Research Summary

Diverse perspectives on action for positive social and environmental change

Identity is a main driver for engaging in social and environmental action

Environmental Education Research
2020

Individuals develop commitments to social and environmental action through their unique paths, which is shaped by their identities. Understanding what fosters and sustains this development is important for the field of environmental education. This study looked at adults’ development of and motivations for action that promotes social and environmental change. To address a lack of research with multiple views in this domain, diverse perspectives were incorporated into this study. The researchers sought to understand three questions:
How do participants view their own activism?
What sparked participants interest in social or environmental action?
How do participants see their work in terms of individual or collective action?

This study took place at a small to midsized public university in California. Current and graduated university students were recruited for this study. These students identified as being first generation college students, people of color, Queer, and/or disabled. The researcher recruited participants by asking staff and faculty to identify students that engaged in collective, social-political, and problem-solving work. Of the 33 students recruited, 16 agreed to be interviewed. In the interviews, the participants were asked their motivation, supports, and barriers for conducting their work and their views on social and environmental action. Twelve participants were interviewed a second time the following year. The responses were analyzed for common themes among the participants.

For this study, the researchers actively sought out people who were activists, defined by those who engage in collective social-political action geared towards small to large scale change. Many of the participants were surprised that they had been considered activists; they had a singular view of what makes up an activist. For example, someone who chains themself to a tree or engages in a form of radical protest. However, most of the participants had participated in some form of activism in their life, from taking small actions to being deeply involved in activism work.

Results showed participants’ identities were essential for engaging in social or environmental action. Participants wanted to engage in the world to foster their identity development and learn practical skills through action. They explained that they gained awareness about issues when they engaged in social and environmental action through courses, service learning, and co-curricular activities. The researchers also found that this group of diverse individuals was engaged in intersectional activism, meaning that their work spanned multiple environmental and social issues. Many participants also had direct experiences in the systems they were trying to change. For example, multiple participants who had personally dealt with systems of oppression were involved in activism to change these systems.

The researchers found that participants saw their work with a sense of kinship. Many participants wanted to support people in their communities who had experienced inequities. The researchers argued this sense of kinship allowed for actions that were rooted in caring for the community. Participants also spoke about the importance of their identities for belonging to a community of activists. For example, two participants reflected on being the minority on their campus, thus their activism emanated from creating a sense of belonging for themselves.

There are limitations to the methods of this study. The participants were not chosen randomly. Participants were instead chosen based on the researcher's vision of what constitutes an activist. An alternative definition of what constitutes an activist could result in a different sample of people and different results. Additionally, this study draws on a small sample size. Therefore, these results may not apply to the other students or graduates at this university or universities in other geographical locations.

The researchers suggest that this study demonstrated that exploring identities can help diversify the environmental education field and promote individuals’ commitment to environmental and social action. They state that a challenge to this is finding programs to support making these connections; thus, they note the importance of advancing such programs to help people make connections to their community. The researchers also recommend building experiences into environmental education programming that allows for students to experiment with and learn from action.

The Bottom Line

Individuals develop their commitment to social and environmental action through unique paths. Understanding what fosters and sustains this development is important for environmental education. This study looked at diverse individuals' development and motivations for engaging in action that promotes social and environmental change. The researchers conducted interviews with students at a public California university who were considered activists in their community and who identified as first-generation college students, people of color, Queer, and/or disabled. It was found that the participants’ identities were an essential motivation for engaging in social or environmental action. The researchers recommend supporting programs that allow people to make connections to their community as a way to support positive social and environmental change. The researchers also suggested that environmental education programming should create experiences that allows for students to experiment with and learn from action.