by Heather Kirn Lanier
From the local to the global, morning headlines describe problems that seem impossible to fix. But what if a college course taught students skills to tackle them anyway?
Susan Sgorbati’s introductory conflict-resolution class, “Solving the Impossible,” attempts to do just that. And with powerful results. This past fall, 22 Bennington students made a local dent in energy reduction by successfully working with the Village of North Bennington to convert to LED streetlights.
In the beginning of the semester, the class was asked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (New England Region) to read President Obama’s white paper on climate change and give the EPA their responses. The students discussed how, as freshman Onur Fidangul puts it, “climate change is one of the most intractable conflicts of our time.” But they wanted to do more than talk about it. “We needed to do something,” Fidangul says.
Bolstered by the class’ enthusiasm, Sgorbati consulted David Monks, vice-chair of North Bennington’s Village Trustees. How could her students mitigate the effects of climate change on a local level? To Monks, the question was perfect. He immediately thought of replacing the town’s streetlights with LEDs.
“For the last three or four years, I’ve been trying to undertake this job myself,” Monks says. He knew Efficiency Vermont provides incentives for towns that switch to energy-saving LEDs. The required analysis, however, daunted him—he’d have to canvas the entire town. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, how the heck do I do this?’”
Sgorbati’s students were eager to lead.
Once they jumped into the analysis, however—which required researching multiple inventories, making sense of outdated numbering systems, and eventually counting every streetlight in town—they realized the problem’s complexity.
“And that [complexity] was what the class was about,” Fidangul says. “It was the perfect opportunity to apply what we learned in class to an actual project.”
Fidangul’s attitude about the solvability of a problem speaks volumes about the course’s success. Sgorbati says she wants students to see that “conflict is inherent in all human interaction, so it can be used as an opportunity for growth and positive change.” Conflict doesn’t have to be negative or destructive.
To unleash the growth-potential of a conflict, Sgorbati encouraged students to examine conflict as a series of relationships, according to senior Sam Leigh. Leigh recalls how Sgorbati asked students to look outside the classroom window and describe Bennington’s landscape. They spotted grass, trees, mountain, sky. But Sgorbati stressed that conflict resolution required a different way of seeing.
“In complexity,” says Leigh, “the landscape can be seen as a set of relationships; an interaction between the components we identified. We approached the streetlamp project with this mindset, considering how our local actions could relate to global environmental issues.”
To deepen their understanding of conflict, students engaged in negotiation and mediation exercises, including a simulation of the United Nations convening on the reduction of mercury pollution. They also read about “collective memories” as sources of conflict and reflected on their own memories in order to “build empathy for others,” as Sgorbati says, “rather than immediately jumping to conclusions based on past histories.”
This empathic approach directly informed students’ interactions with North Bennington residents. After conducting their research on LEDs, the students distributed fliers across town that explained the proposal and the benefits to the town. They then canvassed door-to-door, dialoguing with residents about their questions and concerns. The class discerned the importance of that approach after studying conflict cases where, as Fidangul puts it, “the information was there, but there wasn’t communication.”
“I didn’t even think of this,” says Monks of the students’ fliers. “People are always suspicious. ‘Why are you doing this? We don’t want to change.’” Thanks to the students’ communication efforts, the Board received not a single complaint.
In December of 2013, Sgorbati and her students proposed their findings to the town’s Village Trustees. LED streetlights are not only more energy efficient; they produce a more focused natural light, and they don’t attract insects. And due to Efficiency Vermont’s incentives, installing them wouldn’t cost North Bennington a penny. “It was a win-win-win,” Monks says.
Upon hearing the students’ plan, the board voted unanimously to approve it.
Monks estimates that the LED lights, which Green Mountain Power should install by September, will result in a 75% decrease in energy-usage. “In our teeny village,” he says, “if you can make that big a difference, if you can spread this across the United States, we’re talking a whopping amount of energy savings.”
Monks offered high praise to the students, whom he says he loves working with. “They’ve taken this very, very seriously. This wasn’t just a fun thing. This was something that had some real meat behind it, and when this finally happens, they’ll be able to walk around the village and say, ‘I did that.’”
The LED streetlight project inspired Fidangul to devote his Field Work Term to Palestine’s energy dependence on Israel. He planned to work with Greenpeace Mediterranean to create a solar project for a major medical clinic in Palestine. On his very first day, though, he ran into conflict. When he arrived at the Istanbul office, he learned that the person who had agreed to work with him was on a two-month sick leave.
“And no one knew about the project and our agreement.” He was stranded.
But thanks to the negotiation skills he learned in the course, he was able to convince Greenpeace Mediterranean to let him work on the project anyway. He credits Sgorbati and the course.
“The [LED] project really showed me that CAPA is a place that gives you opportunities to actually do things. Not only talk about things…. But actually do and implement things.” And from Bennington to Istanbul, “that was like my suitcase that I took with me—my motivation.”