Field Chats Episode 002 – Talking Environmental Action Civics with Emily Hertz from Denver Audubon

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Thanks so much to Emily Hertz for joining us to talk about Environmental Action Civics! She describes what it can look like in an environmental education organization (and how they’re experimenting with setting initial topic boundaries this year) – and the importance of relationships in doing this work.

Below you’ll find links to what we discussed and the transcript.

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Learn more about Chatfield State Park

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Taylor: Hi, and welcome to Field Chats: Environmental Action Civics Essentials Episode 2. I’m Taylor Ruffin, Colorado Program Manager with Earth Force, and we’re joined today by a special guest, Emily Hertz. And today we’ll be discussing her experience working with students on Environmental Action Civics projects.

So, Emily, could you just go ahead and introduce yourself? 

Emily: Sure. Thanks so much, Taylor. So, my name is Emily Hertz, and I’m the school programs manager for Denver Audubon. I’ve been with Audubon for 12 years, and our mission is to inspire others to take actions to protect birds, wildlife and their habitats.

So, I’ve been specifically working with Earth Force with a high school for the past seven years. And, yeah, so that’s how I’m involved with Earth Force. 

Taylor: Yeah, seven years is an impressive time. It’s a long time. It continues to grow and change. So then, with those projects, you know, can you tell us a little bit more about how your organization engages in environmental action civics?

Emily: Yeah, so our students actually each year choose a project or projects that they work on within the state park that we’re located. So we’re located in Chatfield State Park in Colorado. And our students every year, you know, between the manager of the park and the park techs we come up with a list of different environmental issues that we’re facing.

And then the students work to choose and select an issue together as a group or groups depending on the year. And then they work through the six step process democratically to choose to figure out a solution or civic action to help identify and mitigate the issue that we are facing.

Taylor: Stellar. Yeah, you can tell your experience with the Earth Force and Environmental Action Civics. What you’re saying really leads us into this next piece because that experience is kind of what I want to dive into – when you’re thinking about that work you do with Earth Force or Environmental Action Civics. What have you learned that might be helpful for other organizations that are working with educators and student groups to engage in this type of process?

Emily: Yeah, I, you know, this is probably the, the, it’s been so successful because I’ve had a really great and responsive group of, excuse me, educators and administration from the school. When you have administrators and teachers that are, you know, hook, line and sinker bought in themselves, it makes the process so much easier.

And so it. I honestly don’t know that it would go as well as it, as it has been for the last, you know, six years because we’ve had such a great rapport. So good relationship building with the school and with the teachers is fundamental, but also having invested people to start with who, you know, they sought me out.

And so that works really well for me when I ended up working with schools who seek me out for the work that we do together. Other things that are really helpful are to have connections within. the community. Obviously we’re within a state park. And so I’ve been building a relationship with the staff there and officials in the state park.

And so that’s super helpful when we’re trying to get our projects going. We have to have the support obviously of the land managers that, you know, that we work with because our land is managed by the state park. So just making sure you have a, you know, close relationship and work on those relationships.

And they take time. I mean, I think maybe one thing to tell anybody starting this process off is like, it didn’t start off that way. I didn’t just know legislators and I didn’t just have great relationships with the, you know, upper management officials at the park that over the time that I’ve done this work, those relationships have developed and it’s made the process going through to make changes a whole lot more streamlined.

So that’s really helpful. I do you want me to talk anymore about like specifics of students?

Taylor: Yeah. Go ahead. You’ve done a lot of work this past couple of years where I’ve got to work with you and get more engaged with the projects. And it is just kind of all encompassing, like how you’re talking about the collective, you know, this large network of students, educators, administrators, other organizations kind of like, how do you keep that together, you know, with so many different interests and perspectives – if you want to talk more about students, that would be great. 

Emily: Yeah, I mean, it doesn’t really like, as you were talking there for a second, Taylor, it takes a village of people to pull this off. It is not just myself and the teacher and the students.

Or even just one person from the park. It’s a lot of us. Lots of partner organizations. But you know, students are key. You know, we’re going to try something a little different than we’ve done before. So, you know, some schools may find this helpful and some might not. You know, we in the past have given the students kind of a choice of the different environmental issues to solve.

But this year we’re going to try something a little bit different. And we’re going to we’re going to provide, I think, two issues and then kind of let students kind of divvy themselves up into whichever groups want to solve which problem and then spend more of our time because the school year is a little bit it’s not so in a line with the Earth Force Process in the sense that we only have a nine month period to get stuff done – and there’s testing and there’s vacations and there’s, you know, spring break and fall break and there’s just so many externalities going on during the school year, that we’re finding we think we could try a different way this year and see how that goes. Giving the students what the job is and then for them to be the ones to create the different civic action responses and the conservation action responses.

So we’re going to try that this year. We’ve had a lot of fun with them choosing their their different issues before but we’re noticing it takes up quite a bit of time in the school year and it makes it a lot harder for us to maybe get at some of the deeper, more complex pieces that we could, if we had maybe a few more months time would be easier, but so we’re going to shift that this year and see how that goes.

Taylor: Yeah. And I’m excited to see how that works too. Still giving them the opportunity to decide on a project. It’s just kind of like, okay, that gives us more time to decide on the strategies to make that sustainable. Or incorporating those conservation actions does take time. And I think that’s important. That touches on what I was really hoping to kind of talk about specifically is with your situation and supporting educators and students. What are those best practices and kind of this adaptability 1, but then next what really makes that work effective. 

Emily: Yeah, I would say communication, of course. And so that’s like, you know, again, it’s that first and foremost, that rapport and relationship building with the partners that we work with, but then also, you know, the teacher and I sit down at the end of every year. We debrief about what went well.

What we need to work on and then we make our schedule for the next year. So we’ve actually kind of got it down to a science now. Okay, here’s the days we need to meet. Here’s the days we need to do our consults. Here’s the days that we need to do the projects. And now we’re actually on board and they brought in a staff member from the park just to work on this stuff with us, which is fantastic.

We ‘ve never had that. So I’m excited. Like who knows how far we can go with additional support we’ve never had from the park itself! aAnd that’s also nice to have like a direct conduit right into the park so that they can, you know, get to the person who is most important rather than working through basically the park rangers who they also have their own whole set of jobs and other, you know, responsibilities they have to take care of.

This is a person just dedicated to working with us. So I’m really excited about that. Let’s see how, see how that streamlines our process. Maybe a little bit better. Yeah. Especially getting in connection with those decision makers or people in power. Who am I supposed to be talking to?

I know. Well, and so, and then we had some great legislators we’ve been working with the last four years. And this year one of our legislators didn’t get reelected. So, and so now we have to find a new one. So the cool thing is I’ve built relationships with other legislators. And so they actually, I just emailed a new legislator. later today to be like, Hey, you know, this, this contact I have you know, there at the House of Representatives gave me your information and said you’d be a great person to contact to come and be one of our guest panelists at the school. And so we’ll see, that’s, you know, and for me it keeps it exciting because I get to meet new people and learn about the, you know, the governmental and the civic action portion side of things, which is super important.

And now we not only have, you know, the ELA teacher involved, but the history teacher got involved the last six of the seven years and has been really, or sorry, five of the last six years and it has been, you know, super supportive also on like actually looking at the civic action side. And, you know, it’s one thing to study government.

It’s another thing to participate and actually get to sit in on Senate sessions and you know, get to come to talk to the students about the issues that really matter to the students.

Taylor: So, yeah, absolutely. And it’s, it’s a lot to set up. And I think that’s good to have that cooperation and then including a cross curricular elements too, so that the educators have the ability to kind of divide and accomplish those experiences, which is really essential that you kind of help facilitate the action project as well as maintain the network and those educators can really dig into some of that content and the process. So those are amazing.

Emily: I have my hands in a lot of buckets. So yeah, I, I, I also teach a couple of classes and every year we kind of decide what those are going to be. And then, you know, each year we decide on some new guest speakers to come in. And then really, I mean, some of the guest speakers are the stakeholders and I don’t even know them until, you know, the kids decide on what the project is they want to do. So every year it’s, it’s new for me too. So that helps me to build that village we were talking about. Taylor: Yeah, it could be a little scary, too, because you don’t know what the project is until the students choose. But it makes you have the willingness to give them that. Empowerment and authority to really lead the project. So I appreciate your time today. We got one more question before we wrap. So what has inspired you about the work that you’ve been able to accomplish conducting environmental action projects with the students you work with. 

Emily: Yeah, I mean, you know, for me, what’s inspiring is getting kids outside. So part of my work is to help build the next generation of environmental stewards. So for me, it’s watching students actually become those stewards, and it not only legitimately helps us with different environmental issues we have going on in our parking lots, for example, with 8, 000 cigarette butts that get dumped on the ground to like trails that are just really hard to maintain and you know keep up because staffing is so short with the parks.

So real like real life issues that we’re facing but it’s also watching students for me personally who don’t engage necessarily at school or in the classroom and can seem complete withdrawn But when we go outside and watching them come alive outside is I mean to me that’s priceless Watching students get in these huge mucking boots and get out there and remove a bunch of cattails to help the water flow between two lakes is there’s just nothing like watching them enjoy themselves being outside and connecting with nature.

So if we want kids to care about it, they have to remember they’re a part of it. And when they’re outside with us, that’s exactly what they are.

Taylor: Yeah, thank you for that perspective. Cause that’s so exciting because that network that you bring this. Getting folks outside. And then you connect with other people like your legislators and your park folks.

And it’s just this amazing holistic experience about how can we conserve our environment against all of these issues that we face. So thank you so much for joining us. To listeners, thank you all for tuning in. We can’t wait to hear what you all think – you can see the transcript and more information on our blog.

And please don’t forget to leave a comment and tell us where you’re tuning in from. Thank you all so much. And we’ll see you in two weeks.

Written by -

Hayley Valley, Earth Force's Communications Manager, joined Earth Force in 2010 and has since held too many roles to count - all drawing on her experience in communicating Earth Force's commitment to environmental action civics. When she’s not knee-deep in Google Docs, you’ll find her chasing her two boys around.

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