Guest article: Meet People Where They Are
Carra Santos is a sustainable futures educator and interpreter, combining a Masters degree in Sustainable Development in Practice with a twenty-year career in the creative industries. She works closely with industry leaders, educators and advisors, sparking discussions about what lies ahead and why it matters – then working together to shape a thriving future for all. Carra is a Design Council Expert and fellow of the RSA.
Meet People Where They Are
Back in the olden days, I was an ESL teacher in London. I loved that job.
I taught English to people from all over the world; South Korea, Brazil, Poland, Ukraine, Argentina, Turkey. Teachers, surgeons, carpenters, barbers, dentists, entrepreneurs – bright, skilled, hard-working experts in their own fields.
Level 1, Day 1: not a word of English among them.
Well, that ruled out English as a starting point. Instead, it was all smiling, gesturing, rhyming, drawing, explaining things in different ways, until the very last person in the class ‘got’ it, and we could all move on together.
So anytime I hear anyone say “if we just keep telling people the facts about how vital the environment/climate action/degrowth is to our survival, they’ll eventually understand”, I think of them.
It’s easy to forget that sustainability is a whole new language for many. It’s a subject we’ve never been expected to learn before. But these days it’s mandatory for business leaders, just as English was for my students; critical to their confidence, acceptance and livelihoods moving forward.
Unbelievably, business leaders are still not hearing sustainability language in everyday life and work. Not the marketing reports where sales uplift remains the measure of success; not the building proposals where the emphasis is on carbon reduction alone; not the business meetings where a range of alternative business models are unconsidered.
So if we use sustainability language from the get-go to talk to people who have never heard it before, we’ll get increasingly frustrated. ‘Why do they not understand??’ we say. ‘We repeat the words over and over again – nothing’s working!’.
But the simple strategy of repeating words in the expectation that people will eventually ‘get it’ – regardless of their knowledge, values, priorities and concerns in their everyday life – is the equivalent of me teaching my class by repeating English words more loudly. It wouldn’t have worked. Eventually, they’d just have stopped listening, and I’d look a bit deranged.
Knowing something is not the same as being able to communicate it. Education is imagination, interpretation, storytelling and engagement. To be effective, you meet people where they are, using examples that make sense to them, in a language they’re familiar with, at a level where they feel safe, seen and heard.
As sustainability researchers and practitioners we know our own topics and are naturally most comfortable in our own language. But this isn’t about us. So our next-level challenge is to improve our communication skills too.
That means simple language. No such thing as a stupid question. Losing the big words and foreboding tones, and finding the creative ways to bring a sustainable future to life, based on what energises and uplifts people most.
It may not be the speedy one-size-fits-all we wish it could be, but it needs to be done. And the quicker we do it, the quicker we can all move forward together – shaping a sustainable future that inspires, where no one’s left behind.
Carra is a Sustainable Futures Educator & Interpreter for Industry Leaders, Educators & Advisors and works primarily remotely for an international clientele, while based between London and Bristol/Bath, UK.