Rotterdam is succeeding in getting a broad cross section of inhabitants involved in environmental measures. What is the key to its success? I put this question to Mimi Slauerhoff, who developed the Environment Coach course for the Rotterdam Environment Centre and who has trained a considerable number of environment coaches (350) since 2011. The first thing she said was: ‘We go to the people!’ I believe that is the heart of the matter: going to the people. You can reach those people in places which, in the process of dealing with low literacy, we have begun referring to as ‘sites’. This approach has also proven very effective in motivating residents to take environmental measures.
Photo: Karin Oppelland andTom Pilzecker
Mimi explained further: ‘We go to the mosque, the Cape Verdean club, women’s groups. Once we start talking to the chairperson, they are almost always interested in getting involved. Naturally, our initiatives are geared to their needs in terms of the locations and times which are most convenient for them. Recruitment takes place largely through existing community networks. They get in touch with key players in their community to ask whether they would like to take part. In this way, we have attracted many people who do not normally tend to get involved in fighting climate change or protecting the environment. Saving energy turns out to be a simple vehicle for motivating people to take action.’
During the course, the future environment coaches learn over the course of four evenings how they can save energy themselves and take action at home to increase sustainability. They also learn how they can provide information on the subject to small groups of people in their own community. At the end, the participants receive a certificate with which they can then get to work in their own community: on their own street, the parents’ room at school, during the Festival of Sacrifice or in discussions with fellow tenants. In doing so, the environment coaches make use of ‘environment points’. These are large cupboards in places which are usually very busy, such as community centres, libraries and residents’ groups. These cupboards contain all kinds of materials that can be used to save energy, a recent energy savings matrix and a quiz. Incidentally, the information provision has been put on hold for the time being because of the coronavirus pandemic.
These quotes from course participants speak for themselves:
- ‘I no longer use any bleach and, in the evening, I only turn on the lights as needed!’
- ‘There is nothing pitiful about using second-hand items – it’s practical and hip, and so is bartering!’
- ‘If I hadn’t taken part in this course, I’d never have known how to economise at home. I always used to set the thermostat at the same temperature, day and night.’
- ‘I’m now sharing everything I learned during the course with others. The residents of at least six homes are now thinking about the environment more than before and I want to increase that number further.’
Despite being captured a few years back, this clip still offers a good impression of the course. It seems to me that with the Environment Coach course, the Rotterdam Environment Centre has a powerful export product at its disposal!
I asked Mimi Slauerhoff to tell me a bit more about the Rotterdam approach:
‘We recently trained seven trainers who are well-connected in their community and will go on to train environment coaches in turn. These trainers can choose from a range of information and materials, depending on the group they will be working with. This also includes the new course booklet, which contains drawings that guide you through your home and let you evaluate it from an energy-saving perspective. The drawings work really well, both for those who do not have a good command of the Dutch language and for the better-educated participants. The first thing the trainers do is make sure that everyone feels welcome and at ease. That is why all course participants are given the opportunity during the first meeting to speak about themselves personally. We ask what they want to learn and pay attention to the composition of groups, since the course is about changing behaviour (saving energy), and changing your habits is that little bit easier when you do it together by emulating each other’s behaviour. We use various learning methods. Part of each session is devoted to content. For more than half of the remaining time, we leave the talking to the course participants themselves or let them work on group assignments. We also give them homework assignments, so that they can learn how to use the materials to provide information to others. For the last session, we invite someone to talk about other environment initiatives being implemented in the community, as the participants often have a desire to do more. The certificate ceremony is held at a nice location and there is always a great party atmosphere.’
Finally, Mimi tells me about a lovely added benefit that the course has had: ‘People who wouldn’t normally come into contact each other meet each other in our course, at which point a lot of the differences between people disappear. I’ve noticed that this enhances the feeling of togetherness and motivation. That’s so empowering!’
You could almost compare the information sessions given by the environment coaches to the familiar Tupperware parties: they invite a group of seven or eight acquaintances (or acquaintances of acquaintances) and inform them in an accessible manner about how to save energy at home.
The Rotterdam Environment Centre keeps in touch with the environment coaches through social media, newsletters and websites such as de groene agenda and opZuinig. Moreover, environment coaches can keep their knowledge up to date by participating in the Energy Café, a kind of refresher day with workshops which takes place twice a year.