Merriam-Webster defines stewardship as the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.
In some religions, stewardship refers to people managing resources that they do not own, with giving (tithing) being a major component. In the environmental world, stewardship is closely linked and often synonymous with conservation, focusing on conserving natural resources and taking care of green spaces.
There are many different mainstream ‘champions of stewardship’ like Aldo Leopold, the Murie Family, Rachel Carson, etc., with their own perspectives and ideas for taking care of the land. There are countless organizations and nonprofits dedicated to the stewardship of green spaces, natural resources, and wilderness. However, in reflection, I’ve observed that the mainstream perspective on stewardship can be incomplete, with a priority on green places and plants over growing people.
I learned a truer, more complete definition and practice of stewardship almost four years ago, during the summer I spent as a trip leader for the North Cascades Youth Leadership Adventures program. During that program, we taught students how to be stewards of the natural spaces that public land management agencies strive to preserve. We taught them the importance of ethics like Leave No Trace, and embarked on several projects to maintain and improve the areas where we camped and backpacked. Together we scrubbed pit toilets, lopped overhanging branches, constructed trail turnpikes, and built tent pads. These projects had a profound effect on the students, who were being charged with the responsibility of taking care of the land and who could directly see the positive impact their work had on the area. They were practicing stewardship and seeing immediate results.
However, that summer I was profoundly affected by stewardship applied in a slightly different vein. In the eight or twelve days I spent out in North Cascades National Park with those students, I learned how important a good role model and a firm example can be for a teenager. I was entrusted in part with the care of teenagers who came from a menagerie of different ethnicities, households, and life situations. Yet they were all people, and all in situations similar to my past.
I strived to do for them the same things that other people had done for me. I tried my best to care, to give advice, to support, to see them for who they were, to laud their accomplishments and encourage them over their obstacles and times when they thought they had failed. The bonds that formed as a result of someone genuinely caring and investing in them over eight or twelve short days served as a clear reminder to me that people are in need of just that. A caring, concerned, genuine individual. That summer I was introduced to the stewardship of people.
Environmental education is often education about and stewardship of nature, and as our Urban Environmental Education program strives to broaden that picture, it is broadening what it means to be an educator and what it means to practice stewardship. In our practicum experiences, two of my classmates are reminders of the lessons I learned on Ross Lake about the stewardship of people.
Dre Anderson (left) and Julian Kane (right) are currently serving as mentors and instructors in the Seattle Urban League program called Project MISTER , a program dedicated to providing educational opportunities, support, guidance, and positive role models to “at-risk” young men in South Seattle high schools.
Neither Dre nor Julian come from a typical “environmental educator” background (both have a background in media, Julian a documentary filmmaker and Dre a ‘New Media Mogul’ with work in all types of media). When asked if he would define himself as a steward, Julian hesitates. “I’m not even completely sure what that word means,” he says. “I just believe that if I didn’t have someone to believe in me like I believe in them, that I wouldn’t be the man that I am.”
Says Dre, “I’m dedicated to working beside our youth to build self-efficacy via non-traditional avenues, to encourage students to engage their milieu (social environment), establish support networks, and make a plan that pulls their goals and dreams into reality. We engage in discussions concerning colleges, trades, and professions. We connect with the community and bring different business leaders into the classroom. I get to meet students right where they are and establish a relationship where we can help each other learn.”
Yet they are both practicing stewardship, no matter how far removed it may be from the words of Sand County Almanac, the REI backpack and tent of a camping trip, or the shovels and rakes of a park restoration project. They are both living examples of the stewardship of people, caring for and managing the growth of the youth entrusted to their care. This investment is the key, the catalyst that allows them to connect the youth to anything the world can offer, whether it be music, continued education, technology, stewardship of their communities, and even stewardship of the natural world and its resources.
This idea, this “stewardship of people”, is not just an attempt at a trendy phrase. It is an approach to education and community interaction that prioritizes people in an effort to be more complete in the way we approach the environment, whether that be in a classroom or the outdoors. So as we near the end of “Earth Month” and pay careful attention to our personal responsibility to the natural world, I challenge you to broaden your perspective and approach (in whatever you do) to remember the power of stewardship, the stewardship of people.
CJ Goulding is an alumni of the Urban Environmental Education program.