Ximena Abogabir Scott is implementing a new approach in the field of informal environmental education that will both enhance the effectiveness of the numerous organizations that are currently working in that field and stimulate urgently needed citizen participation in more general civic activities. Her initiative employs a well-planned and coordinated combination of new educational materials, training, networking and a publicity campaign.
The New Idea
Ximena Abogabir Scott is approaching her work in the field of informal environmental education in Chile in an unusually innovative way. Rather than working through a single organization, Abogabir has chosen to direct her energies to improving the effectiveness and impact of some 300 organizations already engaged in that field. And, unlike most "green activists," whose principal motivation is to prevent further environmental degradation, Abogabir views the environmental movement as a critically important catalytic instrument for engaging the country's citizenry more broadly in civic action.Drawing on a careful assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of existing environmental education efforts in Chile, Abogabir has designed and is deftly orchestrating a series of activities that will address their most pressing needs. She arms them with new materials, training, access to information and networking opportunities, thereby enhancing the visibility of their endeavors. In so doing, she is demonstrating that innovation consists not only of creating new mechanisms of social change but also of designing new methods for supporting the ideas and labors of existing mechanisms.From Abogabir's perspective, nonformal environmental education is the most promising vehicle, in the current Chilean setting, for promoting civic participation of a type that the country has not witnessed since the 1973 coup of General Pinochet. In her view, Chile's most pressing challenge is to find new formulae for resolving a variety of social, cultural and economic conflicts that neither governments nor the free market can effectively resolve. And, from her vantage point, each ecological crisis is "an opportunity to invent more harmonic forms of cohabitation, and to motivate people to learn how to act for the common good."
In Chile, traditional channels of participation–political parties, neighborhood associations, student federations and trade unions–continue to suffer from declining membership, even as the process of democratic consolidation moves forward. Chilean youth are especially disaffected and disengaged. Indeed, for many young Chileans, soccer clubs are their only channels for enthusiastic expression and collective action. Contemporary Chilean society is also characterized by a grave and troubling lack of consciousness and understanding of environmental problems. Once a picturesque capital city known for its striking mountainous backdrop, Santiago has become one of the world's most polluted cities, shrouded in a thick layer of smog. And little is being done in the formal school system to provide the intensive environmental education necessary to produce behavioral changes of sufficient scale to arrest a mounting tide of ecological destruction. Informal programs, sponsored by local and regional environmental organizations, and the activities of a handful of concerned university professors, have thus emerged as the principal vehicles for environmental education and for advocacy on behalf of needed environmental reforms. But their effectiveness has been hampered by inadequate methodologies, insufficient technical and financial assistance, lack of access to data and an absence of coordination, which has resulted in duplication of efforts and a constant reinvention of the wheel. Not surprisingly, therefore, recent surveys of the views of Chilean environmentalists and registered environmental groups have detected strong feelings of isolation, frustration and declining motivation. The country's principal environmental actors perceive their actions to be disconnected and powerless in the face of massive environmental degradation.
Abogabir is providing a much-needed antidote for the twin ills of declining civic participation and environmental neglect in an innovative informal environmental education strategy. Through a national appraisal project and a series of regional surveys, she has identified and contacted some 300 organizations that are engaged, in one way or another, in nonformal environmental education but are in dire need of redirection, renewed motivation and technical assistance. The strategy that she has devised is addressing those needs and enhancing the impact of promising ideas that existing institutions are generating, through a combination of four activities: the creation of new materials, training, networking and publicity. Abogabir has assigned responsibility for the development of new materials to a carefully selected team of experts. The team began its work with an intensive analysis of the regional environmental surveys that were jointly organized in 1993-94 by Abogabir's nonprofit organization, House of Peace, the National Commission on the Environment and UNICEF. The findings of that review are now being synthesized and documented, and, drawing on those findings, the team will produce, over a twelve month period, an illustrated technical assistance manual that will be distributed among the 300 organizations identified in the surveys. The manual will include the most innovative and effective methodologies that have been developed by environmental educators across the country, and it will also present and explain the experts' recommendations concerning the content of environmental education.Training for local environmental educators will be provided in a four-day workshop. In a carefully sequenced series of interactive seminars and group discussions, participants will explore various dimensions of the challenges they face and the tasks they are pursuing. They will also assess the strengths and weakness of ongoing projects and examine alternative strategies. At the workshop's close, participants will receive diplomas designating them "monitors in environmental education" and signed by appropriate officials of The National Commission on the Environment, the National Training and Employment Service and the Chilean Association of Municipalities. The decision to award a diploma responds to a widely detected need among informal environmental educators for self-validation and legitimization in their local communities. A bi-monthly bulletin, a computerized database and a series of audiovisual materials will be developed as vehicles for maintaining and motivating an active and informed network of environmental educators long after the workshop ends. Members of the informal environmental educators' network will be able to tap into the data bank for information on new methodologies, reports on international environmental actions and suggestions for potential funding sources. The proposed material's development, training and networking activities will be accompanied by a publicity initiative aimed at enhancing the public visibility of informal environmental educators and their work throughout Chile. Organized by a professional editorial/production team led by Abogabir, the campaign will provide members of the press with a continuing flow of news stories and profiles. In addition, the informal environmental educators network's editorial staff will generate its own publication documenting the local and regional activities of its members.
Abogabir's entrepreneurial traits were first noticed when her mother returned home one day to find her then four-year-old daughter planted on the sidewalk selling fruit that, only hours before, Mrs. Scott had painstakingly selected at the local supermarket. Years later, those same traits were manifested in Abogabir's work as a journalist and publicist in the service of press organizations and commercial and advertising firms.After fifteen years in the private sector, however, Abogabir decided that she could no longer tolerate what she describes as a "value contradiction" between her advertising activities and the world she aspired to leave to her children. She thus decided to abandon the commercial advertising arena and direct her energies to changing behavioral patterns with important social implications. Abogabir made the transition to social entrepreneurship via several environmental protection campaigns, which enabled her to capitalize on her strong communication and networking skills. As the coordinator of "Earth Day 1990" in Chile, Abogabir converted former clients into patrons, publicist friends into pro bono public relations managers and media colleagues into press agents. In a subsequent environmental campaign that she led, she elicited some 560,000 individual pledges to fight environmental contamination. And in leading an ongoing initiative, "Santiago, How Are We Doing?," which monitors cooperation among citizens, businesses and government, she is achieving similarly impressive results.Abogabir and House of Peace, the nonprofit organization that she directs, have received important honors and awards for their contributions to environmental education and advocacy. Abogabir was named "Distinguished Educator of the Year" by the Latin American Secretariat of Education, and the House of Peace has been designated an "Institutional Messenger of Peace" by the United Nations Secretary General.Whether designing advertising campaigns for business clients or overseeing publicity for the Dalai Lama's visit to Chile in 1992, Abogabir has consistently manifested exceptional strengths as a communicator, bridge builder and alliance generator. Drawing on her background in the private sector, she is a convincing advocate in meetings with business leaders. Her impressive record of service to social organizations and causes has earned her a place of prominence and respect in Chile's nonprofit sector. And her status as an environmental consultant to UNICEF and other overseas connections have given her growing visibility and access to the international stage.