The MEEN connection: networks of knowledge and action
Environmental education in urban settings presents huge challenges but it also presents remarkable opportunities for learning and galvanising action. In this blog I want to share stories around MEEN’s project delivery but not only through my memory but through the memories of some of the young people who have been involved.
These memories were not collected as project feedback or as part of a research project: they unearthed themselves serendipitously, in a matter of minutes, in snatched conversations crossing an urban playground. MEEN had organised a tree planting session in a high school but the teacher had been unable to get pupils off timetable to help. In order to engage pupils in the activity over lunchtime I approached a mass of footballers and asked if anyone wanted to help. The response was a surprise. Teenagers, keen to be involved, gathered round and as we walked to the site they shared their memories of the MEEN projects they had been involved in at primary school.
One pupil, clearly recalling a heritage project MEEN ran, remembered visiting that ‘old mill building’ and being part of an ‘animal assembly’. During this project pupils had explored the history of East Manchester’s biodiversity and delivered a beautiful ‘Council for All Beings’ at a MEEN event. They had shared stories that bees had been an important part of the Medieval local economy; that magpies who are one of the most commonly recognised urban birds were nearly hunted to extinction; that the rare black-red start has breeding pairs in the vicinity. Having learnt from local residents that bats used to live in the local railway arches and squirrels once inhabited the school’s trees the project had also linked to habitat creation in the grounds. Drawing on this and, no doubt, many other threads of knowledge and experience, the pupil who volunteered that lunchtime stated how keen he was to plant more trees as it would help create a better habitat for Manchester’s wildlife.
Another pupil who stepped up to tree-plant remembered learning about Manchester’s industrial past and how this connected to current problems: he recalled becoming a community educator in the Arndale Centre where the eco team approached the public to talk about climate change. When asked how that connected to tree planting the response was clear with the important understanding that we need to plant more trees, not just in school, but ‘everywhere to stop the planet from getting too hot.’
Yet another pupil recounted being part of planting a garden with MEEN. ‘Was it a forest garden?’ I asked. He remembered planting fruit trees and ‘other stuff we could eat’ came the reply. ‘That was hard though because of the soil being so bad’. I had laughed at the pupil’s memory explaining that digging a hole in the high school grounds would be just as difficult. But that lunchtime no one minded the hard digging, moving the rubble, getting mucky. What they did mind was having to stop.
One pupil, who had previously worked with MEEN as part of a primary eco team hadn’t realised the high school had an eco club and asked if I could give his name to the Eco Coordinator. He told me that because the ‘school’s so big’ you don’t get to hear what’s going on and that he really wanted to be part of the eco team because, as he put it, ‘we really need to do more.’
What I learnt that lunchtime as an environmental educator is that the environmental education projects MEEN has delivered are remembered and form a part of the fabric of young people’s environmental awareness. The pupils might not recall details of the project as I might, even if they did remember my name, but they remembered the experiences and easily situated their experience into the wider environmental picture.
‘When are you coming back?’ one pupil asked, having suggested the school plant a woodland to tackle the problem of polluted air. I hopefully replied it would be in the next academic year with MEEN’s latest ‘Save Our Soils’ project so we could continue to improve the soil through tree planting. ‘See you later then,’ he bellowed across the tarmac.
Urban environmental education in Manchester needs to respond to air pollution, climate change, fresh food deserts and food poverty, polluted water, urban heat-stress and hard-surface flooding, plastics and the underlying problem of desperately impoverished and, sometimes even contaminated, soils. But most of all it needs MEEN to respond to, and work with, the enthusiasm, knowledge and passion of young people in securing a liveable urban future. History is important, context is important but providing a continuity of opportunities to safeguard the future with young people seems to be more important still.