MEDIUM 06/28/24
By Dr. Michael Shank

If you go to my LinkedIn, you’ll see the following text in the About section: “Striving to build an accessible bridge between science/policy and the public’s understanding of, engagement with, and co-creation and co-ownership of that science and policy. That’s been my life’s work. Serving as a bridge-builder, educator, facilitator, and translator between these worlds. And I love it.”

So, why do I love it and how did I get there? That’s a great question with many possible answers. But first, some relevant background: I come from a long line of Amish and Mennonite preachers, and I grew up watching my dad preach in our church. He wasn’t a traditional preacher or teacher. He spent less time behind the pulpit and more time hanging out with the congregation, engaging with them, telling stories, and making it real.

As a boy, I witnessed how effective my dad was at connecting with the community by being on their level, not protected by a pulpit or removed from and elevated above them. Add to that my mom’s work in the Amish and Mennonite community as a counselor and you’ve got the makings of a young Michael interested in connecting with and better understanding people.

Fast forward forty years and now I’m in the climate movement feeling like I’m somewhere on a church pew watching a conversation between a pulpit-using preacher and the people, wanting less of a monologue, more of a dialogue, and those in the congregation to lead and not just be led.

There are still too many climate preachers issuing sermons thinking that the congregation will be inspired to act. Yet something’s not cutting through. We’ve got plenty of believers in the audience — as climate attitudes are strong — but not enough actions to back up those beliefs. There’s a gap. The climate “word” is still too often theoretical or disconnected from the day-to-day to motivate the masses.

Bridging that gap requires a rework of how we set up the conversation and what we talk about. It’s not just about getting rid of the pulpit or podium (and the stage entirely). It’s about a different model of working together. One where we’re co-leading and co-creating the word and work. Yes, it’s scarier. Yes, it takes more time. But it leads to more inspired and empowered people and more lasting outcomes.

If there’s an Amish-Mennonite answer here, it’s in our barn-raisings, the community potlucks, or the four-part-harmony hymn sings, where everyone is involved, and the outcome is inspiring. It’s also great for trust-building and community cohesion.

Making that shift from a sermon to a barn-raising, potluck or hymn sing requires, of course, that we all make a shift in perspective. It’s arguably easier to sit quietly in a church pew and nod off to a sermon-induced sleep than it is to actively engage in the co-creation of a service. It’s easier to keep the discussion in the philosophical or climate scriptural than it is to actively engage with the lived experience of the congregation gathered.

But at a time when distrust is high, this is exactly the kind of work that’s needed. Reengaging the disengaged, leading together, and finding new ways to build, eat and sing together. That’s how we make it real for folks. And that’s the kind of community people want.

Dr. Michael Shank is the director of engagement at the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and an adjunct professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and a visiting scholar at George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.