January 7, 2013

The “There” is Relative—It’s the “Together” That’s Important. ~ Mark Szotek

Isenharts with Chinese Host Family.

Environmentalism as a Family Value: A Road Trip with the Isenharts

An interview by Mark Szotek, from our friends at mongabay.

Passing values from one generation to the next is a central theme for most families. For career conservationists Chip and Jill Isenhart, passing along a passion for the environment to their children took more than just lectures. Their efforts offer insights into furthering the cause of global environmental education.

Chip and Jill, please tell our readers about your backgrounds and your shared interests in environmental education.

Chip: Both Jill and I have a lifelong passion for nature. We both focused on environmental science in college and built careers that reflected our strong, shared passion for environmentalism. We married in our early 20s and spent the first years pursuing various conservation fieldwork assignments across the globe working for multiple non-governmental organizations, like the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International (CI), and the National Audubon Society.

After several years abroad and completing masters degrees (at Yale), we started ECOS Communications—an environmental consultancy firm with the mission to help raise appreciation for nature by “connecting the public with the natural world.” ECOS develops master plans and educational exhibits for conservation groups, wildlife agencies, zoos, aquariums and other public facilities. After a decade running various projects at ECOS (internationally and the U.S.), we wanted to slow things down a bit, and pursue a more family-oriented life. Thus our two children, daughter Hannah (13) and son Jesse (11).

Conveying our passion for conservation and environmentalism to our children hasn’t always come easy. Despite our careers and our business, we found it challenging to compete for their interests in a modern world full of distractions (cell phones, their school friends and activities, the internet). Although we raised our children with a holistic approach and encouraged them to have a broad view of the world, they didn’t always understand our environmental passions. Despite our efforts, the question remained, “How do you teach a passion like ours, for the environment?”

Is this why you chose to take Hannah and Jesse on an extended global trip? Please tell our readers a little bit more about your journey.

Chip: Our goal was to have an extended family trip where we immersed our children in a variety of global cultures and landscapes. We wanted our kids to know firsthand there was more to the world than what mainstream America reflected, and we wanted them to develop a true understanding of the global environment. We also hoped our children would more fully understand the basis of our professions and, in doing so, better appreciate our projects and the shared environmental passions that really started our family.

While pursuing work with long-standing clients (like The Nature Conservancy) on this trip, Jill and I also wanted to connect with some of the many worthy grassroots conservation projects that don’t have access to, or funds for, management consultants like us. Since we started ECOS with a goal to give back, we chose to work with several local groups in exchange for basic room and board. The plan was to create a win/win for our family and the small local conservation projects that we hoped to learn more about and support. This “back to the basics” approach was also something that seemed timely to teach our kids.

Fortunately, it wasn’t as hard as we initially thought it might be.

Before leaving the U.S., we knew we could include our kids in some aspects of client projects (especially where children and family groups were targeted audiences). However, we never expected how powerfully Hannah and Jesse would influence our trip. Their presence created unexpected bridges for all of us. With our kids in tow, people related to us in ways that could have taken weeks or months to develop otherwise. Because of them, we were treated as family instead of a pair of traveling business consultants.

Our interactions unfolded more naturally, often with additional perspective via our kids.

What have been the highlights of this trip to date?

Jill: There were so many memorable moments on this trip. I’d like to share a few according to the three main legs of our journey.

In Kenya, we focused our attention on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy (OPC), a world-class, wildlife conservancy that promotes an innovative blend of tourism and community-based conservation, and the Daraja Academy, a secondary school for underprivileged girls.

Though their work is exemplary, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy can be described as a more standard ECOS client. It was the little known work of the Daraja Academy that really excited our family, and eventually led to a collaboration between the two organizations.

Daraja Academy students come on full scholarships from across Kenya with a burning desire to better themselves and their communities through the gift of education. We’ve never seen students anywhere work so hard at all hours, day and night. For these girls, education wasn’t a “chore”—it was a hard-earned privilege. Their example and passion for learning left a lasting impression on our kids.

While Daraja students are all very bright and extremely motivated, they face a significant problem regarding continuing their education after graduating from the academy: they must wait a year or more to learn if they will receive university scholarships. It’s during this time that many of the girls return to their home villages, where they are often forced into arranged marriages by their impoverished parents, simply to receive a dowry.

To address this situation, we put on our consultancy hats and conducted workshops with Daraja students to identify vocational possibilities that also focused on environmental education. We worked with the school’s faculty to develop a “gap year” training course that would give the girls a foundation for future employment, as environmental educators and tourism guides in Kenya’s robust tourism industry, and/or improve their opportunities for future university study.

Though OPC and Daraja are neighbors in Kenya’s Laikipia Province, these two groups had never connected. Inspired by the many positive experiences they had at OPC, Hannah and Jesse came up with the idea of introducing their new Daraja Academy friends to this organization. Subsequently, we were able to establish an environmental education and field guide skills program that will take place at OPC for a group of Daraja graduates in 2013. An urgent community need could be met just by fostering new connections between groups that were already neighbors.

On this trip, our kids were teaching us some of the basics, like neighbors helping neighbors.

In China, we worked for a long-standing client, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), planning local education efforts and visitor experiences for China’s first private nature preserve.

The project is located in a remote area of Sichuan Province.

To develop a strong sense of the local community, we decided to live with a family in a village bordering the new preserve.

We were initially very concerned that the China leg of our trip would be difficult. We spoke only a few words of Chinese, and knew in advance that the host family spoke no English. We also worried about governmental red tape and surveillance (local police couldn’t seem to grasp what we were doing at first since no foreigners had ever stayed so long in this area of China). Fortunately, our fears about living in China soon evaporated. Again, it was our kids—who quickly bonded with the locals (especially the children of our host family)—that showed the way.

The experience with our Chinese host family was truly profound. With just smiles, gesturing, and basically knowing how to say “thank you,” we developed some meaningful friendships. When TNC colleagues (with translation capabilities) occasionally joined us for dinner, we heard stories from the family about the Cultural Revolution, China’s perseverance through many challenges and the changing nature of China, which now includes new and changing views about the environment. After two months, we left our Chinese family amidst tears (and still few words), but a new understanding of our shared values.

In Nepal, our plans included working for the Nepalese National Park Service, but the current dysfunction within Nepal’s government thwarted those efforts.

Just a week before leaving China, we committed to our backup plan: teaching and interpretive training in the Eastern Nepal towns of Khandbari and Dhupu.

Our Hindu host family, from one of the “untouchable” castes, lives by very modest means: no electricity, running water, etc. They have some chickens, a pig, a small rice and millet field, a simple wooden house with dirt floors, no furniture and woven mats for beds. Since “foreign children” had not previously visited Khandbari or Dhupu (amazingly, this was also true for our time at the Dajara Academy and our village in Sichuan China), their presence triggered positive interactions with many different families: farming, herding livestock and fetching water from a natural spring a good distance away.

Our exhausting water hauling experiences soon became the impetus to create a water project to benefit six families and the local school. With a $300 budget for pipe and cement (one third of these funds came from Jesse and Hannah) and all labor provided by these families, we helped design a project to pipe water to a tap closer to their homes. Again, it was our kids who helped create the momentum for this project (“can’t the water come to us?”) and helped push the idea forward (Hannah especially, seeing that girls and women were the primary ones hauling water for their families). Both our children learned that, even at a young age, they can positively affect other people’s lives.

Once again, Chip and I realized our kids were teaching us through their new passions and ideas.

You put considerable focus into giving your children firsthand knowledge of conservation and environmental education. Why is environmental education so critical?

Chip: For us, “firsthand” is the key to our journey. We believe experiential learning is significant and impactful because it creates a memorable context that has personal meaning. On this trip, we were directly experiencing various environmental issues and challenges, and we were doing it together. And together, we found new insights and solutions.

In Kenya and China, we were on the front lines of conservation, watching dedicated individuals struggle to save endangered species like black rhinos, giant pandas, etc. As a family, we struggled to grasp the true nature and scale of the situation, learning there are no easy answers to solve the world’s problems.

But we discovered, by working together, there are reasons for hope.

Conservation can be an overwhelming subject, especially within a global context. We found that lecturing our kids about our environmental passions was just “parental noise,” until they experienced and developed their own sets of passions. We went with the goal to teach our kids about us, their parents. Instead, because they went forth to engage without an agenda, predetermined goals, and conclusions, they taught us!

By traveling with them, it became very clear that we are all part of a larger human family.

And why do we feel environmental education is so critical? The current consumption and development patterns of many countries, combined with population growth and associated environmental degradation, is simply just not sustainable. Without global environmental education, decision-making in most situations will continue to be driven by short-term economic and political considerations. More “consulting talk?” Perhaps, but on our trip we learned it’s a big, yet small world.

Like the analogy of a frog in slowly heated water, eventually boiling to death without even noticing, most of us are not yet feeling the severe impacts caused by the world’s declining environmental health.

We are at point in time where decision-makers need to consider long-term environmental impacts, in a global context. Today’s youth will be the leaders of tomorrow, determining future policies and hopefully doing so with a stewardship view toward the natural world. Their decisions should be guided by both economic and environmental values.

Environmental education efforts should focus on creating personally relevant connections to the natural world. Sure, kids should know what “habitat” means, and so forth, but we would hope that environmental leaders and educators, in general, can provoke people to think along the lines of, “How am I connected to nature?” “How is my school, business, community connected?” “Why should I care?” “How can I help?”

Also, when it comes to the environment, do we always need to teach? Sometimes we might just listen and, perhaps, learn as well. The environment connects us in so many important ways. Just listening to our basic instincts is often enough.

Now that your trip is ending, what awaits? What other lessons and insights would you like to share with our readers?

Jill and Chip: One very key aspect we realized during our Nepal water project was that in just six days after arriving in that country, we had plugged into a local community, figured out a project based on need, and made it happen by working together. The real take-home message was that by working as a family, with an aim to help other families, we all benefited.

That experience was incredibly powerful for us, and we could imagine it happening again and again, even in the “now remote place of Boulder, Colorado,” the community we call home. We didn’t bring any new genius to the equation. It was simple outreach and a sense of camaraderie that provided the catalyst for meaningful change. We will return with many new lessons and perspectives:

1. By sharing in daily water-related chores with women in Kenya and Nepal, who must collect water (often from polluted rivers), we experienced just how precious water is. Our kids truly realized how much the so-called “developed world” takes something as essential as fresh water for granted.

2. By going in the field with a rhino anti-poaching team to track and identify individual rhinos at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, we grasped the high costs incurred to save this beleaguered species.

3. From meeting with community members to discuss how local people can benefit from visitors coming to the new TNC preserve in China, we learned successful conservation is not about fences, it’s about fostering understanding.

4. From witnessing clean power being generated from a small-scale hydro drop in Nepal, finding an innovative bio-gas system in a Maasai village in Kenya, taking solar-heated showers during our home stay in China, seeing reforested areas in Nepal that were barren during a visit 30-years prior—we discovered real progress is possible.

Our kids already plan some trip-related projects to continue their adventures. For example, while in Africa and China, Hannah worked hard to launch versions of her greeting card business. She now has friends her age in Kenya and China that can run parts of the business, with proceeds supporting local conservation. She and Jesse also hope to develop a “Panda Pals” website with Chinese friends, providing kid-oriented information about pandas, wildlife and encouraging kids in China (and elsewhere) to get outside and experience nature.

We’ve learned that they are their parents’ kids after all. While we are proud our children are thinking innovatively, we are even happier that they will continue to reach out to places like China, Kenya, Nepal and across the world. The place that’s our shared home. Hopefully, we can also raise more support for the people and projects we encountered during our travels.

What have you learned about conservation on this trip? Why is it important?

Jesse: I learned that it is very important to support the local people because you are taking away the land where they would be hunting or getting wood or grazing their animals. If you don’t bring in local people and offer new opportunities, they might want to get back by poaching animals and not follow the best rules for conservation, which will hurt their families in the long-term.

I also learned that by protecting rhinos or pandas, you protect many other endangered animals, and their environment. Like by protecting the rhino you also protect the other “big five species,” like lions, leopards, elephants and cape buffalo. And by protecting pandas, you are saving golden cats, musk deer, leopard cats, weasels, pheasants, golden monkeys and many others. Conservation is important because I would like my children to be able to see all of these animals in the future.

Should conservation and environmentalism be taught in the world’s schools? If so, why do you feel it is important?

Hannah: Yes, I think it would be great if conservation and environmentalism were taught in all school systems. It is important because many people do not exactly know their individual actions are having bad effects on the environment. With education, more people would care and try to help.

It would also be good if environmental education were treated like a real subject in schools. In China, Africa and Nepal, I saw that most “important subjects” were taught around “tests.” They had some environmental education, but it was not equal to other subjects. It was more like a “fun elective,” so the teachers and students were not motivated. The environment is too important for people not to care.

Jill and Chip: Travel is exhilarating and it’s exhausting. Still, we would greatly encourage other families to get out there: together. The “there” is relative—it’s the “together” that’s important. While we began our family journey hoping to teach, we were truly humbled by how much we learned.

For the Isenhart family, this trip of a lifetime provided a new pathway for lifelong contemplation and reflection about our global environment. And above all, we learned that you can’t teach a passion, you have to share it.

All photos courtesy of the Isenhart Family.

Mongabay.com provides news, information and analysis on environmental issues, with a special focus on tropical rainforests. The website features more than 70,000 photos and has a section about forests for children available in nearly 40 languages.



Ed: Lynn Hasselberger

Asst. Ed: Evan Livesay

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