Behind the Scenes: A Political Act
Today Mari Casellato joins me to talk about her FreshEd Flux episode, which aired last week. I recommend you listen to her Flux episode before listening to this interview. It’ll make a lot more sense!
In our conversation today, we talk about the history of environmental education and how it is different from education for sustainable development. Mari details youth conferences in Brazil in more detail and explains how they impacted her. She also talks about the way she approaches audio story telling from a collective standpoint.
Mari Casellato recently graduated with her master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University.
Citation: Casellato, Mari, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 252, podcast audio, September 6, 2021.https://freshedpodcast.com/casellato
Will Brehm 0:29
Mari Casellato, welcome to FreshEd.
Mari Casellato 1:07
Hi, Will. Thank you for having me here.
Will Brehm 1:09
Congratulations on your Flux episode. Really amazing work. And I want to sort of dive right into some of the content here. So, your episode really suggests that there’s this difference between environmental education -what you sort of experienced as a child in Brazil in the 1990s, in the early 2000s- and that of education for sustainable development, which is really the way the sustainable development goals of the UN talk about issues of the environment and climate change today. So, what is the difference? Could you sort of nail it down a bit more specifically?
Mari Casellato 1:45
Sure. For me, growing up, I was always discussing environmental education and participating on different events and different discussions. I saw people doing this differentiation between environmental education and education for sustainable development. And it was a very political thing to be done. It was a point that needed to be made, especially in Latin American events. And little by little I started understanding that we were talking about environmental education was about a political act. It was about taking a stand against this development model that we currently live under. And later on, I started reading the theories and academic production about this. And then I started understanding the history behind it. So, you have, environmental education dates back from the 70s, when this discussion started, and there was some events that were talking about that. And then in 1992, you have the Rio Earth Summit, and the introduction and promotion of this new term, education for sustainable development. And it was really cool to talk to Marcos Sorrentino and Rachel Trajber that were guests on my show. They were the coordinators of the conference process that I talk about. And both of them were present in 1992, in the parallel event that was gathering civil society from all over the world. People, including like Paulo Freire -that a lot of people talk about- he was there as well. So, there was a lot of people from different countries opposing this new term that was being presented. And what Marcos said in his interview, for me that didn’t make it to the show, is that this term was kind of created to make a common ground between environmentalists in this activism and the companies that also were trying to approach this field of environment. So, it was kind of a middle ground between those two places.
And for that civil society group, that wasn’t enough. That wasn’t what should be done. That is why they created the document that I introduced in the episode, The Treaty on Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibilities. So, we’re not talking about sustaining this development model. It’s not sustainable development. It’s about actually reflecting about how our world, the society, works today, and thinking about how that could be different in terms of to have a society that can be sustainable in terms of respecting people and human and non-human beings. And then that in order for you to achieve that you need to consider social and economic aspects. So, Marcos says that there was this really big movement of trying to erase environmental education as a term to implement sustainable development as a new concept. But that didn’t really work. There are even like some UNESCO documents from 2019 that show that the term that all countries, all continents, use more expressively is environmental education until today. So, I think that the biggest difference for me and growing up and working in this field was this political perspective and critical perspective of really thinking about this development model that we live under as the thing that should be addressed instead of being sustained.
Will Brehm 4:38
So, it’s interesting that you say that there was such environmental education perhaps didn’t include the business interests in its formation and its development, in its use and the UN found a middle ground as you say, education for sustainable development. And you seem to be critiquing this issue of development in particular, a development model. Would we call this sort of the capitalist development model? Is that sort of what you are getting at here?
Mari Casellato 5:06
Yeah. And some authors talk about, like how the Sustainable Development Framework is kind of a result of a globalization process that tries to align all of this struggle and discussion to a now liberal perspective. So, yeah. That’s the point.
Will Brehm 5:19
And so today, in a sense, this use of education for sustainable development, in a way it still is political. It’s just a different politics.
Mari Casellato 5:29
Yeah. Maybe less critical than civil society back in 1992 would wish for. And I think these terms are kind of used interchangeably in many contexts. And you have many governments, even in Brazil, back in the time of the creation of this policy in the 2000s, Marina Silva, the former minister, she uses the term sustainable development. That’s the term that she opts for. But if you look at all of her team -and that was composed of a lot of people that came from civil society, grassroots level, and that we’re engaged in this movement, from civil society- all the policy is structured around environmental education. That is the term. So, they kind of coexist, and they can be used interchangeably. But it is important, I think, to understand the origins of those terms, and understand the values that are behind the work that people are doing on the field when they are using either of them.
Will Brehm 5:36
Do you think the term environmental education has been co-opted today to mean more of education for sustainable development? Like it’s sort of you can use the term but it actually doesn’t have the same meaning as it used to have.
Mari Casellato 6:31
Um…I don’t know. Maybe it’s even the opposite. You know, if you take Brazil’s case, for example, we are talking about sustainable development or sustainability. And doing what I’m saying is related to environmental education. So, I really think it’s kind of this term in dispute. It’s a term in dispute, I think. And if you look into what happened was that there was a movement of trying to devalue the term environmental education. So, looking at the groups that are still using that term as if they were chained to the past. You didn’t come to the future and the future is sustainable development. So, trying to use that stereotype for people who are still talking about environmental education. And that is totally not the case. So, we’re not talking about hugging trees and going back to the ages when we lived in the forest. We are talking about using advanced technology to make sure that you don’t have any more exploitation of people, of nature, of resources. The problem is there is that sometimes sustainable development goes towards this notion of using technology and those kinds of developments to just make it more complex the way to exploit people and to sustain this model that we need to revise.
Will Brehm 7:40
Right. Sort of like Uber drivers. The app that was created is seen as a technological advancement. But really, it’s just another way of exploiting low wage laborers. So, it makes me wonder if you think the Sustainable Development Goal could ever embrace environmental education like you’re saying, in some cases in Brazil is still happening. Where they might not be using the term environmental education but they’re able to talk about sustainable development in some critical ways. And so, I just wonder, do you think more generally, beyond the case of Brazil, that the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals, could actually contain some more of the critical political actions that you are envisioning here?
Mari Casellato 8:23
I think so, Will. I think that is the international framework that we have. And it’s important to have an international framework to guide countries to work towards a common goal, right? But I really think it’s important to keep in mind the origins of those concepts, and where they came from, and the history behind them. And then really think about what are the actions and the initiatives that I’m promoting to move towards achieving the SDGs? And it’s kind of like trying to decolonize a little bit the SDGs and think about what are the practices and structures that are behind the work that I’m doing towards that. But I think there’s many, many different examples of people doing and working in more critical perspectives, and using those terms and those terminologies. So, I think, yes, it’s possible.
Will Brehm 9:12
The other thing in your podcast that you mentioned about sort of environmental education being a political act -it’s actually a really deeply personal political act. It’s not simply a policy level issue. I mean, your story you tell is personal. It’s your own memories of something you did and learning from those memories in reflection. So, when did you realize that environmental education is deeply personal as a political act?
Mari Casellato 9:39
I think it has been part of my upbringing. So, it’s difficult to pinpoint but I can remember some specific moments. I remember once when I was a teenager and I was already talking about environment for a while, and we would go to events, and we would participate on marches and stuff like that. And I would go to school -and back in the 90s, if you talk to your friends like, oh, yeah, I’m doing like this cool -we didn’t say activism, but I’m like an activist on environmental causes, it was not very popular. I mean, you were like, very nerdy. And people looked at me in a weird way. So, I was like, okay but this is not so cool. And I remember sitting down with Donizete, one of the teachers from Cala-boca já morreu, he’s a philosopher, and he would always pose these difficult questions for us to think about the stuff that we were thinking about. And one day I was like, Yeah, I mean, I don’t want this anymore. Can I go back before I knew, and I had the clarity of the problems that we’re facing. And I mean, it’s so hard to deal with this. And also, people don’t want to talk to me because I’m doing this. And he was like, yeah, you cannot go back anymore. That’s the fun of it and the sad part of it. But that’s really what makes us move forward and want to keep doing the work. Because, I mean, it really changed my path after that. And then I was thinking back to when I started my academic experience, and right now with the podcast, I started to understand the importance of having had this experience. Yeah, I remember the moment in my life when I just looked at what I was doing. And I was like, oh, my God, look at where I am, and this has only been possible because of all that I lived before this. So, I just took a time and took a moment to write to my friends from Cala-boca já morreu and just thank them for everything that we had gone through, and everything that I had the possibility to discover because of this process and it was an important moment. And now that I’m on the academic field, and then I have the possibility to really think theoretically about this experience and talk to more people about it and produce knowledge about it. I feel so happy that Gracia, one of the teachers from the project, that she valued back then the importance of creating archives of these activities and this experience. So, she has everything recorded, and we have everything with her. So, I was able now for the podcast, for example, to go back and listen to my first interview that I gave live. And it was so cool!
Will Brehm 12:11
Who did you interview?
Mari Casellato 12:12
I gave the interview. I was interviewed by the other kids because I was a visitor. I was starting in the group. And they interviewed me, and I was so ashamed, and I was so embarrassed. It was so nice to listen to my voice almost not coming out of my mouth. And I mean, now, look where I am. I’m doing a podcast talking about this. So, I’ve come a long way since I started. And I feel like a lot has changed in that sense in many different perspectives.
Will Brehm 12:35
And a lot of the people you interview who are also involved in that program, you say in your podcast that it seems as if they were impacted by their involvement in their future decision making. Either becoming a lawyer -it seemed like you were suggesting a lot of the people you spoke to, the decisions they made could be traced back to their involvement in that program as a child or as a young adult.
Mari Casellato 12:59
Yeah. I feel like that’s a very important experience that I wish everybody could have. And part of what I want to do with life is to promote spaces where kids can have those kinds of experiences. Because I feel like it can be a source of growth in many different ways. So, I think that everyone who was involved in that process somehow has developed a social awareness. So, you get to know people from all over the world, you get to talk to them, you get to see how different they can be from you. So, you kind of break your bubble and you understand that the world is much more than what you are living, for better and for worse. And I feel like that is something that results in a grown social awareness for things. And also, a lot of people who participated on this process started connecting to participation processes in some level, you know. So, for example, when I produce podcasts that I’ve been doing during my master’s program, I always try to bring different voices to speak what they have to speak. So, it’s about understanding that you are not the only perspective and it’s important to see other perspective. And I feel like there’s a word in Portuguese that I mentioned in the podcast that really kind of represents this for me, which is “inquieto”. And I’ve been trying to think about the translation for this for a while. I think the word in English would be restless. But I think in English restless has to do with a physical sensation when in Portuguese, we’re talking about a way of being in the world. So, you cannot be in a space and not be aware of the structures that are around you. So, for example, when I got to my master’s program, I was there studying international education and we were being trained in the global North to work on countries with educational development problems, which tend to be in the global South. And I was like, okay, but I’m not reading authors from those countries, and how come that we are going to go to those countries to help define policymaking if we are not in contact with the knowledge that has been produced by those countries. So, I could not not see that and also not do something about it. So, my final paper was research onto the curriculum of my program to try and really understand to what extent we have global South representation among the authors. So, that is just an example of how these kinds of differences won’t go unnoticed after you get this kind of exposure when you’re growing up especially, I think.
Will Brehm 15:10
I think that’s probably right. And this, the exposure, when you were growing up comes from a few different places it seems. It seems as if the work on the radio show was obviously a really big influence in learning all these different perspectives but also learning how to communicate and be sort of in the field of knowledge mobilization in a way, and in really creative ways back in the 1990s to early 2000s. But another big piece that comes out in your podcast is your involvement in the national conferences. And I know these two things are probably interconnected in many ways. But as you suggest in your podcast, national conferences in Brazil are very different from the English definition of conference. So, can you just explain what your involvement was in these conferences and what these conferences actually were in a bit more depth?
Mari Casellato 16:02
Sure. It was so interesting to find that out, when I left Brazil, that people did not know what a national public conference was. I started participating on the process of the Children and Youth Environmental Conferences, because of my participation on this radio project at Cala-boca já morreu because we were working with kids and youth producing radio in this perspective as a political act. You know, having the production be a process in which people can really try to experiment a different way of relating to each other. And that was really valued by the government, and they got to know our work and then they invited us to be trainers for the youth facilitators who are working with the students who would be part of the conference. So, I did training for the youth facilitators during the national conferences and I also worked in the organization committees that were present in every state as a civil society member. So, it was like civil society and governmental educational bodies present in this group. And everything was very educational for me. I learned a lot throughout the process because it was a meeting of the activist way of looking into environmental education and the school way of looking into environmental education. And I think there’s a difference there maybe of one being more transformative and more action focused. And another one being more transmissive, I think. So, of more talking about the subject rather than really doing something about it. So, it was a learning process. A big learning process.
And also, there was from the first conference on, one of the demands from the students was that it shouldn’t end on one event. So, they were like, we want this to keep going. So, what the government did was, they started funding a process between one conference to the next. So, they started funding training for the youth facilitators who were present in the national event. So, they could continue their work as they went back to their countries. And I was part of the Sao Paolo group of youth who was doing that. So, we gave training to students, we travel all over the state giving training to students, and the students would then give trainings to their teachers and school coordinators in Agenda 21 planning for the school and their community, which was really cool. But then in terms of how it worked, it was like this pretty big and bold, move if you think about it. Brazil is huge and we have a huge number of schools, and what the Minister for the Environment and Minister for Education did with this partnership. And they put together a topic that was related to the agenda of the government at the moment. And they created this step-by-step guide for schools and sent that to all schools all over Brazil and invited them to organize a school conference within the space of their community. And then the school would then go around understanding the topic. So, for example, one of the years, the topic of the conference was four different treaties Brazil had committed to in different topics like the Kyoto agreement, for example. So, then the kids would study those political documents, understand what they were, and then go around their community to try and understand how they could think about a problem that was related to those topics within their community, and what solution they could think of for that problem. So, they had to come up with projects, like action project, and that was what they would move forward to the next levels of the conference. So, they would go to the municipal level. And then the students themselves would elect the projects that were more representative of their state, and then they would go to the state level conference, and then from there to the national conference. So, youth teaches youth and one generation lives from the other. That’s the whole point of everything. And then in the national conference, we would have then a smaller number of kids present, and they would discuss their projects and they would go over workshops and lectures. And also like the cultural part that I talked about, which was so incredibly rich. And they would create then some products. So, they would work with radio production and create radio spots that we would call little programs of radio or videos, or then create a solar oven. And one of the culminations of the conference was the creation of a letter. They would call it a letter of responsibilities. And that would be delivered for a governmental representative. And in some of the occasions it was the President himself or herself who received the letter, which was really cool.
Will Brehm 20:21
That’s amazing. I mean. So, the President of Brazil would join this conference at some point and accept this letter of responsibility. And I mean, that’s quite a symbolic gesture in many ways.
Mari Casellato 20:32
And actually, the President wouldn’t go to the conference. The 300, 400, 700 kids would go to the Presidents building, and then meet with him, yes. And like they would march on the Presidential Lane, and then go to the official building and meet with the President. And he would say a few words, and the Minister for Education would be there. And then they would deliver the letter. Some of the delegates would go on stage and deliver the letter to him. So, that was like a very symbolic gesture.
Will Brehm 20:58
Yeah. I mean, definitely symbolic. Was there ever cases where things written in that letter were then enacted in national policy?
Mari Casellato 21:07
That’s the thing about conferences. It’s not that they are like this direct way of changing policy on the written word but it’s a very strong tool of pressuring the government into changing the policies they are planning. So, in the case of the kids, they did not necessarily write in the letters what should be concretely done by the government. But the mechanism was a little different. They would talk about the responsibilities that they were committing to in order to invite the President, the adults and the policies to also commit to responsibilities themselves. And I mean, that is kind of a symbolic thing that there’s, like 400, kids that are saying here that they are going to commit to these incredible actions, what are you going to do about it? So, it’s more of a symbolic thing. And it’s more about the whole process. So, if you think of the whole process, it’s not only the hundreds of kids that were in the national conference that were moved but you started in the school level. So, the school now is much more prepared to talk about environmental issues than it was before. So, you kind of created this whole movement from school level to the national level to have change happen and these issues be discussed.
Will Brehm 22:16
Yeah, I love that. Because in a way, it’s not about outcomes. That’s the focus of development these days. It’s always about outcomes-based funding and all sorts of things. But you’re talking about change as being process. And we should celebrate creating a process that is systemic, almost regardless of the outcome.
Mari Casellato 22:35
Yeah. And that’s a huge point for me about this. And about like environmental education initiatives in general. I keep thinking like, okay, but we had 15 years of this policy, and I think I discussed this in the podcast as well, and how come we elected Bolsonaro, after all of that. So, did it work? But there’s no way to pinpoint what is the real impact. I mean, there are some ways that you can use to try and map the impact throughout the years. That didn’t really happen in this process. And so, it’s hard for you to understand what is the real impact. And I’m kind of -I was a little pessimistic about this. But then interviewing João, who was a delegate, like a few years ago. He was so excited about what he’s doing nowadays. And he was so excited about the whole experience that he had gone through in the conferences. And I’m like, yeah, that was really cool. I mean, there was a lot of results there. I mean, we cannot say that this is not an important process. But it is a long-term process. It’s not something that will resolve itself in a few years.
Will Brehm 23:26
Did these conferences end when Bolsonaro was elected?
Mari Casellato 23:31
They ended a little while before that. There was a coup d’état and after that, there was no more children and youth conferences, and conferences in other fields of public policies were also starting to fade away unless they were really predicted as a legal instrument. So, those were sustained but the others kind of faded away.
Will Brehm 23:51
It’s interesting that these national conferences have seen a decline in recent years or over the last 10 years or so, maybe longer? So, it makes me wonder for children and youth today, are there outlets to be politically active and engaged in community and have connections all the way up to the national government any longer? Are there any pathways?
Mari Casellato 24:15
I mean, with the government itself, not much, because not many publics have that opportunity now. There is not much space for social participation. But that movement, along with other youth movements in Brazil and in Latin America, they got really big in the beginning of the 2000s and that kind of motivated a lot of different initiatives all throughout. So, nowadays, we kind of collect the fruits of that process and there is a lot of grassroots organizations and movements in which kids can participate. It’s not something that is being led by the government as it was once but there certainly is a lot of commotion around youth and participation. It’s also like a very difficult moment, especially during the pandemic because we have a lot of restrictions here in Brazil still. We are not able to go outside and all that. Everything is kind of restricted. So, it’s not the best of the worlds, even if you considered grassroots movements, but there still is a lot of hope in that sense.
Will Brehm 25:14
Yeah, right. That’s good. I mean, you’ve been involved in radio and different productions, and working with youth and being a youth and working in radio, and now being an adult working in radio, and also probably still with youth, as you’re still involved in this NGO, and maybe others in Brazil. And it makes me wonder, what is your approach to storytelling? And particularly, has your approach changed over time? Like, since you were a 10-year-old, producing the shows to now making a Flux episode, you know, having recently graduated from your master’s degree? I mean, what is the approach to storytelling? And is there any connections over time in your history?
Mari Casellato 26:01
Yeah. Looking back, there’s something that I feel like is very connected to my initial work with radio. This experience and project in Cala-boca já morreu is based on a collective production of communication. So, we are always working in groups so we can use that experience to think about the relationship that we have. And also, because I feel like collectiveness is kind of the path or the solution to our problems, right? And I see that very present in everything that I’ve been doing throughout the years. So, I remember, like, around 2014, or something, I did this documentary in a small village -I did a documentary workshop, And I always thinking about like, okay, these artists, they go to these places with a lot of issues, and then they record that story. And then they go back. And I mean, people get to know about that story but the directors get an award. So, what does that say? That always felt a little off for me. And I don’t really know how to deal with that. But what I always felt like doing was giving the camera to the people of that place and having them record their own story. So, I did like this documentary with kids. And I just gave the cameras to them and said, let’s talk about what you see in your village. And I mean, I recorded myself interacting with them because I was there and there is a relationship going on there. But I always had this idea of having people come and speak with their own voice about their own story. So, right now, in my master’s program, I was producing some podcast, and we did a colonization and COVID series and our idea was the same. So, bringing practitioners and academics from different countries, especially from the global south to talk about their experiences with COVID in their places. And then doing the Flux episode for me was really interesting because I was working by myself and Jo can be a testimony to this. I was always like very insecure about, is this the right way to tell the story? Am I telling it correctly, am I highlighting the right places because I was telling it by myself? And this is a very collective story. So, I was always going back to my friends who were there with me and showing them the script and seeing what they felt about it. And it was always good to have them say you were there with us. And your way of looking into this is our way of looking into this. So, go ahead and do it your own way and it’ll work. So, it was a little hard for me but it was a very interesting process in the same time.
Will Brehm 28:05
That’s such an interesting insight. Because I also feel like the process of you putting together this Flux episode was very collective. You definitely insisted on going back and talking to people multiple times. COVID certainly caused some problems with this because it was harder to get physically together with people to have these conversations, but you somehow figured out how to do it. And in a way, when I reflect on that it’s actually a political act you’re enacting there, right? Like what you learned through these national conferences, what you’ve learned through being a 10-year-old girl working in radio was that it’s the process that matters. And in a way, you’re still living that. It’s actually kind of amazing to bear witness. That is the politics that you’re talking about is valuing the process of how creative ideas and work gets done.
Mari Casellato 28:53
Yeah. And if you think of what happened because of me doing that, we created this kind of a wave among the people whom I talked to. And that’s what I talk about in the end. I was doing the podcast to tell people because I was in this international sphere, and I didn’t see people talking about this very big experience that I mean, should be a little relevant at least. And that was what I was set out to do. But then I started talking to Racheland to Marcos and then to Isis and Mariana?], and it was so important for us to talk about this experience at this moment because we are so hopeless. And we were kind of like, okay, we need to go back to this. We need to bring this back. And it kind of started this wave of a little bit of hope but also of planning and what can we do after this. So, this is the political part, I think also. It’s about getting together and discussing about our opinions on life, on the reality around us, and that can mobilize us to do something about it and organize ourselves to move on.
Will Brehm 29:54
Well, Mari Casellato, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. Congratulations on your Flux episode. And, you know, I learned so much from working with you over the last year.
Mari Casellato 30:04
Thank you so much, Will. I really wanted to thank all the team from Flux. You have been so great to work with. I’m really glad that I had this opportunity. Thank you so much.
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