You have heard it said, “Every little bit counts”.

In a world facing extinction, one needing transformational change not just a tinkering at the edges, it’s understandable that we may feel our small efforts are meaningless. In the greater scheme of things does it matter if we give up eating meat – even if only on Mondays – or that we stop using bottled water?  In the face of the massive global challenge presented by climate change, environmental destruction and growing inequality, we may be justified in questioning whether our small, local efforts make any difference at all.

Did we move the needle in the direction of positive change and make a meaningful difference in 2018? This is the perennial question we consider as an organisation when reviewing the activities and “accounts” – both financial and non-financial – at the end of a year. This year has been no different.

For me, however, answering the question for our work over 2018/2019 has demanded a lot more introspection and analysis. In part that has been because I have a sense of frustration at not having been able to achieve as much as I had hoped for; a strong sense of failure in not having met the full extent of the goals I personally had set – for myself and for the Trust.

On the face of it, and even substantively to be sure, we have undoubtedly made progress in our work this past year.  We have expanded our programme offerings and partnerships to engage more educators and youth from around the world in the past year and most importantly, have seen the mindset change this has catalysed in the amazing and creative initiatives that have been started and led by participants in the programme.  We have produced an interesting reflection on the story of Royal Bafokeng Nation, reminding ourselves of the many routes there are to take to build resilience and demonstrate sustainability intelligence and leadership. And we have grown the network and the communications we have with those working towards similar goals with our newsletters, social media and great new websites.

So with all that, why should I be feeling so dissatisfied at not having done enough, at not having managed to persuade, convince, engage and scale to the extent that we both want and need to, in order to progress at speed the change in mindset, awareness, knowledge and behaviour that is vital for a faster transition to a more sustainable, equitable and hopeful future.  

In my frustration and sense of failure at not having achieved enough, I have reminded myself of the 24 young people who participated in our first deep immersion journey at the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in July last year.  This group of future leaders – who reflected such diversity and who participated with such wholeheartedness – had a significant, and by all accounts, transformational experience on the programme. They were truly humbled by the realisation of their (our) very small place in the universe and deeply saddened at the damage and havoc we have nevertheless managed to cause despite it.  Each and every one of them experienced and learned things they had never had the opportunity to, and each came to appreciate our place in the circle of life, the systems of nature and the feedback loops we participate in. To the last, their visions for action, their sense of purpose were inspiring, creative, well thought-through and, above all, bold.

When it came to the execution, however, more than half of them stumbled, seemingly unable to make any progress towards their goal. This catalysed for us a review of what they had each hoped to achieve through their projects, what our expectations of them had been and more especially of what more they may have needed to prepare and support them in taking effective action.  

Without fail, all of them had a clear vision of what they wanted to do.  Some of these were HUGE visions at a national or global scale. Others were more humble – but no less meaningful – locally embedded actions within the communities in which they lived – and in which their connectedness and direct sphere of influence were stronger and more established. It was these projects that progressed, that achieved and completed important steps in the journey towards their goal, reminding us that, although climate change is a global problem, climate action is a local solution.

In discussion with those youth who struggled to make a start, we reviewed the strategy of how to eat an elephant and we had them reassess what – even small – actions they could take within their daily lives and school environments that would move them towards fulfilling their particular sense of why.  We arrived at a range of little things they could undertake – having a conversation with a friend about what they had learned, talking about what different routines and habits they had changed to make a difference, sharing a Facebook post that has meaning for them, changing behaviour patterns they had come to appreciate were environment-depleting.  Each of these seemingly small actions but completing them could give a sense of mastery, of action competence, of contribution.

What did we learn for our own programmes from these conversations, observations, reflection of the different outcomes and achievements of youth in the Grootbos programme?  We learned three things:

  • Firstly, we appreciated again how valuable the immersion programme was, in and of itself; how it served to develop a deep connection, appreciation and understanding of the natural world and its interconnectedness with social, cultural and economic systems. There is nothing more valuable than exposure to the natural world to encourage a deep sense-making of the principles of sustainability and balance in a living system.  Whilst we appreciate that there is a relatively high cost to providing this kind of experience, we equally believe that there has and will continue to be a cost to not having it. We remain committed to finding a way to ensure our youth can have access to these kinds of experiences as a core part of their learning process.
  • Secondly, we confirmed for ourselves that if we were going to add an expectation for youth to undertake social action projects as part of developing their action competence and putting their new knowledge and understanding of sustainability principles into practice, we would have to find a way to provide better ongoing support, engagement, mentorship and deeper knowledge at multiple levels. Having an appointed mentor from their school or community, someone who was unable to really commit the time and attention to support their project implementation, was not sufficient.  We had to do more. We had to live the principles of sustainability by considering what to start, what to stop, what to change. Adaptability, agility, flexibility and the willingness to change, learn, unlearn, relearn are as important as resilience and it has been useful to remember that.
  • Lastly, we were reminded that there is an urgency to this work, to make sure that youth are adequately prepared to confront, address and direct a course towards change of, and for, the future.  We cannot continue to teach the irrelevant to the disinterested, leaving young people ill-equipped for jobs and lifestyles that will no longer exist in a world facing extinction. Education and learning, at all ages and stages of life, has to become more relevant, more flexible more able to rapidly adapt to emerging needs of the immediate present and a rapidly changing future.  We have to do whatever we can to drive and support radical transformation – in policy and in practice – to achieve a sea-change in our education system.

Personally, I have grappled now with the same sense of failure that some of our Grootbos youth experienced. I have experienced the feeling of not having been able to reach more, accomplish more, by multiples, than we have. I have had to stare down the confidence-sapping doubt that such feelings of failure bring, and I have had to call forth all my resources for resilience: my commitment, my stubborn determination and my passion for doing all that I can to make a change for as many people as I can.

And then I am kindly reminded that progression happens with little big steps. That something as little as sitting on the steps of Parliament once a month on a Friday can inspire millions and ignite a movement.

Little things added together make big things. They really do.

I want to thank my trustees of the Impact Trust for their unique and specific contributions over the past year.  I especially want to thank Mike Freedman, not only as chair, but as someone who has been a mentor and advisor over many years now and who has reminded me that it is necessary to stand back from time to time and see the road travelled not just the road ahead, to have faith in your strategy, and to surround yourself with people who can give you perspective. It was he who reminded me that little big steps matter!

It is thanks to the donors and partners who have seen our vision, supported its realisation and worked with us to expand it further that we have been able to develop substantively stronger offerings and greater reach over the past year.  Their engagement in our ongoing process of, and commitment to continually review, reflect and refine what we do, to recognise what has worked and should be maintained and scaled, what hasn’t worked and should be changed and how to do that further is what helps us remain relevant to need and context,

A most special thanks to the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve and Grootbos Foundation for helping work to make our first immersion demonstrate its profound value potential.  We look forward to our future collaborations with them, with the Long Run group and with the Safari Collection hosting the first immersion in East Africa in November.

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