By William Yagatich
Through surveys and interviews with participants of the WSAs in Maryland, we found the Master Watershed Steward program mobilizes volunteers for a number of reasons (you can find a more detailed breakdown of the demographics of the WSAs we surveyed and interviewed here in our whitepaper here). This training program enables participants to become knowledgeable about issues of watershed health and how to address those issues, as well as how to network in their own local communities to educate their friends and neighbors. In turn, it fulfils the desire of some volunteers to take a more hands-on approach to watershed stewardship. At the end of the initial survey, we asked, “Briefly, why did you join the Watershed Stewards Academy?” One respondent submitted an answer that paralleled most other’s where they wrote:
“I've been interested in environmental issues since high school and feel that working small scale, on a sub-watershed basis, may ultimately be more effective in reversing the decline of the Bay and its [tributaries] than all the government programs that are so slow to evolve. I love working outside with plants and was impressed with the commitment and goals of the WSA, so I decided to join so that I could work under the umbrella of that organization.”
In our findings about mobilization in the WSAs, which are based in data collected through the interviews with participants, we find these sentiments to be echoed again and again: respondents felt they needed the training in order to learn exactly what threatens the health of their watersheds and what they could do about it. For some, their motivation was very personal, and they felt that the training would give them the ability to address a problem they saw in their own backyard. Speaking of her own community, specifically of a problem with high levels of bacteria in recreational waterways, a participant from the Anne Arundel county WSA said, “…Initially I wanted to understand what was happening and if there was any way that I could help. I doubted if I could do anything or contribute anything valuable, so my goal was to learn and then to put any of what I learned to use.” During the training and after, participants would go to their communities and apply what they learned.
During their training and after receiving their certifications, participants apply what they learn by engaging with members of their communities projects to address storm water runoff (installing rain barrels, rain gardens, etc.) and by doing educational outreach projects. As one respondent detailed, what Master Watershed Stewards did and where they did it mattered: doing the projects was not enough, but rather it was just as important to engage and encourage members of their community to follow their example. For instance, this respondent decided to install rain gardens on his own property because many of his neighbors walked by his property. While he was working with other volunteers installing the rain garden, he had the opportunity to talk to members of his community about what he was doing and encourage them to follow suit. According to another respondent of the Anne Arundel county WSA, the result of the program is that stewards:
“…[H]ave a lot of people that really, really care. And they’re in the middle of communities, and they’re talking and really having a conversation, and no other organization does that. No one’s had that kind of impact that they can motivate people.”
All of this works to address an issue that many respondents reported as their primary motivation to join the WSAs in the first place: the opportunity to take a hands-on approach to addressing environmental issues. This is an important point, as it encourages a grassroots approach to environmental stewardship and affords participants a means of civic and political participation beyond donating to an organization. Continuing the conversation above, this respondent lamented that when it comes to other local environmental groups, donating money did not lead to meaningful engagement. While describing donating to another watershed group, he said that the leader of the group:
“[G]ets a bunch of donations and he’ll do a project or two and pay himself a salary and pay a couple of staff people and helpers, but all you are is a donor with that organization and you don’t get any leverage when your organization is just the people that are working as part of the organization. And in our watershed we’re dying a death by a thousand cuts, it’s no good to have a little organization bandaging up cut by cut. You need a thousand people working at the same time.”
Beyond simply understanding what threatens the health of the watershed and the steps one can take to improve its health, the act of organizing, engaging, networking, and working is what appeals to volunteer stewards in the WSAs. The WSAs provide volunteers with the sense of making a difference and the tools to lead their communities in making a difference. The opportunity to learn, to network, and to participate in a grassroots movement of environmental stewardship are the reasons the WSAs are successful in mobilizing participants.
William Yagatich is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Sociology and Graduate Fellow in the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland.