Ethical challenge 1: eliciting civil behaviors from quarrelsome opponents
Certain ethical questions emerged as the students increased their level of public political activism. No one publicly questioned the students’ right to have a voice in the political process, but some townspeople in positions of power did try to discourage them from taking legislative action, and tried to downplay the importance of what “youngsters” might have to say. As advisors to the young activists, Burke and Collins felt a responsibility to help the students learn how to deal with naysayers and adults who might downplay their standing as civic actors.
For example, one instance where we as the adult advisors had to make the difficult decision to cross the line from supporter and coach to that of defender, was during a meeting with an official town board. One of the board members, the acting director for that evening, clearly did not support the students’ petition. This person began a series of aggressive questions focused on obscure and non-pertinent details of the petitions. The club members answered each of these to the best of their abilities, but if the students did not have a full or detailed answer, the board member became more aggressive and challenging, even going so far as to tell one student harshly, “Don’t look to your teacher for help.” After several minutes of this behavior, we made the decision to intervene, because when an educational experience threatens to harm a student in any manner, be it physical or emotional, we have an ethical and professional responsibility to intercede. Collins respectfully and firmly demanded that the board member either ask a direct question of the students or let them go home for the evening. The situation was defused at that point and the students were allowed to leave the meeting shortly afterward. This experience left the students who were present somewhat shaken, but by weathering it they became more unflinching in pursuit of their cause.
Ethical challenge 2: what is the teacher’s role in experiential learning?
A strong reason for our decision to stay behind the scenes was grounded in our philosophy of good teaching. Our combined years of experience teaching high school students has led us to a firm belief in the power of experiential learning. Although at intervals during the project, the students read plastics research and heard advice from experts, perhaps the best teacher was the actual experience of standing in front of an auditorium full of adults, presenting and defending findings, facts, and opinions. Just as a coach cannot run a race for an athlete, or a parent cannot take a math exam for a child, we felt that club advisors cannot and should not try to script the voices of student-activists. It was their journey. We chose to let them hold the reins, rather than trying to superimpose a more adult perspective on their presentations.
In this process, we observed their growth as presenters and the tremendous sense of efficacy and accomplishment they developed.
Each time they spoke in public or answered questions from the press, they became more sure of their answers, more confident in their own individual environmental ethics and value systems. We soon realized that they had no need of adult voices to speak for them. Had we spoken, it would have diminished the exhilaration of realizing that they had the power within them, and the ability to use it to effect change. It is important to consider the role of the teacher, guide, or coach in experiential learning, and to make conscious decisions about when to let the experience itself be the teacher. A good teacher knows when it is time to step back and let the student become the master. We saw that the time had arrived.
Ethical challenge 3: communications with parents
At the high school level, frequent communication with parents is still key to young adults’ development. Parental permission is required when taking students on field trips or to public appearances or press interviews; we kept parents informed of the students’ mission and experiences, so they could provide needed support when students encountered unpleasantness in public forums. Keeping the environment safe for learning is the unequivocal responsibility of the teacher. Although we could not prevent other adults in public meetings from making deprecating comments, we made it our job to help the students become impervious to such uncivil behaviors, and to know how to parry the comments of naysayers with unemotional responses; and we stepped in to stop abusive treatment when necessary. In the end, keeping parents informed of these events was key to maintaining our good relationship with them. They were as proud as we were (probably more so) to see their children participating in the public arena.
Ethical challenge 4: conflict of interest restrictions for public school employees
Massachusetts conflict of interest law  places some limits on political action by public employees in certain situations. The law states that teachers may engage in private political activity using their own private resources, when acting for themselves and not as agents of, or representatives of the school. The limiting language states, however, “a public employee may not use his public position to engage in political activity,” (M.G.L.2011) since doing so might secure unwarranted privileges of substantial value not properly available to non-publicly employed persons. The law specifically applies this limit to issues involving town budget decisions, since the employee’s salary is part and parcel of this process.
Although the bottle and bag issues did not involve town budget, per se, in recent years our district has hewn to the position that within the school walls, public school employees should remain neutral on political issues. Teachers may teach about controversy and civic action, as long as they present balanced and nuanced arguments on many sides of an issue, and allow students to form opinions independently. The experiential learning involved in this student project did exactly that. The students began their journey with a narrow view of their mission (“environmental plastics should be outlawed”); they broadened their understandings with every group and individual they met along the way, and learned about the complex economic and social issues that also undergird environmental and political decisions.
The Environmental Club is from a public school funded entirely with taxpayer money; as such, some opponents of the plastic regulations might understandably claim that the school, a public institution, was prohibited from taking any position on political matters. Although the students did not speak for the institution, they did in a sense represent it, as their name indicates: the Lincoln-Sudbury Environmental Club. Burke and Collins walked a fine line in this matter: we were not residents of either Lincoln or Sudbury, thus we had no vote in Town Meetings, and could only speak if invited to do so by the Town Moderator. If we had lived in the town, we could have stated our individual opinions, as long as we did so as citizens, not as representatives of the school. As non-resident employees of the towns, we felt ethically obliged to take no public position on the students’ petition; yet as environmentalists and advisors to this group of intrepid young activists, we obviously had strong personal feelings about the righteous importance of their project.
To resolve this dilemma, we opted to keep our work with the students behind the scenes. We coached them as they practiced and honed their presentations at club meetings; we helped them plan their responses to naysayers and prepare for negative feedback; we scheduled their appearances at various board meetings--the Selectboards, the Boards of Health, and local law enforcement; we scheduled interviews when the press contacted the school for information on their project. We acted as coaches, administrative assistants, and at times, a line of defense against the incivility of some adult opponents.
Others who do environmental civic work with teenagers should try to foresee any ethical issues and plan for them. The ethical requirements for public employees will differ from those of private or non-governmental organizations, so the voice and actions of adult leaders may play out differently in each case.
Ethical challenges for academic researchers: science communication as a foundation for activism
(A scientist co-author’s perspective)
As a scientist researching ocean plastic pollution, a topic with tremendous public awareness and interest, I am frequently invited to share the latest science on ocean plastics with a variety of audiences. Often the invitation comes from a person or group that has already become aware of the problem and wants to learn more about the research underlying the current knowledge of its scale and scope. Although many high-level knowledge gaps exist about the sources, fate, exposure to and impacts of plastic debris in the marine environment, it has been widely argued that the available scientific information is sufficient to justify mitigation and/or prevention measures on local to global scales. Many audiences arrive with this starting assumption and, consequently, are especially interested in gaining a hopeful and reasonable answer to the question: “How are we going to solve this problem?” Further, in many instances, audience members are not simply passive receivers of information; rather, they are stakeholders who seek to engage actively in solution-making. As in many other problems of global sustainability, the collaboration between academic researchers and non-academic stakeholders, including the citizenry, is considered necessary to build a collective understanding of the problem as the basis to design and implement feasible actions to address it . In this vein, I am eager to engage with interested citizens and stakeholders to facilitate this exchange of information. Consequently, I was happy to accept the invitation to speak with the students of the Lincoln-Sudbury High School Environmental Club.
In a typical presentation on ocean plastic pollution I spend most of my time correcting common misconceptions of the problem (e.g., that so-called garbage patches are “floating landfills” or “islands of plastic”), and then presenting quantitative results from my research on the amount of plastics in the ocean and their distribution, as well as on others’ work about their impacts on wildlife. Throughout the presentation I discuss major outstanding knowledge gaps, and then often present an overview of strategies being pursued to solve the problem, taking care not to endorse or advocate for particular policy solutions. This approach stems from careful consideration of a scientist’s role in public engagement, as informed by Pielke Jr. , who lays out four models ranging from “The Pure Scientist” to “Issue Advocate”. Ultimately, Pielke argues, the role a scientist chooses is less important than an honest acknowledgment of that role in a given context, especially when the context is political in nature . In practice, as during my visit to Lincoln-Sudbury High School, I share my knowledge about policy actions at international levels (e.g., G7 Marine Litter Action Plan), at the US federal level (e.g., 2015 Microbead-Free Waters Act), and at municipal levels, including plastic bag bans. Finally, I share ideas about what individual citizens can do to help reduce plastic waste. In this context, I include myself in the category of “citizen” (who happens to have scientific expertise) and share the personal actions I take that include: carrying reusable containers; making purchasing decisions that reduce the use of plastic packaging; and, serving on my municipal Recycling Committee that, in 2017, supported local ordinances to charge a fee for all single-use retail bags and to ban the use of polystyrene foam in food service. By sharing the actions that I take in my own life to reduce plastic waste, including citizen engagement in local policymaking, my aim is to spur audience members to consider their own behaviors, while recognizing the fine line between leading by example and “stealth issue advocacy” . I don’t know that I always succeed in this goal, but I am pleased that after my visit the students at Lincoln-Sudbury High School became better educated about ocean plastic pollution and were motivated to pursue change in their local communities, not because they became passionate advocates (which they did), or because plastic bags and single-use plastic water bottles were banned (which they were), but because they became engaged citizens who saw their vision through to a successful outcome.