Partnerships for Peace: Story of "The Green Changemakers", winnner of the Green Skills Award 2022
From catastrophe to collaboration
When in 2020 Croatia suffered a devastating earthquake in Zagreb and then another in Petrinja, Sanja Pavlovic Sijanovic,a computer science teacher from Vukovar High School, was compelled to think not only about how to respond to people's most immediate basic needs, but also about the environment in general and and how to protect it.
“Within 10 seconds houses were gone, and people were left with no shelter, heating, or running water,” she says.
The fundamental need to change the way we work and live in order to protect the planet is recognised by the European Training Foundation (ETF), the EU agency working with the EU’s neighbouring regions to support education and labour market reforms. Its Green Skills Award, which recognises the most innovative environmental and sustainable teaching initiatives from around the world, was last year won by Pavlovic Sijanovic’s sustainability partnership project, driven in part by the memories of the earthquakes a few years prior.
“Our partner technical school from Karlovac travelled there, talked to people and donated emergency supplies. We didn’t go from Vukovar, as we are 400 km away, but we published stories on our blog, and saw the photos they posted.”
That experience strengthened the bond between these two schools and another in the capital, Industrial Engineering School Zagreb.
“I empathized and started thinking more about energy sources, food and clothes, so they could rebuild,” she says.
Separately, on television and via the Internet, Sijanovic was regularly hearing about the harm caused by CO2 emissions from factories and cars, the extraction of fossil fuels and the European Union (EU) drive, for example, to use solar energy and electric cars more in the future.
This growing awareness and her recent experiences led to the Green Changemakers’ collaboration with the two other Croatian schools, and later two more in Armenia and Turkey. “That was the trigger,” she says.
Sijanovic adds that coming first in the European Training Foundation’s (ETF’S) Green Skills Award for the Green Changemakers’ project was one of the greatest moments of her life.
“We were watching it live with our students and projecting it onto the big screen at school,” she explains. “We knew we were among the 10 finalists, and as they named the third and second place winners, and we weren’t mentioned, we increasingly felt sad and disappointed. However, when they announced us as the winners, everybody started screaming, hugging, and jumping; it was a wonderful feeling. Our partners were watching as well, and were so excited…”
The Green Changemakers began because teachers wanted to integrate green technologies and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the curriculum in a way that would engage and stimulate students. Sanja and her kinesiology teacher husband, Davor, then decided to seek partners through an online e-twinning project. “We sent off 20 applications to primary and secondary schools and a number showed interest, but some then participated less and effectively self-excluded, leaving the three in Croatia, plus Anatolian School Yunus Emre from Turkey, and Karmirgyugh N1 secondary school, from Armenia,” she says.
Together, these five schools embarked on more than 40 shared activities over a year that raised awareness about sustainable development in a cross-cultural context. Daily logs, video reports and online meetings between the various schools ensured that communication was fluid and activities acted as both learning tools and inspiration. In this way, the project helped students to develop a critical mindset and make informed choices about greening their lifestyles.
“On World Good Deeds Day, for example, students collected food and books and donated them to local charities,” explains Sijanovic. “Further, the Croatian schools sent books in English and Croatian to their twin school in Turkey, which students described as a beautiful surprise. They also created an open-air library – or a ‘house for books’ – to promote the culture of reading through increasing the availability of books and other materials. Anyone can donate or borrow a book from these libraries within the guidelines,” she explains.
Armenian students made a Christmas tree from toilet roll tubes and plastic bottles – demonstrating SDGs 4, 9, 11, 12 and 15 – which inspired those from the vocational education and training school in Zagreb to do the same, but with scrap aluminum and other materials.
“It is very cold in Armenia, so students decided to help take care of birds and bugs with shelters,” explains Sijanovic. “This inspired one of our students to build a ‘hotel for bugs’ so that they can survive through the snowy winter.”
Partnerships for peace
The e-twinning project closed this year and, according to Sijanovic, was a wonderful experience. “It definitely raised awareness about sustainability and how we can contribute to meeting the SDGs,” she says.
“In Vukovar, we have built on the Green Changemakers’ collaboration by constructing a ‘green tech park’ with a number of prototypes for green energy,” she continues. “These include working models of a water mill, windmill, solar farm, and smart agricultural farm, all of which produce electricity and have been used to present to other organizations.”
The participating schools maintain contact through the e-twinning webpage. “A teacher from Turkey told me a few days ago, for example, that she had used Green Changemakers to help win another award in Turkey,” she says. “And we always highlight our award-winning project in our webinars.”
Students who collaborated and exchanged ideas through the project have grown in confidence. “That is now part of their daily lifestyle,” Sijanovic says.
By coincidence, the collaborating schools are all from countries that have suffered war and conflict, and therefore have a special interest in SDG 16 that seeks to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development […].”
Sijanovic explains that Vukovar was completely destroyed in the war 30 years ago, which is one reason why Croatia is now a leader for reconciliation and unity in Eastern Europe. “We experienced horrible destruction at that time, which is why our school will always promote peace and share our experience with other countries,” she says.
“Turkey and Armenia, because of their conflict, can identify with that experience and that is another way in which our spirit of collaboration binds us.”