How We Started
The Whatcom Coalition for Environmental Education (WCEE) is a collaborative network of educators who came together with a shared purpose: to ensure every young person experiences the benefits of culturally-relevant environmental and sustainability education. The Coalition’s work occurs within the rich ecological and cultural contexts of Whatcom County, and is exercised with deep respect for the Lummi and Nooksack Peoples’ reciprocal relationships of care with the land, waters, and sky since time immemorial.
Our region’s unique ecosystems ranging from glacier, forest, farmland, tidal flats, and oceans, along with the first environmental college in the country at Western Washington University, contributed to the development of an extraordinary range of community-based environmental education programming available to students across the region. As these programs grew in size and number, providers saw the opportunity for aligned activities to better serve students.
In 2016, two convenings organized by the Whatcom Community Foundation brought together eleven environmental groups to advance the conversation towards a shared vision for school-based environmental education. Participants co-developed strategies to enhance student learning through a cooperative model and formed work groups to move forward with shared initiatives. A visualization of community connections from a 2016 gathering captured the opportunity:
Visualization of community connections from the June 2016 Convening hosted by the Whatcom Community Foundation
Collaboration is part of the character of place-based learning in Whatcom County because each program offers a unique perspective of the surrounding watersheds. When brought together, these diverse perspectives complement each other in powerful ways: Student-led food waste reduction projects teach about compost for school gardens, salmon enhancement on the Nooksack River links Snow School to a floating classroom on Bellingham Bay. Moreover, these programs serve the same students.
WCEE’s logo, a chord diagram illustrating the degree of overlap in schools served. The outer fragments represent WCEE organizations, and the size of the arcs demonstrate the number of shared schools (based on actual data from 2019).
By early 2019, opportunities remained to lower barriers to access, streamline program planning, and strengthen partnerships to enhance their collective impact. Inspired by momentum from previous years, an independent analysis and stakeholder inquiry identified the needs to establish neutral leadership and develop collaborative tools in order to sustain a comprehensive coordination effort. As a next step, facilitators from the local consulting firm Tandem Impact organized a Community of Practice for environmental and sustainability educators. The Community of Practice remains a platform for field building activities and equity-driven initiatives, and these meetings led to the organizations deciding to form a Coalition with the intention to grow its membership inclusively. WCEE formed as a program of the Whatcom Community Foundation, led by Tandem Impact, and co-designed by participating organizations.
By fostering relationships across organizations and with community stakeholders, WCEE grew to include every organization that provides outdoor and sustainability education programming to schools in Whatcom County. One of the first activities of the Coalition was to evaluate opportunities and gaps in the field. This revealed disparities across schools, districts, and grade bands, and sparked cross-sector dialogues to re-evaluate how partnerships are developed with schools.
Map of School Partnerships planned for the 2019/2020 School Year, illustrating disparities in program distribution across schools and grade-bands.
Achieving greater equity in programming and program distribution would require a coordinated approach from the grassroots to district leadership. In 2020, WCEE’s County-wide School Partnerships Convening brought together public, private, and tribal schools, non-profits, agencies, tribal institutions, businesses, and colleges from across Whatcom County. Together, participants established a county-wide vision and began work to develop and promote connected learning pathways for PreK-12 students organized at the district-level. This approach ensures every student at every grade is included, beginning with districts and student populations who can benefit most, and has the added benefits of, 1) streamlining the school partnership process, 2) enabling outdoor learning at scale, and 3) balanced and culturally relevant programming that connects across field experiences and over the course of a student’s academic career.
In its short history, WCEE organizations have exemplified the strength of networks during times of disruption, and catalyzed a movement of passionate teams of educators, working in partnership with teachers and community stakeholders, to build an equitable model of outdoor and sustainability education in our County. We are grateful for everyone who has contributed to this work and especially to young people at the center of our collective mission.