Category Archives: Policy Advocacy

Why Altruism is (Mostly) Overrated

166 residents live in Lomond, a farming town: one of the smallest towns I’ve visited.

So, moment of truth: What were the students like? Well, they were beyond my wildest dreams. The depth of their discussions were more innovative, more thoughtful, and more forward-looking than most schools I’ve visited on the tour. For example, while I was talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a core part of my assembly presentation, one student responded by noting, “What worries me is that as bionic parts are being used more and more for the body, discrimination against ‘less human-looking’ people will be an issue.”

Students recently participated in a competition by the University of Lethbridge to build a big construction project built solely out of donated food cans called, ‘CANstruction’. This is currently displayed at the Center Village Mall in Lethbridge.

We used this as an example for the workshop.

I asked students, “What would need to happen for you to say that this was a wild success?” Students answered, citing the number of views, the number of people receiving the message, the lower rates of hunger within the population, the visual appeal of the display, and number of people who relate to the message. Solid answers. But, when I pressed on them to distill this project down to a mission statement, they said: “To donate cans to a local food bank to reduce local hunger.”

None of them said it was to win the competition. Why?

Well, it’s because they didn’t want to admit that they would benefit from doing good. I asked students: “If you donated thousands of cans of food, and the local hunger went down by 10% but lost the competition, would you still say that this was a massive success?” I further pressed them: “Then, why bother entering the competition? Why bother taking the 4,600 cans all the way to Lethbridge?” (Yes, 40 students in a town of 166 collected 4,600 cans!) “Why bother fulfilling competition requirements to assemble the cans into the shape of a tractor?”

Students acknowledged, first sheepishly and then proudly, that they did it to win. I asked them: “Well, then, Is reducing hunger the primary objective, or is it community building?” Last year, Lomond Community School’s CANstruction had raised over 8,000 cans, when the entire Lethbridge competition raised 11,000 cans. All the other schools combined was only 3,000. Lomond had their local businesses, parents, and school – everyone – participate. It was a huge deal, and they take great pride in it. And they’re known for it.

But, shouldn’t students be working towards the ‘greater good’ at the expense of their own personal gain? Isn’t this what we’re taught?

I disagree.

We’re afraid to claim that we’re doing good, to benefit from doing that good. You can do good things for others, while doing good things for you. In fact, that’s the way it should be. Always. Why would you do things for yourself that hurt others? You should always do things for yourself that do good for others, as well. And, that’s okay.

Sincerely,

Steve

Visiting Canada’s True North, Strong and Free: Part 2

Diamond Jenness is a rural school located in Hay River, a town of three thousand residents whose main industries are hunting and diamond mining. Despite being a small school, the principal and vice principal care a great deal about the success of their students. The school is known for its academic success, and focus on technology as a means of expanding educational opportunities for students. For example, the school recently obtained increased internet bandwidth from the province, so they could use video conferencing platforms to expand and diversify educational sources for their students.

“Hay River is caught in between the Indigenous world and the others,” said the vice principal.

Curious about the town’s Indigenous past, I asked an elder at the school why the lakes in the Northwest Territories are called, “Slave Lakes”. This is what he told me: When the Scottish explorer, Alexander Mackenzie arrived in the Northwest Territories, his company enslaved the Indigenous peoples living in the area. He named their language “Slavey”, which is what it’s still called today. To this day, the main river and highway in the Northwest Territories are still named after Mackenzie. So, while Canada seems to have moved on from her past, it’s clear the legacy of our own confederate flags and statues remain. Hidden, yes. But, they remain.

The Indigenous influence is large at Diamond Jenness. Students learn how to play the drum and play common Indigenous hand games. Students also learn how to trap, hunt, snare, and cook hunted animals, lynx and beavers being the two prize animals. From time to time, an elder would take the students on a moose hunt and come back when they’ve caught one; that’s the entire school day. Trees are chopped down to make fire, and snow is boiled for water while hunting. Ice fishing is a common life skill.

During the workshop, I asked the students my standard question: “What are three skills you would need to develop or practice to create the future we want?” One student answered: “Survival skills.” It was, again, an answer I’d never heard before.

One student stayed behind after the workshop. She explained her passion for sustainability and the environment, but she doesn’t think there’s anything that can be done in Hay River. For example, she wants to become a vegetarian, but her father’s a hunter. He brings food home that she refuses to eat, and they fight. They fight often on this subject. But, more generally, it’s hard to get people to change when there’s no alternative. Wood pellets in stoves are the most common way to heat homes in Hay River, and they don’t get natural gas. So, wood pellets and diesel are the most common options.

What can this student do?

This is where we come in.

I connected her with one of our full-time sustainability project consultants (mentors) who provides mentorship for every school, to empower students to take action in their local communities today. As soon as they’re connected, they will identify a local sustainability challenge, analyze it, and develop a solution to the challenge.

3% Project is made for youth, by youth. Youth identify problems. Youth design solutions. Youth lead the implementation. This is true sustainability.

Sincerely,

Steve

Visiting Canada’s True North, Strong and Free: Part 1

At four in the morning, I started driving from Fort River, Alberta to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. An hour before arriving in Yellowknife, my car slipped on ice and fell into a snowbank. I stopped my car and shovelled the snow around the car for over half an hour, but I couldn’t get the car out. With the assembly time closeby, I started to worry. Thankfully, at the last minute, a gentleman stopped by, tied a rope to his truck, and pulled the car out. If he had shown up a mere ten minutes later, I would have been late.

Yellowknife is a rocky area with lots of mining activity. According to locals, St. Patrick’s burnt down and was rebuilt in 1991. During their rebuilding, they decided to build around the local Rockies to showcase nature. The stairs in the main hall includes a huge section of rocks.

Due to a local diamond mine, children from miners from around the world come to Yellowknife and attend high school, so it was a quite diverse group.

Around twenty five students came to the workshop after the assembly, evenly distributed across higher grades. Most of them were from the school’s Green Club or the Interac Club. Students had a very active discussion. I asked them, “What are the skills most necessary to create an impact?” They responded: “Creative thinking, cooperation, originality, wisdom and ethics, listening especially with people you disagree, compromise, and self-improvement.”

A student asked me, “I want to make an impact, but I don’t know where to start. What are other Canadian students doing to make an impact?”

This is why we do the tour. This is why I write these blog posts.

I write about youth-led solutions and projects from across Canada, so a miner’s child in Yellowknife can feel inspired to do the same. As I go from town to town, I’m physically mobile. But, 3% Project offers students a different kind of mobility: the mobility to think beyond their local context and yet, simultaneously, be mobilized to act in their local context.

Dear young person, whether from Smithers, British Columbia or Yellowknife, Northwest Territories: If you’re reading this, know that there are thousands of students across Canada that care; that are taking action; and that are fighting the good fight.

Sincerely,

Steve

What’s in a Teacher?

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First, meet Warren Lake.

He’s an environmental science educator at the school. He’s received international awards, given TED talks on pedagogical approaches to nature education, and published articles and studies on environmental education. Mr. Lake shared that students who graduated his class still talk about our assembly, and a few students chose their university majors inspired by the assembly. Since then, he told me that students have pushed for climate change to be included in the curriculum, and climate change became the main theme for projects for a grade ten science course in Calgary!

Two school-wide initiatives came out of the assembly in Oct 2017.

One. Students created Meatless Mondays in the school cafeteria! They qualified for a $1,000 grant and purchased a grow tower where they cultivate herbs for use in the cafeteria.

Two. Students created a project mapping ice movements from 17th-century whaling logs, which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award.

During lunchtime, I was treated to a Meatless Monday pasta from the cafeteria and was given a tour of Mr. Lake’s classroom with vertical gardens, rainbow trout aquarium, tortoise house, gecko terrarium, over a hundred plants, microgreen garden, vermicomposting bins, tomato, potato, and various edible plant garden. Mr. Lake took IKEA’s open source design to make a circular garden house that students could sit and read in. He recently won $7,500 from the Alberta Ecotrust Foundation to create a solar park on the school roof. 8 solar panels will function as sunshades and underneath it, students will eat lunch, read, take naps on hammocks, so that they can directly witness the benefits of solar panels.

Mr. Lake takes students on a number of nature trips. They go to mountains, lakes, the Arctic, ocean, islands – as many places as they can, so students can develop memories and appreciation for nature. His TED talk on this is available here.

I have an incredible amount of respect for Mr. Lake, who is one of the most active and effective environmental educators across Canada that I have ever met. His dedication and passion not only transforms the students’ appreciation for nature but their entire lives. His pedagogical approach deserves to be studied and emulated for the upcoming generation of educators.

What’s in a teacher? Whatever you make it to be. You could change a student. A school. A town. A province. A country. The world.

Sincerely,

Steve

Ahousat: Resilience, Love, and Hope

igenou

Ahousat is an island accessible only by water or air, off the coast of Vancouver Island. It’s an island with a predominantly Indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth Nation population of 2,100.

After six hours of driving, a highway closure, and a water ferry, I arrived at the school. I gave my usual presentation. To conclude, I asked students and educators what sustainability meant to them. They answered: “Whales and fish.”

Having never heard such an answer, I asked them to elaborate. They told me that most jobs on the island come from fishing or the public sector. The island has one elementary school, one secondary school, one small hospital, and one fisheries agency. There is not a single store on the island, so everyone shops for groceries in the nearby town of Tofino. They take several empty tubs, fill them with groceries, and come back on water taxis. Garbage is taken to Tofino for disposal. For most, the sales of recyclables barely cover the cost of the water taxi fare.

The unique history of the Indigenous peoples looms largely on the island. As I got on the water taxi to return to the mainland, I sat next to an elderly man who introduced himself: “My name is Ty-sem, some call me Tiger, and my slave name is Darren.” I was surprised, and I asked him what he meant by ‘slave name’. He replied by saying that it was a name given to him from a residential school. I later found out that there’s a deep history of enslavement of Indigenous peoples in Canada. In fact, ⅔ of the slaves of New France, which held the most slaves and for the longest duration in Canada, were Indigenous. Ty-sem shared his life with me: “I’ve lived here in Ahousat all my life. I do construction here. Getting materials here is difficult, and it gets worse every year. The water gets more violent. The winds are weird. It’s difficult to get in and out of the island. The worst part is when the storm comes. Emergency evacuation isn’t safe anymore. Some people don’t make it.”

Visiting Ahousat, I visibly saw the impacts of climate change. I saw maps for tsunami and hurricane evacuations around the island. I saw incredibly long and steep docks to the boats with coastal erosion forcing the islanders to continue extending the dock into the island. I heard teachers warning students against touching the sea foam in the sand with a warmer ocean resulting in melting poisonous jellyfish in the sand.

In my presentation, I talk about climate justice: “Climate justice means those who’ve done the least to cause climate change in the first place, are the ones most affected by it. That also means those who’ve done the most to cause it in the first place are the ones least affected by it.” On Ahousat, I felt this deeply. I felt the systematic injustice of climate change, the abuse of Indigenous people, and the neglect of rural communities.

Beyond the systematic injustice, however, I found a spirit of optimism on this island. The love of teachers caring for students, the hope of a community celebrating in an annual harvest festival, the resilience of islanders steadfastly collecting recyclables. The world can learn from this spirit, one that keep the island of Ahousat beautiful.

Sincerely,

Steve

Going from Project to Impact

Hello, Prince of Wales Secondary!

“How do we move away from fossil fuel?

How is it fair that climate change disproportionately affects developing states who did the least to cause it? What is the structure of the Paris Climate Agreement?” asked students at Prince of Wales Secondary.

Young people aren’t interested in superficial conversation on climate change. They’re interested in learning the complicated, complex, but important details.

They’ve started good sustainable initiatives including a bike shop, sustainability week, student council, and a bottle drive.

I started talking about the bike shop with the student leaders. They wanted to open up a bike shop at school to help students fix their bikes and, in turn, encourage biking over driving. But, their objectives were unclear.

I asked them: “What’s the impact? Is it to build a long term habit of biking? Is it to promote physical exercise for the community’s health benefits? Is it to reduce GHG emissions by riding a bike to school, instead of a car?

If these are the objectives, why do you need to fix bikes? Is that the best use of the school’s resources to set up a shop to achieve any of the objectives above?”

Helen, a student council representative, agreed that they hadn’t really thought about that. She’s excited to start having hard talks with her student council on how and why they do things. She wants to incorporate an impact and measure of success to their planning in the future.

And I hope they will. I hope that these passionate students launch well-researched, data-driven, impactful projects to help shape their community’s future into the kind of future they want.

Sincerely,

Steve

Sowing Seeds of Sustainability

Hello again, Kumsheen Secondary!

What is an action project?

At every school, we challenge students to solve their community’s biggest sustainability challenge. We help students analyze and develop solutions to the identified challenge. This is what we call an “action project”. Our full-time sustainability project consultants (mentors) across Canada provide mentorship for every school, helping them complete their project.

Climate change is a big problem. But, when students measure their climate actions, they turn climate change into a real, tangible issue that they, and their generation, can face.

The student-led action project at Kumsheen was a garden.

  • Students wrote letters to local organizations to get seeds.
  • Students researched what kind of seeds would work with the local climate.
  • Students designed a banner for the “sharing and learning fair”.
  • Students presented the garden to the rest of their school.
  • Students shared the produce at the fair.
  • Students wrote thank you letters to farms and groups that supported them.
  • Students practiced project management with goals, targets, and timeline.

The real fruits of the garden was the student learning experience. Students learned about food security, and developed solutions to produce sustainability in the local context.

They were proud of starting this garden, growing things, and enjoying the produce for their school and local community.

This is why we exist.

We know youth-led climate action alone will not solve climate change. But, those who work towards climate solutions at a young age are much more likely to challenge the status quo in the future. We envision a future where every young person grows to make their personal and professional choices reflect a sustainable future.

A Glimpse Into The Future We Want

Mamma mia, here we go again: Hello, Brookswood Secondary!

An Indigenous teacher opened the assembly. I had 70 minutes. Students signed up to be at the assembly. It was exam season for them. They were attentive, quiet, and had interesting questions for me. We had a great discussion together.

I asked students: “What are three skills you need to create the future we want?”

They answered: Creativity, innovation, communication, courage, empathy, listening, problem-solving, and leadership.

Hannah and Josh, the co-presidents of the school’s student council, approached me after the assembly. They asked me how they could run their student council more effectively. I sat with them through lunch to hear their stories and to come up with a game plan until June.

I’ve been to many schools. At every school, I see glimpses of the kind of future we want. At Brookswood Secondary, I saw it in two student leaders.

Let me introduce you to Hannah and Josh.

Hannah is in grade twelve. She joined student council to help create community at her school through school spirit, school-wide activities, and by setting common school goals. She knows that, especially in a big school, it’s easy to feel isolated and feel like there’s no one there for you. She wants to fix this. She’s been through it. It’s not something she wants anyone else to feel at her school.

Josh is also in grade twelve. He is passionate and hardworking. Josh is applying to neuroscience programs for university, so he can better understand mental health. He wants Brookswood to be a more empowering space for the marginalized. He knows that high school can be a tough time, and he’s been there. He doesn’t want others to feel that, without knowing there’s a strong support base and community for them at school.

We brainstormed four priorities for student council, until June:

  1. Maintain the Council by running events that are expected by the Council;
  2. Tell an exciting story of the Council to attract others to want to join it too;
  3. Cultivate new leaders from younger grades who will continue the Council and have a longer overlap transition period; and
  4. Set the fundamental, Constitutional structures of the Council

Hannah and Josh are pictures of bold and empathetic leadership. They’re driven by a vision of changing their world, and the future of their school, to the world and future they want. Big solutions don’t always have to start at the global level. It starts with two students that have the interests of their peers at heart.

You can change your school. Change your town. Change your province. Change your country. Change your world. It all begins at home.

I wish the best to both Hanna and Josh. If you’re interested in making a difference at Brookswood, contact Hanna and Josh. They’ve got a place for you at student council.

Sincerely,

Steve

Hello, from Nechako Valley!

After the assembly, I talked with some student leaders. They’ve run a successful e-waste drive and have a water walk coming up for the school’s Water Week.

“What is the expected impact of your water walk?

What do you consider to be success?

How do you intend to measure success? Is it the number of dollars raised? Is it the number of participants? Is it the awareness of water issues?

How do you measure the improvement? Is it the reduction of water use in the school?” I asked the student leaders.

Blank faces. Bright, curious eyes. I’m thrilled. This is why I’m here.

This is a good starting point. Young people are smart. They’re not going to continue putting labour into fruitless projects.

If we don’t want high-school sustainability projects to be empty exercises, we need to start equipping our students with the ability to turn innovative ideas into impactful long-term projects.

And that’s what we hope to do. For every school we visit, we challenge students to solve their community’s biggest sustainability challenge. We help students identify, analyze, and develop solutions to their community’s biggest sustainability challenge. In turn, our full-time sustainability project consultants across Canada provide mentorship for all interested students.

Sincerely,

Steve

Hello, from Smithers!

Visiting the town’s local high school, I witnessed tremendous potential for youth action. Over the last six years, teachers and students have started environmental initiatives that are unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else in Canada.

SSS Youth Action is an active group of dedicated students and teachers, Mr. Hubert, Mr. Rath, and Mrs. Cunningham. Together this group has tackled social justice and environmental issues including the initiation of a compost system, a bicycle powered charge station for cell phones and to make smoothies, microgreens grown for snacks in classrooms, the invention of a rocket retort to convert the woodshop’s sawdust into biochar, a Vegucation website, a 4000 sq ft garden, and the construction of a biomeiller and geodesic dome for year round growing.  SSS Youth Action has won provincial and national awards (BC Green Games and Staples Ecovator Contest) for their efforts.  Smithers Secondary students have benefited greatly by being involved with these eco-innovations.

The mastermind behind these inventions is teacher Rick Hubert, who is a climate change leader.

He’s made machinery and equipment at his metal shop to create a more energy efficient and sustainable Smithers. Hubert has been recognized with the Prime Minister’s Award for teaching excellence.

To help his wife fight cancer, he started looking for ​more nutritious and better sourced agricultural food.

This led to the creation of the first biomeiller and geodesic dome in the region.  Hubert has put much of his own time into these projects, and much has been funded by grants he applied for. At one point, part of his teaching load was assigned to working on green initiatives and running the geodesic dome with students, but over the past years, the school has faced a large decline in population and as a result, a decrease in budget.  Hubert’s teaching schedule no longer allows time for a “green block” so it’s become impossible for him to keep things running.  The geodesic dome hasn’t been operating for the past two years.

Recently, there’s been talk of scrapping the geodesic dome altogether. It’s a hard situation for everyone at Smithers Secondary. Teachers acknowledge that the budget decline is a very real and serious problem; in equal measure, they see the enormous educational benefits of such climate innovations for students.

We see it too.

This is why we do this tour. We want to highlight climate solutions that educators and students are building in high schools across Canada.

Smithers, you inspire us – and the rest of Canada – with your steps towards real climate action. We are rooting for you, and the return of the biodome to Smithers Secondary.

Sincerely,

Steve

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