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Let's Lead: New ecoAmerica Guide Features Health Professionals Leading the Way on Climate

By Tim Kelly
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Following on the success of our Let's Talk series of guides, ecoAmerica has released Let's Lead on Climate, a new guide featuring success stories from local health, faith, and community leaders who are promoting climate leadership and action. Each case study offers an inside look at why these individuals and organizations decided to lead on climate, how they developed their programs and initiatives, and what it took to overcome challenges along the way.  This week's Climate for Health blog features an excerpt from Let's Lead focusing on the first of our health leaders, Shanda Demorest and her organization Health Students for a Healthy Climate, who together are working to fill in the gaps on health professional engagement on climate and health.

Climate Campus: Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate, Featuring Shanda Demorest

Health students for a healthy climate

Shanda Demorest, a nurse from the Allina Health system, first noticed a gap in engagement on climate and health while studying at the University of Minnesota. There she noticed there were no groups or initiatives addressing the links between health and climate. Demorest took on this challenge and opportunity to form what is now the Health Students for a Healthy Climate (HSHC) at the University of Minnesota.

The challenge of being new on campus

Demorest’s excitement and preparation for the program was met with challenges. Difficulties arose in finding an appropriate way to engage across the political spectrum. The group contacted legislators and policy makers and urged them to take action on clean energy to a safeguard health. “But it’s been a challenge to do some of that work in a gentle and bipartisan way, in a way that’s not going to offend anyone, particularly those with whom we want to partner with,” comments Demorest.

Let’s Lead on Climate

This led to another main hurdle— communication. Demorest explains, “We have struggled to answer the questions ‘How do we engage?’ ‘How do we re-engage?’ It’s easy for people to drop out of engagement when they have so many other things going on.”

Demorest emphasizes the importance of creating a baseline structure to overcome challenges that surface during program formation. Retroactively collecting data points and providing the metrics to help gain support, funding, and legitimacy were difficult. But, as Demorest highlighted, “If you don’t have the base, it’s easy for things to crumble.”

“We’ve done a lot of work to frame our communications, education, and work in a way that is hopeful, that helps people think, ‘I can make a difference, and you can make a difference.”

Blazing the trail for health students

To overcome communication challenges, Demorest says her group relied on ecoAmerica’s communication materials to navigate difficult waters and inspire others. Demorest also points out, “We’ve done a lot of work to frame our communications, education, and work in a way that is hopeful, that helps people think, ‘I can make a difference, and you can make a difference.’” In working from the ground up to form HSHC, communication was key, and designing a baseline for the group was also vital.

Demorest and her classmates decided the best way to gain legitimacy and become better organized was to launch a survey. This survey evaluated health student perceptions about climate change and its impacts on human health, and solicited feedback on their current and prospective courses covering this topic. Their results matched their expectations. Demorest says, “Our survey showed that students knew a little bit about climate change, and thought it was important and might have something to do with patient health, but were not getting climate curriculum content in any of their courses.”

The next steps involved identifying the right people at the university to utilize the survey results and to infuse climate change into the health curriculum. Demorest framed the results of the survey as an opportunity to create this introductory course. She proposed a mockup of the curriculum to the university’s curriculum committee. This process enabled HSHC to implement the curriculum as part of an incoming course at the University of Minnesota that all health students now take.

Recommendations

• Stay organized

• Reach out to solicit advice and help from decision makers, or those that help build support, for your programs or initiative.

• Host “lunch and learns” to engage key constituencies with program plans.

• Collaborate across disciplines for learning, leverage, and broader reach.