The workshop title was given to us, as were some notes and slides from the fellow originally planning to run the workshop. We all but disregarded the notes, and sat down earlier this week to decide what we wanted out of the workshop. Jorge nicely summarises them in his post, but in short: we wanted the students to realise that individual sacrifices are not enough to stop climate change and that they also had to engage with organisations involved in social change to be particularly effective.
Why did we choose this as our objective? Well, for me there are many reasons: "everyone knows" about the personal lifestyle changes we can make -- we've talked about them to death -- but we don't often talk about how to engage with others in our community or, say, with political organisations. As well, I worry about the despair and burn-out that comes trying to take on a problem as big and systemic as climate change through personal lifestyle changes if that is the only way you see yourself having an impact.
A point about the wording of our objective. We initially talked about our objective as explaining that more than just "individual actions" are necessary. After some discussion we decided that no matter whether people are acting to change their own lives or working with others, they are always taking action -- and so the phrase "individual action" isn't very clear. We decided, instead, to use the phrase "individual sacrifice" to refer to choices that affect one's own lifestyle, since many of the choices are often seen as a sacrifice (e.g. give up eating meat.) I won't go into it, but I'm still unhappy with this phrase as I think it unfairly makes out changing your lifestyle to be more sustainable as a negative thing.
The workshop plan
We wanted the workshop itself to be very interactive and, in the spirit of a workshop, get the students to come up with their own ideas on how they could engage with organisations. To do this we planned the session so that we began with an introduction to the topic, and then had the group agree on ground rules for how to conduct themselves through the rest of the activity. Things like: keeping an open mind, taking turns to speak, knowing that whatever was said was to remain confidential, and so on. One point we were careful to include in the ground rules was that this workshop would focus on the actions people could take to fight climate change but that this wouldn't be a place to debate whether climate change was actually happening or not.
We considered having a brief summary presentation to describe what climate change was, how it might affect us, and what influence humans had over the issue, but since we were limited in time (we had only 75 minutes) we opted instead to present them with a simple handout (besides, they were mostly in grade 10, so they probably already knew this stuff):
Then we explained the main workshop activity: a world-cafe-styled series of discussions. The students would break out into groups of 3-5, and discuss a set of questions. After each question, all but one group member would move to a new group to discuss the next question. The remaining group member, the "host", would be there to connect up the discussion from the previous group to the new discussion. We had five questions planned:
- What choices or actions can you, or your family, make to help prevent climate change?
GROUP DISCUSSION: What happens if everyone follows the same actions? Would that solve the problem?
- Who are the people or groups (the "actors") involved in the issue of climate change in your life?
- In your school?
- In your neighbourhood, and city?
- In your province?
- In the country and rest of the world?
- What should these actors be doing about this problem?
- Are they doing these things? If not, what is stopping them? If so, what is helping them?
- What actions will you take as a result of this conversation?
- What are the barriers for taking these actions? How do you get around them?
As you see, after the first question, we paused to have a group discussion that was intended to motivate the rest of the workshop: if individual actions -- even if scaled up so that everyone did them -- will not work to stop climate change, then what else will? Question 2 was meant to get the students thinking about who else has power and influence, and questions following that are meant to lead the students to concrete and specific actions they can take to engage with those other actors.
We ended the workshop with an open discussion and debriefing. Yesterday, because we were running low on time, we used Question 5 as the discussion piece. We also gave them a second handout with ideas on how to put their actions into practice effectively (I only have the second page):
As Val has discussed, after the workshop we all had a lot to say about how it went and what we would have done differently. Here are some of my thoughts:
Time: we were far too ambitious for the time we had. To properly do what we have planned we'd need double the time, at least. We could probably have skimmed through the first question, and jumped directly into a discussion about how personal actions alone are not sufficient.
Ground rules: I love the spirit of making ground rules explicit and getting agreement from everyone, but when we did this in the workshop I had the feeling that the students didn't fully understand what they were agreeing to. I think it was because we hadn't explained what the workshop activity was going to be, and so the students didn't know why they were agreeing to the ground rules and what they would need them for. If we were to do the workshop again, I'd consider explaining the activity first, and then have agreement on the ground rules.
Connecting the dots: As Jorge mentioned, we may have reached our goal for some of the students, but I got the feeling that most of them left still thinking about personal sacrifices they could make, and not how they could apply themselves outside of their own lives. Jorge describes one barrier: the system dynamics of the climate make it difficult to really understand the importance of moving beyond lifestyle choices. I think that even without understanding climate dynamics, we still needed to do a better job of getting across the idea that engaging with groups provides leverage for our actions -- that it amplifies our voice and the effectiveness of our actions (as well as being emotionally fulfilling and fun).
What happened in the workshop was that the students listed out actors in Question 2, but mainly focused on those that were large and disconnected from them (e.g. the prime minister, factories, china, multinational corporations, etc...) in the rest of the discussion. I'm simplifying; there was also mention of things like the school environment clubs and councils, teachers, and the school cafeteria. Still, the answers to Question 3 and 4 were mostly big and broad answers. For instance, they listed barriers such as "laziness", "money comes first", "waiting for others to change first", or "personal agenda pushing". Some really great thoughts! But what I think was lacking in the discussion was specificity: specific barriers for actors they had listed, and specific actions they could take with those actors to help overcome those barriers.
If we were running the workshop again I'd consider adding a step where only two or three actors from question 2 where considered in the rest of the questions as a way to keep things focused. If we had the time, I'd also like to see the groups use the strategic planning process we gave them on the handout to experiment with and discuss possible action plans and their merits. Which brings me to...
"But no one listens": One of the students spoke up during the debriefing and complained that writing letters to a politician has no effect, and so it wasn't worth doing. I think responding to this complaint is very important.. it gets to the heart of our objective since we are trying to push people to act out and engage with others -- and why do it if no one listens anyway? I agree! Val suggested that we could present examples of student groups that were making change, as specific examples and also inspiration. If we had lots of time, I think we could make space for a discussion on the various forms of engagement and activism (including, my favourite, the more taboo forms like, civil disobedience -- how fun would that discussion be!).