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Finding Common Ground

Successful environmental communication and education projects aren’t just plucked from thin air. Programs need to be strategic. As such, they should be carefully designed. To this end, a key to success is the extent to which our messages align with the values and aspirations of our target audiences, the groups of people with whom we work.

It’s not easy talking about the natural world with people who don’t seem to care about it. The trick is to identify people’s values and aspirations, then ascertain the most effective way to navigate the sometimes challenging terrain of what people hold dear in their lives.

Irrespective of our differences, all people share one thing in common: we aspire to that which we cherish. A better life, dignity, well-being, healthy families, safe communities, personal security – to a lesser or greater extent, we all aspire to such things, and more. According to Les Robinson and Andreas Glanznig in Enabling EcoAction (2003), when these aspirations combine with personal experiences of people, places, qualities, they form complex value sets that may be shared between communities or groups of people.

The challenge for educators, particularly those working within policy-driven environments, is one of translation. Human values and government or corporate language tend to inhabit different worlds; they speak different languages. According to Robinson & Glanznig: “values tend to be human-centred and holistic (“I value my memories of that lake”, “I value the health of my family”) whereas policies tend to be abstract, neutral, passionless, universal (“the enhancement of biodiversity”, “the protection of endangered habitat”).” In other words, the language of policy tends to be “bloodless, managerial and scientific”.

As educators and communicators for sustainability, our role is to find the shared territory between these two worlds, the shared ways of talking. We need to discover the language that translates jargon into values that are meaningful and relevant for our audiences and local communities.

Various writers advocate for community (or market) research to determine appropriate messages and methods for communicating environmental sustainability. From focus groups to action research, there are assorted methods that environmental educators and communicators can employ. One approach is to simply talk with people in our local communities. Through conversation, we can discover people’s values and the potential obstacles to their participation in social change. From there, we can facilitate opportunities to bridge discussion toward the environmental outcomes our work ultimately aims to achieve.

Irrespective of our environmental or sustainability project, it’s critical to align our work with the existing (and often strongly-held) values of our local communities (or audiences). When we work with people’s aspirations, we have a solid foundation for effective program design.

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