Surveys, listening sessions, interviews and focus groups, Oh my! What do all these tools have in common? They are all recognized as best practices for successful engagement by the North American Association of Environmental Education (Guidelines for Excellence). Currently, they are the driving force behind a project whose primary objective is to give Richmond Public Schools (RPS) students a greater understanding and sense of ownership of their local watershed. Through discussions with, and active listening to Richmond families, friends, local stakeholders and leaders, the project team aims to answer the question, “What does environmental literacy mean for our community?”

A large map of Richmond, Virginia with post-it notes describing what people like about certain locations

A wall-sized map captures participants’ thoughts about their Richmond neighborhoods.

The two year project is being led by the City of Richmond Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities who received funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) program. This project’s key partners, James River Park System, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, and RPS, will use the results from surveys, listening sessions, and interviews to draft an Environmental Literacy Plan (ELP) for Richmond Public Schools – a first in the district! “Environmental Literacy Plans are an important strategy for documenting and codifying where environmental education experiences and teacher professional development occur as well as how partners support those efforts.” said Elise Trelegan, B-WET Program Coordinator from the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office.

The project is well underway with a community survey that closed on December 31, 2022. The survey was made available to the public in English and Spanish, was open for four months, and focused on mapping areas visited around Richmond, ranking types of environmental education and prioritizing experiences in nature for RPS students.

Two community listening sessions have occurred to date, and two more are set: January 28th at Albert Hill Middle School (1-3pm) and February 13th at Second Baptist Church (6-8pm). Each listening session is an open house style, where visitors can spend as much time as they need at four different stations. All sessions are free, open to the public, and food is provided.

A room of people listening to a person speaking

Teenagers from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond fill the room to hear about the stations during the Community Listening Session on November 17, 2022.

In 2023, the partner team plans to dig deeper into the process by working directly with a Teacher Advisory Group and Student Advisory Group who will have shared power in the ELP writing process alongside the project team as they try to address the following grounding questions:

  • What does environmental literacy mean for our community?
  • What does environmental justice look like for our community?
  • What are Richmond’s priorities in bringing environmental justice and literacy to this community?

Community engagement work is intentional, deliberate, and often has barriers. It is also rewarding, empowering and fun! This partner team is determined to use its grassroots effort to boost the work that is already being done by teachers and students in RPS. Laying out a framework in the form of an Environmental Literacy Plan could potentially strengthen the RPS Strategic Plan as it enters a new phase next year. Once in place, the ELP can guide funders, partners, stakeholders and families as to where they can best support environmental literacy in the district.

A person taking a selfie with others talking in a classroom in the background

Meredeth Dash, Alliance’s Environmental Education Specialist, pauses her active listening to grab a selfie during the December 15, 2022 Listening Session at Pine Camp Cultural Arts and Community Center.

In community engagement, your voice matters! In Richmond, our intention is that all voices be heard. At the first listening session, a teen girl wondered “Can oysters see?” as she explored oyster shells at the nature station. A youth leader commented, “I have hiked right here but I don’t know how it connects to this bridge.” as she examined the Richmond City wall map. Listening sessions allow the partner team to hear in real time what people are thinking and wondering about nature, especially as it relates to the green spaces in the city. Participating in conversations that spark curiosity will help build the foundation for environmental stewardship of our local ecosystem, the James River and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.

Stay tuned as the process of active listening continues in this project. If you would like to get involved, please contact Meredeth Dash,