Civic ecology in environmental education can build social-ecological resilience in at risk communities

Maharramli, B. ., Bredow, V. L., & Goodwin, L. . (2021). Using civic ecology education to foster social-ecological resilience: A case study from Southern California. The Journal of Environmental Education, 52(6), 445-462.

Environmental education (EE) incorporates place-based learning for students to adequately understand and create better solutions for social and ecological issues. Civic ecology specifically looks at the role of individuals, their community, the way they solve community-based environmental challenges, and how these solutions impact overall community function. Research has shown using civic ecology principles such as community engagement, environmental stewardship, and environmental management can help grow social-ecological resilience. This study reviewed programming at the Watershed Avengers Initiative in Southern California. In addition, the researchers observed the ways in which civic ecology can be mixed into environmental and sustainability curricula, climate resilience, and social and ecological systems.

This article provided extensive literature on the definitions of civic ecology and social-ecological resilience. The field of civic ecology uses principles which include 1) honoring the interdependence of social and ecological systems, 2) partnerships with different sectors (government, non-profit, education, and private businesses), 3) building resilience, 4) considering local cultures, and 5) practicing local environmental stewardships, and 6) understanding that environmental and social change happens across different scales. Social-ecological resilience if the measure of how the two systems respond to change and recognizes how the two systems rely on one another. For example, a system with weak social-ecological resilience will crumble when it cannot adapt to changes. Alternatively, strong social-ecological resilience embraces innovations and opportunities for future-oriented solutions when confronted with disturbances. Social-ecological resilience is important objective in EE because EE involves problem-solving, critical thinking, and building leaders, which is essential to managing environmental challenges and building sustainable communities. Civic ecology is a form of EE that can build social-ecological resilience.

The researchers conducted an ethnographic study on a community-based environmental project from 2014 through 2020 at four locations: the Ocean Discovery Institute (ODI) Lab in the City Heights community, Manzanita Canyon, Swan Canyon, and the ODI headquarters, all of which are part of the City Heights Neighborhood in San Diego, California. Each location is a part of the C.C. watershed, the most vulnerable watershed in San Diego County. City Heights is an underserved neighborhood and considered to be one of the most racially diverse and poorest communities in the United States. The researchers reviewed the ODI-sponsored Watershed Avengers program for high school students and their families in City Heights. The Avengers program's main goals were to: 1) form the "cross-sectoral community alliance” (CCA), a partnership of non-profits, city departments, and others, to transform the urban canyons into healthier and safer places for the community through stewardship and other activities; 2) host an after-school program for students every week; and 3) plan and lead community habitat restoration events. Data was collected through interviews, archival documents, and observations; the focus was on quality over quantity. Four interviews were conducted with Ocean Discovery Staff and adult volunteers. Interviews were semi-structured, meaning the researcher asked guiding questions, but was mostly engaged in casual conversation. Documents included photos from events, art, and more. Observations occurred at events like stewardship events, meetings, and field trips. The data were then analyzed to reveal how civic ecology was implemented and demonstrated social-ecological resilience.

The researchers identified three areas in which civic ecology was apparent in the Watershed Avengers program: 1) youth leadership development; 2) restoring the urban canyons through collaboration; and 3) defining neighborhood priorities. First, one way leadership was developed in youth was through combining environmental science with art to enable students to take on leadership roles in community events. In addition, students worked alongside artists to talk about the importance of protecting watersheds based on a piece they created using trash and wood that was put on display in the San Diego city hall. One of the participants noted in an interview that ODI helped them prepare to lead events and build the student's confidence to speak with other community members at the events. Students who participated mentioned that this method of applied learning allowed them to enhance their leadership skills and learn how to speak about environmental issues to others. Second, ODI partnered with the community stakeholders to restore the canyons within this neighborhood. The researchers noted multiple instances of youth and adults working together on the project as well as communicating the importance of habitat restoration and applying skills of environmental stewardship to future restoration projects. ODI focused greatly on collaboration to get the needed resources to complete the project and collaboration was also highlighted through the shared values throughout the project among specific partners. Lastly, there were social issues in the neighborhood that the community wanted to make a priority. The most prevalent issues were homelessness, safety, and vandalism. ODI was helpful in educating the students on these issues and were directly involved in combating them by using EE to teach the students on how to get more involved. Overall, the program implemented civic ecology principles that built social-ecological resilience, as seen through the restored canyons and collaborations. Though there are inherent issues in the neighborhood such as tension and competing priorities between different community members.

There were limitations in this study. There may be more elements in this program that directly contribute (or do not contribute) to civic ecology that may not have been explored, like the role of technology, for example. The duration of the study and the various changes throughout time, including the Covid-19 pandemic, politics and overall community access may have changed significantly, which could have had effects on the priorities and overall goals of the community. Lastly, the specific content of this study does not make it generalizable to the EE field, however, the authors hoped what was learned from the case study can be transferrable to other research.

Civic ecology can help educators better comprehend and implement community and civic engagement into their EE curricula to build social-ecological resilience. This case study showed the positive connection between ODI's community-based program, environmental stewardship, and resilience through the restoration projects. This program led the researchers to suggest education organizations invest in civic ecology implementation in EE to develop student leaders, restore habitats, and define community social priorities to build social-ecological resilience.

The Bottom Line

The researchers in this study aimed to understand how civic ecology can be combined into environmental and sustainability curricula, resilience, and social and ecological problems. To gain a better understanding the researchers performed an ethnographic study of an underserved community in San Diego County. High school students and their families participated in a youth group through the Ocean Discovery Institute (ODI) where they learned leadership skills, environmental stewardship and collaboration, and tools for resilience. Data was collected through interviews, observations, and analyzing documents (like photographs) and analyzed over 6 years. The results showed that the program had three common practices which were leadership, collaboration, and civic engagement, which contributed to the success of this project. This program led the researchers to suggest education organizations invest in civic ecology implementation in EE to develop student leaders, restore habitats, and define community social priorities to build social-ecological resilience.

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