Thriving Earth Exchange Honored with Power of A Summit Award

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By Anne Johnson

Thriving Earth Exchange was one of six associations selected to receive a 2019 Power of A Summit Award, the highest honor of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). The award recognizes associations that go above and beyond their everyday mission to undertake initiatives that benefit America and the world.

In 2014, the Thriving Earth Exchange Advisory Board and AGU Board of Directors set a clear goal for the Thriving Earth Exchange. “By 2019, Thriving Earth Exchange will launch 100 projects, engage over 100 AGU members, catalyze 100 shareable solutions, and improve the lives of 10 million people.”

Today, in the autumn of 2019, the program has directly affected an estimated 1,750,000 people in projects involving more than 200 AGU members, and is on track to surpass 100 projects by the end of the year. How did it happen? We sat down with AGU Executive Director and CEO Chris McEntee and Thriving Earth Exchange Director Raj Pandya to reflect.

 

Thinking back over the trajectory of Thriving Earth Exchange from its start until today, what people or factors do you think contributed to its success?

McEntee: There are so many factors that contributed, but I want to highlight one in particular.  It was an advisory board meeting early on in Thriving Earth Exchange. One of our AGU board members, Ken Washington, said something like “you know, thriving earth is really a start-up, so we’ve got to manage it like one.” That comment really captured the essence of what we were all thinking and provided a framework for how AGU evolved the program. Based on that framework, we gave the Thriving Earth Exchange program space to experiment, permission to try new approaches and challenge the way we always did things, and—most important—a safe environment in which to make mistakes, learn from them, and make changes. That was a new way of launching a new program for AGU, and it paid off.

Pandya: It really does take a village. Our success is the result of so many people working together, and I don’t think it would have worked without any one of them. There is the visionary AGU board that explored science-society partnerships, the task force that first outlined a member-driven program to connect communities and scientists, the brilliant Thriving Earth Advisory Board who insisted on a community-first approach, the dedicated and skilled staff that put the pieces together and made it work, our committed partners who connected us to communities and helped us shape the program, and the strategic guidance, support, and accountability from own leadership. Most of all, though, the volunteers—the scientists, the community leaders, and the fellows—who are actually doing the work in the places that people, live, work and play. They are the ones who are making a difference, and it is their efforts that are the foundation of thriving earth success. Because of them, we are solving global challenges, one community at a time.

Honestly, it is fitting that it took a diverse community to build Thriving Earth Exchange, since it is, after all, about community science.

What do you see as the most important impacts that have come from the work of Thriving Earth Exchange?

McEntee: Without a doubt, the most important impacts are the impacts in the communities. I grew up in a small town in Western Pennsylvania, where the water in the stream was orange because of runoff from mines. We didn’t have the resources to measure that or do anything about it. Thanks to Thriving Earth Exchange, communities like the one I grew up have an option.

The impacts for AGU have also been wonderful. I hear from members how excited they are to part of an organization that facilitates this type of work. They tell me the work has given them new skills and insights, and even generated new research questions.

Another important impact: Thriving Earth Exchange helps AGU build support for Earth and space science, and maybe even science in general. The communities we work with appreciate our scientific contributions and share that appreciation with local and national leaders—they are allies for using and supporting science.

Pandya: The most important impact for any project is the real difference it makes in the community, and the positive impact for community members. Concrete things, like a new, green city hall; redesigning development to reduce risk of downstream flooding; cutting pollution; anticipating future weather extremes and designing protections now. Together, these projects move the needle on community science. I think Thriving Earth Exchange, and lots of other programs like it, are showing that collaboration with communities enriches science and helps us all tackle pressing global challenges. It’s the ripple effect—that Thriving Earth Exchange makes more scientists want to work with communities and more communities want to work with scientists—that could be the most our biggest impact.

What are your hopes and dreams for Thriving Earth Exchange (or the community science model more broadly) in the years ahead?

McEntee: Thriving Earth was designed, from the beginning, to go beyond AGU. AGU is very proud of this program and what it has accomplished, and wants to see it grow to other scientific and professional societies. We reached 100 in five years. Our dream is to have this available to any community that could benefit from the program. We’d like to do that as a network of science, professional societies and stakeholders.

Pandya: My dream is that one day community science is just one of the ways we do science—that some scientists do community science, some do numerical modeling, and some do bench-chemistry—and all of these ways of working have the support, respect, and personnel they need to be effective. For communities, my hope is that more communities see science as something useful, relevant, and that all communities—especially disadvantaged communities—use community science to guide, participate in, and benefit from science. I wouldn’t mind, in fact, if community science was so accepted and ubiquitous that Thriving Earth Exchange became redundant.

Anything else you’d like to share?

McEntee: A critical factor in the success of Thriving Earth Exchange is the organizational partners who help us connect to communities and community leaders. We share this award with many collaborators, including Higher Ground, the International City/County Managers Association, National League of Cities, ICLEI USA, iSeeChange, EPA’s Community and Underserved Partnership Program, and Public Lab. And of course, it all rests on the hard work of the volunteers—the scientists and community leaders who do the on-the-ground work. They are the biggest heroes in all this.

Pandya: Just gratitude, excitement, and optimism. Gratitude toward all the people who make Thriving Earth Exchange work, excitement for the work we have to do together, and optimism about the impact we can have.

Natasha Udu-gama editor

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