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. 

Image courtesy of Marcos Trinidad.
read our related leader highlight:
marcos trinidad | center director of thr audubon center at debs park
Image of Greta Thunberg at a climate rally: photo by Pascal Bernardon on Unsplash.

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. 

Image of Marcos Trinidad: courtesy of Marcos Trinidad.

Header image (also used in post) of Greta Thunberg at a climate rally: photo by Pascal Bernardon on Unsplash.

Leader Highlight: Marcos Trinidad, Center Director of the Audubon Center at Debs Park

Though it may feel overwhelming, there are environmental education (EE) nonprofits that are reforming adult education, and we can learn from them.

Marcos Trinidad, Center Director of the Audubon Center at Debs Park in LA, has reformed his adult education programs by centering his community’s experience, which is also his own experience. He was born and raised in Highland Park, where the Debs Center is located. His grandmother still lives half a block from the Center and his parents met one block away. The staff he hires not only works with the community; they ARE the community. They work, play, and live in the same communities of his participants. As the senior leader at his organization, he has made the intentional effort to hire staff who can speak directly to the community, who understand the culture and language of its members:

Image courtesy of Marcos Trinidad.

“It is easier to hire people from the social justice field and teach them conservation issues than it is to hire conservationist and try to teach them social justice issues. You can teach someone to bird in 6 months but it would take me 20 years to teach a birder about social justice.”

When asked why he has tackled reforming his adult education programs, Marcos explains that for him, it’s about family and intergenerational learning: “If you don’t get the adults, you won’t get the kids.”

Marcos is changing what adult education at his Audubon center means by changing how we think about environmentalism. When he hears from funders that the need is to teach his community about recycling and water conservation, he thinks to himself, “who has the largest carbon footprint?” The members of his community have one of the smallest footprints, whereas people living in the more affluent communities are likely to have one of the largest.

In all of his programs, he starts by acknowledging that his community’s footprint is actually much lower than anyone else’s: “You check their fridge and there may be 4 butter containers but only one contains butter…but are they considered environmentalists? When you see a grown man riding his daughter’s bike to Home Depot to get work as a day laborer, is he an environmentalist? Or do we only consider that hipster who’s riding his e-bike an environmentalist?” At his center, he openly acknowledges who is actually living a low-carbon lifestyle, and who can learn from this, which flips the philanthropy-programming dynamic on its head. “We often think of wealthy white people writing checks to support EE needs in poor communities, but they are the ones whose lifestyle created the ecological problems we are facing. We can talk about the birds all we want but if we don’t honestly talk about this, we won’t change anything.” 


“We often think of wealthy white people writing checks to support EE needs in poor communities, but they are the ones whose lifestyle created the ecological problems we are facing. We can talk about the birds all we want but if we don’t honestly talk about this, we won’t change anything.” 


The current environmental system supports the status quo, and that status quo is filled with bias, exclusion, and harm. But within that same system lies the greatest opportunity for change. And this is where programs like Marcos’ Advocacy Boot Camp came from.:“People of Color (POC) are supporting environmental legislation in greater numbers than whites. It’s also POC legislators who are introducing these policies, and they are doing this for their communities, to provide open space and clean drinking water and land for the people. [My programs] are sharing information with the community to help them advocate for things that are important to them.”

With the adults he teaches, Marcos talks about systemic issues, such as homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse, affordable housing, all in the same context as birds and conservation. He has been able to show his community how all of these issues that are priorities for them are tied directly to conservation. For example, if someone cannot afford housing, it’s a domino effect to being forced to live in the park, and possibly starting a fire for warmth that can get out of control and affect bird habitat or restoration. The dots are all in a line but they need to be connected by educators working with adult populations.

He addresses conservation threats with this holistic approach: “It doesn’t mean we have to change our missions or become therapists or counselors, but we need to be able to partner in a meaningful way to the folks who are doing this work. We need to support the people who we want to support the birds.” 

An indirect benefit of his program reform has come in the form of diversifying his audience. The folks from his community are mostly lower-income Latinx people, but there is a lot of transition happening right now, and more folks with money, both white and POC, are moving in. He sees allies in these new residents: “It is so important that these folks attend these programs so we can work together on these issues. Affluent white and POC allies can speak to their networks in ways that won’t be well received if a POC in poverty says it.”

His programs are also attracting a younger audience in their 20s-40s, which is different than the traditional Audubon participant. He is diversifying his audience by leveraging the change happening in his community and focusing these allies on systems-change, not just individual action: “Every class has a systemic action piece built into it. [For example,] participants leave knowing who their representatives are and how to write a letter about a specific piece of legislation that supports environmental justice.” 


“Every class has a systemic action piece built into it. [For example,] participants leave knowing who their representatives are and how to write a letter about a specific piece of legislation that supports environmental justice.” 


Marcos uses the conservation platform to help his community heal from the embedded white supremacy that has harmed them. He works to decolonize space to support birds, wildlife, and people: “We restore habitat for our birds and wildlife as well as restore the connection of people back to the land.” His accountability is to his community, and he is able to use the Audubon mission to further that accountability.

That said, Marcos clearly stated that he will not do this work at the expense of his community: “You don’t get to choose which parts of community you work with, like just the birds or just the wildlife. If you want to work with community, you have to work with the whole community. If you try to cut the crusts off the community bread, you will do work at the expense of the community.” This means that there is no “neutral” programming that just focuses on wildlife: if it doesn’t directly address the interconnected community and conservation needs, it will unintentionally support the status quo.  


“If you want to work with community, you have to work with the whole community. If you try to cut the crusts off the community bread, you will do work at the expense of the community.”


In regards to changing education for affluent white populations, Marcos is planning to work with this audience in a fee-for-service model (not based on donations or grants) to make changes in their communities. In order for our movement to make change on a significant level, that demographic also needs to engage in collective systems action. That said, it isn’t necessarily a POC educator who needs to deliver that message: “[This educator] needs to be someone who can identify within that community, to be that ally who can talk about their journey towards change in a way that resonates with the affluent community, in order to make changes beyond just signing a check to pay for POC communities to change their lifestyle. We have always considered it okay to ask another adult to make change in their lifestyles as long as they are black and brown and poor, but we’ve never turned this around to affluent white populations.”  

As the senior leader in a nonprofit organization, I asked Marcos what he would say to a white CEO in a historically white organization trying to make real change: “The CEO needs to focus on their sphere of influence and control: stand for change by getting board members who understand it, by changing how we talk to white affluent donors at the big galas, etc.” The work cannot just be on the program staff. Each of us needs to leverage the control and influence within our sphere. CEOs can reach a sphere that program staff often can’t. Marcos also emphasizes the importance of adequately resourcing any work we try to do, especially if that involves development of white staff to engage authentically with POC communities and of white senior leaders to narrate this with donors appropriately: “It’s important to understand what is vital to your organization to accomplish its mission. If working within POC communities is vital, you have to make a huge investment to fully understand how much work there is, embrace the process, and support it with the right resources. If your donors don’t appreciate that or understand that, maybe you don’t take their money. You don’t have to take money from everyone. It will mean more to the staff who are dedicating their passion and time to accomplishing this mission if you demonstrate your commitment in this way. It is a long-term investment.”

Finally, Marcos has one last bit of advice for all of us adults: “We need to remain teachable. We don’t have it all figured out. We need to continue to grow.”

And on that note, I offer my sincere appreciation to Marcos for the time he took to participate in this interview and for his hard work reforming adult education. To learn more about Marcos and Debs Audubon, or to support their reformational work, please visit https://debspark.audubon.org/

Header image and image used in post: courtesy of Marcos Trinidad.