"Green" civic organizers achieve success on local project to improve water quality, Part II

Last spring, a team of high school students at St. Bernard’s Catholic School used Public Achievement to identify a community problem they cared about (environmental damage), narrow it down to a discrete issue (water pollution), and then develop and implement a plan for making change (building a rain garden at their school).

They had a lot to learn – what is a rain garden? who makes decisions about the school grounds? – and faced significant but not insurmountable challenges (educating and convincing decision-makers, sustaining the project through changes in team membership, communicating with contacts outside the school, making their work sustainable, and funding).

rain garden.jpg

They were coached by Nichole Eck, a student in the University of Minnesota Leadership Minor program, and worked with a group of young professionals interested in the environment who came together through an initiative of the Citizens League. Early on, the team made an ally in Ryan Johnson, a landscaper with the Capitol Region Watershed District, who educated them about rain gardens and steered them toward a grant that would fund installation of the garden. Johnson also came to the school to make a presentation on rain gardens, which provided credibility for the team’s work.

It took the students longer to achieve their goal than they expected, and it was hard work. Although they were “officially" done with the project in May and no longer earning school credit, the team came back in September to install the garden. They spent a good part of one weekend excavating a basin and laying down landscaping cloth, and on a chilly Saturday morning a few weeks later, they determinedly put dozens of plants in the ground.

rain garden team.jpg Students Nick Benish, Syr Jones and Grant Genovese (left to right) pose with their teacher Jeff Maurer (in hat) and members of the Citizens League environment group. Another student member of the team, J.T. Conlin, is not shown.

There’s still more to do. They hope that a new Public Achievement team will create signage and organize an event to both celebrate the rain garden and educate the school and church community about its significance.

The team’s coach, Nichole Eck, says that she watched the students develop public confidence and a sense of their power. “They didn’t realize that they could actually influence authority figures in their school. Once they figured that out, they took off with as much of the project as they could without me. They were meeting with people and making changes happen. They were always well-prepared for meetings with the administration and I think that built their confidence for every meeting after that. It was nice to watch them grow in that way, and I could tell they were actually looking forward to making this garden happen and being proud of it."

Listen to an interview about the project in its early stages, "Green" civic organizers achieve success on local project to improve water quality

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs