Finding inspiration from our international network of educators

By Anne Bijur

In this challenging time for those concerned about climate change, diversity, and multiculturalism, it is heartening that Shelburne Farms is part of a thriving international network of organizations working to build a sustainable future on a global level.

In October, that network became very tangible – and inspiring – to me when I attended the United Nations Regional Centers of Expertise Conference of the Americas in Curitiba, Brazil. Together with colleagues from Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Canada, the United States, and Brazil, we spent five days sharing with and learning from each other’s work.

But first, some context:

In May of 2015, Greater Burlington was endorsed as a Regional Center of Expertise (RCE) on Education for Sustainable Development by the United Nations University (UNU), joining an international network that now includes 149 Centers around the world. Shelburne Farms, the University of Vermont, and other partners were instrumental in earning this distinction. Our local RCE is known as the Greater Burlington Sustainability Education Network.

What is a Regional Center of Expertise? The UNU states, “An RCE is not a physical center or building but rather a network of individuals, organizations, and experts who are committed to using education as a tool for building a sustainable future. Each RCE empowers people within its community to lead better, more sustainable lives by providing them with the information, education and tools they need to create positive social and environmental change.”

The RCEs’ current vision is to translate the UN’s 17 Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into the context of the local communities in which they operate. In other words: think globally but act locally.

193 nations around the world, as well as many individuals and organizations, have agreed on and committed to achieving these Goals by 2030. The goals address universal problems that most countries struggle with. (Many of the goals are not new and come on the heels of the Millennium Development Goals, which focused on addressing extreme poverty in developing countries.)

Here’s the “act locally” part:

At the first gathering of the Greater Burlington RCE this past September at Shelburne Farms, the 55 participants shared work they were doing in Vermont to achieve Goal #4: Quality Education.  But while that goal had the most people working on it, there was someone – or some organization – actively working on almost every goal at the local level, from ending poverty and hunger to combatting climate change and promoting gender equality and sustainable land use. The collective work was inspiring.

Vermont is well-known for its innovation in tackling sustainability problems at a local level. Being part of the global RCE Network means that we now have the responsibility to share our stories of success and challenge with other Centers around the world – and to learn from them in turn. (“Partnerships for the Goals” is Sustainable Development Goal #17!)

That’s what brought me to Brazil in October, to represent both Shelburne Farms and the Greater Burlington RCE. The conference theme was “Low Carbon Economy, Renewable Energy and Cities,” and I shared how Burlington recently accomplished meeting 100% of its electricity needs through renewable energy sources. I shared details from financing and tax credits to the wood chips needed to sustain the McNeil Generating Station (about 76 tons of chips, or about 30 cords of wood, an hour at full capacity). I was also proud to share Vermont’s comprehensive energy plan and our goal to meet 90% of the State’s energy needs from renewable resources by 2050. Our little state provided inspiration for other regions and countries to follow suit.

At the conference, many of my peers from Central and South America addressed the importance of interculturality – the interaction of people from different cultural backgrounds using authentic language to  demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the cultures. As a professor from Guatemala explained, “Despite all our biological and cultural richness, devaluation of ancestral knowledge still remains.” His work brings teachers together from many different disciplines (including history, architecture, math, engineering, and botany) to study Mayan sites - an excellent example of education for sustainability pedagogy.

A Peruvian colleague who studies indigenous diets encouraged us to value traditional knowledge of biodiversity and nutrition as much as we value Western medicine. A Colombian professor shared research on how climate change is affecting food security among the Pasto indigenous people, and how important it is to capture the Pasto’s different ideas of relating to the environment to preserve biodiversity and ensure future food supply.

Participants kept reiterating the need to recognize and respect other cultures as a way towards peace and coexistence. Their ideas have given me hope in light of election results in the U.S.

RCEs work on the premise that many minds and perspectives are better than one. In this age of globalization, our problems and issues are often so complex that we need the benefit of multiple disciplines to solve them. Throughout the conference, I was reminded of the Sustainable Schools Project’s “Big Ideas of Sustainability” and the importance of diversity to a sustainable future. As we learn from nature, all systems and places function because of diversity.

Please visit the Greater Burlington Sustainability Education Network website if you are interested in learning more about Shelburne Farms and participating in our local RCE.

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