Newly Elected CAELI Co-Chair Shares Vision for Environmental Education

Environmental literacy leader Andra Yeghoian was recently elected as CAELI Co-Chair by the CAELI Executive Committee, effective March 1st. Yeghoian, the Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Coordinator from San Mateo County Office of Education, is a bold strategic thinker capable of inspiring change – read her thought-provoking call to action in response to the IPCC Report.

In this interview, we spoke to Andra about her path to co-chair and her ambitions for the new role.

What most excites you about stepping into the role of co-chair?
What I am really excited about is the opportunity to be more deeply involved in the strategy that we are taking in our state to really move this work forward. Because I am a systems thinker, I am looking forward to supporting CAELI efforts to move beyond initial efforts and solidifying a system and model.

My career so far has largely been about figuring out how to take sustainability and now climate resilience to scale across different layers of the school system, starting first as a classroom teacher, then as a site-level director of sustainability, and now at the county level in San Mateo County supporting districts. Throughout these different roles, I have learned a lot about what it takes to catalyze a paradigm shift in teaching, learning, and facilities changes. It is exciting to now be in a position to support CAELI to develop strategies that take the work to scale across the state and to work more closely with all the innovation hubs as they develop ideas for the scaling process. In the past, I was focused on designing something that could be taken to scale and hoping others would. It feels good to be more intentionally saying, ‘let me help.’ So in moving from hoping to helping I think I can make more of an impact.

Tell me a bit about your path to environmental literacy.
I got my teaching credential around 2005 and the person I was dating at the time was getting a green MBA. I had no idea what that really meant or what climate change or global warming represented, but after many conversations with them, reading the book Ishmael, and watching The Inconvenient Truth, I was convinced that it was critical to bring environmental and climate literacy into my teaching practice. Now, I can’t think about doing anything in education without the environment. It was so formative.

What makes our current moment different and drives the sense of urgency for change?
I have felt a sense of urgency since childhood around environmental issues such as pollution and recycling. And later my urgency grew as it relates to global warming and climate change, but to some extent that crisis felt mainly theoretical – climate change was something that would be coming in the distant future. However, In 2018, when the IPCC report came out it was an awakening that it’s happening now. My deep sense of urgency now comes from the fact that I’ve seen the quality of life go down since childhood as it pertains to environmental injustices and climate impacts. It’s super devastating to think about the amount of human suffering that has happened and will continue if we can’t make this paradigm shift. However, because we’re seeing the impact in more communities there are a lot more people involved now. I feel both despair and hope about that.

Another thing that drives my sense of urgency is how this crisis extends beyond the human experience into all of life. I hope we do understand the nature of human impact on all life, and that we go into developing and implementing solutions in ways that support the voiceless in this work as well.

Why is it important to make sure environmental literacy moves beyond just science and science teachers?
As someone who came into this field of environmental education from a background in the humanities, my hope for the movement is that it gets out of the pigeonhole of science. To be clear, we do need science! It informs the basis of our understanding, but at the core, this is a social and human issue. We cannot afford to say that environmental literacy or climate literacy becomes too siloed into specific subject areas, we need it to be at the forefront of them all. Furthermore, it is critical that environmental literacy moves beyond just the teaching and learning space, and that environmental literacy is also seen as action-based, meaning that impacts take place across the facilities and operations in a school. After all, school takes place at a physical place and that idea of facilities and operations should also be leading the charge. My hope as CAELI Co-Chair is that I can continue to help bridge some of those silos and broaden the work.

What is your vision for transforming education in California?
That K-12 schools would be models of sustainability and climate resilience. This means that when students, faculty and staff, and the broader community come to school campuses and participate in learning and activities they will have lived and breathed experiences that are sustainable, climate-resilient, and socially just. That way, when they graduate or move on from that school and they find themselves in a community or a job that is not prioritizing these practices they will want to bring these changes to those places. I’ve seen great examples of this in my work, in terms of alumni and faculty and staff going on and making change in other communities. I had the experience myself in my sustainable MBA program. I also taught abroad in Holland for four years. A parent of one of my students was vice president of IPCC. We marched, mobilized, and organized. So I’ve experienced it and know that it’s possible.

What are you curious to learn more about in this role?
I’m curious to learn about the unique challenges of each Innovation Hub and the challenges that the people in them are experiencing in making an impact in the field. I’ll be thinking about how I can best help and serve them with the challenges they face. I’m really excited about helping and learning; and trying to understand beyond my own experiences.

What are the things that you find most challenging about this work?
The most frustrating part for me is the pace of change being too slow. I think this sometimes stems from people believing that the education system is just inherently broken and so change is not possible or just has to go slow. Unfortunately, it often feels that not enough people see themselves as change agents within the system who could be empowered to bring change. My hope is that people will understand they are empowered and will no longer accept that change has to be slow. Change can be fast, and in the case of the climate crisis must be fast

What inspires you most about this work?
I think I am inspired most when I reflect back about how far the field of environmental literacy and sustainable and climate resilient schools has come in recent years. I’ve been doing this work for 15 years and I’ve seen a tremendous amount of change and I’m inspired by that. I’m also constantly inspired by the change-makers in my community. For example, one group that inspires me a great deal is a group of students who I worked with in the San Mateo County Youth Climate Ambassadors program. When they finished the program in December 2021, they came back to us and asked how they could make a further impact across their whole district. I’ve been coaching them as they launched a districtwide sustainability committee. They have completely led the way and have created an inclusive and collaborative intergenerational environment that is driving real change across their district. That level of youth agency and leadership is inspiring. I am also inspired by the many teachers I work with in our fellowship programs who are implementing solutionary units of study that take students from knowledge to action. And I am also inspired by and am grateful for, all of the people in CAELI for their leadership. In particular to Emily Schell (former co-chair) for her service, and support as we make this transition.

What do you want all students to learn in K-12 education?
I often wear this t-shirt when I facilitate that says “educate to survive and thrive.” I want our education system to help children and youth (and the adults who support them) to answer this question, “How do we survive and thrive on this planet in relationship to other people and the broader ecosystem and planet?” My hope is that we can repurpose our education system so that students walk out of their K-12 education experience with the knowledge, skills, and values to engage with other humans and the planet in a way that doesn’t lead to destruction, but is instead sustainable and resilient.