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Growing positive change through the Sustainable Communities Field School

April 2, 2015

What can a retired Canadian do to make positive change in the world?

Patricia (Paddy) Wales (BA, ‘75) asked herself that question last year. “I knew I wanted to have some positive effect on the world’s future, which seems bleak at the moment,” says Wales, a life-long nature lover.

Paddy’s interest in how humans change the natural environment began at UBC, as an Arts One student focusing on “the forest and the city.” The next year, a science unit on ecology helped shape the lens through which she views the world. Having admired and supported the UBC Botanical Garden, a conversation with the garden was the natural next step in her quest to make a difference.

It was very important to Wales to support a project that would educate people about climate change and sustainability, and give them concrete tools to make a difference. After several conversations with the Garden, the perfect project emerged: the Sustainable Communities Field School.

The Sustainable Communities Field School is a three-year project that will offer fun, engaging education on sustainability for corporate employees. The first, pilot year of the program seeks to get a number of Vancouver businesses involved. The curriculum for each company will focus on their specific sustainability goals. For example, a downtown office will have different goals than a small factory.

Companies will offer this program to their employees as an enjoyable engagement opportunity. Participants will bond outside of their work environment, enjoy a day at the garden, and learn about sustainability. The goal is to motivate participants to make changes at work, at home, and in the community.

Making this program fun is part of a very serious strategy. “People are often scared off when they hear the reality of climate change,” says Dr. Tara Moreau, the project leader. The challenge for the field school will be to educate people about climate change in a way that leaves them energized and empowered to take action, not scared and overwhelmed. Dr. Moreau says the best way to reach people is “to learn about who you are talking to. What’s important to them? Meet them there.”

With the field school, Dr. Moreau will build on proven methods of creating positive change pioneered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The program will include follow-up activities to encourage lasting change. For example, brief, encouraging text messages have been shown to influence behaviour. Program participants might receive a 7:00 a.m. text: “Remember: you can help conserve water by keeping your shower to 4 minutes or less!”

Dr. Moreau is working with an adviser in psychology to find the best ways to encourage participants. She has also recruited a graduate student in psychology, in addition to several other graduate students. One important job will be to track the project data and analyze what works and what doesn’t.

By the end of the project, the field school will have solid metrics on the best ways to encourage positive change, and a toolkit of activities and lessons on sustainability. Most importantly, hundreds of people will be empowered to make a sustainable difference in their homes, their workplaces, and their community.

The Sustainable Communities Field School had all the elements Wales wanted to support: “It has a strong community outreach component, it is multi-discipline, and forward looking. It supports research that may change people’s practices and attitudes. I was impressed with the plan and the personnel,” she says. For the avid gardener and past president of the Sunshine Coast Botanical Garden, it was also important that the program take place in nature.

Wales is excited and hopeful that the program will make a difference. “A better informed community, and a community that cares enough to act is my greatest hope,” she says.

Thanks to her generous support, Dr. Moreau and her team have the tools to make it happen.