Shareen Knowlton Helped pass national legislation with NAAEE’s Affiliates

Joining with the NAAEE Affiliate Network, Rhode Island Environmental Education Association (RIEEA) transformed itself from a small, local professional organization into a grassroots advocacy powerhouse.

Shareen's Impact

2,000

Number of organizations in national coalition Shareen joined with NAAEE

Today, we have our senators and congressmen calling us.

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Fifteen years ago, RIEEA was a small professional organization that supported environmental education in Rhode Island classrooms by providing practical ways to teach environmental literacy. “We did things like training teachers how to lead mushroom walks, or teach about watersheds,” says Shareen Knowlton, former president of RIEEA. But all of that changed after No Child Left Behind legislation shifted classroom instruction toward standardized testing, and environmental education was largely left behind.

With help from NAAEE, RIEEA used that opportunity to “shift gears,” and reinvent itself as leaders in an advocacy group for environmental education policy. Today, RIEEA works with senators to craft state and national legislation, and is part of a powerful national network advocating for environmental education. “Now we have our senators calling us with questions; we’re invited to the table,” says Knowlton.

At the outset, Knowlton, who is also the Director of Education at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, knew next to nothing about political advocacy. “Everything I knew about civics came from Schoolhouse Rock, and I was pretty cynical about politics, ” she says. But when RIEEA got a phone call from Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed’s office, saying that he was interested in introducing legislation to get environmental education back into schools, suddenly RIEEA was in a position to impact federal policy. That’s where the expertise and powerful nation-wide network from NAAEE came into play.

“The NAAEE Affiliate network was already in place, so when this chance came along, it became the primary network to push this grassroots movement,” says Sarah Bodor, NAAEE Director of Policy and Affiliate Relations.

Working with the Affiliates Network, Knowlton stepped up to play a leadership role in a nationwide coalition of thought leaders and advocates that would grow to include more than 2,000 organizations, and called themselves the “No Child Left Inside Coalition.” Leveraging the relationship with her senator, Knowlton and RIEEA led monthly action network calls with updates on the campaign, and to-do lists to advance the cause state by state. “The Affiliate Network really rose to the challenge in seizing this opportunity and sticking with it,” says Bodor.

In December 2015, thanks in large part to the efforts of the coalition community, and with leadership from Senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island and John Sarbanes from Maryland, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed with funding set aside for environmental education.

Knowlton gives credit to the Affiliate Network for driving the change. “Most of the thousands of educators in this network were experts in environmental education, but they had never thought about what it means to be an advocate for their work,” she says. “Working toward the legislation together gave us a sense of purpose—we realized this could happen in Congress. We realized that it’s not just us that think it matters.”

It took nearly 10 years for the No Child Left Inside Coalition to realize its goal. But in the meantime, a lot of other good things happened along the way. Knowlton and others learned that advocacy has benefits for environmental educators beyond a specific policy goal. Decision makers learned more about environmental education and its benefits for youth and communities. RIEEA and other organizations developed relationships with elected officials and school leaders, raising the profile of the organization and the field of environmental education. “People want to know what they can do, or how they can make a difference, and a huge piece of that is about civic engagement,” says Bodor. “We have a structure in place for engaging in environmental education advocacy, and joining the Affiliates is the first step.”

Now RIEEA has a place at the table in legislative conversations in their state. “When the Department of Education was talking about next generation science standards, we got invited to the leadership team,” Knowlton says.

“The conversations we had, and relationships we built when advocating for the No Child Left Inside legislation have had lasting, positive effects and have significantly elevated our role in systemic education reform. And if we can be effective in this kind of effort, anyone can. We’ve come a long way from mushroom walks.”

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For more than four decades, NAAEE has promoted excellence in environmental education throughout North America and the world. We are dedicated to strengthening the field of environmental education and increasing the visibility and efficacy of the profession.

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