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How On Earth Do You Reach Students?

I have been asked some version of that question more times that I can count by more people than I can count. But the same question is asked in many different areas of many different target audiences: residents, employees, etc.

In an earlier post, I talked about my own take on the Beloit Mindset list and its relevance to recycling. Reaching students or any target audience is more than just bridging a generation gap. It requires a different mindset.

Usually the question is asked by someone very passionate about what they do, a recycling coordinator, a sustainability manager, heck even a custodian who wants to keep their building clean. The disproportionate level of passion between the asker and their target audience is part of the answer.

We are not all homogenous and uniform. And thank goodness for that. As fascinating as my ego wants me to believe I am, I cannot imagine living in a twilight-zone world made up of nothing but me. Our individuality is part of what makes every person and every interaction special. It can make doing education, outreach, and/or marketing a pain in the butt, but it makes every interpersonal connection extraordinary (before anyone thinks that I have gotten all trippy on you, please note that I did not say that all of them are necessarily positive, or even remotely good, but all of those interactions are unique). If you are going to do education, outreach, or marketing, I think you have to embrace that uniqueness.

For every issue, there is a wide spectrum of participation. Take recycling. On one hand, I could set up a system that requires someone to sort stuff into 20 different bins on top of a burning building – and would still find people who did it perfectly. On the other, I could set up a system in which I come to everyone’s desk to pick up the paper right off of it, and there would be a few people who would deliberately spill their cup of coffee on it as I was doing so just to mess with me. The vast majority of people are somewhere in between.

Here’s the thing: that “middle” is where we need to get to. Recycling, and I would argue sustainability in general, is a volume business. For solutions to work, we need as many people as possible to participate as often as possible. This isn’t a personal salvation thing. You don’t get any bonus points if you are individually perfect, unless we are collectively better. And if you alienate too large a chunk of the middle in your quest to cajole people into becoming individually perfect, you are never going to get to where you want to go.

Here are some other things to consider about that “middle,” especially when viewed collectively. Individual actions might vary, but the collective middle does have certain tendencies:

They are not uniform. Think of that middle as a typical bell curve. As you move toward from either extreme toward the middle, you get a few more people with every step toward the middle that you take.

They are fairly apathetic. I don’t mean that to sound as negative as it probably does. Just because someone seems apathetic doesn’t mean that they don’t think your issue is important. It’s just that they are juggling a lot of other things too, things that are important to them. If you take the “crusader” approach, you are not likely to reach this middle.

Recycling isn’t a religion. You shouldn’t have to join some sort of crusade or jihad to participate. In all my decades of doing this, I have never met the person who tells me that they are throwing something into the trash because they deliberately want to see it taken to a landfill and entombed for the next several hundred years. They throw something away because that’s what they were trained to do. The “why” hardly enters into it. So why when it comes to recycling and sustainability do we get so focused on the why? Maybe we should take a lesson from those Nike ads years ago and focus on getting people to “just do it.” I would argue that if we focused more on that and less on trying to convert a busy and apathetic middle into single-issue crusaders we would find that we have a much easier time reaching students, or any other population and be much further along in reaching our end goals.

Let me use an example from a presentation that I gave years ago. Take fire safety. I don’t know many people that would say that fire safety isn’t important. However, I’m not sure that I know anyone that walks into a building and takes the time to go around and memorize where all of the fire escapes are. They just hope that when the time comes to use them, they are easy to find and the system is easy to understand. That is one of the keys to reaching students, or any population. If it is as easy to do the right thing as it is to do the wrong thing, and if it is clear what the right thing is, more people will do the right thing more often.

Another generalization about the middle is that if they are going to participate, they need to believe that their actions are credible. Nothing will lose you the middle like a story or a rumor that all their actions are for naught. Do you use the same truck to pick up trash and recyclables, just on different days? Be sure to let people know. Otherwise you will be amazed how fast the “don’t bother to recycle, they just throw it all into the trash” rumors will begin and will undermine your program. That is why I would urge caution as programs add too many marginal-quality recyclables in an effort to try to make recycling easier or pad their recycling rates. If doing so causes recyclables to be discarded more often, I think the perception that recyclables end up in the trash will undermine your program by a greater degree than adding those materials will help it.

The middle is also fairly grounded in their “moderateness.” A crisis might temporarily get folks to move to one side of an issue or another, but they aren’t going to stay there. They are ultimately going to swing back to the middle. There is always going to be a new crisis to trump your crisis and return their attention back to the middle. If you want to make significant long-term change, that change has to become mainstream. That takes time. It takes dedication to persevere through setbacks. It takes sustained incremental change. And it takes occasional compromise.

Reaching students or any other group is all about reaching the middle. If you can, you might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Written by

Roger Guzowski
Roger Guzowski

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