Interview with Saul
Executive director Saul Weisberg was interviewed by Clearing Magazine editor Larry Beutler. Here is an excerpt from that conversation, an apt reflection on the Institute’s values and its accomplishments.
Larry Beutler: You’ve been executive director of North Cascades Institute since co-founding it in 1986. What changes have you seen in environmental education?
Saul Weisberg: I’ve seen a big increase in the extent and rigor with which it’s pursued. Outdoor education, adventure programs and conservation education have blended and cross-pollinated each other. Now we see meaningful discussion of issues of social and economic justice, worker’s rights and sustainability – environmental education is a powerful force in bringing educators, environmentalists and the business community together.
LB: How has the North Cascades Institute adapted to those changes?
SW: We pay attention to the world as it changes around us. We listen to the scientists, watch trends in public land management, learn from discussions by writers and bloggers. What do we need to pay attention to now so we’ll be better prepared to serve tomorrow?
LB: How did the economic recession of the past couple of years affect the Institute?
SW: Early in 2009, public schools were really worried about funding and we had a number of schools pull out of spring programs. Our leadership team met weekly, looking at trends, refocusing priorities and keeping close watch on our budget. We didn’t fill a couple of positions and had to pull back in some other areas to focus on youth programs. And, we had a two-week unpaid furlough for all staff. The result of all this was that we ended the year strongly – in the black, with several new initiatives successfully launched, and with a stronger staff and programs than when we began.
LB: Tell me about some of those new initiatives. What are people excited about these days?
SW: Our new summer programs for high school students are some of the most exciting and rewarding work we’ve ever done. For example, last summer we brought 20 kids from around the U.S. to the North Cascades to study climate change. Then they went home to do field projects with their local schools. We took them to Washington, D.C. for a week to meet government officials and share what they learned. It was very, very powerful. This year, we’ve expanded the program to include more kids, but all from Washington and Oregon. Working closer to home will reduce the carbon footprint of the program and allow us to stay in touch with our students over time, too.
LB: Are you seeing evidence of climate change in the North Cascades?
SW: The North Cascades have more glaciers than any area in the U.S. outside of Alaska and they are dramatically shrinking. Mountains that I climbed 30 years ago now show rock where there used to be ice. We’ve developed programs to focus attention on the challenge of climate change, and how human communities will need to adapt.
LB: What do you think the future holds for non-formal education programs like yours?
SW: A recent editorial in Nature pointed out that much of what people know about science is learned informally through time spent in the field, at nature centers, museums, zoos and aquaria. It goes on to say that education policy-makers should take note. People learn best through deep, intimate experiences in nature. That’s exactly how we teach.
LB: What gives you the most pleasure in your role as executive director?
SW: Working with people. Making a difference. Seeing people get turned on by something they learn at one of our programs. Bringing in a big grant. Getting a clean audit. Hanging out at the Learning Center at Diablo Lake on a spring evening with a glass of wine, watching peregrine falcons soaring along the cliffs.
LB: Who are your environmental heroes?
SW: Everyone who is looking at birds and bugs and flowers, teaching kids, and challenging themselves and each other to get busy and save the world. We’ve all got to pull together.
LB: Are you optimistic about the future?
SW: I’m not optimistic, but I am hopeful. I believe that we can change the world, save the world. There’s a quote by E.B. White that I really like. “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” I think most of us understand what he was talking about. In my mind, a good day is when we can do both – savor the world and save it, too. I like to think that’s our job.
Copyright 2010 Clearing Magazine: http://www.clearingmagazine.org