Strategies for Educating in Perilous Times

Preparing Tomorrow’s Change Agents

A crowd gathered in November 2016 on the UM Oval to hear students speak about their trip to the Standing Rock Reservation and to show their solidarity with those who are protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline . Photo by Todd Goodrich.
The most pressing threats of our time are not so much the result of ignorance, but rather the work of people with advanced degrees.

In a 1991 essay, “What is Education for?”, educator and thought leader David Orr, made this point powerfully. Orr explained that “many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity.” Most education, he said, fails to prepare us to think and do something about the environmental problems facing humanity. Orr’s point was simply, “education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom…It is not education that will save us, but education of a certain kind.”

I imagine that similar ideas were on the minds of several professors back in 1970 when they launched one of the nation’s first programs in environmental studies at the University of Montana, where I now teach. Those scientists realized that narrow disciplinary thinking was not at all up to the task of addressing complex, human-caused disruption of the natural world. From the start, the Environmental Studies Program (known as EVST) emphasized taking a multi-disciplinary approach. As important, the activism of the times left a lasting mark — civic engagement and a commitment to positive social change have always been core values in EVST.

In contrast, conventional academic wisdom warns graduate students and faculty not to pursue their studies in service of the struggles for environmental health, conservation, and social justice. Check your politics at the door, we are told, directly and indirectly.

Graduate student Kim Degner leads a training on leadership for her peers and several alumni. Photo by Neva Hassanein.

Still, EVST has been committed to “education of a certain kind” for nearly half a century. The central mission of the program has always been to train the next generation of environmental leaders and change agents — broadly defined. Over 850 people have earned Masters’ degrees, and our undergraduate program continues to grow. Many alumni have gone on to be movers and shakers in Montana and beyond.

In these times, it is absolutely critical to support younger advocates and public interest scientists who bring diverse ideas, new knowledge, and fresh energy to environmental movements. That’s why our partners at the Brainerd Foundation have initiated a conversation about how best to meet the needs of emerging leaders at various stages of their professional development.

Here, I offer on my own behalf five observations based on EVST’s principles and practices. These ideas are not at all intended to be a blueprint, but rather fodder for dialogue about how graduate training can play a role in environmental and social movements.

Encourage students to be co-creators of their interdisciplinary education.

Like other environmental studies programs, we are convinced that problem solving requires an interdisciplinary approach. Students need at least a basic understanding of the natural and social sciences, as well as the humanities. An alumnus articulated this well in response to a recent survey:

Because environmentalism can feel like a conversation in a closed room, the interdisciplinary aspect of EVST is essential. We need strong policy makers and activists and scientists, but we need a lot more kinds of people than that, and EVST makes room for them.

Indeed, as faculty, we strive to be open to a variety of approaches to social change, knowing there is no one “right way.”

Through a combination of methods, our students gain an appropriate mix of direction and flexibility to pursue their own interests. The often-applied nature of EVST, discussed below, combined with the entrepreneurial spirit of our students, means they are typically well prepared for a wide variety of positions upon graduation, especially in the non-profit sector, but also in government, consulting, agriculture, and business.

Help students discover their passion and gain a sense of being part of something larger than themselves.

Our task as educators means helping students clarify values, identify their strengths and needs, and articulate a vision. Good mentoring always involves these questions.

Lately, though, we’ve brought greater intention to helping students discover their sense of purpose. During their first semester, all new graduate students (~25) participate in a two-day retreat at a rustic camp. We are joined by five or more alumni with a range of interests and experiences. Groups of students develop interview questions, and meet with one alumnus for a guided, deep conversation over a couple hours. This opens students’ eyes to possibilities, alleviates their nervousness (because alumni can relate to their concerns), and connects them to our history and community.

Sitting beside Seeley Lake with the Swan Range in the distance, a graduate student engages in a reflective exercise and explores her sense of purpose. Photo by Neva Hassanein.

Also at the retreat, students (and alumni) individually explore their own passions, strengths, values, and sense of purpose. And we ask them to share these in a group. About a month later, a similar exercise asks students to articulate their purpose, define outcomes, and describe the process for achieving them. Hopefully, reflective practice, a core leadership characteristic, takes root.

This is tough stuff at any age. It’s especially scary when you are a twenty-something and the challenges are so daunting.

Yet, movements are built on vision, and sense of purpose is the foundation of leadership.

Take a practice-based approach to learning, and encourage an on-going cycle of inquiry based on action and reflection.

Adults learn best by doing, and then by reflecting on actions taken. So, EVST encourages experiences that go well beyond standard delivery of information in a classroom.

Often, under faculty guidance, students learn how to do research or how to participate in public processes, while also contributing to the work of non-profit groups or governmental agencies. One recent example is the work of Peter Gurche, whose graduate research focused on wildlife connectivity in the Crown of the Continent (Northern Rockies). His work informed the Crown Managers’ Partnership both by locating barriers to wildlife movement, and by identifying strategies to close gaps both in the physical landscape and in conservation capacity for addressing them. Peter has since been hired as a coordinator of the Crown Roundtable, a stakeholder group aimed at conserving landscapes and building sustainable and healthy communities in the region.

Lake McDonald in the Crown of the Continent. Photo by Len Broberg.

Likewise, the project nature of many of our courses combines theory and practice. For instance, participants in a graduate course conducted an extensive greenhouse gas inventory for the City of Missoula. In turn, the inventory provided the basis for the city’s development and adoption of an aggressive climate action plan for their operations.

Also, for the last fifteen years, we have organized and hosted an Environmental Leadership Series. These interactive workshops focus on skills that are especially useful in the non-profit sector (e.g., working across difference, facilitating groups, generating media, lobbying). Emerging leaders need these skills, but usually they do not get the chance to begin to learn them until later in their professional development.

Practical knowledge extends to sustainable living and learning the foundations of democracy.

A student harvests kale at the PEAS Farm, a campus-community partnership. Photo by Rachel Mockler.

Let’s face it: environmental studies can be depressing. But, when students learn about real alternatives that make a difference in our everyday lives, it’s inspiring. And contributing to these efforts leads to a stronger sense of efficacy — the belief that one can make a meaningful difference.

One place this happens is at the 10-acre PEAS farm, which is a partnership between EVST and community groups. Each year, students literally get their hands dirty growing food for a subscription program with 100 members, as well as producing tens-of-thousands of pounds of food for the Missoula Food Bank, the WIC program, and a mobile market for seniors.

Also, a living-learning residence run by students demonstrates the use of appropriate technologies and sustainable practices. Students have planned for and implemented numerous projects, such as installing rooftop solar, raising chickens, and experimenting with different green building materials.

Students working at their living-learning residence, the Forum for Living with Appropriate Technology. Photo by Nick Triolo.

These kinds of initiatives teach way more than practical skills. For many students, learning to grow food or produce energy for one’s home helps them connect to the natural world in a way they haven’t before. It brings alive not only our interdependence, but also our sense of the possibilities for a more sustainable future. Also, students come to appreciate the value of working with others, which breaks down barriers and stimulates insight into group process. Lastly, seeing the fruits of their labor, these projects encourage students to contribute to the common good, a core value in a strong democracy.

Embed educational programming in a wide, engaged community of actors who use a variety of theories of change.

EVST faculty hope our own involvement in movement organizations and the public sphere inspire engagement among students. More than modeling, though, faculty maintain connections with alumni and establish partnerships with a wide variety of organizations, agencies, and tribes.

These contacts enable us to identify and involve students in internships or research projects, which then contribute to the work of our partners in the community and beyond. Helping students find these opportunities connects them to a professional network and leads to understanding of how particular issues are being addressed currently. Beyond that, these relationships often develop into significant mentoring as seasoned activists share lessons-learned with a younger generation.


Many of the principles sketched here have been at the core of Montana’s Environmental Studies Program for nearly 50 years, if not always articulated in this particular way. We hear from alumni repeatedly about what a pivotal experience the program was for them. They stress not only knowledge and skills learned, but also being part of a community of knowers and doers — a web of hope. A few days after the inauguration of President Trump, alumna Shannon Donahue, Executive Director of the Great Bear Foundation, sent an unsolicited message to say:

In the face of the current political situation, I had a moment of realization that every single person I know from EVST is working effectively right now on issues of environmental protection and social justice, and it gave me a rare feeling of sincere hope. I’ve always recognized the power of EVST students and alumni, but it’s more crucial than ever right now.

As wonderful as it is to hear feedback like this, we never fully live up to our ideals. While many alumni end up devoting their careers to advocacy, others take entirely different paths. Not every student is profoundly moved by the approach we take. Sometimes, they are downright resistant to it. Still, about 74% of the alumni who responded to a recent survey report engaging in civic or political activities at least once a month.

Also, over time, EVST faculty have noticed some changes in the characteristics of our students. Historically, the vast majority of students were men; today, women far outnumber them. Also, our graduate students tend to come to us a little younger these days, bringing with them a bit less life experience. We continue to struggle with expanding diversity and inclusion among our student body, and consider it a priority. Fortunately, our curriculum draws on several faculty members’ knowledge of environmental racism and justice, and emphasizes learning to work across difference.

Tom Roy, former director of Environmental Studies, shares stories with the new graduate students and alumni guests at a 2016 weekend workshop on Leading with Purpose. Photo by Neva Hassanein.

In addition, the goals, beliefs, and strategies our students and recent alumni embrace have changed over time, mirroring changes in the wider movements for environmental protection. For instance, some students engaged in direct action in defense of ancient forests during the late 1980s, leading to skirmishes with the law. Many students now emphasize conflict resolution, creative expression, community building, or supporting intersectional movements that transcend mainstream environmentalism. The last year or so has been witness to more street protest and sit-ins, such as those calling for university divestment from fossil fuels or demonstrating in support of the Standing Rock Sioux and their effort to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.

These and other changes over time remind us of the essential vitality of social movements and the role of transformative education in reinvigorating democracy. The baby boomer generation (1946–64) grew up with the modern environmental movements that took root in the 1970s. Obviously, today’s movements operate in a much different era. Actors within movements not only challenge established institutional arrangements, but also the ideas of other movement actors. Us old timers need to be open to new ideas and practices — new knowledge. This dynamic too leads to change. Movements move — they are not static.

Part of our job as educators, mentors, and supporters is to bring forth the lessons of history and experience. A much more challenging, vital task is to foster social laboratories that give rise to new ideas, practices, and organizational forms. In these perilous times, transformative education must be innovative, adaptive, and optimally relevant to changing conditions. Transformative education demands on-going, restless, and hopeful inquiry with the world, in the world, and with each other.