Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Environmental leadership: Lessons learned from Beahrs program

By Robin Marsh

Farouk Umaru

When we created the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program 15 years ago, it was with the conviction that UC Berkeley would be a perfect place for a residential training of global environmentalists. The combination of Berkeley faculty pioneering a range of environmental fields, and the surrounding Bay Area innovation culture would be stimulating and help launch practitioners into leadership positions.

Along the way, we learned something that was not known at the beginning. It took several years of course evaluations and a formal independent evaluation in 2008 to realize that the most transformative type of learning that takes place at ELP courses is the exchange among the practitioners themselves. And the faculty that engage with participants and alumni, in deep discussions and collaboration, learn as much or more from these exchanges than the other way around. This participatory method is now standard in state-of-the-art design of adult learning and leadership training.

"As a United Nations civil servant (UNEP) who works on a daily basis on the protection of the environment for development purposes, I really value the training received from the ELP twelve years ago. When I look back, I feel so privileged and blessed to be among an amazing network of sustainable development practitioners which has ramifications all over the world."

-- Abou Bamba, Cote d’Ivoire, ELP 2003

Susan Carpenter, who has led the "Collaborative Processes for Social Change" workshops since the second year (2002), has been pivotal in helping us to understand the common skills needed for environmental leadership -- ones that transcend nationality, social status and field of expertise. Susan, and the late Bill Sonnenschein (ELP faculty, Communications), recognize the potential in every ELP participant to communicate with clarity and passion, and to bring others together to move forward and solve problems where common interests are identified.

Many ELP participants grapple with seemingly intractable situations in their communities, and the power dynamics are skewed mercilessly against the poor and those most at risk from natural-resource scarcity. Still, when the ELP participants return home, they are able to recall the "Collaborative Processes" workshop, to chip away at entrenched interests, seek allies and give the marginalized a voice.

"Seven years have passed fast but everything "remains fresh in my memory." I had precious opportunities to meet influential people from around the world. These were my fellow friends, professors, speakers and leaders all concerned about the environment. We had time together to discuss, share and exchange solutions for global environmental issues. I realized deeply that leadership is truly to inspire people wherever you stand. Since then, I have applied those lessons to continue to inspire thousands of my students and communities where I live to work toward better care of our limited natural resources."   -- Hoang Thuy, Vietnam, ELP 2008 field trip

The ELP also presents a splendid opportunity to introduce global environmental practitioners to their counterparts in the Bay Area and throughout California. The 2001 “charter” course included a two-night field trip to Hayfork, in Northern California, to visit a forest community working to restore its watershed and retool its economy. When I met with two African 2001 ELP alums in January of this year (Simon Thuo, Kenya, and Mpumi Ncwadi, South Africa) they recalled the highlights of the trip as if it were yesterday.

"I feel more at ease and in touch with the outside world, doing more of what is right for my organization’s development and growth - rather than doing just what is right. I am now able to relate, engage, negotiate, facilitate and effectively collaborate with organizations, institutions and persons which I hitherto would shy away from and which has brought tremendous benefit in terms of the extension of essential infrastructural development and financial support to the organization and more importantly the improvement in the relationship between the park and local communities fringing it, in terms of engagement and easy resolution of conflicts." -- Farouk D. Umaru, Ghana, ELP 2012

Farouk Umaru

In 2012, we traveled south to Cal Poly and Morro Bay for two days of field trips with multiple stakeholders working together on watershed restoration, flood control, agrochemical pollution and fisheries management. The commitment and hard work by local governments and communities to deal with serious threats to livelihoods was inspiring to the ELPers.

I invite you to view this short video made of the 2012 ELP course, to get a sense of the power of bringing diverse people together to exchange experiences and learn from California. It features a clip with Farouk, quoted above.

The challenge moving forward is to continue to strengthen ELP peer learning and collaborative problem-solving, so that participants return with knowledge and networks they can put to use right away, and for the long-term. Our ELP alumni network is an under-tapped powerhouse of environmental leadership. The potential is enormous and ready to bring to life when the moment is right. How about now?

"ELP gave me an understanding of systematic thinking and a core set of strategic skills, which was life changing for me. I refer back to my learning on a daily basis and continue to remain in touch with alums that adds great value to every aspect of my professional life."  - Pushkin Phartiyal, India ELP 2007

group photo


*This article is dedicated to Lee Marsh, who passed away on March 7, 2015. Lee was an inspiration to many ELPers.