Becoming sustainable people

I spent Monday and Tuesday at the FertileGround conference. The conference is about sustainability of funding and programs across the state: how do social service organizations sustain their programs and services when funding sources disappear or change? There were a hundred people there connecting with each other to talk about the challenges and successes they have encountered and how they can plan—together—for the future.

This morning, Robert Chambers, the founder of Bonnie CLAC, spoke about how important a thing like a reliable car is to securing and keeping a decent job, supporting children, and having a (relatively) stress-free life. Bonnie CLAC gets low-income parents into new cars and, with that, they observe major changes in pay rates (people tend to go after and get better-paying jobs), life stress, and overall health of the family.

I would call this individual sustainability, and it occurred to me that there is a strong parallel between organizational sustainability and this sort of individual sustainability: how do we help individuals become sustainable?

In the context of youth in classrooms, how do we teach them to be sustainable, and how do we give them the tools to become sustainable? The corollary to this lies in asking the question, how do we remove the barriers to becoming sustainable people?

One of the tasks that schools are charged with is helping students become the best they can be, and that means becoming sustainable as individuals. In turn, that means creating human beings who can learn, who can interact with the world, who can solve problems, and who can become what they want to become.

If students are living in fear, whether it’s a fear of other students, a fear of adults in the building, a fear of academics, or a fear of what they will experience outside of school (or at home), they are not going to learn. This is simple Maslow’s triangle work: if the bases are not covered, an individual cannot think about the higher-level things in life. How does a kid concentrate on the Pythagorean Theorem while spending time figuring out how to get to the locker and next class safely?

Schools need to look closely at whether they have an atmosphere of fear at their schools. Just because adults do not feel afraid does not mean that students do not feel afraid, so we have to ask the students. If they feel fear, they are not focusing on the work, and they will not be able to become sustainable human beings. If they feel fear, they will learn only how to respond to that fear in that specific context, and not how a2+b2=c2. So what do we need to do to make students feel safe?

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