What is Environmentalism? Depends on Who You Ask

Written by Erin Shawgo
    Saturday, 28 December 2013
What is Environmentalism? Depends on Who You Ask

I came to the Center two and a half years ago as a summer camp intern. As my role has changed from environmental educator to volunteer coordinator and community health evaluation coordinator, I have found myself reflecting on a question that has repeatedly come up in the various roles I’ve held: What is environmentalism?

It didn’t take long in my role as an educator to notice that how I engaged with nature wasn’t universal. Activities I loved as a child, like catching bugs or sitting quietly in the woods or playing in snow, while appreciated by some, could be terrifying, disgusting or down right boring to some of my students.

I took on the mentality that I needed to convince kids to like these things, it was necessary in order to “foster ecological understanding and inspiration for change.”

To my surprise, this approach didn’t always work. I noticed how I was projecting my experiences onto the students, instead of understanding that each of us have our own relationship with nature, and our connection to it is going to play out differently. Telling my students how to experience nature wasn’t honoring the diversity of perspectives we each brought to environmentalism, but rather it was making nature seem exclusive in how it could be enjoyed.

Understanding and inspiration can’t be forced. The same dilemma occurred in my role as volunteer coordinator and community health evaluation coordinator. In trying to understand what motivated people to volunteer and how outdoor play improved health, I came to the conclusion that the voices within the community I was working with were necessary contributions to this working definition of environment.

I continue to question how to make environmentalism more inclusive, striving to understand how it looks in others’ lives, beyond the confines of flannel and hiking boots, allowing it to be more dynamic and comprehensive. I can’t say that I’ve landed on a clear cut answer, but working at the Center has given me the chance to really explore how we can all contribute to redefining environmentalism through the way we cook, dance, play outside and how valuing each person’s contribution is essential.

My time here has helped me see that my own experiences and motivations don’t apply to all, and that the work toward inclusivity requires asking the question: What does environmentalism mean to you?

Erin Shawgo

Erin Shawgo

Erin Shawgo is the Community Health Evaluation Coordinator and Volunteer Coordinator at the Urban Ecology Center - Menomonee Valley Branch. 

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