ASU team joins global network to promote sustainability education

By

Meghan Ensell

Youth, says Katja Brundiers, assistant clinical professor in ASU’s School of Sustainability, are the most affected by the climate emergency and unsustainability today, but face the biggest hurdles to acquire the knowledge, skills and networks for action needed. 

In the Phoenix Metro area, efforts to remedy this inequity are spearheaded primarily by individual teachers and schools, the cities and sustainability organizations. In working with these organizations, Brundiers says, “We learned their efforts are rarely connected, failing to achieve the necessary wide-ranging impact.”  

A dozen entities and local partners interested in sustainability education, including ASU, K–12 schools, community colleges, universities, businesses, civil society organizations and municipalities, aligned their efforts to form the Regional Center of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development of Greater Phoenix. The goal of RCE Greater Phoenix is to support all community members, through meaningful, equitable and participatory learning experiences to contribute to sustainability in the region, prioritizing historically marginalized youth.  

But first, the United Nations University that created the global Regional Centers of Expertise (RCEs) on Education for Sustainable Development initiative had to accept the RCEGreater Phoenix’s application as such a regional center. The RCE initiative is one of two flagship programs that were launched at the start of the UNESCO Decade of Education for Sustainable Development to continue stressing the need to reorient existing education towards sustainability. The RCE network plays a crucial role in implementing the UNESCO ESD for 2030 Roadmap. 

RCE

UNU accepted the application of RCE Greater Phoenix, and the establishment now joins 179 existing RCEs in 61 countries. There are currently nine RCEs in the United States.  

Our goal,” says Carlos Casanova, assistant professor at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and lead of the RCE Greater Phoenix committee, “is to support all community members, prioritizing historically marginalized youth through meaningful, equitable and participatory learning experiences to contribute to sustainability in the region.”  

Casanova and Molly Cashion — program manager, Regional Sustainability Teachers' Academy, School of Sustainability — began part of this effort last year with the Alhambra Youth Participatory Action Research Project. Latina students at Alhambra Elementary School were reporting exclusion and loneliness in the school’s cafeteria, says Cashion.  

This suggests the culture of the cafeteria for girls of color is not inclusive. If students, particularly girls of color, feel like they don't belong in the cafeteria or other spaces in schools, they may stop attending school, which could result in girls of color not receiving inclusive and quality education,” says Casanova.   

Their research marries two of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: quality education (ensure inclusive and quality education for all while promoting lifelong learning), and gender equality (achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls).  

The Alhambra YPAR curriculum focuses on sustainability within food systems, as well as social and cultural awareness, and how students’ experiences in the schools and cafeterias are shaped by the intersection of gender, race, ethnicity and social class. During weekly sessions — over 10 weeks — eight students and one teacher met to share experiences with the goal of developing a critical understanding of student experiences and how to make changes in the cafeteria to meet needs that weren’t being met. 

The project is essentially preparing the students to become engaged researchers. An adult facilitates, but the students develop and collect the data and analyze it,” Casanova says. The project was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but upon its revival, students will come to ASU to present their research.   

The team aims to facilitate projects across the network to elevate sustainability education, foster cross-sectoral collaborations among education providers, and set up the Youth Advisory Board to ensure RCE Greater Phoenix is guided by youth and their vision, says Casanova. As an institution that aspires to leverage its place and embrace local culture, socioeconomic and physical settings, ASU researchers and staff will connect with communities and schools to conduct equity-focused research, and other collaborative projects with participants. The project topic, says Casanova, will be co-created by ASU researchers and participants, but will be directly connected to the experiences of participants.  

The urgent challenge presented by the climate crisis, combined with persisting socioeconomic inequity and racial injustice, amplifies the call for bringing sustainability education and options for action to a broader range of students and professionals,” Casanova says. 

RCE Greater Phoenix is broadly supported across ASU, spearheaded by Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College professors Iveta Silova, director of Center for Advanced Studies in Global Education and Gustavo Fischman,  as well as former School of Sustainability professor Daniel Fischer who collaborated with colleagues across ASU to create the partnership between the schools and with the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience. 

RCE Greater Phoenix welcomes everyone to join. To date, organizations that have enabled the creation of RCE Greater Phoenix include the governments of the cities of Phoenix and Tempe; Alhambra Elementary School District, Echo Canyon School and Machan School; Local First Arizona and Arizona Sustainability Alliance; Mesa Community College and Maricopa Community College District.  

The RCE initiative will formally launch September 2021. To learn more, contact Molly Cashion at mecashio@asu.edu.