Part 4: Teaching Others to Fish

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Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 3:11 pm

It wasn't long before a request came to adapt the sustainable lifestyle campaign approach. In May 2001 I was asked to speak at an EPA conference in Chicago on the tongue-twisting theme of "nonpoint source water pollution education and outreach."

The conference was tackling the question of how to clean up the 70 percent of America's water bodies being polluted by the fertilizers, pesticides, dog poop, and assorted chemicals that run off our lawns, roads, and other surfaces during storms. Only a small percentage of the country's storm drains connect to sewage treatment facilities. For the most part, storm drains mainline their contents straight into our local watersheds, which consist of an intricate network of underground aquifers, streams, rivers, lakes, estuaries, wetlands, bays, and even oceans. Each household's small amount of pollutants when multiplied by the thousands and millions are causing havoc in our water bodies.

Because of the seriousness of this problem, before it would provide a permit to operate water treatment facilities, EPA started mandating that local governments educate their citizens in the prevention of these harmful pollution practices. But with the only tool being information campaigns, local governments and watershed education groups had become painfully aware that raised awareness does not translate into changed behavior. Everyone knew the brochures and television ads were not working, but no one knew what to do.

That was the backdrop. I had been invited to keynote the conference in order to share the behavior-change and recruitment results we had been achieving with our sustainable lifestyle campaign. I did not go into the gathering with the thought that I would challenge the status quo, but effectively my talk started a mini-revolution.

Three hundred and fifty education and outreach practitioners from state and local government and watershed organizations now saw there was another way. They were tantalized by the idea that there was a social technology that had been proven to achieve public participation and change behavior and they were intrigued by the invitation to rethink how they measured their success. Counting how many glossy brochures they had distributed or how many compelling advertisements they had run, or even just measuring the impact of the pollution was no longer acceptable. They had been introduced to a second-order change solution and they were ready to respond.

During the conference several leaders from EPA, assorted state environmental agencies, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation asked if I would be willing to adapt our sustainable lifestyle program to address these water quality issues. Because of the increasing incidence of droughts they also wished me to include a section on water conservation.

I agreed to take on the project. I liked that local government agencies and watershed organizations clearly saw the need for this program. It's much easier to offer up a social innovation when the demand for it already exists, especially if the demand is an urgent one. I also liked that this project would provide me an opportunity to build the capacity of other organizations. I had learned that while I could come into a community and hire staff to do the organizing, it was a lot of extra work to get a program up and running when we did not already have the networks in place. And this certainly would be more cost effective for local government agencies if they could use their own staffs. With a now-proven environmental behavior-change tool, it was time for me to train others in how to manage these campaigns.

I called the program Water Stewardship and applied our core behavior change process: carefully crafted action recipes combined with structured peer support and focused, in this case, on water quality and water conservation. The program took about six months to develop. With grant funding available, three Northern Virginia municipalities lined up to test-drive it: Arlington County, Falls Church, and Fairfax. These communities were in the Four Mile Run watershed surrounding the Potomac River just outside of Washington D.C. They formed a partnership consisting of the three municipalities and a local environmental organization, Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment.

Three powerhouse women from these organizations helped us develop the water quality part of the program. Elenor Hodges, Aileen Winquist, and Annette Mills represented the best of grassroots change leaders. It was a pleasure working with them and they gave me the confidence that the knowledge I was handing off would be put to good use.

A watershed organization, Friends of the Rappahannock, also signed on to pilot the program. Its executive director, John Tippett, was exceedingly challenged in protecting the scenic Rappahannock River from the residential runoff of fertilizers generated by the rapid suburban growth of Fredricksburg. "All those Washington D.C. commuters want their pristine green lawns," he told me with a shake of his head. John had been around the block enough times trying various approaches to behavior change that he was genuinely ready for something that had a chance of getting the job done.

Another community to come forward was progressive Boulder, Colo. Boulder is always ahead of the curve so I was not surprised to see its interest. The Boulder initiative was led by a dynamic local government watershed educator, Curry Rosato, who exudes positive energy and enthusiasm. She and her team would also train several other communities in their watershed.

With competent and committed people in the field, my goal was to do everything I could to help them succeed through comprehensive training and follow-up coaching. While this process was relatively straightforward to implement, the program managers needed to be disciplined in following each of the steps. Otherwise they would fall short of getting the results they desired.

The plan was for me to lead a two-day training, followed by monthly coaching calls over twelve months led by our program director, Eve Baer. I had already learned from working with my staff that the training, while providing essential knowledge and tools, was theoretical until people actually had to apply it in the field. It was 20 percent of what they needed to be successful. The other 80 percent came through learning by doing with real-time follow-up coaching.

Based on my past experience, I was confident the behavior-change aspect of the program would be successful. I was hopeful that if the local water issue was understood, the program's community-building would provide the extra edge needed to get people to participate. But most important we needed to build the competency of these local government and watershed organizations to lead this program effectively. This would be our first test in transferring this capability to external change agents.


These three efforts were successful by both the standards of the communities implementing them and by ours. They achieved the behavior-change and recruitment results they wanted, and we transferred this social technology so that it was theirs to use permanently. Because of the unique local nature and relevance of water issues, they were able to achieve a remarkable 40 percent participation rate through the neighbor-to-neighbor outreach process. Participating households averaged 10 water stewardship actions each and achieved impressive water usage savings of 44 percent, or 20,000 gallons per year per participant.

The accomplishment and satisfaction of the program participants and their civic partners were gratifying for everyone involved. "My neighbors responded very enthusiastically to the invitation to join a Water Stewardship EcoTeam," said team leader Katie Watters, "and were ready to move into action immediately." And so they did. Not only did team members take significant protection and conservation measures, but they also held a cleanup of the alley behind their own house one weekend. Like most teams, this one rated getting to know one another better very highly.

Aileen Winquist, an environmental planner for the Department of Environmental Services in Arlington County and an organizing partner in the program, was particularly excited about having a means to track exactly what changes people made in their lifestyles, and to estimate the pollution reduction that resulted from those changes. And after struggling for years to develop an effective way to motivate citizens to change the behaviors that pollute their beautiful river, John Tippet of Friends of the Rappahannock was delighted and relieved to find "a tool that really works."


This decade-long quest had been an extremely gratifying journey. We had learned how to achieve and promote environmentally sustainable lifestyles so vital to our planet's well-being; further a new social compact between a city and its citizens as partners in social change; and shift neighborhoods from residential isolation to genuine community, often for the very first time. I had also learned, on a more personal level, about the process of developing a social innovation and the path of the social entrepreneur.

But perhaps the most important learning, certainly from the point of view of social change, was cracking the code of an essential factor for second-order change. We had learned how to achieve measurable behavior change in people's lives on the street where they lived - the epicenter for social change.

Join me next month for a new series in which I will apply these learnings to helping citizens reduce their carbon footprint and offer a strategy to scale it up community-wide.

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