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We've partnered with the Clean Energy Coalition to develop a weatherization course for contractors. The course is part of a federal grant to Washtenaw County to improve energy efficiency in low- and moderate income homes. Creative Change's expertise in sustainability-based instructional design combined with CEC's experience in weatherization and energy issues resulted in a dynamic, hands-on course for adult learners.
Note: The case study below provides an example of our work in a unique adult educational setting: a prison. Creative Change thanks Elsa Stuber for allowing us to share her work through this story.
The teachers we work with at Creative Change often share experiences about the dynamic learning going on in their classrooms. Typically, the stories come from K12 schools. But sometimes, an inspirational story comes from another place.
Like a prison.
Elsa Stuber is a veteran educator who teaches adult education at the Milan Federal Correctional facility. Run through the Milan Public Schools, Elsa's program provides general education and high school completion programs for incarcerated men. The inmates come from the inner reaches of Detroit, Flint, Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities. The average inmate has been locked up 8 years; some, for more than 20. As Elsa described it, her students "haven't seen anything outside of their walls and the tiny yard."
And the inspiration . . . ?
Elsa helped her students find it--both inside the prison and in their hopes for their lives beyond it. She shared her story with us, and we offer it here as a unique example of how sustainability education can--and must--connect community, the environment and a sense of hope.
The background: Elsa participated in "Sustainable by Design," our 2008 summer program focused on life cycle analysis, materials science, and green design. The program, funded by the Clarence E. Heller Family Foundation, drew 35+ educators--mostly middle school teachers--who walked away with lessons and strategies for bringing these topics into the classroom. Elsa signed up, too, looking for effective ways to reach her adult students.
Elsa knew that energy and the environment were topics potentially distant from the lives of her students. I wondered, too, if the program work would really help her.
But in Elsa's skilled hands, the topics became a gateway to deeper questions about status and happiness, and the importance of community. In a December interview, Elsa explained her approach.
She began--as good teachers do--by connecting the learning to the students' immediate lives. "Many of the men are in for drug offenses," Elsa explained. "And many of them had a lot of money at some point in their lives. They talk about the things they bought then--the cars, the clothes. So I asked them, ‘When you had all of this, was that the happiest time of your life?' Most of the men said that no, it wasn't."
This discussion opened the door for the students to explore the relationship between having a lot "stuff" and having real happiness and fulfillment. As the men realized, the two weren't the same.
"For many men, respect in the community was high on their list of priorities," Elsa said. "They were concerned about image and what they could do for their community when they got out. They wanted to know if their children would have respect for them. They wanted to go back and show a better example."
Elsa kept the themes of community and wellbeing front and center as she turned the inquiry to issues such as waste and recycling. To make these topics relevant, Elsa again began with the inmates' lives--this time, with their experiences living in the prison facility. The commissary served as the hook.
As Elsa explained, the inmates pay the ten-cent deposit on beverages purchased from there, but the refund goes to the guards or the institution. The men are resentful, and so don't want to participate in the recycling program that's available.
But Elsa helped the students consider another aspect to the issue. "We talked about the inmates whose job it is to pick through the trash and pick out the bottles," she recalls, explaining how some men must sort through the trash to reclaim the recyclable. After considering this, the group "realized they should recycle better for the sake of their fellow inmates."
Elsa directed this concern to engage the men in lessons on the environmental aspects of materials use. In one activity, the inmates worked with a timeline showing the origins of materials such as plastic (from petroleum, 400 million years ago), and the years it would take for it decompose (if it ever will).
"The timeline information was shocking to them," Elsa said. "They always just threw things into the trash and didn't think about it."
Elsa had her students' attention and concern. But what could they do?
"I was wondering if all of this was going to leave them even more depressed," she added. "Would they be motivated? Would they care? They feel deprived, and they have so few choices."
Indeed, Elsa's students don't have the option to buy local food or choose Fair Trade coffee. But positive change can take many forms, as Elsa learned.
"At first many of the men felt powerless," she noted. But as the learning deepened, so did the potential for hope. "The men became very interested in the longer range--when they got out, and the need to do things for their community. They are very aware of the disproportionate environmental impacts in their communities, especially the asthma in their kids."
Among her students' ideas?
The men talked about "buying vacant lots and cleaning them up to make parks or a playground, a place for community life," Elsa explained. "They talked about organizing their neighborhood, having a community information board, having a community garden on a vacant lot, helping kids to sell the vegetables. They talked about energy efficiency and how they could help each other, help older people insulate their homes. They wanted to show kids how to do this. They wanted ways to improve people's feeling of wellbeing and safety, especially in neighborhoods with crime. "
To help her students think beyond individual actions, Elsa also had the men research advocacy organizations. "They looked into different charities and they talked it over in groups and proposed groups to support. They chose groups that worked on environmental and human rights issues, and legal issues as well. I think the election had something to do with this," Elsa adds. "The men became very interested in organizing. They talked about educational presentations in their churches or neighborhood centers on topics like sustainability or financial management. Before, they didn't think anyone would listen."
Now the men have something to say. "My students speak again and again on making a difference in their neighborhoods when they return home. They particularly want to have a positive effect on youth so that their life direction will be different than their own, and they want to improve their communities to be positive environments for all ages. The men want to write home to their families, and are seeking good information to share."
As of this writing, Elsa is continuing her work to educate her students and support their goals of having a positive impact on their communities. In the meantime, "The recycling is up considerable from what it was before," she notes.
The term "sustainability" is gaining recognition among educators, but many times, it's used in way that considers only the environment--an environment that's often far away and disconnected from students' lives. Elsa's work shows us the power and necessity of connecting environmental health to the social fabric of a community--whether that community is a prison, school or a city. And, Elsa's students give us the most important insight of all: sustainability means restoring hope and purpose in troubled lives as much as it means sustaining the environment.
At Creative Change, we believe it all works best together.