Engaging the youth is critical to the success of environment, natural resources management and climate change adaptation projects. Their open-mindedness, energy and passion for contribution and change make them great partners.
Working with schools is one strategic entry point to link with students. Since climate change is an inter-generational issue, it pays to involve them as early as possible. When teens lead adaptation projects, no matter how small, they learn from the experience. When it is their turn to make decisions, they are more prepared to make wiser choices.
In the Philippines, ADB’s Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI)-Southeast Asia regional project, which aims to improve coastal and marine management in the Sulu Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion of CTI, partnered with public high schools and developed lessons learned through involving the students. As part of that project, a Heroes of the Environment campaign has been initiated, and since 2014 up to 17 public high schools in Taytay and Balabac in Palawan and in Zamboanga Sibugay and Zamboanga del Sur have participated in this campaign..
The campaign aims to educate, inspire, and engage students and their science teachers in protecting the marine ecosystem in the Coral Triangle. It supports underprivileged students so they can access and co-create knowledge on climate change adaptation and coastal resource management. Finally, it seeks to promote long-term behavior change through awareness raising and learning-by-doing activities.
Here are seven lessons from our experience that may help jump-start your climate change adaptation or environment initiative and help bring out the best in the youth.
1. Put youth in the driver’s seat to unleash their creativity.
Youth in remote, underprivileged communities not only have thirst for information and knowledge, they also yearn to discover information and knowledge through meaningful involvement and participation. This approach gives them more control to unleash their creativity. For example, ask them to pick a problem that they care about and they will design their own solution. In our case, this approach encouraged the youth to build on their unique strengths. One school proposed a mangrove reforestation project and formed a dance troupe to share environmental messages. Another scaled up their mangrove project by allocating part of the proceeds from a store run by teachers, and adopting a mountain to ensure conservation.
2. Make it fun.
Solving environment problems does not need to be all serious work. Make it fun! Include play in your projects since it fosters innovative thinking (generating many unique ideas) and helps convergence of ideas g (e.g. combining those ideas into best practices). When we interviewed students on why they persisted in doing difficult projects in spite of the many obstacles they faced, they said it was fun to discover and enjoy nature with their peers. Playful activities nurture creative problem solving. The role of resource persons is to keep them curious, interested, and set clear rules for safe exploration.
3. Opt for small-scale but strategic activities.
Think carefully before holding one-time big events like stand-alone contests or “clean up” drives). Once funding dries up, local communities may find it hard to repeat the activity, so sustainability and long-term impact could be derailed. This is true especially if knowledge mechanisms and case studies of youth involvement are forgotten or remain underused. It is more effective to do a series of smaller, more flexible activities that can be built into ongoing school initiatives. Teachers may find it easier to leverage resources or tap new supporters if they are able to integrate it within their school’s ongoing activities and budget.
4. It’s not primarily about the money.
Money is not the key motivation for schools to join or sustain environmental projects. Intrinsic rewards are more potent in driving student motivation. The 3Ms—developing mastery, feeling a sense of membership, and finding meaning—seemed to be the driver of motivation. Yes, financing is an important concern. In our campaign, schools got the same but nominal amount of seed money (Php10,000-15,000 per school) for their projects. They could use this amount or grow it through fund-raising or asking for in-kind help. Students and teachers need to agree on a sustainable financing plan, should they want to scale up their project.
5. Invest in teachers.
The overall campaign should invest in capacity building for teachers. This will enhance their skills and knowledge in teaching about climate change and coastal resources management. They may be able to benefit from incentives within the system (e.g. earning points leading to promotion, meeting continuing education requirements) to make their participation a win-win situation. Teachers also need more support both for their personal and the school’s continuing growth. Campaigns can assist by linking them with local agencies and regional offices of the Department of Education. These agencies can provide in-kind support, monitor progress, and make the youth activities as part of their official business. All local partners can help and inspire the teachers, and share the school’s success with a wider network.
6. Help students write, value, and share their own story.
Remind students and teachers that they are knowledge producers, not just receivers. Teach them how to distill lessons and tell their own story. Empower them to develop their own knowledge products. This process enables them to strengthen their voice and connect with supporters who can help spread their story online and offline.
7. Empower youth to own their space in social media.
When schools have reliable and regular access to social media, it encourages them to share their stories using their own words. Some of our participants now use Facebook to report their progress and issues. This facilitates monitoring and enables us to coach them. This learning space can become the foundation of a community of practice. Social media can also help build a sense of community among distant schools.
Climate change adaptation projects with the youth should be purposive, participatory, and fun. Activities that foster self-discovery in hands-on projects involving nature help to nurture a relationship with the environment. And when a young person learns the meaning and importance of nurturing nature, it is easier for them to rally for it, protect it, and value it.