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Environmental leadership: Lessons learned from Beahrs program

Robin Marsh, resident researcher, Institute for the Study of Societal Issues | July 17, 2015

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 2008field 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

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.

Comments to “Environmental leadership: Lessons learned from Beahrs program

  1. It has been over one year but I can recall clearly of every field trip and every session of the ELP 2014. I totally share Robin’s lesson learn i.e. the exchange among the practitioners themselves is so valuable and sometime even more than learning from UC professors, although our ELP UC professors have done a wonderful job.

  2. Fifteen years already! But Robin never changes — as deeply and personally concerned with our lives and the issues we face on sustainable development. Ever connecting people, institutions and resources….

    I gained a lot from ELP 2001. It was instrumental in catalysing my understanding of integration across social, economic and environmental spheres, which in turn helped me a lot in promoting approaches to resilience in climate variability but as well to engage with long-drawn intractable water resources development and sanitation challenges.

    Hayfork/Weaverville was perhaps the moment of epiphany, that even in the most advanced countries communities are still trapped between legal and economic forces.. and that technology has its limitations.

    I treasure those moments, and am especially grieved that Lee Marsh, who did so much to make us welcome in Berkeley, has passed on without visiting Kenya or Uganda. May he Rest in Peace.

  3. Thanks for this wonderful article, Robin. I participated in the ELP Program in 2003, which was a great learning experience. All persons and organizations who have directly or indirectly contributed to the establishment and operation of the ELP program have done a great service to the humankind!

  4. A wonderful retrospective! Robin, Leslie, David Z and of course Dick Beahrs — and all the terrific staff and UCB students who worked with ELP — really created something special with this program. The ELP participants from around the world were so dynamic, so skilled, and so optimistic in the face of their many challenges that it was truly an eye-opening experience to “teach” ELP sessions and to learn more about each participant’s work.

  5. I am forever grateful for my three years as program coordinator at Beahrs ELP (2008-2011). They were challenging years, yet were so much fun due to the quality of the program and the wonderful environmentalists who came to Berkeley each summer. With an international background and cross-cutting graduate training in Geography at Cal, this was a perfect fit for me and for the ELP: I’ve lived a cross-sectoral and cross-hierarchical life. It was humbling to meet Beahrs ELP attendees, learn about their work in extraordinarily challenging circumstances, and to see their resilience, eagerness to learn from each other, and their daily-renewed optimism.

    The ELP was a safe haven for attendees to discuss, argue, meet people of varying ranks, and learn that their local issues aligned with those across the world. Communication, leadership qualities, and conflict management strategies were perhaps the most important lessons learned and carried home to blossom over time. Strategies for problem-solving, differing perspectives, and close-ups of Californian ways were eye-opening. It’s a lot to pack into three weeks, especially since there were also so many meals, parties to attend, friendships to make!

    Special kudos to Robin Marsh, Leslie Correll, Dick Beahrs and his extended family, Board members, CNR staff, and all graduate students and faculty who envisioned, then created this program.

  6. The founding of this course was a great idea. When I move around and see the bad things happening to the environment (esp. waste handling & disposal), how I wish all our leaders (and entire citizenship) had a chance to attend the ELP Course. ELP have, and always shall, make minds think and things happen the right way.

  7. I lead an international NGO working on innovative approaches to integrate agriculture and environment. For nearly 10 years, I crossed the U.S. every summer to teach in the ELP course. It was such an inspiration to work with the ELP’ers — many of whom I have later worked with and saw first-hand their leadership qualities.

    I also learned so much from my own exposure to the resource persons and innovative programs in the course. Warmest congratulations to Robin on her leadership of this program, and the long-term relationships she has sustained. This gift will keep on giving….

  8. I like drama: I like how different forces shape our destiny beyond our willing, wishes, and expectations. I’m not talking about fate but about life. And life is the most powerful driving force that pulls and energizes environmental practitioners, social workers, health workers, peasants, and a lot more people who love and is astonished by the mystery of life. We try to keep it, to take care of it, to protect it. And doing so, soon we realize that this is a community task. A task that transcends any individual. We realize that if we want to succeed — and we will succeed — we need to work with others, we need to learn from others, we need to teach others, we need to acknowledge others, we need to lead others, and we need to follow others. Otherwise we are condemned to repeat the failure of the individualism, its unlimited hungry for material rewards and recognition that denies the rights and needs of others, as well as their merits.

    I had the opportunity of being part of the Beahrs ELP 2004 cohort, coordinated by Robin and David, with the invaluable assistance of Leslie and Andy: a great team for a great cohort (I’m sure that all of them are outstanding, but for obvious reasons I fond my cohort more than others). They gathered and brought the best faculty of Cal to a bunch of folks who barely knew among them, and they put all their effort and creativity to rapidly make a community. Because, as I said, only a community is able to deal with substantive and meaningful tasks. And the thing that I remember the most is what I learnt from my peers, their energy and creativity, their commitment. The seed that they cultivated in me flourishes in subtle ways, that maybe I’m not able to name them, but certainly they shape me.

    Thank you, ELP team, thank you Beahrs Family, thank you UNAM and Ford Foundation, and thanks to all my peers for this opportunity that I had.

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