Maya Alexander wants to help a school in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County gain its “green” certification. She is committed to volunteering for months, training students how to save energy, recycle classroom waste and collect rainwater to water plants.
A 24-year-old with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Alexander said she hopes to dedicate her career — whatever that turns out to be — to changing the way people think about the environment, as well as the way they treat the Chesapeake Bay in their own backyards.
The addition of another green school to the list of more than 600 statewide is unlikely to tip the scales significantly for the Bay’s restoration. Now in its fourth decade, that cleanup hinges on the governments of six states and Washington, DC, working in concert to contain the flow of pollution across thousands of square miles.
But what if there was a way to train hundreds of volunteers to undertake community-scale restoration projects and spread conservation practices to homeowners and businesses?
The Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy was founded on just such a principle. Now in its 10th year, the nonprofit has trained more than 220 residents, conferring upon each the title of “Master Watershed Steward.”
Surveys show that residents often feel disconnected from the Bay and its restoration. But Anne Arundel officials say the academy has demonstrated a way to bridge that divide.
“It would be impossible for county government to improve the health of local waterways and the Chesapeake without the support and assistance of our local citizenry, and WSA helps build that support,” said Erik Michelsen, administrator of the Anne Arundel watershed protection and restoration program.
In January, the academy named Michelsen the recipient of its inaugural “environmental legacy” award.
Watershed stewards are not simply weekend warriors. The academy estimates that its participants have installed more than 2,500 projects, ranging from rain barrels to complex stream restorations. Meanwhile, the trainees have become the trainers, educating 135,000 local residents on how they can take action to protect the Bay.
Today, just about every environmental nonprofit in the county has at least one or two watershed stewards among its ranks. To maintain their certification, stewards perform 40 hours of community service and attend eight hours of continuing education courses annually. The academy doesn’t track all of its students, but half of the original class of 32 has met that criteria, according to the nonprofit.
All participants leave a mark in the community before they graduate. After attending 70 hours of classes taught by academy staff and subject experts, stewards-in-training are required to complete a final project, creating either an environmental literacy initiative or a shovel-in-the-ground restoration project.
“We want everything the stewards learn in class to be about how to take action,” said Suzanne Etgen, co-founder and executive director.
Lately, the nonprofit has been receiving nearly twice as many applicants as it can accept. The program, which typically takes a little more than a year to complete, attracts a range of students, from local environmental advocates to retirees, Etgen said.
By day, Alexander works as an educator at the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center, a 24-acre youth camp run by the Anne Arundel school system. It makes for a short commute to her weekly Watershed Stewards Academy classes; they take place at night on Arlington Echo’s leafy campus.
“It’s perfect tying in my background in psychology,” said Alexander, who enrolled last fall. “It’s all about behavior change.”
The classes are open only to people who live, work or worship in Anne Arundel. But the academy has generated ripple effects that can be felt well beyond the county’s boundaries.
The concept of training and certifying watershed stewards was in its infancy when the organization was founded in 2009. The inspiration came from Master Gardener programs, which help participants flower into expert horticulturalists.
Etgen, then an educator herself at Arlington Echo, collaborated on starting the nonprofit with her then-boss, Arlington Echo administrator Stephen Barry, and two of the county’s top public works officials, Ron Bowen and Ginger Ellis.
“For citizens, there wasn’t a lot they could really do” at the time to advance the goals of the Bay cleanup, said Barry, who retired a few years after the academy’s launch. “Although there were many, many environmental groups out there, there was nobody doing anything like this with a training program and engaging citizens in a way that WSA did.”
Soon, other organizations began to follow their lead.
Their model was quickly adopted by Maryland Sea Grant Extension, which rolled out five academies of its own across the state. To date, more than 300 students have graduated from those programs.
“We built our curriculum around the Anne Arundel model, making sure our information is consistent with what Anne Arundel presents,” said Jennifer Dindinger, a Sea Grant watershed restoration specialist.
She credits the education effort with getting buy-in for some of the Bay cleanup program’s strategies in urban and suburban areas.
“It’s really helped elevate stormwater management to a topic people are talking about and dealing with on their own properties,” Dindinger said. “We’re not going to solve all the Bay’s problems on public land. We’re going to have to work on private land.”
For its part, Penn State’s Master Watershed Steward program has produced 300 stewards since its inception about six years ago. “We found that these folks, they’ve always had an interest in the environment, but they never really knew how to plug in,” said Erin Frederick, the program’s statewide coordinator.
Most of those stewards are based in the Delaware River watershed. But the program recently received a $111,000 grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection to expand into two Chesapeake watershed counties: Cumberland and Lancaster.
The growing army of watershed stewards caught the attention of officials in Washington, DC and in state capitals across the mid-Atlantic. The most recent Bay Agreement, signed in 2014, added a “citizen stewardship outcome” and an expert panel to track and guide efforts to get regular citizens involved in the restoration. Etgen was chosen to co-chair the committee.
Initial assessments suggest they have a lot of work to do. In 2017, the first year that a comprehensive survey was performed for the Citizen Stewardship Index, the Chesapeake region scored a 24 out of 100.
Disconcertingly, when people were asked whether their actions mattered toward the Bay’s overall health, the most popular response was “strongly disagree,” with 35 percent of people saying so. Furthermore, while one-third of residents said they volunteered their time or donated money to charitable causes, less than 20 percent did so for an environmental organization.
Etgen said she hopes to not only boost the ranks of the region’s stewards but also their diversity. During the Watershed Stewards Academy’s annual conference last year, a demographic survey painted a portrait of an organization largely consisting of college-educated white women in their 40s and 50s, she said.
That diversity mission is shared by some of her students.
There were several Anne Arundel schools she could have chosen for her project, but Alexander said she picked Van Bokkelen Elementary, in part, because of its high percentage of students who, like her, are African-American.
“I know what it’s like,” Alexander said. “The population there, they don’t really have a lot of exposure to the outdoors and what it means to recycle.”
During an academy class one January evening, 19 students listened with rapt attention and pens twitching over three-ring binders. The PowerPoint lecture was about budgeting. But no one looked deterred.
Etgen spoke for about 45 minutes, sprinkling her talk with doses of encouragement (“Writing a grant is really nothing more than following directions”) and inconvenient truths (“The reality is there’s not enough grant dollars to go around for all our projects”).
Then, it was the class’ turn. The students broke off into pairs and sketched out the details for a hypothetical tree-planting project. Each line on their spreadsheets represented multiple decisions – where the funding would come from, who would do the work, what supplies would be needed.
Steve Hamilton, a medical doctor, and David Cronin, a retired state energy official, hunched over their sheet for several minutes. When they had finished moving numbers around, a look of disbelief flashed across their faces. The expenses line added up to $6,511 while the revenue had come to only $6,122.
“That’s a $400 difference,” said Cronin, exasperated.
Not to worry, said Trish Hennessy-Webb, a WSA budgeting expert. “What you have before you is a budget. It’s a plan for what you’re going to do,” she said. The final tally at the end of the project doesn’t have to match the budget dollar for dollar.
Math is only the beginning. The academy leads students through a whirlwind of disciplines. Graduates are expected to be able to identify pollutant sources, educate communities about the actions they can take to become greener and become their own project managers.
“There’s one word for it I like to use, and it’s ‘empowering,’ ” said Betsy Love, who graduated in the academy’s sixth class. She went on to initiate the $1.5 million restoration of a stream on the property of the Episcopal church where she worships. “The education is significant, but what you get from this network of like-minded people is empowering. I could never have done it without this course.”
As the budgeting class wound down, Hamilton and Cronin remained at their desk, brows furrowed at the spreadsheet before them. Gathering her things a couple of rows away, Alexander was looking instead toward the future.
“I’m already grateful to be a part of this,” she said. “I think there’s no better way to learn than by actually doing it.”