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Meeting Locally, Acting Globally

December 12, 2009
by Timothy Lesle

One day last July, an unlikely pair stood ankle-deep in the upper reaches of Strawberry Creek. Titi, a lawyer from Nigeria, and Hernán, a geologist from Colombia were on either side of a small pool, sloshing around in rubber boots. “Keep going!” said Titi, holding a net just downstream of Hernán, who shuffled his feet in order to “disturb the substrate,” as the post-doc leading the exercise put it. The commotion kicked up silt and leaf litter, along with scores of tiny aquatic creatures that were carried by the current into Titi’s net. The two then took their catch to a table where a group comprising Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and Middle Easterners gathered to sort insects and examine them under a microscope.

This workshop on water quality and bio-monitoring was just one of many in the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program (ELP). Every summer the Center for Sustainable Resource Development in the College of Natural Resources hosts the three week certification course on campus. Students are a variety of professionals from around the globe who do environmental work in sectors ranging from nonprofit groups to government agencies, academic institutions to businesses. They attend a three-week certificate course on campus. Development economist Robin Marsh co-directs ELP with David Zilberman, a professor of agricultural and resource economics. Marsh said the kind of interdisciplinary training going on in Strawberry Creek (lawyers doing stream monitoring, geologists dabbling in entomology, etc.) is one of the program’s many benefits. “I like that they feel more confident to handle the problems they face,” she said.

Since its inception in 2001, the program has evolved to meet the demands of its participants. Marsh noted an increased shift toward urban issues and away from topics like agriculture and forestry. Sessions on leadership and collaborative processes—what Marsh calls the “cross-cutting skills”—have grown so popular that they now take up about a third of the workshop.

During one leadership seminar last summer, the students spent hours discussing a role-playing game based on a real-life scenario in Uganda, involving farmers, a power company, local entrepreneurs, and environmental activists, all coping with a new government directive limiting agriculture in order to reduce erosion. Susan Carpenter, a veteran mediator and trainer and one of two ELP leadership instructors, suggested that someone leading such a meeting would do well to encourage participants to convey their needs and concerns, rather than simply state their positions. Needs and concerns can be addressed directly, she pointed out, while positions tend to be intractable.

The students had their own needs and concerns. A Georgian asked how to make space for leadership when a hierarchy dominates. A Ugandan wildlife officer pointed out that some people attend meetings with the sole intention of disrupting them. A Latin American participant pointedly asked whether George W. Bush qualified as a leader, prompting a brief digression on the contrasting styles of Obama and Bush.

After three weeks of 10-hour days, living in dorm-like housing together, and sharing most meals, ELP students form bonds and friendships that often lead to continued collaborations. Kim Kieser is a South African who heads up an organization dedicated to restoring waterways and promoting social entrepreneurship. After completing the ELP course, she said, she planned to expand her program’s international efforts and would tap into the expertise of fellow ELP alumni from Kenya, Nepal, and Indonesia to do so.

In the years since Dick ’68 and Carolyn ’67 Beahrs provided the seed money to start the program, the ELP has developed a network of 342 alumni from more than 70 countries. A 2008 outside evaluation of the program stated that, “As more and more ELP alumni exist in various countries, increased opportunities arise to improve the country’s capacity to develop, support, and sustain environmental leaders.” The report went on to say that the partnerships in which the university and its faculty are involved help expand Berkeley’s “relevance and moral standing in the world.”

Marsh still sees room for improvement. For one thing, she’d like to see more private-sector participation, particularly from corporate multinationals and extractive industries like mining and oil. The last workshop had one Chevron employee in attendance—a woman involved in the company’s community outreach efforts.

Marsh and her colleagues are also considering adding a fourth week to the workshop, and looking to partner with foreign institutions to create regional versions of ELP. One such effort is well underway in Russia, with the help of Svetlana Chernikova, a 2003 ELP alum who studies self-organization and sustainable development. She and her colleagues at Saint Petersburg State University have already trained 130 people from seven countries in the last five years, using a version of the ELP curriculum adapted for Russian speakers. “It’s not usual work for us,” Chernikova says in thickly accented English. “In Russia, scientists work like scientists. It’s enough for them. It’s not so usual for universities to deal with communities and NGOs…. But we understand that it is very important to have this connection.”

Timothy Lesle, M.J. ’09, is a frequent contributor to California magazine.
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