By. Victoria Rydberg, Environmental Education Consultant, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
Earlier this fall, more than twenty leaders from school and sustainability organizations convened for a day-long meeting to explore how to support green and healthy initiatives in more schools across Wisconsin. This group, the “Wisconsin Sustainable School Coalition,” is made up of educators; representatives from the state’s Departments of Health Services, Natural Resources, and Public Instruction; school board members; business officials; facility managers; district administrators; and curriculum associations, as well as representatives from environmental education, sustainability, and architecture fields; non-governmental organizations; and private sector consultants. Unlike so many efforts, however, this isn’t a once-and-done affair. These dedicated individuals and organizations convene quarterly to network and coordinate events and resources to amplify green school efforts.
Wisconsin has a long legacy of environmental education, and so it is no surprise that we have been at the forefront of the “green schools” movement as well. In 2006, a group of environmentally-focused charter schools launched the “Green Charter Schools Network” to bring together like-minded schools nationally. Shortly thereafter, this same group launched the Green Schools National Network. Green schools in Wisconsin again banded together in 2008 to launch the “Wisconsin Green Schools Network.” By 2010, the Wisconsin Green Schools Network coexisted alongside the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance (now USGBC Wisconsin) Green Schools Committee, the state’s Green & Healthy Schools program, and a newly formed alliance of organizations convened around energy reduction in schools. Many of the participants in these groups overlapped. There was a lot of support for green schools initiatives and also a lot of confusion.
Clearly, a more coordinated approach to “greening schools” in our state was needed, but how to start? Each of these organizations brought to the table a unique aspect of support to green school initiatives. Each of these organizations had ownership and pride around the specific work they were doing. No organization was just going to bow out. The organizational structure of these groups made it impossible to simply merge and have a single mission and vision.
Thus began a three-year process of developing relationships, coffee conversations, and delving into the heart of each of the green school initiatives in Wisconsin. Through these conversations it became clear that no one wanted to be seen as competition. Everyone wanted to have a bigger impact and there was plenty of work to go around. Rather than try to create a new organization or merge organizations to bring everyone together, an ever-evolving team of movement leaders looked to develop a network structure built around the idea of “better together.”
The groups came together in small meetings, one organization to another, to start looking at commonalities, overlaps, and ways to leverage and support each other’s efforts. For example, Green & Healthy Schools Wisconsin worked with USGBC Wisconsin to amplify “Green Apple Day of Service” participation by targeting schools already within the state’s recognition program to reach USGBC’s vision of “every student in a green school.” Green & Healthy Schools Wisconsin formed an alliance with the group rallying around energy reduction to make sure data on energy reduction was a part of the application process. These conversations expanded to pull in underrepresented voices, such as teachers and health services. The state’s Green & Healthy Schools Wisconsin recognition program eventually became a central unifying effort into which all of the programs fed. This networking happened over time, almost solely through face-to-face work sessions, and it was successful. In a few short years, a strong network of advisory groups, service providers, and leaders began to form, resulting not only in incredible representation on the Wisconsin Sustainable Schools Coalition, but also regional networks and a statewide school support structure. Collectively, these partnerships have helped move green schools participation from less than fifty active participants between 2003-2011 to more than 350 schools today.
Focusing on the idea of “better together” allowed each organization to retain their niche but contribute to a larger, collective impact. This is a model that could be replicated in every state. It isn’t resource intensive, though it does take time. Networking and conversations around collaboration started prior to any funding. These early partnerships helped secure grant dollars from USGBC Wisconsin and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, which made the path a little less bumpy and helped establish a strong foundation. Now a year past funding, we have sustained and are even growing the networks of support for school health and sustainability initiatives. This collective focus on collaboration continually brings in new partners and opens more doors for all.
The network structure we created in Wisconsin isn’t bound by our state’s borders; this approach can be replicated. If you are interested in growing networks of support where you are, don’t hesitate to reach out…we are happy to share our lessons learned through this journey!
Victoria Rydberg is an educator who is passionate about constructing authentic, real-world learning experiences using the environment and community as a context for project-based learning, As the statewide Environmental Education Consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Victoria works with teachers and organizations all over the state to increase the capacity for meaningful environmental education. Victoria founded River Crossing Environmental Charter School in 2002 where she provided a project-based learning experience for seventh and eighth grade students, and is co-founder of the Wisconsin Green Schools Network and F.I.E.L.D. Corps program. She currently serves as an advisory member for the Green Schools National Network and as vice-chair on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Education Advisory Council.