By Katie Florian, SAEP Impact Centre

At SAEP, learning is central to the work we do. After all, it’s what educational organisations are all about. But one of the things we’ve discovered in our 20 years in the business, is that in order to deliver excellent services, as staff and volunteers, we need to be learning, too.

Enter: The Coffee Conversation. In short, Coffee Conversations are internal dialogues we host with our staff once a month – cups of joe provided, of course – about topics related to our work. These dialogues help us to improve our standards of practice across the organisation and share with one another what has worked in the field, and what hasn’t.

Last month (October), our topic was environmentalism and environmental education. Corlia Meyer, our Environmental Education Coordinator and Hope Scholars Administrator, facilitated the meeting and asked attendees to examine the environmental issues our beneficiaries face.

We generated an enormous amount of information, but here were our three big takeaways:

1. Overcrowding and improper infrastructure contribute to issues of sanitation and pollution in our beneficiaries’ communities.

South Africa is facing a housing crisis – that’s no secret, and despite initiatives that offer free or affordable housing, overcrowding persists.

During our Coffee Conversation, staff and volunteers cited overcrowding as a major issue that affects our beneficiaries. Resident Social Worker Buhle Gana argued that in underserved communities, like those in which our beneficiaries reside, overcrowding is common, with large families sharing one- or two-bedroom homes. “This then affects the quality of sanitation and hygiene,” she said, “which leads to a total disregard for the environment, as it’s just part of everyday life.”

Overcrowding can also affect children’s development and cause strain on the environment. With higher concentrations of people living in one area, air pollution and water pollution increase, and improper infrastructure and poor urban planning compound these issues. Built to serve fewer people, sanitation systems become overwhelmed, further polluting the natural environment and creating health hazards.

2. Modifying behaviour that is embedded in a community’s culture requires an emotional and experiential connection.

Changing behaviours that are embedded in the day-to-day lives and culture of a community can be incredibly difficult, and for many, being conscious of one’s environment isn’t considered a top priority. As an organisation that promotes environmentalism and environmental sustainability, we wanted to know how we could change that. Our answer?

Create connections.

Creating an emotional connection to a cause is a great way for others to become impassioned about it. During our discussion, Corlia argued that “creating an emotional connection with an environmental issue is the first step toward attitude change. When feelings are involved regarding a specific issue, an individual or a community is more likely to take action.”

But how do we create emotional connections? One thing we’ve learned at SAEP is that simply delivering information doesn’t always have the impact we hope. However, developing activities that allow our beneficiaries to experience for themselves the value of a particular issue creates a more lasting connection.

For instance, our Siyakhathala Primary Schools programme recently took a trip to Intaka Island in Century City, where they went for a nature walk, learned about medicinal plant uses, and took a boat road along the canals in South Africa’s only man-made wetland. Experiential activities like these resonate with learners long after they’ve returned home, and help to nurture their sense of curiosity and wonder.

3. Organisations should incorporate environmental values into organisational culture and programme planning.

It’s not enough to espouse values without embodying them yourself, which is why at SAEP, Environmental Responsibility is one of our six organisational values. We encourage our staff to take responsibility for the environment by conserving energy and recycling in the office.

But there’s more to be done. “As we look toward planning for 2016” says SAEP’s Monitoring and Evaluation Coordinator Sydney Shearer, “we will be ensuring that environmental education is a part of each of our programmes. By including it in our programmes’ Theories of Change, we can track the impact of these activities through each intervention level. This will help ensure that our beneficiaries are gaining a sense of environmental responsibility, which will follow them through their educational and professional careers.”