Out of necessity, South Carolina had to be creative in our approach and collaborate with other groups to leverage resources in order to implement the EE Capacity project. As a result, we managed to forge new relationships and reach audiences beyond the traditional EE network. This gave us an opportunity to reach people that we may not have found had we not been faced with these challenges.
Our new collaborations allowed us to approach EE from both an economic development and, later, a health perspective.
I first learned about the EE Capacity through my relationship with the Southeastern Environmental Education Alliance that was headed by Ashley Hoffman of the Kentucky Association for Environmental Education. This was a group that formed at the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) conference as a way to collectively apply for EPA funding that we would distribute in our respective states in the form of mini-grants to fund worthwhile projects. The success of that operation helped to build a bond between affiliates in the southeastern region.
At the time the RFP came to my attention, I was on the board of our state affiliate: Environmental Education Association of South Carolina, EEASC. I also served on the Resource and Development Committee. EEASC is an all-volunteer organization that went through a series of leadership changes; it did not have the capacity to manage the EE Capacity grant. The board gave me permission to pursue opportunities that would be beneficial to EEASC. I reached out to people I knew from the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor, a federally funded organization tasked with helping to improve rural and urban communities in economical challenged areas of the state. One of their approaches was through marketing natural and cultural resources and developing nature-based tourism. [ I previously worked with SCNHC on the “Web of Water” project, an educational documentary that followed my kayak journey across the South Carolina and included an interactive website for educators. (The “Web of Water” was made in collaboration with the Department of Education, Organic Process Productions and our local PBS affiliate, SCETV).]
SCNHC director Michelle McCollum, agreed to have SCNHC be the fiscal sponsor of the EE Capacity project as part of their recent initiative to promote nature-based tourism, called the “South Carolina Outdoor Project”. A 2012 study had just been produced that provided research and data about the tremendous economic impact of the outdoor industry. Michelle assigned their newest employee, Lauren Ponder, to be the project manager of the EE Capacity project. Lauren Ponder went to work right away and took charge of making sure the grant paperwork was in. Michelle and I helped to assemble a team of diverse consortia members in our network, and Lauren helped to organize a meeting to begin the needs assessment. Lauren put together a survey prior to the meeting and distributed it to all of the stakeholders on our list. 35 representatives of diverse organizations that included traditional and non-traditional environmental educators met in the capital city of Columbia, SC to review the results of the survey and provide feedback on the needs assessment. We determined that everyone seemed to want to participate in more advanced training and networking opportunities. We also began to work on developing the existing database of EEinSC.org into a hub of environmental education resources. We then began to organize trainings in different regions across the state.
Peter Phillips was one of the key members of the first EE Capacity Consortia in South Carolina. He had a background working with under served youth of color. He brought in additional resources. Lauren was able to line up some incredible speakers with expertise that had been requested in the needs assessment. We were able to draw diverse groups of people to each of the meetings. We approached environmental education from an economic perspective and illustrated how EE could help develop the outdoor economy. Several of the meetings and workshops were filmed and recorded using money raised from the Michelin Foundation. I worked with 5 interns from the College of Charleston to help develop the EEinSC.org database. We presented the results of our project at the NAAEE conference in 2014.
There was not a lot of work done on EE Capacity the following year due to lack of funding. We reapplied for EE Capacity funding at the end of 2015 to continue building on the work we had started in the previous years. By the time we were awarded the grant, things had changed. The SCNHC had experienced changes in funding and priorities, and had decided they could not participate in EE Capacity. We had to scramble and find a new fiscal sponsor. I approached Shelli Quenga from the Palmetto Project. The Palmetto Project is a well-established, non-profit organization that works with underserved communities throughout the state. One of their projects was to coordinate healthcare facilitators to help people understand the Affordable Care Act. They already had a network of facilitators across the state and were already embedded in many impoverished communities where they had established relationships. We approached EE from a health perspective. Health issues related to water quality and pollution were all over the news in Flint, Michigan and Charleston, West Virginia at the time. We devised a plan to provide training on environmental education to the facilitators so they could talk about it in the communities where they worked. This allowed us to reach a more diverse audience we probably never would have had the opportunity to reach otherwise. It also allowed us to provide mentorship opportunities to the facilitators, who then reached out to leaders in the communities they served.
I continued to reach out to other consortia members. We organized a series of EE Capacity workshops in different parts of the state by partnering with organizations that already had related scheduled events. These organizations allowed us to participate in their events, providing training workshops for the people who attended. The workshops were based on why EE is important and relevant. They also addressed how to approach a diverse audience with the EE subject matter.
Some of the events we were scheduled to do workshops in included: The Project Wet conference in Greenville, the Nature-based Tourism conference in West Ashley, the Sonoco Recycling Neighborhood Association meeting in Columbia, the EEASC Conference in Seabrook, and the Climate Change Summit in Charleston. We had to cancel our scheduled event in Columbia due to Hurricane Mathew.
One of our successful workshops happened when we partnered with an art/science collaborative called Cultivate to put on an event at Destiny Café, a “pay what you can” restaurant located in an economically challenged urban area. Cultivate already had established experts that use art and science to educate the public about climate change. The workshop included a science presentation from Dr. Bobby Lyon, which explored how ocean and other forces affect climate. This was followed by an interactive art project led by Brienne Oliver that had the audience making art based on the information they had learned. Because of the location and content, we attracted a very diverse audience from the local neighborhoods as well as from the science and art communities.
By collaborating with existing organizations, we were able to leverage resources. We were not overly burdened with all the responsibilities it takes to put on an event, such as: securing locations, providing equipment, booking speakers, marketing the event, and running the event. We were also able to reach a wider audience; many people attending the events might never have come to an event that was hosted by the EE Capacity team.
Adversity forced us to be creative. And by doing so, we were able to leverage resources, build partnerships, and expand our reach in ways that may not have happened if we had been in a stronger financial position. We were also able to approach EE from an economic and a health perspective in order to make it relevant for the different populations we were trying to reach. As a result, we were able to go far beyond the traditional environmental education community.
Finally, we presented our work at the EE Capacity gathering at the 2016 NAAEE conference in Madison, WI.