging across boundaries, challenging assumptions, and collective action, but informal adult education was mostly about appreciation of nature and individual action. I was preparing my young students for a future spent collaboratively solving the environmental problems being compounded by today’s adults…including me! 

Don’t get me wrong: I did teach adults about action, but it was focused on what each of them could do as individuals within the status quo rather than challenging the systems themselves – I taught them how to reduce/reuse/recycle rather than question why we have a disposable culture to start with; how to get rid of the invasive weeds in their backyards rather than how to examine the intentional placement of toxic superfund sites in vulnerable communities; why we should buy reusable water bottles rather than how to hold elected officials accountable for water crises like in Flint. I should have been teaching environmental justice to adults* as well as kids because we are the population who has the most power to make real environmental change today: unlike most kids, adults can activate our dollars to impactfully fund change, we can engage with and expand our networks to leverage shared voice, and we can vote to restructure broken systems and find just solutions. Instead, I put all my teaching eggs in the next generation basket. So, when I saw Greta Thunberg’s justifiable anger at the UN**, I knew she was talking to me, too. 


“When I saw Greta Thunberg’s justifiable anger at the UN, I knew she was talking to me too.”


So, why did I and many other EE nonprofit leaders choose to reform education for kids but not for adults? It’s possible we felt that adults already knew this stuff or maybe that they wouldn’t be interested in these topics. But, I think if we really dig deep, we might find another, less comfortable possibility: I think a significant factor in why we don’t reform adult education is that EE nonprofits receive funding from individual donations, and there is a subtle fear that if we teach adults about challenging topics, it could depress or offend them, which could put their donations at risk. 

Upon truly honest reflection, I know this fear influenced me because I had to make payroll and hit fundraising targets and build community support, and I thought that reforming my adult education could risk that. But, there is a serious problem with this fear. My inaction unwittingly supported the notion that my adult populations were not capable of understanding and embracing these issues without becoming depressed or offended, and that is absolutely not true. And I unwittingly supported the notion that I wasn’t a capable enough educator to create programming that challenged adults without depressing or offending, which is also not true. Without thinking, I let my fear of financial risk do a disservice to my adult students, myself, and the young Gretas out there.   

I know this isn’t the case for all EE nonprofits (see my interview with Marcos Trinidad, Executive Director Of the Audubon Center at Debs Park). And, I am not advocating that all of adult education programs focus solely on environmental justice, as there is great value to having programs that also focus on nature appreciation and individual action. But this question of the link between philanthropy and programming is important to explore, and though it may cause discomfort, I want us to put aside our defensiveness for a moment and really examine this possibility. Are we holding our adults to as high a standard as we hold our kids? And, if not, why not? What’s holding us back?


“Are we holding our adults to as high a standard as we hold our kids? And, if not, why not? What’s holding us back?”


So, if you work in an EE nonprofit, please indulge me in the following activity: 

  • Make a list of all your adult education classes. Include open-enrollment/drop-in classes for the public as well as those that have more stringent admissions processes, like certifications or grad school. Include any training you offer volunteers/docents and your board. 
  • Then ask yourself the following questions: 
    • How many of these programs address climate justice and not just the science of climate change? (For reference, here’s a little YouTube video to explain the difference)
    • Do your adult education programs include the 3 aspects of action? 
      • Intrapersonal: what we as individuals believe, 
      • Interpersonal: how we relate to and engage with each other that can lead to collective action, 
      • AND Structural: how the systems within which we function guide our individual beliefs and behaviors unless we are aware of them and take collective action to address them (ex. legislation, housing segregation, funding, etc.)
  • Given all this, how do you think Greta would feel about your adult education programs? 

If after reflecting on this post you want to go further with your adult education, contact me. This is hard work but I know we are up to the challenge together.  And this work shouldn’t be solely on the shoulders of an Educator or Coordinator or Manager. It should be lifted up by the Organization as a whole, which will include conversations with leadership, administration, and philanthropy. My job is to bring these teams together to envision a just outcome for your organization and build capacity to achieve it.

I am here to help.

Together, we can make Greta proud!

*It’s important to note that most of the folks who came to my programs were mid- to upper-class white adults who didn’t grow up with the lived experience of environmental injustice. The Environmental Justice Movement was founded by communities of color across the country who experienced negative, often fatal ramifications of intentional pollution in their homes. Because of housing segregation and the fact that “mainstream environmentalism” is a historically white sector, it is not surprising that my adult education audience had always been primarily white and likely to not have this personal understanding of systematic environmental injustice. For this reason and because white populations hold the most social and economic power in the US, I believe environmental justice education is very important for white adult populations. 

**Greta has a lot of attention right now but she is not the first or only young person to advocate for environmental justice. Youth of Color have been advocating for change for years. Be sure to look for and support them, and check out one in particular who just won the Global Peace Prize: 15-year old Anishinabek Water Commissioner Autumn Peltier. 

KNOW AN EQUITY LEADER IN YOUR COMMUNITY THAT WE SHOULD HIGHLIGHT? DROP US A LINE!


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