Library directors and managers, colleagues have been assuring me recently, play a critical role in the success or failure of workplace learning and performance programs in the organizations they oversee. It goes beyond supporting and approving budgets: if they show an advocate’s interest in what is happening through training programs, check with their colleagues and their staff to see what effect those programs are having, and actually participate in learning opportunities offered within their organizations, they are setting a standard which encourages effective learning and the development of communities of learners.
It was no surprise to me, then, that these comments came to mind repeatedly when I was lucky enough to attend the awards ceremony for the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize recipients here in San Francisco last night. The awards honor people who, by the act of living and acting on their beliefs in spite of significant challenges, time constraints, and, occasionally, threats of incarceration and death, train the rest of us to believe that we, too, can make a difference.
The usual high profile environmental activists were there: Al Gore and Robert Redford provided opening comments which (globally) warmed up the crowd and reminded all of us that we have a role to play. Singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman provided entertainment by singing one of her own songs (“Talkin’ Bout A Revolution”) and doing a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”—“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
But the real stars and trainers were those being honored, including Maria Gunnoe. From her home in the heart of Appalachia, in West Virginia, she stood up against the removal of mountaintops to expedite coal mining because the byproducts of that process are creating toxic wastes which are destroying the area where her family has lived for more than a century. Although neighbors were afraid to testify, she did, and a court ruling halted one particularly damaging mountaintop removal project which was affecting her property. The joy all of us in the audience felt as she accepted her award was tempered by the image of the tall cyclone fence which was constructed around her house and the news that she needed around-the-clock security protection to counter the threats she was receiving while she carried on her fight.
Then there were Wanze Eduards and Hugo Jabini, who successfully organized entire communities in the Saramaka lands in Suriname (within the Amazonian forests) to halt destructive logging. And Yuyun Ismawati, who helped implement community-based safe and sustainable waste management programs in Indonesian communities through her organization, Bali Fokus. And Olga Speranskaya, a Russian scientist whose community-based efforts have become a model worldwide for efforts to encourage the clean-up of toxic waste sites. And Syeda Rizwana Hasan, an environmental attorney in Bangladesh whose efforts successfully stopped toxin-laden ships from being allowed to be brought up on beaches in her country so the wrecks could be broken into scrap—a process called “ship breaking”—to be resold while the waste polluted the beaches. And, finally, Marc Ona Essangui, a wheelchair-using activist whose successful efforts to stop a massive government-approved mining project in Gabon’s Ivindo National Park (in west central Africa) led to his arrest and detention for several days earlier this year.
Each one of them received standing ovations from those of us who were there to hear their acceptance speeches. Hundreds of us joined them at a post-event reception in their honor to shake their hands and thank them for reminding us that significant effects begin with the efforts of individuals. And at least a few of us, in thinking about what we can do in our own lives to make a difference within the communities we serve, were reminded that some of the most effective training comes from those who live the lessons the rest of us still need to learn and follow.