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How are leaders across the country stepping up to take action on climate change? In late 2017, ecoAmerica released Let’s Lead On Climate, a new guide that features nine success stories of initiatives by local organizations who are inspiring and engaging communities around them to make climate solutions a priority.

In the guide, you’ll hear from local health, faith, and community leaders who are promoting climate leadership and action. Each story offers an inside look at why these individuals and organizations decided to lead on climate, how they developed their programs and initiatives, and what it took to overcome challenges along the way. Over coming weeks, the ecoAmerica website will feature edited case studies from Let’s Lead to inspire you and stimulate ideas you can apply in your own profession, organization, and community.

This week’s case study is Health Students for a Healthy Climate (HSHC) at the University of Minnesota.

Health Students for a Healthy Climate pledge

Health Students for a Healthy Climate

Shanda Demorest, a cardiovascular nurse with the Allina Health system who also a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, first noticed a gap in engagement on climate and health while studying at the university herself. There she realized there were no groups or initiatives addressing the links between health and climate. Demorest took on this opportunity to form what is now the Health Students for a Healthy Climate (HSHC).

The challenge of being new on campus

Demorest’s excitement and preparation for the program was met with challenges. Difficulties arose in finding an appropriate way to engage across the political spectrum. The group contacted legislators and policy makers and urged them to take action on clean energy to safeguard health. “It’s been a challenge to do some of that work in a gentle and bipartisan way, in a way that’s not going to offend anyone, particularly those with whom we want to partner,” comments Demorest.

This led to another main hurdle— communication. Demorest explains, “We have struggled to answer the questions ‘How do we engage?’ ‘How do we re-engage?’ It’s easy for people to drop out of engagement when they have so many other things going on.” Demorest emphasizes the importance of creating a baseline structure to overcome challenges that surface during program formation. Retroactively collecting data points and providing the metrics to help gain support, funding, and legitimacy were difficult. But, as Demorest highlighted, “If you don’t have the base, it’s easy for things to crumble.”

“We’ve done a lot of work to frame our communications, education, and work in a way that is hopeful, that helps people think, ‘I can make a difference, and you can make a difference.’” –Shanda Demorest

Blazing the trail for health students

To overcome communication challenges, Demorest says her group relied on ecoAmerica’s communication materials to navigate difficult waters and inspire others. She also points out, “We’ve done a lot of work to frame our communications, education, and work in a way that is hopeful, that helps people think, ‘I can make a difference, and you can make a difference.’” In working from the ground up to form HSHC, communication was key, and designing a baseline for the group was also vital. Demorest and her classmates decided the best way to gain legitimacy and become better organized was to launch a survey. This survey evaluated health student perceptions about climate change and its impacts on human health, and solicited feedback on their current and prospective courses covering this topic.

Their results matched their expectations. Demorest says, “Our survey showed that students knew a little bit about climate change, and thought it was important and might have something to do with patient health, but were not getting climate curriculum content in any of their courses.” The next steps involved identifying the right people at the university to utilize the survey results and to infuse climate change into the health curriculum. Demorest framed the results of the survey as an opportunity to create this introductory course. She proposed a mockup of the curriculum to the university’s curriculum committee. This process enabled HSHC to implement the curriculum as part of an incoming course at the University of Minnesota that all health students now take. To date, the organization has engaged 1,000 incoming health students per year with the curriculum.

Recommendations

  • Stay organized
  • Reach out to solicit advice and help from decision makers, or those that can help build support, for your programs or initiative.
  • Host “lunch and learns” to engage key constituencies with program plans
  • Collaborate across disciplines for learning, leverage, and broader reach

 

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