Ethan Lowenstein, director of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition (SEMIS) in Ypsilanti, believes that future environmental stewards first need to understand cultural attitudes toward nature. Once understood, kids can build appreciation and respect for the environment – and learn how to take personal and community responsibility for the eco-system where we all live.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Southeast Michigan Stewardship Director Ethan Lowenstein
: Being a good leader at root involves being a good teacher. Good teachers help to construct an environment for growth, know how to manage very complex problems that do not have a clear right and wrong answer, understand and negotiate diverse perspectives, and create strong relationships between people. Being a leader also means taking a developmental perspective. As a leader, a primary question is really, “how do I help the people in the organization grow as quickly as possible into the people they want to become?” In SEMIS we share a moral purpose: to help young people to become citizen-stewards of their local communities and the Great Lakes region. So, the leadership task is to help people in the organization, all the way from youth leaders to the SEMIS Steering Committee, become more able to enact that moral purpose both as individuals and in the group, as a collective.I’m proud of the hopeful space that we’ve been able to co-create together, a space where teachers and community partners can come together to reflect on eco-justice issues and questions, make use of each other’s strengths, and then put their ideas into practice.
In our organization, we’re not “leaders” and “participants,” or “leaders” and “staff,” rather we’re all leaders with different levels of experience, different kinds of expertise, and different roles. We’re all emerging as leaders. We’re all evolving. So a good “Director” will help to create learning and growth environments to support that evolution as well as the safety and trust that it takes to negotiate diverse perspectives, learning styles, and worldviews. All of this at the same time that they take care of many of the day-to-day managerial tasks that need to get done. A healthy organization will create an environment for leaders to multiply -- only communities of leaders can sustain a complex and ambitious effort. Leadership of this kind, and certainly within the context of SEMIS, at all levels, is inspiring, rewarding, and incredibly messy work.
What is your dream for kids?
My dream is that children are both allowed to have a childhood and are brought up in a way that maximizes their capacity to do good in the world. Isn’t that what every parent wants for her or his child, what every elder wants for the youth in her or his community, for children to be content and to be a good people? Unfortunately, as some have noted, because of climate change and the current rate of environmental degradation this is the first time in history where people who are alive today will determine the fate of all future generations. So my dream for children is also a dream for their teachers—that they have the wisdom and support they need to both protect the innocence of childhood at the same time that they engage children in active community stewardship during a time of crisis. This is not easily done.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
We need to take the long view here if we want to start to break down the walls between schools and communities and reinvigorate civic life in the state. So in SEMIS we believe that you focus on youth. So that’s a broad goal. Concretely, the state could actively support teaching approaches like Place-Based Education that help to involve students in community revitalization efforts and to use the academic disciplines to service those efforts.
To create a good environment for social sector work in the long-term, young people need to grow up with the moral commitments, skills and knowledge to revitalize their communities. And when I use the word “community,” I mean both the human and more-than-human community: nature. When young people become connected to their “place,” to the people in it, to the water, to the land, and they do so across historical boundaries of race, class, and culture a civic environment will follow Kids care about the world and they are more sensitive to the destruction -- both social and ecological --that they see around them. They tend to be more open to “what should we do about it” sorts of questions...
in Michigan that logically and necessarily supports work in and for communities. Actually, the research shows that when Place-Based Education is done well, young people not only meet, but exceed, state and national standards. And the new Common Core standards demand a focus on critical analysis and problem solving. So in SEMIS, we help teachers and community organizations not only connect students to their communities and develop a sense of place, but also to analyze the root causes of the problems we face.
How do you know you’re making progress?
One of the most powerful indicators of progress is in the demand for the program and the sustained multi-year participation and commitment of members of the coalition. The teachers and community organizers in the coalition are professionals -- they know what they need, and they’re busy people. When teachers and community organizations stay active in the coalition for many years and we have a waiting list for schools to participate, as we do now, we know the word’s out, we’re making progress and are being successful. And then there’s the transformation that we see in the way that teachers are teaching and teachers and community partners are working together to help young people become environmental and social stewards. Of course, we also use standard measures of success like student, teacher, and program satisfaction surveys, as well as the number and type of stewardship projects that students in our schools are involved in, to make sure that what we think we’re seeing is happening.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the valiant efforts of schools and communities in the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition (SEMIS) and elsewhere to create the kinds of learning environments that we all know our children need in the face of almost insurmountable pressure from many school policymakers to do otherwise. I’m proud of the hopeful space that we’ve been able to co-create together, a space where teachers and community partners can come together to reflect on eco-justice issues and questions, make use of each other’s strengths, and then put their ideas into practice.
What is the most important change that needs to happen to shift this generation and future generations toward true environmental stewardship?
I think there are two ways to address this question. They reflect the two strands of the eco-justice framework that we use: 1) students as future citizen stewards need to begin to understand that there are deeply rooted cultural assumptions that lead us to think and behave the way we do toward the more-than-human world (as an inferior set of “resources” or objects put there for our use rather than as a living system with an integrity and right to live on its own), and 2) that in addition to these destructive attitudes, beliefs, ideologies, we have also learned some very important patterns of behavior like reciprocity, care, generosity, affection and so on that lead to behaviors that actually counter the violence of the other assumptions. These need to be given priority and more value as we rethink our relationships and rebuild our communities’ economies, ecologies and educational systems. Kids care about the world and they are more sensitive to the destruction -- both social and ecological --that they see around them. They tend to be more open to “what should we do about it” sorts of questions, and are more ready to jump in and do something to disrupt those ugly patterns in our culture. But to do that, they need to be able to name the often invisible and unconscious patterns of behavior that harm life and then work to change those patterns of thinking. We’ve seen it work with students of all ages.