‘You’ve been educated!’ Lessons learned from a summer of environmental education.

Stenciling and cleaning storm drains, interacting with public officials, organizing workshops, burying underwear in my garden, walking crop fields, wading out into lakes on macroinvertebrate hunts, filming butterflies and bees on lakeshores, talking groundwater with 4th graders, learning about and planting native plants, and meeting people – oh so many people – this was my summer 2022. It’s been something, y’all. It’s been amazing and fun and stressful and crazy and now that I’ve been through it, I’ve learned some things – about the people in this area of the world, about the issues and environmental challenges we face, and, at the risk of sounding ridiculously cheesy, about myself.

I compiled a brief video showcasing some of the education work that happened this summer in the Lower St. Croix watershed.

I started the summer with a list of events to help plan and execute and some initiatives to get up off the ground. I was super stoked to get in some farm fields and meet some farmers with our freshly hired agronomist, Jennifer Hahn. I wanted to get to know our Partnership players better and provide some additional support for their initiatives and programs (which I am still learning the extent of). Plus, I just wanted to DO stuff. Instead of shadowing Angie Hong, our amazing senior educator who manages the East Metro Water Resource Education Program (EMWREP), at events, I wanted to be the one running the event, be in charge of the gathering of materials, and figuring out how I could do things so they would hopefully resonate with attendees. A commonly known education ‘secret’ is that the best way to learn something is to talk about or teach it, so I wanted to put myself in those situations as much as I could.

What I very quickly learned is that the opportunities are many and our time is limited. This past February, I asked Angie why we weren’t directly planning and organizing more events for the summer. She smiled at me and said, “Just you wait.”

Lesson Learned #1: It’s a marathon, not a sprint

She was right. By April the requests from communities to attend and participate in their local events over the summer were coming in fast and thick. Even with bringing on an additional seasonal educator to help fill the void, we could have easily booked ourselves every week and weekend. As it was, we and conservation staff around the basin participated in and contributed to over 40 community events.

It was really cool, but definitely exhausting running from one event to the next every week. It meant that I didn’t get as much done in chugging forward with longer term education initiatives as I had hoped this summer, but the ability to meet people was invaluable. No regrets. Still, next year I’m going to be a bit more judicious about the number of events I agree to help with. Ha.

Lesson Learned #2: Education involves a fair amount of cheerleading.

That being said, it’s so incredibly awesome that our education program has so many communities and entities excited for us to showcase the benefits of conservation and the resources we have available. In working booths this summer, or meeting farmers out in the field, or talking to lakeshore owners interested in shoreline buffers, to speaking at events, one theme is consistent: people are HUNGRY for information and resources.

Yet, what I’ve found most intriguing is that many people are well aware of what they can do to start practicing more conservation, but the barrier is a lack of confidence. They want to start, but they get wrapped up in wanting to ‘do it right.’ They want it to be perfect, they want it to work without issues, and they want a guiding hand along the way. I get it – I felt it in my own native plant journey earlier this year. But while our conservation partner staff are happy to answer questions, they are a finite resource and can’t offer the same dedicated attention to every interested person.

Thus, my role this summer felt much more like that of a personal coach or cheerleader than straight up educator. “Yeah! You can do it!” or “Why not now?” are phrases I’ve uttered often. Being able to outline the programs and funding our partners have available always helps, but just a simple act of encouragement really goes a long way. People are already convinced of the need – they just need a push.

Lesson Learned #3: Always celebrate the wins.

When you read about environmental issues in the media, let’s face it, there’s not a whole lot that sounds encouraging. Algae blooms, contaminated groundwater, impaired waterways, invasive species, more extreme weather patterns, etc. etc. etc. – it can be very easy to feel like we are on the losing side of a relentless war.

And let it be said: it IS daunting, but that makes it extremely important to celebrate the wins. The wins that not only create a healthier, more sustainable environment, but also illustrates how people and communities can come together to make positive change.

There have been some great stories out there this summer. Lily Lake in Stillwater had a delightful de-listing celebration where they burned the water impairment listing after 20 years of work to reverse negative nutrient trends. In Anoka county, the Martin Lakers are enjoying better water quality in Martin Lake than they have in decades and have the awesome privilege of being a part of the story of the de-listed segment of the downstream Sunrise River. Multiple lakeshore owners in Chisago County this summer and fall exhausted available Lawns 2 Legumes funding to install lakeshore buffers, which not only provides pollinator habitat, but also improves shore stability while reducing and filtering runoff.

Landowners who have planted buffers along their shoreline love the many benefits of the native plants: pollinator habitat, erosion control, less need for water and maintenance, no geese (or poop!) and beautiful colors all season long.

The good stories are out there and people are excited about them. It’s so important to show that momentum building – it only inspires more good work to protect and restore our natural resources.

Lesson Learned #5: How we do education always needs to evolve.

Another education secret is to meet people where they are at – invite in your audience with events and materials that resonate. For more urban and suburban areas, the ‘hook’ this summer has been pollinator habitat and planting for pollinators. In the rural and agricultural arena, farmers are interested in whatever they can do to protect their crops, their soil, and their livelihood through trying and adopting conservation tillage and related conservation practices. Interest is high all around – people see a need, the benefit, and they want in.

Yet, we always run the risk of preaching too much to the choir, and I’ll fully admit that at many of the events I helped with this summer, I would see the same faces over and over again. While that’s great from a networking standpoint, we need to make sure we cast our nets wider to engage more people and get them plugged in. We have to be adaptable and creative with our educational approach.

A recent tour and meeting with Big River Farms in May Township near Stillwater. Earlier this year we secured a National Association of Conservation District grant to explore potential collaborations with Big River Farms, which is an incubator farm that hosts and trains farmers largely representing minority groups.

I love that sort of challenge. We talk and work with landowners so much, but what if one doesn’t one land? What can we offer renters? Or what messaging is effective for people who visit and recreate in the area, but don’t actually live here full time? What about reaching folks where language barriers exist? There’s so much potential and I love being part of a program that’s not afraid of thinking about or trying new things.

An amazing sunset after our field day at Clover Bee Farm in Chisago County.

I’m glad to have a bit more time back in the months ahead, and while there will still be plenty of fun education opportunities this fall and winter, I’m already dreaming what’s possible next year.