By Asia Thomas and Wilma Goldstein                                               

On Monday, December 6, 2021 three Southwest organizations came together virtually to co-host an event designed to move people toward action on climate change. Members of Waterfront Village, our local aging-in-place organization, and the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly’s Aging in Style Task Force, along with a delegation of students from Richard Wright Public Charter High School for Journalism and Media Arts and their advisor, Helen Compton-Harris, met and participated in an exercise to promote a climate action roadmap. The exercise was led by Dr. Mick Smyer and his colleague, Laurie Winakur.

After working for more than 20 years as a psychologist specializing in gerontology, including university teaching and administrative assignments, Smyer retired and founded Growing-Greener.org to pursue his passionate interest in climate change. Understanding that people become overwhelmed by the magnitude of climate change, he set about creating a simpler way to participate in the solutions. He started at the Stanford Design School, researching the use of psychology and design strategies to move people from anxiety to action. He also used guidelines from the National Academy of Sciences on communication for children that would keep the exercises short, social and simple. Laurie Winakur, a resident of Alexandria, Virginia, joined Growing Greener to manage technology and exercise results.

After first trying the exercises on older adults, Smyer realized they would work with any age group. Growing-Greener has now run climate change workshops for over ten thousand people of all ages in the U.S., Australia, the Netherlands, Ireland and Austria. In each, all attendees receive a deck of cards with a single thing they might do and sort them into one of three piles: 1. “Things I Already Do,” 2. “Things I Could Do,” or 3. “No Way,” meaning, will not or cannot. At the end of each workshop, participants leave with a custom-made action plan based on their own choices. The hard part is over, and they can now see how breaking down a complicated and frustrating set of challenges can facilitate solutions.

Smyer said he had long wanted to combine older and younger participants in conversations with each other, to learn where there were differences and similarities. As a result, 12 participants from Richard Wright Public Charter High School for Journalism and Media Arts and 11 from Waterfront Village and the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly’s Aging in Style Task Force with a strong shared interest in the environment, came together to participate in the climate change exercise. 

Many results from the groups were similar, and participants from all three groups said they were presently taking steps that are beneficial to reduce global warming. All of the adults said they were already practicing recycling, facilitated by neighborhood recycling stations. Seventy-eight percent of the students said they recycle and the remaining 22% who do not were evenly split between saying that they could or think they soon will. All three groups also agreed it is beneficial to use LED lights and public transportation to reduce carbon footprint. Those few who did not avail themselves of either had no strong negative feelings about these options.

There were some issues on which there were differing opinions between the age groups.  Eighty-nine percent of the students had participated in climate change demonstrations, while 40% of the seniors chose a “No Way” card on that particular matter. 

Among issues that generated similarly strong feelings from both age groups were drying clothes outdoors, with over 40% of each group saying “No Way.” This may be understandable for several reasons: there aren’t a lot of spaces in urban settings that allow for hanging clothing out to dry, nor is the air particularly clean there, and it definitely takes longer than using a clothes dryer. All of the participants said they already had engaged in discussions on climate with family and friends. Results varied on whether or not they would or had planted trees, although there was some feeling that more of it might happen if they collaborated.

The exercise included sharing data on climate change from the Institute of Politics at Harvard from an ongoing series of research done regularly with young adults between the ages of 19 and 29. The study was done on a variety of issues, but included several questions on climate change. This age cohort sees climate issues as a threat to their future and affirms the thesis put forward by Dr. Smyer and his colleague Laurie Winakur that breaking the issue down into manageable parts and exposing people to individual choices they can make in their own lives is a workable approach and a reason for hope. 

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