Originally posted in autumn 2006 by Sara (study visit participant)
In September 2006 Look East, in partnership with ‘WestDEN Environmental Network and ‘Youth and Environment Europe,’ coordinated a study visit for 17 young people from Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Sweden, Turkey, and Portugal.
It is a sunny September afternoon in Dartmoor National Park in south western England. Diana Lee from Westden has spent half a day showing us what kind of activities they use for bringing children closer to nature. There are games to attract all senses – to experience nature by tasting, touching, smelling, watching and listening. Diana is teaching us the games by making us try them ourselves. Now she’s handing out small pocket mirrors, one to each of us, telling us to hold the mirror horizontally under an eye and try to walk while peeling into the mirror. It’s amazing, feels like flying! Jumping from cloud to cloud, walking through the branches of the trees.
We are 17 participants from all over Europe and beyond. Most of us are active in member organisations of the ‘Youth and Environment Europe’ network, but there’s also Natasha from Baikal Environmental Wave in Siberia, and Tugba and Ugur from Local Agenda 21 Youth Councils in Turkey. The main organiser of the visit is Katy Harris from Look East in the UK, who is also a board member of YEE. She has been assisted by Stephanie Ward, another Look East member, in realizing the project that was born as an idea during the annual meeting of YEE just over a year ago. The aim of the study visit is to make us, young people interested sustainable development, come together and see examples of projects for sustainability carried out locally in the UK. During a week we are visiting organisations and people in both rural and urban parts of England, to get inspiration and learn from them, and also to share experiences among each other.
Westden stands for West Devon Environmental Network and is the first stop on our visit. They work closely with the community to help improve the quality of life and environment. Except from the children activities they organise lectures and discussions about environmental issues for the public. We attended one about climate change and its possible future effects on the local area. Another example is their Getting There project, which has scooters available for loan to young people who need transport to reach work. As a first impression it might appear strange that an environmental organisation promotes travelling with motor driven vehicles, but as always it’s important to see the project in relation to its specific local context. Westden is active in isolated rural areas where there are no other transport options. If youth here didn’t have access to scooters they would be dependent on parents driving them wherever they want to go, or they would become totally disconnected from social life. Westden offers them a better option.
The next day we went to Plymouth University, to meet up with professors and people involved in the Centre for Sustainable Futures, aiming at making the whole university more sustainable in depth. We had an interesting discussion on sustainability and the importance of breaking the academic bubble and to combine theory with action. In Plymouth we also got to see the touring outdoor exhibition Earth from the Air, and then had a picnic lunch before we proceeded to a guided educational tour in the National Aquarium.
Another day we visited Proper Job, a community co-operative and recycling centre close to Chagford, with the objective to increase public awareness of the need to conserve resources and reduce waste. Proper Job takes in green waste that people bring from their gardens, compost it, screen it into different grades of nutritious compost, from which some is used for their own organic gardening and the rest is put in bags and sold to the public. In addition to this they take care of all kinds of stuff that people want to get rid of but don’t want to throw. Things that can be re-used as they are, like old clothes, books and half full tins with left over paint, are sold in small second hand shops at the centre. Other things like plastic and metal items are recycled.
In Bristol we spent a full day at the CREATE Centre, where different environmental organisations rent an office. Centre for Sustainable Energy is one of them, and Louise Rutterford presented their work. Sheryl from CSE’s Education Team talked about their projects with schools, and we had the opportunity to try to make a propeller spin with the help of solar cells. Mark from Bristol’s Sustainable City Council Team gave us the political perspective on sustainability work, especially how Local Agenda 21 in the UK is now being replaced by Sustainable Community Strategies. The CREATE Centre itself was introduced to us by Philip Tomlinson, who also guided us around in the exhibition part of the building and showed us the Ecohome – a purpose-built show house full of ideas for sustainable living and building.
Our last day was spent at St Werburghs City Farm in Bristol, where visitors can experience countryside life right in the heart of the city. Two members of Bristol City Permaculture Group showed us around and offered a motivating and engaging workshop on working with communities. The venue for the workshop had a dry outdoor toilet and no electricity – conditions that appeared just normal and ordinary to participants from many countries, but that is far from usual for city kids from Britain. In the afternoon we were supposed to do some practical farm work followed by a barbeque outdoors, but the rain made us change our plans. Instead we went to the local English pub for dinner, which soon turned into an international party with singing, dancing and tasting exotic delicacies that participants had brought with them from home.
As always when travelling with an international group of committed people, we had so much to learn from each other. On the first day we all presented our organisations and what kind of projects we are involved in at home. During the week we developed a great group spirit, with the help of team building activities facilitated by the youth hostel staff in Okehampton, and by changing roommates when we moved from one place to another. All through the week there was a perfect balance of scheduled activities and free time in the program, so we also had time to reflect, talk about and compare our impressions. For the new YEE board there was an opportunity to have a board meeting in person one evening. Overall it was a very successful week, with new friends, contacts and fascinating learning experiences. I’m sure that we all returned home with lots of inspiration, enthusiasm and new project ideas in our heads.