New SEEd Chair of Trustees Cathy d’Abreu reflects on the challenges
of bringing about positive change.

Drumbeats for change 

Cathy d'Abreu - SEEd Chair

There are so many drums beating for change globally that we can be forgiven for sometimes finding it a little overwhelming. The urgent rhythms demanding action on the deepening climate crisis, climbing social inequalities and devastating biodiversity loss grow ever faster. The clashing cymbals of the COVID crisis have cranked up the dial on the acute disadvantages, degradations and deficiencies within our human and natural systems. Beats from the #me too movement, #everyone’s invited, Black lives Matter to the terrible war in Ukraine, to name a few, evidence an insistent, groundswell demanding change for a fairer, fitter future.

Making change happen: challenging “the stories we live by” 

What feels much less clear sometimes is how we can go about facilitating these changes. Within the world of sustainability education, there is much discussion on empowering learners, encouraging action, driving change. And this too can feel a little overwhelming. Where and how can we effect change? At school, at work, at university, as a parent or grandparent, a carer? How can we really be changemakers? Can we be part of the change we need to see?

The short answer is yes! We can, and to do this we need to learn more about the nuts and bolts of change and the pivotal role of education, as Nelson Mandela’s oft quoted “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world” confirms. We need to individually and collectively challenge and change the cultural narratives, what Arran Stibbe refers to as ‘the stories we live by’, that have landed us here in the Anthropocene. Katy Wheeler, academic, mother and SEEd trustee talks of the importance of this “interdependence between us and the wider systems (environmental, economic and socio-cultural) we operate within” in her call for ‘Education as if People and Planet matter’. We are the actors in those stories.

Systems Change 

There have been crystal clear communications on the direction we urgently need to move in. From Greta Thunberg’s ‘our house is on fire, I want you to panic’, to Bill Mckibben’s ‘we need to stop burning things’ – the recognition of the need to change our present systems comes from many sides. The UN Sustainable Development Goals SDGS present an aspirational vision of what we are aiming for but how do we make a difference?

  • When we challenge economic models of infinite growth on a finite planet, hockey stick growth curves driving businesses and corporations, we can make a difference by fostering sustainability thinking and a sustainability mindset (Rimanozcy, 2021). Championing in their place regenerative, circular economy frames, Doughnut Economics and sustainable business practices that reframe what is valued.
  • When we call out social inequalities; the lack of access to quality education, healthcare, housing, equal opportunities, decent employment and the chance to thrive regardless of race, culture, creed or background, we can make a difference by supporting sustainability learning, decolonising our spaces, recognizing and respecting difference, always working from a social justice vantage point.
  • When we hotly contest a vision of humankind’s place in nature as one that is separate, superior or intrinsically selfish, we can make a difference by developing a sustainability ‘heartset’. Cherishing, conserving and celebrating biodiversity and replacing extractive exploitation of the earth’s precious resources. 

When we tell these stories, we consciously move from ‘because I’m worth it’ to ‘because we are worth it’, as Julie Ward’s letter to the earth highlights so eloquently, “The first lesson must be the importance of ‘We’ not ‘I’. We are the people that make up the structural systems, and therefore we collectively can be the force for change.

Individual change 

The first steps can sound deceptively simple. The need to reflect on our own part in supporting or dismantling unsustainable ‘stories’. What Wals called ‘unlearning unsustainability’; reflecting on and talking about the impacts of our own choices and actions on people and planet, and sharing these with others in the worlds we form part of; our schools, workplaces, social and community groups. We need to personally engage with the systems that need changing, not just intellectually but emotionally too. The fact that you are reading this blog and part of SEEds 5,000 newsletter readers, engaging with sustainability and environmental education, shows that you are already part of rewriting these stories!

Recognising ‘the rub’ is pivotal to change

Shakespeare talked about ‘the rub’, William Blake noted, “without contraries is no progression” and Mezirow coined the phrase ‘disorienting dilemmas’ all outlining the challenging, difficult and sometimes painful stage that forms a central part of the process of change. He explains this occurs as a product of having to review and reframe long held assumptions, what he called ‘our meaning frames’. This happens when we encounter ideas that contradict our own knowledge and understanding, causing us to rethink our worldview and beliefs. Recognising the rub is a crucial element in the process of change. It can also support us when the going gets tough.

Participatory Learning  

I was given the opportunity to explore a birds eye view of transformative learning for change more deeply, together with others, when I enrolled on SEEds Changemakers course and want to share some key learning points that have influenced my personal and professional thinking.  We workshopped applications of the theories of change, among them Mezirow’s transformative learning theory – often dubbed the father of transformative learning – in action learning projects we then had to feedback on, reflect on and improve. The group shared personal experiences of the barriers and drivers to facilitating change in our various settings. Discussions revealed richly motivated individuals driving change in many ways, with a wealth of valuable experience and ideas to share.

There were also other themes that bound us together; the sense of challenge, frustration, and things not moving fast enough, worries of inadequacy/not being heard or imposter syndrome creeping in – who am I to drive change? Sharing these was empowering and often very revealing in terms of recognizing the ways in which change happens. We were more than the sum of out parts, working together was powerful.

I also learned that outcomes are often emergent, not planned. I enrolled on the course to learn how to facilitate embedding sustainability learning in my academic sphere – I came out a new board member, who has recently taken up the role of chair! The impacts on my work in sustainability teaching and learning have now been far reaching too, yet only in the last 12 months has this really become apparent. Learning point? Change is not linear, easy or always visible.

Final reflections on change 

Key takeaways are that change is by nature messy, iterative and unpredictable, often requiring us to move ‘from safe to brave spaces’ (Winks, 2017). Crucially, facilitating change relies on enabling participatory and cooperative approaches – that gather multiple voices and perspectives, as embedded in SEEds Whole Institution Approach. Change is a social endeavor. It’s not just fluency in ‘parts per million’ or climate literacy that will get things moving, it’s reflecting critically on our own roles in shaping the cultural narratives around us and how we either actively help ‘unlearn unsustainability’ or merely reinforce those unsustainable stories.

Ruth Taylor, in her compelling work on culture and deep narrative change, highlights it is the cultural soil, that we as changemakers, most need to tend. She outlines the collective impacts of each of us supporting each other’s efforts in all areas of progressive change to “begin to shift some of the deeply embedded cultural stories that define who people are, who does (or should) have power, and what our collective futures could look like”.

In my new role as chair, I hope to guide, support and promote SEEds invaluable work on making change happen. Every one of us has not only the potential, but also the ‘response – ability’, as Stephen Sterling called it, to help drive change for a fairer, fitter future.

Mezirow J. (2006) An overview over transformative learning. Lifelong learning: Concepts and contexts, London: Routledge.

Rimanoczy, I. (2020) The Sustainability Mindset Principles: A Guide to Develop a Mindset for a Better World (1st edition). Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY : Routledge, 2021. Series: The principles for responsible management education series: Routledge. Available at: https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781000204766 (Accessed 19/05/22). 

Sterling, S. (2022) Sustainable Education, Available at: https://www.sustainableeducation.co.uk/, (Accessed on 20/05/2022)

Taylor, R. (2022) Culture, Deep Narratives and…. Whac-A-Mole? Available at: https://medium.com/reset-narratives/culture-deep-narratives-and-whac-a-mole-16cc1ecfc0a9, (Accessed on 19/05/2022)

Wals, A. E. J. (2010). Message in a bottle: learning our way out of unsustainability. Wageningen University. Available at: https://edepot.wur.nl/157118 (Accessed on 19/05/2022)