Celebrations, Mirror Neurons, and Learning: The Goldman Environmental Prize

April 19, 2012

Attending the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize awards ceremony in San Francisco earlier this week made me even more appreciative than I already was of the power positive examples play in our lives—a lesson not to be underplayed by anyone involved in training-teaching-learning.

When we think about the numerous ways in which we learn, we often overlook theories of how our brains acquire and retain knowledge—including the theory that mirror neurons (neurons that make us feel as if we are experiencing something we are observing) play a role in that learning process. There is little disagreement that we learn through experience, so the idea that we might also learn by feeling as if we had the same experience we observed someone else having is intriguing. And if mirror neurons really do produce this result, they were hard at work during the Goldman Environmental Prize awards ceremony as attendees heard the deeply moving stories of six individuals who, at great risk to themselves and their families, actively stood in opposition to actions that threatened the environmental health of the communities they call home.

There was Ikal Angelei, a Kenyan who has been fighting construction of a huge dam that “would block access to water for indigenous communities around Lake Turkana,” according to the program booklet distributed at the ceremony.

We also heard about—and from—Ma Jun, who,  through the nongovernmental agency he founded, “exposed over 90,000 air and water violations by local and multinational companies operating in China through an online database and pollution map, bringing unprecedented environmental transparency and empowering Chinese citizens to demand justice,”  we read in that same booklet.

And there was Sofía Gatica, an Argentinian woman who began looking into the cause for her three-day-old daughter’s death from kidney failure and, through her local efforts with an organization she cofounded, exposed the connection between “indiscriminate spraying of toxic agrochemicials in neighboring soy fields” and local cancer rates that were 41 times higher than the national average.

Evgenia Chirikova, the fourth of the Goldman award recipients, made our mirror neurons—or whatever makes us feel as if we were there—fire through the story of how she organized Russians to oppose construction of a highway that would have bisected the previously protected Khimki Forest.

Father Edwin Gariguez, a Catholic priest on Mindoro Island in the Philippines, was honored for his efforts to draw attention to a nickel mine that “was presenting a significant threat to the island’s water resources and tropical forests.” (An aside: it’s interesting, after hearing about the negative impact the project would have and about how “threats of violence and verbal harassment ensued,” to read how Intex Resources promotes the project that Father Gariguez was just honored for opposing.)

We pretty much completed our global tour of environmental activists by hearing about Caroline Cannon’s efforts to halt oil and gas leases that were under consideration in the Arctic Ocean, near Point Hope, along Alaska’s north coast.

But this was not just an armchair travel session nor an opportunity to sit back and admire others who do things we might not ever dream of doing. By watching beautifully produced videos documenting their efforts and hearing each of them speak briefly, we were drawn into the shared experience of what it means to respond to something significant in our lives. And whether our responses come from mirror neurons firing or some other form of empathy kicking in, we all walk away having learned something about how to be much stronger in our responses to the challenges we face. Much more connected to our local, regional, national, and international communities. And cognizant of how the smallest events in our lives can move us to engage in actions we might not otherwise have considered.

Leading and Training by Living: The Goldman Environmental Prize Winners (2009)

June 2, 2009


Library directors and managers, colleagues have been assuring me recently, play a critical role in the success or failure of workplace learning and performance programs in the organizations they oversee. It goes beyond supporting and approving budgets: if they show an advocate’s interest in what is happening through training programs, check with their colleagues and their staff to see what effect those programs are having, and actually participate in learning opportunities offered within their organizations, they are setting a standard which encourages effective learning and the development of communities of learners.

It was no surprise to me, then, that these comments came to mind repeatedly when I was lucky enough to attend the awards ceremony for the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize recipients here in San Francisco last night. The awards honor people who, by the act of living and acting on their beliefs in spite of significant challenges, time constraints, and, occasionally, threats of incarceration and death, train the rest of us to believe that we, too, can make a difference.

The usual high profile environmental activists were there: Al Gore and Robert Redford provided opening comments which (globally) warmed up the crowd and reminded all of us that we have a role to play. Singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman provided entertainment by singing one of her own songs (“Talkin’ Bout A Revolution”) and doing a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”—“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

But the real stars and trainers were those being honored, including Maria Gunnoe. From her home in the heart of Appalachia, in West Virginia, she stood up against the removal of mountaintops to expedite coal mining because the byproducts of that process are creating toxic wastes which are destroying the area where her family has lived for more than a century. Although neighbors were afraid to testify, she did, and a court ruling halted one particularly damaging mountaintop removal project which was affecting her property. The joy all of us in the audience felt as she accepted her award was tempered by the image of the tall cyclone fence which was constructed around her house and the news that she needed  around-the-clock security protection to counter the threats she was receiving while she carried on her fight.

Then there were Wanze Eduards and Hugo Jabini, who successfully organized entire communities in the Saramaka lands in Suriname (within the Amazonian forests) to halt destructive logging. And Yuyun Ismawati, who helped implement community-based safe and sustainable waste management programs in Indonesian communities through her organization, Bali Fokus. And Olga Speranskaya, a Russian scientist whose community-based efforts have become a model worldwide for efforts to encourage the clean-up of toxic waste sites. And Syeda Rizwana Hasan, an environmental attorney in Bangladesh whose efforts successfully stopped toxin-laden ships from being allowed to be brought up on beaches in her country so the wrecks could be broken into scrap—a process called “ship breaking”—to be resold while the waste polluted the beaches. And, finally, Marc Ona Essangui, a wheelchair-using activist whose successful efforts to stop a massive government-approved mining project in Gabon’s Ivindo National Park (in west central Africa) led to his arrest and detention for several days earlier this year.

Each one of them received standing ovations from those of us who were there to hear their acceptance speeches. Hundreds of us joined them at a post-event reception in their honor to shake their hands and thank them for reminding us that significant effects begin with the efforts of individuals. And at least a few of us, in thinking about what we can do in our own lives to make a difference within the communities we serve, were reminded that some of the most effective training comes from those who live the lessons the rest of us still need to learn and follow.

This item was originally posted on April 23, 2009 on CE Buzz at http://cebuzz.wordpress.com/.

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