Building a network through education

March 29, 2012
Raina Delisle
Nadine Raynolds

As a young environmental activist in the Lower Mainland, Nadine Raynolds searched for ways to learn more about sustainability and contribute to the green movement, but found few opportunities. Even while studying environmental science at the University of Calgary, she still struggled to find an outlet for her energy.

To fill the gap in experiential environmental education, she launched Redfish School of Change in 2009.    

“I wanted to be able to offer something to young people who really have this urge to be part of creating positive change and to provide an educational experience that would really help them do that. It was something that I yearned for when I was in my teens and 20s.”

Redfish School of Change is a six-week field school based in B.C.’s West Kootenays and runs annually from mid-May to mid-June. It is designed for post-secondary students who want to lead the way in creating ecological sustainability and social equity in their communities. Run as a partnership between GreenLearning Canada and the University of Victoria, students receive three course credits towards their degree for work done during the intensive program, which brings together between 16 and 18 students from universities across Canada.

The outdoor experiential education program includes a host of teambuilding and outdoor activities (hiking, cycling and paddling) as well as academic field studies. In the past, the school has travelled through southwest B.C. and has been built around a food theme, but this year they are taking a more place-based approach to soften their footprint and will focus on water. The theme is a good fit with the location as the Kootenays boasts an abundance of fresh water. Water has also been at the centre of a number ofsocial and environmental issues in the area, such as the Columbia River Treaty and flooding.

“We’re looking at water as a lens to deconstruct environmental and social justice issues and to look at what people are doing to create change through that lens,” says Raynolds, who is also a municipal councillor in New Denver, B.C. “This program is really about leadership and community services and having the skills to communicate and facilitate and make decisions in groups.” 

Before launching Redfish School of Change in 2009, Raynolds completed the MA in Environmental Education and Communication program at Royal Roads. She credits the program for helping her focus her vision for the ultimate experiential environmental education program.

“I needed the container of the thesis to help me filter through all the ideas and process and bring it to a kernel,” says Raynolds, who did her thesis on youth environmental leadership programs. “It really helped me take a big idea and make it into something practical.”

“Nadine came into the program very focused. She wanted to develop a program that would teach kids to change the world and that’s what her thesis was about,” says Prof. Rick Kool, head of the MA Environmental Education and Communication program. “It’s a dream that most educators have. If the system doesn’t work and you get frustrated with it, make your own school. Nadine is one of the few people who went ahead and did it.”

Indeed, Raynolds is living her dream.

“The Redfish School of Change is not just a job, it’s my life,” she says. “It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

Satisfaction for Raynolds comes from seeing student projects take on a life of their own and contribute to positive change. Part of the curriculum includes preparing a community action plan, which students can implement with support from Redfish mentors in the months following the field school. She points to Girls In Real Life, a project by two 2010 Redfish students, as an example. The intensive seven-day empowerment education program brings together 10 to 15 girls in Vancouver for a series of workshops that allow participants to learn about social inequities, environmental injustices and their own identities. The Redfish grads also worked with their young female participants to create a magazine.

Another Redfish alumna, Alla Guelber, has also been very successful in creating positive change in her community through her Meaningful Work Project.

“I took part in Redfish knowing that I was really interested in transformative education,” says Guelber, a student in Royal Roads’ Environmental Education and Communication program. “I was really encouraged by Nadine and her experience at Royal Roads in that she could create a real-life educational program as a result of her studies.”

“The most satisfying part for me is knowing that these young people feel confident and empowered to go do what they think is right. They have new knowledge, they have new skills and they have a lot of confidence,” Raynolds says, adding that one of her intentions with each cohort is to help students build a support network, something she discovered at Royal Roads.

“One of the biggest things I took from Royal Roads was friendships with amazing people who are out in the world creating change, particularly in the world of education,” she says, adding that she learned a great deal from her cohort, which became her “lifelong advisory committee.”

“It’s a small community out there of people who are really passionate and active around being an agent of change and you need support when you’re out there.”

While Raynolds helps build that support network for her students, she also learns a great deal from them.

“I learn so much with every program and it’s such an adventure. It’s a really, really fun adventure.”