Collaboration with The Natural Step Monona has real-world impacts for students, community

September 23, 2011

While sustainability discussions have taken place all over the globe, serious challenges remain in engaging local communities. Environmental researchers need to address this issue.

Seeing this as an opportunity, in the fall of 2008 I began volunteering with The Natural Step Monona (TNS Monona), a grassroots community organization in Madison's neighboring city. TNS Monona is an all-volunteer organization that promotes environmental, economic and social sustainability.

Dadit Hidayat
Dadit Hidayat, a doctoral student
in Environment and Resources.

It didn't take long to see how a higher education-community partnership could support TNS Monona's work and help the organization more effectively encourage its neighbors and its constituents to live sustainably. Then, a funding opportunity from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies Community Environmental Scholars Program (CESP) arrived at just the right time.

With the assistance of Randy Stoecker, a UW-Madison professor of community and environmental sociology affiliated with the Nelson Institute, and Heather Gates, executive director of TNS Monona, we secured CESP funding for two semesters of capstone courses for undergraduate students in the environmental studies certificate program.

The courses offered students an opportunity to both provide service to a grassroots community organization and to learn from that experience. Randy, Heather and I developed some basic goals, deciding that the spring semester would focus on community-based research, while the fall semester would focus on community organizing. From there, we let the 12 enrolled students get involved in laying out the details.

Spring semester: community-based research

When Randy and I contacted Heather and the TNS Monona education team about this capstone project, they immediately suggested that we conduct a community-based evaluation of how TNS Monona has affected community members' beliefs and practices in relation to sustainability. The hope was that students could both collect this information and, in so doing, help spread the word about TNS Monona.

Following a series of meetings in the summer of 2010 and a few weeks of in-class planning, our students decided that a citywide survey would be the most effective way to perform a community-based evaluation. After working collaboratively to design the survey questions, the 12 students, 14 TNS Monona volunteers, a civic engagement expert from UW-Madison, Randy and I went out canvassing for four afternoons in March and April.

Students at public meeting with TNS Monona
Environmental studies certificate students present
the survey results at a public meeting in May.

We knocked on nearly 3,100 doors and received more than 600 responses - quite successful considering there was no follow-up.

In May students revealed the survey results at a public meeting. More than 40 Monona residents attended, including the newly elected mayor, Bob Miller, and local media representatives. Students and TNS Monona volunteers also led several 30-minute roundtable discussions at the meeting that focused on participants' reactions to the survey results and ideas about next steps.

Fall semester: community organizing

Motivated partly by the survey results, TNS Monona has designated 2012 the "Year of Water" (water-related issues such as clean lakes and clean drinking water were the top two environmental issues Monona residents identified).

Our fall semester course is focusing on how the city's use and handling of water can become more sustainable and how TNS Monona's voice can be amplified in the community. Students will also help plan and prepare for the Year of Water by:

Moving Forward

Capstone courses like these are yet another example of how UW-Madison can build partnerships between higher education and communities.

Students in capstone course collaboration with TNS Monona
Dadit Hidayat, far left, the students of ES 600
Seminar 5, and Randy Stoecker, far right.

One of the challenges of such engagements, however, is that they are often sporadic and short-term - a lesson Randy and I learned as part of the community-based research team that examined the challenges of service-learning in Madison and produced the book The Unheard Voices: Service Learning and Community Organization, edited by Randy Stoecker and Elizabeth Tryon of the Morgridge Center for Public Service.

It can be very difficult to show significant impact with only short-term engagement. This project's back-to-back capstone courses have allowed for a longer-term commitment that can transition from an initial needs assessment to the application of strategy.

On behalf of Randy, Heather and myself, I would like to thank the students of Environmental Studies 600 - Seminar 5 for their dedicated participation. We also share our gratitude to the CESP program, the Morgridge Center and Charlotte Zieve for the financial support, to the TNS Monona capstone team (Sue Vogt, Barbara Walden, Mari Westin and Kaeri Zandate) for their valued contribution to course planning, and to the TNS Monona volunteers for their help in canvassing.

And our thanks to Heather Gates at TNS Monona, whose commitment formed the backbone of this partnership. For her dedication to the community - not only through these capstone courses, but also as an invaluable community leader promoting sustainable living - she was recognized as a 2011-12 Nelson Institute Community Fellow.

Dadit Hidayat is a doctoral student in the Nelson Institute Environment and Resources program who serves as teaching assistant for Environmental Studies 600 - Seminar 5.

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