Manchester Environmental Education Network
The climate crisis is becoming increasingly evident as world temperatures rise, biodiversity falls and humans struggle with the associated issues of how to keep the planet within a safe margin for life to continue.
When I joined MEEN as a volunteer in 2002 I was spurred on by my concern about climate change, biodiversity and the inter-connections between multiple environmental crises and I imagined myself working with school communities to respond through making change. I remember my first voluntary role being to help out at a MEEN climate change event. The conference brought four high schools together to learn about the issues and to plan a response which they could take back to school.
What I remember most though was their reaction to the sustainable lunch: pizza made with brown flour was eyed suspiciously and flapjacks were just too weird to eat. Since then a lot has changed: for one thing I was employed as the MEEN coordinator, but much more importantly there has been an incredible leap in our collective knowledge and understanding of climate change. Raising awareness has at last morphed into understanding the imperative for action with many young people organising protests and calling on adults to step up and respond with an appropriate level of urgency.
The multiple emerging questions are how to instigate and sustain appropriate environmental change, who needs to take action and how can we fund it at scale. But it is also about the processes of change. For example, squaring the sustainable food circle can still, on occasion, haunt MEEN events. Holding our conferences in a vegetarian and sustainably refitted old mill is an example of how we try to model sustainable ways of working. Occasionally though, it still causes ripples of complaint, highlighting how collective (albeit in this instance local) policies and individualism rub up against each other.
But MEEN has always tried to walk the talk. MEEN is a small, regional, charity where cycling, walking, tramming, are the norm and working remotely with very few resources, finances included, is a huge benefit to the size of our ecological footprint. Our aims though are big: we want to facilitate Education for Sustainability with school communities across Greater Manchester and our mission is: ‘to integrate into education and learning the knowledge, values and skills needed for a sustainable way of life’ with much of what we do being achieved through networking and intergenerational learning.
We acknowledge that being such a small organisation MEEN’s reach is limited but we attempt to funnel our big aims through sustaining regular networking events. These include the facilitation of Green Teach Meet sessions to bring school Eco School coordinators, organisations, businesses and other educators together to share knowledge, experience and contacts. We also have an on-line termly newsletter ‘Beehive’ to share stories and resources and a website – www.meen.org.uk – where we share contacts, information and our case studies. One of the few benefits of Covid-19 restrictions is that we are finding time to re-vamp and up-date the website.
We try to tackle sustainability issues from a variety of perspectives: often we take a schools’ orientated perspective such as Eco Schools, Sustainable Schools, The Four Nations ESD conference – where we examined the positioning of environmental education in curriculums across the UK – and more recently we discussed what the Green Recovery might mean for schools. However, we also try to reach a wider audience by holding an annual event which encompasses bigger issues such as exploring Ecocide with Polly Higgins or exploring routes to Zero Carbon Britain with Paul Allen from the Centre for Alternative Technology.
Increasingly though, it is our project work with young people that sustains the organisation. Working directly with school-based Eco Teams alongside our various partner organisations has become the mainstay of MEEN’s work. We aim to be innovative in our approach and endeavour to work with partners for mutual benefit. For example, we have years of experience working on intergenerational climate change projects working with a ‘Learn, Act, Share’ model whereby young people gather their learning about climate change, take some form of local action on the issue and then share their learning with different audiences.
Over the years partners who have helped young people learn about climate change have included a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Arctic expert, Terry Callaghan; the Carbon Literacy project; a Brazilian environmental educator, Rachel Trajber; the fire brigade and the Universities of Manchester and Salford and a host of NGOs and businesses from community gardeners to caterers, just to name a few.
To engage young people in taking action to mitigate climate change we have organised multiple tree planting sessions and facilitated energy monitoring and energy efficiency measures in school whilst campaigning for renewables and other carbon saving activities such as walking to school or Meat Free Mondays. In order to share their learning we support pupils to become community educators on climate change finding opportunities for them to teach their peers, school staff and family members about climate issues.
Then in an effort to reach outside the school domain, we have organised climate classrooms in a range of settings where, for example, pupils discuss the issues with visitors to the Manchester Museum, shoppers in the Arndale, students in the Student’s Union or with trainee Science teachers at the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). The confidence and experience gained from such encounters can be transformative.
Our current projects include taking ‘Social action on climate change’ and the ‘Save Our Soils’ campaign working with schools that have contaminated or impoverished soils. (To learn more about our projects go to :https://www.meen.org.uk/case-studies). But while our contact with schools is limited through Covid-19 restrictions we are also running a research project with the MIE focused on how schools are working towards Greater Manchester’s zero carbon target of 2038. The aim of the research is not only to explore what schools have already done, but what they intend to do and to discover what help they need on the journey.
MEEN has managed to survive years of austerity because of its networking; its relations with its various partner organisations and the continual effort of its trustees and staff. Will it survive a pandemic? We hope so, even as we adapt to changing circumstances in schools and our community. However, ultimately MEEN’s goal is to see itself out of a job: the aspiration is that a sustainable future is possible and that schools will pay a vital part in its creation. One day the environmental agenda will be a fundamental strand of the curriculum; one day schools will be zero carbon; one day MEEN’s job will be done. Until such times MEEN will continue to try to make a difference.
If you would like to know more email Raichael at [email protected]
Written by Raichael Lock