NJ Learns: Making Bigger Connections Over Time

By Lori Braunstein

As a member of the 2008 inaugural class of NJ Learns, forty other people and I from across the state spent a total of 8 days learning how to talk to my community about sustainability.  Because of my role as community leader, in the years since, I’ve spent time crafting my own skill at sharing the concepts of Education for Sustainability more informally.  In the last three years, I've used NJ Learns tools in my interactions with community members, elected officials, senior citizens, students and others. The variety of audiences to whom I’ve presented hasn’t just allowed me to tailor my presentation skills, it’s also been fundamental to creating a shared understanding about sustainability across these distinct audiences, opening pathways for me and for them to make more connections, find common interests and work together toward our shared goals. 

The inclusive message woven throughout NJ Learns about finding entry points to bring diverse stakeholders into the sustainability conversation really resonated with me and supported my efforts to build momentum for a regional sustainability movement in South Jersey.  Over time and with more experience, instead of seeing divergent opinions and perspectives as obstacles, I see them as opportunities for new connections that expand the scope of my work—and get my community that much closer to the goal of sustainability.  I have a lot of stories to share, but there are a few I wanted to pass on to show how those of us in Cherry Hill are making new connections, reaching out to other NJ Learners and across sectors, too. 

Jodi Raditz is a teacher at Carusi Middle School in Cherry Hill and an active member of Sustainable Cherry Hill. Unlike me, Jodi applied her EfS learning in much the same way it was presented to us over the course of our training.  Taking full advantage of the actual presentation materials, Jodi designed and implemented an Educating for Sustainability section to her Math Exploratory course.  In the last three years, Jodi has shared EfS knowledge and skills with over 1000 sixth, seventh and eighth graders who have passed through that course.  Not quite satisfied with that significant impact, she didn’t stop there.  Jodi branched out to educate other teachers like herself about EfS by designing and teaching a four-week continuing education course this winter.

With these two educational innovations, Jodi’s been able to apply her learning with ever larger impact, to vastly different audiences. 

Where Jodi’s work has taken place within the classroom part of the school system, my work took place in the wider municipality and, recently—finally—at the school district level.  After working for over three years to engage the Cherry Hill school district in conversations about sustainability, I was finally invited to make a presentation to the Board of Education last month.  I was given exactly eleven minutes to getting them thinking.  Knowing that I had to make the most of that precious time, I struggled to put together a meaningful and memorable speech.  (I actually constructed four different presentations before finally settling on the one I ended up doing.)  

I got the board member's attention by saying “If I had a nickel for every person who told me that we needed to include the schools and the kids in the sustainability conversation then I would be rich”.  To drive the point home, I had gone to the bank and actually had $100 worth of nickels that I dropped on the table as I said this. After showing a quick educational video from the Global Mind Shift website about the need to change our thinking, I talked to the board members about NJ Learns and the “nested systems” of the EfS framework.  I started with the Learning Self and worked my way outward to the Learning Community, giving examples along the way.  I discussed the familiar challenge of recycling in schools to walk through the benefits of using a systems approach to dealing with waste.  I explained how forming a Sustainability Team (made up of students, teachers, other staff, administrators, a Board of Education member, and representatives from the community, etc.) would go a long way to providing leadership for the district’s move toward sustainability.  As a concrete step in that direction, I invited Board members to join the Cherry Hill Township Sustainable Jersey Green Team.  

In the weeks following the meeting, the connections forged there have had tangible, measurable results: a member of the Board of Education took us up on our offer and has joined our community Green Team.  At the same time, they asked us to come to the Board’s Buildings/Facilities and Strategic Planning committee meetings to discuss the formation of the Cherry Hill School District Sustainability Team.

It’s probably not serendipity that I was invited to make a presentation to the Board of Education at this moment.  We don’t have proof, but it seems likely that the consistent work Jodi has been doing from inside the classroom outward and the strategic relationships I’ve been forging from the municipality inward created just the right conditions for the Board to entertain the idea of systemic change now. 

My experience with NJ Learns has been the source for much of the work that I have accomplished around sustainability in South Jersey, both through the informal integration of EfS into my own personal philosophy, and through the use of the formal presentation.   Each year, we have sent a new team of learners to the program from Cherry Hill, as well as teams from neighboring communities.  I look forward to using these tools as I set even more ambitious goals of moving my county and region forward with sustainability in the years to come.  Thank you NJ Learns!