Struggle & Surrender: Making Real Change

Harriet Freeman is a student at LSE, here she gives a student perspective on the trials and tribulations of running a successful sustainability campaign in a large institution.

As you can imagine, making sustainability projects work on a shoestring budget is going to be a challenge for any university student.

It’s not only the limited funding that pierces through our ambitious eco-visions. Think about the vast bureaucratic web of university management - necessarily replete with ego, condescension and administrative jargon - which one has to wade through tirelessly, just to see that a few information posters can be put up in campus toilets. Not to mention the demands from your actual degree constantly tugging at your conscience.

So, it’s kind-of no wonder that my campaign - Free the Flush, which tries to get LSE folks to stop flushing wet wipes, tampons and even clothes (I’m confused too) down the toilet - has not yet transformed our university into a blockage-free oasis demonstrating impeccable disposal behaviours. Traumatised by seeing thousands of wipes strewn for miles across the Thames’ riverbanks in London, leaked from sewers, I started this project with the lofty goal of making toilet chat cool and engaging enough to bring eco-consciousness to the bathroom.

Last week I was invited as the first ever student to present on the EAUC webinar “Living Labs” and talk to sustainability professionals from across the UK about my experience of Free the Flush.

What I really wanted to do was dazzle the crowd with tables and graphs and all things quantitative, showing how amazingly effective my campaign has been in saving the environment whilst saving the university gajillions of pounds from reduced toilet maintenance. But alas, I chose to let them in on the truth about my struggles: I surrendered. In a big way.

I think I even used the word “heart-wrenching” at one point when describing my frustration in seeing my authorised campaign materials taken down by LSE Facilities, which I put up single-handedly over an accumulative 15 hours. Or was it when I described the moment I saw, on a solitary Friday night as I went to the library toilets, that Facilities had actually (very poorly) imitated my campaign without telling me?

By the end of my presentation I was exhausted by this fairly gruelling divulsion. I listened to the proceeding silence over Skype for Business from my esteemed audience.

However, one by one, I began receiving feedback relishing in my honesty to the group - and most importantly, to myself.

Free the Flush has not gone to plan - but actually, that’s fine. Good, even? I’ve held my hands in the air and declared the need for adaptations, overhauls and outside input to strategy, at multiple points. For example, I was called into Facilities just the other week and met with a couple of concerned faces, the pungency of fresh paint (#LSEbuildingsite) and poised pens over Pukka Pads.

“It appears that your campaign is causing people to not flush the toilet at all, as people interpret Free the Flush as Don’t Flush. What do you propose we do?”

What bizarre proof of LSE’s diversity of thought, hey?

This unforeseen dilemma has actually caused decision-makers (in the maze of the LSE hierarchical system) to sit up, take notice to the potential power of this project and devote more resources to it: people are responding to the campaign, so what messaging do we need to refine and how to get them to respond in the right way?

So it seems Making Real Change comes from one’s attitude far more than when Things Going To Plan.

Hence, I will end on sharing three lessons I’ve cobbled on the trot to build resilience:
1) Focus on the sincere, authentic interactions with people who have been informed, educated and emboldened as a result of your work.

For example, tens of women I’ve spoken to have been no less than horrified when confronted with the knowledge that their sanitary products are laden with chemicals - as are many men vis-a-vis condoms. It has been quite incredible to be the conduit of this information helping people look after their own health as well as that of the environment. Yes, this is only one campaign in one university, but word of mouth is a powerful thing.

2) Make a real effort to show those in formal power positions who have supported you that you recognise their help and truly appreciate it.

3) Not everyone is going to like you, take to the campaign or agree with you - and that's seriously OK.
Delivered by EAUC