Communities of Practice and Climate Change
Communities of practice advance conversations on climate change.
Climate change poses an existential threat to the future of life on our planet. There is a pressing need for collective action to solve this problem. And in order for this to happen, climate science needs to be quickly and efficiently transmitted to policymakers and the public.
Recognizing this, in the last decade, a growing number of researchers have promoted the idea of "Communities of Practice" as a way to speed up the process by which scientific knowledge migrates into public dialogues and social actions. The term "Communities of Practice" (CoP) refers to a group of people with shared interests around a topic, who come together to learn from each other, and to collectively arrive at a better understanding of issues and problems connected to that topic. Wegner, Trayner, and De Laat (2011) define a CoP as "a learning partnership among people who find it useful to learn from and with each other about a particular domain." The "community" part of this concept refers to the shared identity that a group of people develop around a topic. The "practice" part has to do with how people's experiences can themselves be a learning resource—one that helps the CoP develop practical resources (like tools or ways of tackling problems) connected to their shared interest.
CoPs possess decided advantages over other kinds of learning collectives. Among other things, their peer-to-peer orientation has been shown to produce forms of social learning that lead to "innovation, elaboration, and discovery." With regard to climate change, research has demonstrated that CoPs constitute an effective means of helping different groups adapt to the threats and harms of a warming planet. This realization has fed growing calls for the deliberate creation of CoPs, whose work can help scientists forge better ties with government officials, business leaders, and other key stakeholders, leading to more productive climate mitigation and resilience efforts.
The National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation [NNOCCI]
In 2010, the New England Aquarium, in collaboration with FrameWorks Institute, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and Knology, laid the foundation for a new climate-focused CoP. Supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, the CoP is known as the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI), and its goal is to advance the conversation on climate change. Aiming to create a network of climate communicators, it is committed to providing training in evidence-based communications methods, and to developing the knowledge and techniques needed to promote a more creative, solutions-focused national discourse around climate change. Its members believe that through collaboration and community building, they can empower audiences to act on climate science.
During the first few years of its existence, NNOCCI rapidly grew into a self-governing network of individuals and organizations in formal and informal education, the social sciences, climate sciences, and public policy. Committed to learning about the latest findings in climate science, oceanography, and the social sciences, and to applying these findings to their own contexts, the CoP's members shared their experiences and knowledge with each other, while also coming together to formulate more effective strategies for engaging the public and promoting climate action.
NNOCCI's initial efforts focused on zoos, aquariums, nature centers, and parks. After creating a group of climate science interpreters in these institutions, in 2016, the CoP prioritized three areas for expansion:
- Community-based organizational partnerships with cultural institutions that had NNOCCI-trained leadership
- Youth programming as a unique domain for climate communications action
- The role of NNOCCI-trained communicators in bilateral partnerships with other climate empowerment groups
In service of these growth goals, in 2017, NNOCCI secured funding for four different projects:
- Communities Advancing Science Literacy (CASL), a National Science Foundation-funded planning project (Fall 2017 – Fall 2020)
- Community Partnership for Resilience (CPR), an Environmental Protection Agency funded pilot project (Fall 2017 – Fall 2020)
- Civic Leadership for Issues in Science and Society (CYCLIST), an Institute of Museum and Library Services funded project (Fall 2017 – 2022)
- Promoting Education through Action for Conservation of Habitats (PEACH), a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Environmental Leadership Grant (Fall 2017 – Fall 2019)
Each of these projects have facilitated the expansion of the CoP. By 2018, the community represented more than 184 institutions in 38 states. Its members are all equal partners in NNOCCI, and as they share their experiences with the community, they also benefit from the support, scaffolding, and resources that this sharing provides. By 2022, more than 40,000 individuals had received training in evidence-based climate communication methods developed by the CoP.
The Role of Informal Science Learning Centers
A particular focus of NNOCCI has been to understand the role that informal science learning centers (ISLCs) can play in promoting climate mitigation and resilience efforts. Examples of ISLCs include museums, zoos, and aquariums, and a key goal of NNOCCI is to examine how these centers can help develop the kinds of community-oriented partnerships needed to promote climate resilience. In other words, each project sought to discover how ISLCs can help advance community STEM literacies via informal learning programs.
Two particular questions that all of the above projects have sought to answer are:
- What do climate resilience partnerships require to be successful?
- How do institutions play a critical role in climate resilience and literacy?
To address these questions, CASL brought together aquariums and local civic action groups to support under-resourced communities in places at high risk of climate-related disasters. PEACH sought to increase awareness of environmental issues and knowledge of local habitats by building up a partnership between cultural organizations and volunteers in and around Boston. CYCLIST brought together seven ISLCs to advance youth civic engagement with climate change work. CPR fostered a partnership between schools, community groups, and local governments in coastal communities vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Key Findings and Outcomes
Each of the four projects succeeded in developing CoPs among their varied participants. Through partnerships with local associations and governments, ISLCs brought together a wide range of stakeholders and interested parties. As a partner in the PEACH project noted, the resultant CoPs constituted a "strong force for convening [a] region's environmental groups." Moreover, each project showed that the CoP model can be an incredibly effective way to promote broad-based, community-wide climate change action.
Benefits for Community Members
Working in collaboration with each other, CoP members were able to reach a much broader audience, and expanded their capacities for promoting community-based climate action. By pooling resources and utilizing each other's communication channels, they succeeded in reducing barriers to volunteerism—particularly among youth, along with people in low-income communities, immigrant communities, and communities of color.
Both the CPR and CYCLIST projects focused on the first of these groups. CPR aimed to advance youth-driven climate work in at-risk coastal communities. The project engaged students by encouraging them to collect stories about climate change from community members. Members of the CoP observed that this activity made students more concerned about climate change, and more knowledgeable about its varied impacts. The CYCLIST project also sought to advance youth civic engagement on environmental issues, and participants regarded this CoP as an excellent forum for experimenting with new models of civic engagement—including those facilitated connections across localities and between generations. By contributing to various forms of advocacy work, youth became more engaged in a variety of topics connected to climate change, including the production of sustainable foods and the conservation of native species.
PEACH also succeeded in creating an expanded volunteer base for climate action. Seeking to engage community members in citizen science efforts tied to the goal of habitat restoration, PEACH attracted a diverse group of volunteers, who acquired new knowledge (for example, tree identification and shorebird monitoring) and developed new skills in responding to local environmental concerns (for example, techniques of native seed gathering). Volunteers unanimously agreed that their participation gave them new knowledge about local ecosystems and taught them how to better care for their local habitats. This resulted in the creation of a community-based culture of conservation, one that effectively spread awareness of climate change's impact on local habitats and ecosystems.
Benefits for ISLCs
Community members were not the only beneficiaries of these four projects. In bringing new voices into the climate conversation, each CoP helped ISLCs deepen connections with the communities they serve, while also promoting cross-cultural competence. ISLC members involved with the CASL project reflected on how their CoP helped them get to know partners with different environmental values and priorities than their own, and highlighted how this challenged them to (as one staff member put it) "consider that we could be an active participant in a conversation rather than a facilitator of information." By listening to community needs and being receptive to community perspectives, CASL participants were often encouraged to rethink many basic environmental concepts—for example, the idea of resilience. Speaking to this, one ISLC staff member explained how they came to realize that resilience can mean "staying safe and helping out in the community," adding that "to be resilient…we need to work as a community."
As this suggests, one the chief advantages of the CoP approach is that it can help diversify the climate conversation, and ensure that environmental justice work reflects the needs and perspectives of community members. As this work proceeded, CoP members learned about the broader social, economic, and political problems that intersect with and amplify the harms, risks, and dangers associated with climate change, and also became conversant with a wide array of techniques and strategies for remedying these problems. For example, through the work of the CYCLIST CoP, participants came to realize that the climate change movement actually consists of a number of different movements—many of which are tied to environmental racism and other more systemic concerns.
Reflecting on this, ISLCs gained an opportunity to consider how power imbalances and asymmetries were impacting their partnerships with local community groups. Many realized that building community capacity means not only listening to local residents, but also empowering them to be part of decision-making processes. Drawing attention to this, an ISLC involved with the CYCLIST project commented on how participation in this CoP helped them realize that instead of simply "making programs for youth," they should be supporting programs "driven by youth." Along similar lines, participants in the CPR project discovered that the best way to achieve their goals was to "prioritize student ownership and exploration" of climate-related projects. Those involved with PEACH likewise found that encouraging volunteers to take on leadership roles helped them "gain a sense of agency," and concluded that the optimal way to further climate action was to move toward a "democratic model of shared work for shared outcomes."
More than anything else, this was the key lesson learned through all of these four projects. In order to seed community-wide climate change resilience and mitigation efforts, ISLCs must use the CoP model in ways that encourage democratic deliberative processes from the outset. If they do so, they can play an incredibly powerful role in advancing the climate change conversation, and in promoting effective and successful climate justice work.
Let's Put it to Work!
Our work with NNOCCI shows that if ISLCs are to successfully promote community-based climate action, they must prioritize the following:
- Allocating time for relationship-building
Instead of seeing themselves as facilitators of information, ISLCs should regard community members as active change agents, and seek to build relationships that prioritize the needs, concerns, and experiences of local residents;
- Developing shared definitions of key terms and concepts
Instead of assuming that concepts like "resilience" and "environmental justice" have fixed, pre-defined meanings, ISCLs should actively engage community members, and build shared understandings of key terms that reflect their perspectives;
- Situating community aspirations as a context for STEM learning
Instead of creating educational content based on preconceived understandings of what local communities need, ISLCs should actively listen to people in these communities, and allow their voices to shape both the aims and content of STEM-focused learning projects and programs;
- Fostering deliberative, democratic decision-making processes
Instead of operating in a hierarchical, top-down manner, ISLCs should be open and receptive to community perspectives, soliciting input from local groups and residents and using this as a guide for planning collaborative projects;
- Committing to transparency and equity in funding
Instead of assuming that information about funding sources is unimportant, ISLCs should actively share this with project partners and community members, and seek out financial support from organizations with a vested interest in addressing local needs and concerns.
These materials were produced as part of a larger research initiative in partnership with the members of the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, made possible in part through funding from a National Science Foundation grant (#DUE 1239775), and the NNOCCI support team at the New England Aquarium.
Photo by Li-An Lim at Unsplash