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“LELELELE!!” We all called out from our respective places in the world as we logged off of our last zoom session for ACE in Place 2022. A phrase that our cultural guide, Minenhle, had taught us over the course of the program, the call signified cheer and celebration—and felt like the appropriate goodbye after thesefew weeks of learning and growing together. The weeks had truly flown by; but even with the little time we had, I left feeling as if I had maybe, actually done something worthy of the Zulu ululation Minenhle introduced us to. Along with creating a solution to solve an environmental challenge in South Africa, I had learned about the culture and the people of the place I was working with, while doing a lot of personal growth and reflection myself.

Over the course of our three weeks, my ACE team, composed of Duke and Stanford-student athletes, worked with Ocean Pledge, a non-profit based in South Africa aiming to eradicate marine plastic pollution. We helped Ocean Pledge create and launch their ‘Voice of the Oceans’ ambassador program, which aims to educate South African youth on the plastic pollution problem and teach them valuable communication and leadership skills to raise their voice in their communities in support of ocean conservancy. Through hours of marketing and product research in collaboration with our Ocean Pledge partner, we were able to create a three-tiered product for the organization that varied by cost and interactivity, to allow for maximum accessibility and outreach potential in the target communities.

In addition to our research and collaboration with the Ocean Pledge organization, we also learned about South African culture through many different interactive sessions and guest speakers. We were gifted the opportunity to learn about South Africa’s history and politics, its environment and ecology, as well as cook native dishes like Cape Malay Curry and learn the IsiXhosa and Zulu languages and traditions. Cultural immersion was such a valuable component of the program that allowed us to gain an understanding of the country necessary to work on a problem and create a solution that would be used there.

“As I enter into a Master’s program in Sustainability Science and Practice at Stanford next year, ACE has given me an interactive experience and opportunity to implement sustainability concepts into a real-world setting…”

– Caitlin Chicoski, Stanford Women’s Lacrosse

In one of my classes at Stanford, Pursuing Sustainability: Managing Complex Social-Environmental Systems, I learned that many of the most well-intentioned sustainable solutions ultimately fail because of the disconnect between the people creating the solutions and the people these solutions are for. The course teaches that five capital assets—natural capital (environmental resources), human capital (populations, health), knowledge capital (scientific research), manufactured capital (tools and technology) and social capital (cultural and social arrangements, traditional knowledge)—all remain in delicate balance of one another in an interconnected social-environmental system, and are all essential to consider in creating solutions to solve climate and sustainability challenges. As aforementioned, many times the social capital asset, which incorporates the culture of the people and place you are striving for impact in, is neglected, making a promising solution in actuality, futile.

One case study example we looked at was when government agencies and researchers attempted to create an irrigation system in Nepal. The effort was launched to help remedy the inconsistent access to water that results from Nepal’s fluctuating climate, which in turn negatively affects farmers and agriculture practices. In short, the first attempt to implement an irrigation system failed, as researchers created what they thought was the best solution without taking into consideration the farmers’ lives, systems, and cultural arrangements. The successful irrigation system design was eventually achieved by incorporating the farmers’ thoughts and ideas, which led to a system that was effectively implemented and utilized by the farmers and met their current and future needs. Solutions are more effective with collaboration amongst all stakeholders involved.

It was amazing to see this concept play out in the ACE program setting. Our team incorporated things we learned about in some of our cultural sessions into our final product design, and there is no doubt in my mind that it will be more effective with this aid and knowledge than it would have been without. As I enter into a Master’s program in Sustainability Science and Practice at Stanford next year, ACE has given me an interactive experience and opportunity to implement sustainability concepts into a real-world setting—an extremely valuable perspective for future work in the space.

“Cultural immersion was such a valuable component of the program that allowed us to gain an understanding of the country necessary to work on a problem and create a solution that would be used there.”

– Caitlin Chicoski, Stanford Women’s Lacrosse

In addition, working with a real organization on a real problem affecting a community that is happening NOW really reinforced the urgency of many of the climate and environmental problems of our generation. Unfortunately, it is an urgency so often absent in society’s approach and regard of our changing environments, and whose absence is followed by a similar but equally disheartening lack of action.

As we, a globally connected network of Earth-inhabitants, continue to pour more time, energy, and resources in crafting solutions to combat climate change, it is so important to remember how deeply interconnected our social and natural systems are and to take into consideration the perspectives of all stakeholders. In addition to being a better change-maker, you will grow an appreciation for other cultures and your place and potential amongst the myriad of them present in the world. And, you will have fun doing it—guaranteed from experience!!

Thank you, ACE, for the fantastic experience. I hope for even more reasons to symbolically cry out ‘LELELELE’ in the future as we progress towards a more equitable and healthier planet for all.

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