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SHEA Acts: Highschoolers in Shanghai connect to make an eco difference

17 July was not any ordinary day for high school eco groups in Shanghai, China.

During an eight-hour Environmental Summit, around 50 students from seven local high schools gathered for cheerful team-building exercises, intense brainstorming on campus environmental problems and interactive keynote speeches by leading professionals from different sectors. The summit was conceived and organised by an independent student body, the Shanghai Highschoolers’ Eco Association (SHEA), the first group of its kind in the country. SHEA, founded by a local highschooler in December 2015, recognises the need for “bottom-up” campus actions and seeks to empower young people by building a platform for communication and collaboration among students, school officials, eco businesses, the media and the government.

“Raising awareness is essential. But we realise that, to deliver impact, we need to learn to work with decision-makers and specialists. If SHEA can help student eco groups grow, then high schoolers as a whole may have more say in campus environmental issues. More say. More action. That is our mission,” explains Enya Zhang, a rising senior and the founder of SHEA. “We were thinking of an ‘eco groups unite’ thing. I was leading my school’s Eco-school program. We set in place three very popular events and wanted to share our experience and resources with other schools. Then we found that communication between high school eco groups was extremely limited. There are many high school eco groups in Shanghai, but we rarely know what’s up with what teams in what schools, even though the campus environmental issues we face are largely the same.”

CampusLOVE: Highschoolers design artistic recycling bins to encourage sustainable practices. Photo: SHEA

Enya received funding and free workshpace for SHEA from an international idea challenge launched by the Center For Future Global Leaders. Like minds found each other. Within months SHEA formed an executive board made up of five schools, began connecting 17 student eco groups and had completed its pilot project CampusLOVE. This project (fondly known among SHEA members as “recycling installations with a touch of art”) aims to introduce a fun, easy recycling process to all member schools. SHEA also secured a long-term partnership with Mushroom Cloud, the second largest makerspace in Shanghai.

This February in Washington, DC, at a seminar on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Enya had the honour to hear Fumiko Kasuga, the Director of Future Earth’s Global Hub in Japan, talk about the organisation’s outreach initiatives. SHEA has since drawn many insights about building new platforms from Future Earth’s Open Network Design Document and the Future Earth Blog. Among the insights was the Summit idea, and the purpose was for students to strengthen and go beyond “mutual aid.”

Twenty-two SHEA volunteers contributed to the preparation of this very first city-wide convening of campus sustainability forces. The Summit, under the theme of “Look Around,” encouraged students to take greater notice of campus environment, identify issues and devise solutions that may actually happen.

In the morning workshop, student participants from different schools grouped by their interests. Each group then received a campus issue that SHEA had earlier collected via field research. The groups had two hours to develop an action plan and a presentation about addressing these issues. To simulate real life situations, the organiser announced every half-hour “Opportunities,” such as  free flower seeds from a local florist, or “Challenges,” such as low school budget, boosting intensity throughout the workshop. In the afternoon, the students were joined by two keynote speakers and three special guests: the chief editor of a leading eco magazine, a social entrepreneur in community recycling, a representative of a community foundation, director of an education group and a public speaking coach. The speakers and guests also sat for the presentation of the action plans, giving generous praises and kind guidance. 

It was fun, and more. Participants certainly rediscovered their campuses from the perspective of environmental conservation. They also bit into the complexity of eco action, identifying interested parties, collaborating with them or, in some cases, circumventing them. Most importantly, perhaps, participants found their powerhouse from within: care, determination and the teenager’s imagination. They came up with ideas for student-led on-campus hearings to settle a greening issue, an Amazing Race in the city’s biggest botanic park to raise awareness… all the innovative solutions they didn’t know they could make happen!

The summit has continued to inspire. SHEA formed a special task force to follow up on the pest control plan worked out at the summit. It has recently brought government attention to a real pest crisis in Shanghai’s Zhangjiang area and built initial collaboration to test out eco-friendly pest management methods at an affected school. The summit volunteers decided to continue on for the upcoming “SHEA Acts” Challenge, a Shanghai-wide competition to select and support long-term projects that tackle campus-specific environmental problems. They even served a vegetarian salad at the summit to resonate with the themes discussed. “And the ‘Veggie for a change’ work lunch proved diet-changing for some!” rising sophomore and volunteer Daohan Ni happily reported.

“To our surprise, inviting keynote speakers has met with little difficulty,” Enya shared. “The professionals are really pleased with increasing campus initiatives and loved to help. On the taking side of good will and expertise, we’re very grateful.” The summit guests will continue to bond with SHEA through the “SHEA Acts” challenge by mentoring student projects or providing resources.

There is recognised distance between awareness and action. There is immense power in the student population. SHEA started off trying to engage more high school students in action. Along the way, it learned to collaborate across eco sectors. Adopting “SHEA Acts, We Connect” as its slogan, SHEA will continue to promote student involvement in eco decision making and in transformational efforts.