Guest article: graduates tackling sustainability challenges

Tuesday 26-05-2020 - 09:54

SOS-UK has been working in partnership with Change Agents UK (CAUK) for the past 10 years. Below is a reflection by Jo Kemp, Development Manager, CAUK, of recent activities.

The Change Agents UK Charity turns 25 in 2021 and throughout our history, we have always seen ingenuity and drive from our graduates and young people tackling some big sustainability challenges on their placements. The last few months have for many meant their roles and projects have taken very different directions than had been expected. But, for the majority, the aims remain the same – delivering impactful and positive change for people and planet through short-term roles within their host organisations.

Emma Gilbank’s role as Sustainability Projects Officer for Connect Housing in York, was created to kick start their sustainability work and tailor the first SOS-UK Green Impact programme for a Housing Association. She has been fundamental in shaping the work to suit Connect’s environment and culture so that “… this project will not only drive sustainability within the organisation, but also encourage colleagues to improve sustainability at home and eventually empower them to support initiatives to improve sustainability with customers and tenants”.


But in a year that has brought unforeseen challenges, Emma’s approach has had to be adapted. “Due to lockdown things have slowed down considerably due to changing staff capacities, but we have tried to keep going, now focussing on sustainability strategies at home”. Creativity is key. By creating tailored guides of activities and actions staff can take at home, along with engaging film and book recommendations, she has seen a great response from teams sharing their results and building a new sustainability community online. Scarlet Prentice, on her placement as Sustainability Engagement Officer delivering Green Impact at the London School of Economics, has been seeing similar challenges but also continued impact, telling us that the "current situation finds us working in a digital world of increased sensitivities, challenges and opportunities. But through continued collaboration and support across the School we are still progressing towards sustainability with the development of our 2030 Sustainability Strategic Plan and delivery of online events and communications."


Change Agents UK as an organisation has also been responding to the challenge of having to think and work differently, with our remotely-delivered learning and development work a real priority during this time. Our focus is on keeping momentum up on climate action, the Sustainable Development Goals and helping both young people and organisations to make progress in these areas. With so many at the start of their careers stuck for how they can develop their CV whilst unable to gain on-the-ground experience, hunt for elusive roles whilst organisations face recruitment freezes, or develop additional skills during furlough, we are working hard to find solutions to support them.


A new partnership with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust will see us running a series of online training sessions with their Tomorrow’s Natural Leaders participants – an Our Bright Future project funded by the National Lottery, through the National Lottery Community Fund. The eighteen 16-24 year olds taking part are co-creating a curriculum with us aimed at building confidence in getting started in their careers across the sector, which we hope will be of value to many other youth organisations. We are also nurturing our expansive alumni network through access to our ever-growing online learning portal, giving them and their teams the opportunity to explore self-led learning on anything from project and time management to circular economy and the climate emergency.


But for us, the important day-to-day still continues. We have always been able to remotely support organisations to create, recruit and support placements for graduates to tackle sustainability goals, and this hasn’t changed. In challenging financial times, where organisations can’t necessarily recruit internally but have challenging targets on sustainability and climate, a Change Agents’ placement is often a perfect solution. Emma’s role at Connect is an excellent example of where a placement’s input on an SOS-UK project is having multiple benefits both for her and her host organisation. “I support Connect in organisational changes which make us a more sustainable business - a priority in our business plan”.  And her role as a graduate in this post is also having an impact. Director of Home, Martyn Broadest concurs with Emma’s impact on the ground, adding that “Emma has driven the programme entirely on her own volition, with very little input from me.  She has also gone above and beyond with some of the work she has been developing.  She is a star!”


So while we all try to figure out innovative ways to tackle the biggest sustainability challenges of our time, we can also continue to do what we do well, with a dedication to driving positive change for projects, organisations and those at the start of their careers.

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