Thursday 23 January 2014

Shannon Dyck: Action & Inquiry - At School, At Work, and At Home

At School: From Art to Environmental Education
Shannon Dyck’s first five years at the University of Saskatchewan were devoted to art and art history.

In her fifth year at university, Shannon was elected Vice-President, Student Affairs, with the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union. Campus sustainability was part of her portfolio, and it played a decisive role in helping Shannon view sustainability as an implementation strategy - action rather than simply an idea.

She also came to realize that a lot of people know the environment is important, but they don’t know what to do about it or where to get started. “It was inspiring to find a lot of people out there who supported environmental goals. They just needed a helping hand to do it,” Shannon says.

Shannon felt that education could lead people to action, and she decided to pursue a Master’s degree in the School of Environment and Sustainability. The school’s interdisciplinary approach gave her the opportunity to segue from art to environmental studies, and Shannon believed that there were several faculty members who would support her ideas.

Shannon’s goal was to set up a research project that would provide empirical evidence of the value of environmental education. Building on her experience with the informal public education work done by student and community organizations, Shannon wanted to bring people together, help them identify areas where they felt they could change, and support them as they implemented those changes. She viewed her role as facilitator rather than teacher.

Shannon deliberately chose families that had expressed an interest in living more sustainably to participate in her research project. “Social networks are so important,” she says. “It’s hard to make change when you feel isolated. You need to be able to share information and ideas.” In addition, there was a teacher in each family as Shannon felt the project would have greater impact if they could pass their experiences along to their students. Teaching would also provide a common interest for the five families.

Shannon met with each of the families individually and asked them to conduct a photo audit by taking photographs of what they thought they were doing well and not well around their home. They were also asked to keep a journal, writing down their ideas and responding to guided questions as they went through the five-month education process.

The five households also held three joint meetings over three months and were encouraged to commit publicly to their proposed actions. “Social expectations are very strong,” Shannon says. “Once you commit publicly to something, you are much more likely to follow through.”

The thesis project had three key outcomes:

First of all, if you want to take action, you need to find a supportive network of people who will support, encourage, and work with you. “You’re always facing so much external pressure,” Shannon says. “You can’t do it alone.” In addition, “You don’t want people who think you’re crazy. You can’t do your best if you’re fighting naysayers.” 

Secondly, the model can be replicated as it’s easy to form teams on your own.

Thirdly, it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. One family dramatically reduced their water consumption by placing an egg timer in the bathroom and limiting family members to seven-minute showers. They also reduced the amount of laundry.

At Work: Community Partners
Once Shannon had completed her Master’s program, she was hired as an Environmental Coordinator for the City of Saskatoon’s Environmental and Corporate Initiatives division.

She is responsible for both internal and external projects and works closely with community partners, such as the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, to support what’s already happening in the community.

For the past year she has been working with other City employees, community groups, and the two school boards on an action-oriented education program. The program is being piloted with 12 classroom teachers, each of whom are developing action projects in the areas of water, waste, transportation, energy, or food. The Saskatchewan Environmental Society is helping each class to perform pre- and post- audits (e.g. a waste audit to determine what could have been reused, recycled, or composted). The City of Saskatoon is providing additional resources. One class decided to focus on energy conservation, so the City has provided them with energy monitors to use at school and in some homes. The teachers are given planning time so that they can do research and share ideas and information.

Shannon expects to be working on an employee environmental education project in the near future. It will build on the green team concept, supporting employees to work together to make changes in the workplace. Both projects involve action-oriented learning as well as social sharing and support, building on the knowledge Shannon gained through her university research.

At Home: A Sharing Economy
Shannon’s interest in action-oriented environmental education doesn’t end when she goes home at the end of the day. Shannon and her partner, Mike Nemeth, had discussed building a green home, but Wolf Willow introduced them to the concept of co-housing. This idea provided the social piece that is such a core element of Shannon’s environmental beliefs and actions. 

Shannon and Mike initiated Radiance Cohousing, a multi-generational, green housing project. Since March 2012, they have been working closely with other interested homeowners and have hired an architect and developed detailed architectural designs for seven townhouses and two garage suites. They group has also partnered with a developer for land acquisition and construction at Avenue L and 18th Street.

“Radiance Cohousing provides the environmental, social, and economic piece of what Mike and I had been discussing,” Shannon says. “Living at close quarters will give us the opportunity to create a sharing economy. We won’t all need our own lawn mowers, tools, canning equipment.” They also hope to reach out to the community at large by inviting community groups to use their multi-functional common space. Shannon would also like to start a community garden in Optimist Park, which will be across the street from their development. Mike Nemeth is a mechanical engineer with passive house certification, so he will be overseeing the design of the energy-efficient units.

Although Radiance is close to being full, they would still like to meet with interested people. “It’s good to have a waiting list,” Shannon says, “Co-housing is very dynamic.”

Circling Back: Art and the Environment
Over the years, Shannon has found ways to merge her interests in art and the environment. She is a nature photographer, incorporating reused and/or environmentally preferred materials into her art projects.

“I see my garden as my greatest canvas and permaculture design as a great way to combine my love for design with my love for being outdoors and growing food,” Shannon says. “Art and environment play off one another in very compatible ways.”

Shannon’s photographs can be found on Flickr.

Photo credits: Shannon Dyck, Radiance Cohousing