Like NAEE, the North American Association of Environmental Education [NAAEE] is 50 years old this year. This is how Judy Braus, NAAEE Executive Director and NAEE Fellow sets out the background to its beginnings:

This year is a special one for NAAEE: It’s our 50th Anniversary.  We’re excited to celebrate this milestone with you and to use it as a time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s a wonderful opportunity to feel pride in our work and to toast our accomplishments, while also thinking about why what we do matters and how our work can be more transformational as we look ahead to the next decade and beyond.

NAAEE’s seeds were planted by a small group of community college educators in 1971, a time of world-changing environmental awareness in the United States and across the globe. EPA and NOAA had just been created, and groups like the Friends of the Everglades and the Natural Resources Defense Council were also emerging. The 1970s also saw the first Earth Day, with teach-ins and demonstrations to protect our air, water, and the nature we all depend on.  Limits to Growth, published by the Club of Rome, sparked debate over a new concept of sustainable development. Internationally, the UN Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden, and the UN Environment Program (UNEP) was established to tackle the recommendations that came out of it. And in 1977, the Tbilisi Conference would shape the field of environmental education for decades to come.

As we reflect on our history, it is clear that the issues we’re dealing with have become more complex, global, and intersectional. The world has changed, and so have we. We have become increasingly intentional about working across sectors, across geographies, across disciplines, and across socio-economic boundaries. What started as a movement mostly focused on protecting the environment has become a more diverse, multi-cultural movement to enhance not just the natural world, but humanity itself by addressing the connections between nature loss, systemic racism, climate change, poverty, and other wicked societal issues. We have also seen exponential growth in research-based evidence that environmental education, coupled with good science and policy, can lift up learners of all ages, including vulnerable populations who consistently suffer the brunt of environmental degradation.

After a year of dealing with a global pandemic and a worldwide racial reckoning, we have an unprecedented opportunity to think more deeply about how we can revolutionize our education systems. As Justin Dillon, the President of the National EE Association of the UK says, “We need to seize the moment and advocate for a total rethink of what we teach, why we teach, and how we teach. It is as simple and as complicated as that.”

The good news is that we’re already seeing innovation in EE, including more learner-centered strategies. We are focusing on nature and the community as vital to our post-COVID strategies, promoting civic engagement in a more deliberate way, understanding the importance of reaching our earliest learners, and integrating environmental justice into environmental education so that we can honestly discuss our histories, as uncomfortable as that can be, to help transform our work.

We have much to celebrate, from guidelines on effective practice that were created by and for the field, to new actions propelled by young leaders. We’re also finding innovative ways to build stronger communities by encouraging community-centered solutions and partnering with groups working on equity, inclusion, and justice, such as the Center for Diversity and the Environment, led by Queta González.

Throughout the year, we will be reflecting and celebrating with special webinars, social media campaigns, and stories from many of you. A fundraising effort will also ensure that we can provide more scholarships and support for our field going forward. We hope you will visit our 50th Anniversary website to find out more and keep checking back as we continue to add content.

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