Why education alone cannot bring about positive change

 In food for thought

The “solution” I hear mentioned most often when it comes to solving the current climate crisis is ‘education’. Indeed, education is a first step to any meaningful action, but it cannot lead to action without a sense of agency – the belief that we can create change. On its own, education brings a sense of responsibility without necessarily the tools to create change, which either leads to denial of responsibility (and shifting responsibility to someone else), or to depression and overwhelm.

Exploring the emerging Food Citizenship movement in the UK, I have encountered many incredible individuals that seem to have an endless source of energy for action. Speaking to them, I have noticed patterns emerge that give me hope.  We are not simply born with a set of skills that allow us to do great things, we can also acquire them throughout our lives.

Here are a few things I’ve learned from those pioneers:

  • Find ongoing peer support

No matter how inspiring I found those pioneers, the truth is no one works alone. They all had an incredible story leading up to where they got to, and strong networks to rely on. Whether it was having inspiring role models to look up to, a team supporting them and holding them to account, friends who believed in them and cheered them on, mentors who had walked a similar path before and could guide them or fellow activists who believe in their cause, the list is long. What we can learn from our communities goes far beyond information. We can learn to believe in ourselves and feel supported to take action. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to build confident, hopeful and creative changemakers.

How can you nurture peer-to-peer support in your organisation? Who can you speak to about your career but also personal development? Who can you support and inspire around you? Where can you share your experience and inspire others? (you could start here!)

The Food Teachers Centre is a great platform where food teachers connect and support each other with course material and by being a community coming together and increasingly facing the bigger ethical issues of the food system. As for businesses, what is particularly powerful with the rise of B-corporations beyond what these organisations commit to, is the investment in networking, and the peer-to-peer support available to member organisations. The latter (on The B Hive!) brings a whole support network to individuals and teams working across sectors.

  • Experience success

We need to approach life with dedicated effort and with realistic but challenging goals, so when those goals are achieved, we truly enjoy success and slowly build our sense of agency. This can be as simple as learning to cook or grow food. The focus here isn’t about teaching a skill. The point is to show someone that they are capable of something they otherwise think they weren’t able to do. It is empowering. When the piece is around education, we can easily fall into a condescending interaction, especially considering how many people know how to cook but don’t have access to cooking facilities or fresh food in the first place.

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

As Chloe Donovan put it so well in the case of young people, we need to be champions of our own stories and create change for ourselves and others.

How can we build a sense of agency within our audiences? And how can we nurture our own sense of empowerment in our lives, jobs, families? You can start with these tips

Here I am inspired by organisations that take the idea of education and skilling up to the next level. Whether it is allowing children to explore and discover new flavours and build a positive relationship with food at The Flavour School. Or training prison inmates and giving them support after prison to find employment and stability away from crime, with organisations like The Clink Charity and Freedom Bakery.

  • Embrace failure

Equally important, we need to experience failures and realise that we’re still OK and able to overcome them. One of my favourite conversations with pioneers was around their setbacks. And there were many! From products being a flop to funding meetings where everything goes wrong, these individuals have all experienced failure. What amazed me – and inspired me – was how accepting they were of failure and how resilient they were to it. So, while experiencing successes is important, more so is our ability to fail and bounce back. Experiencing small setbacks and realising that we can overcome them is key to building resilience.

“Success is achieved by learning from failed efforts” – Albert Bandura (and if you fancy a longer read on resilience, start here!)

How much room do we give for experimentation and failure within our teams or organisations – or even ourselves? How much freedom do we give our audience to learn, fall and bounce back? How do we support others through difficult times? Who can we reach out to when we need support?

The Food Power conference in June 2019 ran a session on “sharing failures”, which was incredibly refreshing. I was also inspired by Climate Change Coaches approach to empowering individuals to act on climate change. Their free coaching helps reframe the issue and build a sense of agency within individuals. Mentoring can be tremendously helpful when faced with setbacks, and more broadly we can think of how we approach creativity and how we judge setbacks as a society.

So, educating – yes, and with a good dose of agency. This not only broadens our options, but also allows society as a whole to play a part in enabling change.