Earlier this year, we brought you the news that Shanghai’s youth values are turning a shade greener, with ever increasing awareness of and activism in China’s environmental movement. This is thanks in part to the expansion of NGOs in China. We went along to meet Tori Zwisler, the executive director of Shanghai Roots and Shoots, and recent recipient of Shanghai Volunteer Association’s ‘2009 Volunteer of the Year’ award, to see how her organisation is educating and empowering the city’s youth.
Originally from Wisconsin, Zwisler landed on the shores of Shanghai eighteen years ago. She rose to the position of the Vice Presdient of the American Women’s Club and then moved to Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum in 1998. It was during this time she met legendary British primatologist Jane Goodall, whose institution runs the Roots and Shoots programme and who inspired Zwisler to quit her job and join her team. “I have no regrets, it’s been a wild ride,” she says. “I have the best job in Shanghai. I love who I work with, I love how it makes me feel at the end of the day.”
In 1999 Zwisler started the Shanghai branch of R&S from her home with three schools. After school, children were trained to manage, complete and report on environmental of their choice. Since its humble beginnings, the organisation’s premise has always been to take a positive approach to environmental education and the empowerment of young people through group interaction.
“Now we have over 200 schools working with us in the Shanghai area,” Zwisler says. Of course, this growth has benefited from the quintessentially Chinese method of guanxi (connections), but her genuine passion for widening this reach is palpable. “We have primary school to university-level kids, local and international schools. We’re impacting on children, usually they stay on after they’ve joined, adult volunteers often come back as mentors…There is a sustainable difference, we’re feeling the effect of what we do.”
School children hard at wok on the Organic Garden Project
The organisation’s Million Trees Project is one example of this sustainable difference. R&S visited Inner Mongolia in 2006 to examine tree-planting projects, and was stunned by the devastating effects of desertification. “But, we could plant trees there,” says Zwisler. “We were given a tract of land we could plant, and employed paid farmers to plant trees that were purchased by donors.” Having started with 10,000 poplar trees in 2007, by 2009 120,000 were planted. With a 93% survival rate, the project shows no sign of slowing down, and a crew from the organisation has this week headed north to survey the action. The goal is to plant a million trees by 2014, with no more than 200,000 a year in order to maintain quality levels.
How are Shanghai’s youth involved in this? “Our 1,000 Tree Challenge was issued in international schools,” Zwisler explains. The schools fundraised to buy a 1000-tree forest, and using GPS to track the forests, R&S reports back to them with progress updates.
Besides this, R&S has 200 student groups that run smaller projects. “Kids pick their own projects, goals and steps, and provide checks and balances on their own initiative,” says Zwisler. Broader programmes include monitoring water level quality in schools, providing P.E. at migrant schools, and the chance for students to create organic gardens on campus.
Happy children from the Migrant Schools P.E. Programme
Zwisler can see the changes. “10 years ago, the emphasis on environment education in Chinese schools was on scientific report writing, there was none on getting involved outside classroom. Now every student here understands there is pollution. It’s not getting better by itself and they have to do something to change their behaviour, uses and consumption because the world they can’t sustain.”
“Nobody wants to give up their luxuries, but I believe when you see that you must, young people will start to make more conservative choices,” she continues. “There is no lack of education or capacity to get informed. People in Shanghai are informed, they’re not naïve or isolated. Shanghai’s kids will be the leaders, they have to be in making the tough choices.”
But the semi-autonomous status of NGOs in China and the large gap between environmental law and enforcement mean this praiseworthy empowerment can only go so far. The pressure is on such organisations to target and rally tomorrow’s change-makers. Zwisler advises those following such a path to get involved with sustainable and functional NGOs. “Your donation must have an effect if you’re getting involved in such organisations,” she says. “It makes you feel right about yourself, it allows you to sleep well at night.”
Surely this wild ride must have hit some bumps along the way? Apparently not. “We’ve gone from 3 to 200 schools without problems,” Zwisler says. “We’re non-confrontational, non-political, non-religious. Don’t create any waves. If you want to be effective in China you have to stay on the path.” The only frustration, it seems, is that Roots and Shoots are involved in only 200 of Shanghai’s 1,300 public schools. But Zwisler is optimistic: “100×100 is our goal. We have a lot of work cut out for us, but we’ll get there with small steps. We’ll be here for the next century.”