Youth-adult Partnerships Creating Positive Environmental Change

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When youth create positive environmental change in their communities they typically act with adult guidance. The role of adults, however, is largely absent in literature around youth participation in environmental action. This research explored through phenomenological interviews with 33 practitioners (e.g., teachers, extension educators, community organizers) facilitating youth environmental action in formal and non-formal educational settings across the U.S.: (a) ways practitioners involved youth in environmental action, (b) purposes and goals motivating practitioners to engage youth in environmental action, and (c) methods practitioners used to facilitate youth environmental action. The study sought insight into successful and challenging experiences. It also inquired about the meaning of these experiences for participating youth through group interviews with 46 youth in 9 programs. Practice accounts included multiple forms of action among five types: physical improvements, community education, inquiry, advocacy, and contributions to community development. Practitioners described purposes integrating multiple individual, environmental, and community development goals. Most placed higher value in developing youth as citizens and change agents than in promoting environmental improvements. Evident in practitioners' narratives was a tension between encouraging youth autonomy while maintaining authority. Practitioners experienced and managed this 'autonomy-authority duality' differently but all described characteristics of youth-adult partnerships. Nine practice themes emerged: creating safe spaces; providing structure; building relationships; bridging differences; setting rigorous expectations; providing opportunities for meaningful contribution; supporting youth; expanding horizons; and connecting youth with community. Youth reported learning in physical (e.g., fitness), intellectual (e.g., technological skills), psychological (e.g., initiative), and social (e.g., teamwork) domains. Parallel themes with youth development literature suggest environmental action is a valuable context for positive youth development. The interplay of science education and community action evident in practitioner and youth interviews suggests the merit of a theoretical framework where environmental action occurs at the intersection of inquiry-based science education and youth civic engagement. Participation in environmental action enhanced some youths' capabilities in 'practical inquiry' and influenced some youths' perceptions of themselves from passive to active citizens. Environmental action concurrently involves youth in civic and scientific processes through which they can develop the critical dispositions and skills characteristic of both endeavors.
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Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station federal formula funds, Project No. NYC-147459, received from the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
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Environmental action; Youth participation; Science education; Civic engagement; Youth-adult partnerships; Environmental education
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