Calgary mom Amber Bennett is building bridges between Albertans

Amber Bennett (2nd from r) with her husband, Shaun, and kiddos Louis (l) and Charlie.

We’ve all had them: those parenting moments we wish we could take back and do over.

Amber Bennett remembers one such “horrible” moment with her older son, Louis, now nearly seven. “He was about three, and he had a playdate, and we were late. I was preoccupied with shoving him in the car so that we could get there. And he was just losing his mind — he was preoccupied with what he wanted.”

What Louis wanted, as it turns out, was tiny: a bit of padding had come loose from a mask he wanted to take on his playdate, and he desperately needed his mom to put it back in place.

“It would’ve been so easy to pick up the pad, stick it back on the mask, and we could’ve avoided this huge scene,” recalls Amber, who is also mom to Charlie, 3½. “But I didn’t listen to him. I didn’t take the time to find out what was so important to him, what he wanted. And so, we had the scene.”

Louis and his brother are doing great, for the record. And — after recovering from her initial guilt — their mom, 42, is chill enough to know that we get plenty of do-over moments as parents. But she thinks of that interaction with Louis often in the course of her work. As a principal at Calgary-based Upãya Consulting, Amber’s job is to find effective ways to talk about climate change in ways that make sense to people who aren’t scientists or environmentalists.

For too long, she says, we’ve been talking about climate change in ways that don’t resonate with — and in fact, often alienate — many citizens. “If you’re not an environmentalist or a scientist, climate change stories don’t make sense to you. They’re asking you to be someone different than you are, to adopt values that seem different from your own. And that leads to a profound disconnect.”

Finding ways to connect is especially compelling in Alberta, the heart of Canada’s oil and gas industry. In the past decade and a half, as the implications of burning and transporting fossil fuels have become more apparent, Albertans involved in the sector are bewildered and “quite heartbroken” about the way public sentiment has shifted against them. “They haven’t changed, but they suddenly become the bad guys. They’ve turned into the ones who are ‘killing the environment.’ And they’re feeling guilty and ashamed because of what they do.”

And here’s the thing, the crux of Amber’s approach to climate-change conversations (not to mention parenting): “If you tell someone that they’re a bad person and that what they’re doing is wrong, of course, they’re going to walk away. And then you don’t get to have conversations at all.”

That philosophy underpins Amber’s consulting work. She finds ways to get fellow Albertans to engage with environmental issues — like buying into a new curbside recycling program, finding ways to encourage citizens to interact (sustainably) with Calgary’s gorgeous river and natural landscapes, or working with all-terrain vehicle (ATV) drivers to tread carefully in fragile river ecosystems.

“I’m passionate about making problems meaningful to people,” she says. And that means digging deep into the viewpoints of a wide variety of citizens and stakeholders to find out what’s important to them, and what they want. It means taking the time to listen.

That ATV project, for example, had Amber turning traditional “behaviour-change campaign” strategies upside down. Instead of putting up signs, shoving information at people, asking drivers to take pledges to use bridges and stay on trails, she dug in, visiting the backcountry and conducting a series of in-depth interviews with quad drivers to understand their side of the story. “What do you love about this place? What do you need to do to protect it?”

“What we found was that they saw quadding as a way to spend time with their families, outside in nature. I mean, try telling someone that they’re bad for wanting to connect with their families and nature — which is what traditional environmental narratives have done.”

No wonder, says Amber, that ATV drivers didn’t trust environmental organizations. “They needed to hear the information from their peers, and we needed to build trust between the two communities.”

You have to cede some ground. And then, maybe, at the end of the day, you still get to where you needed to be, even if it wasn’t entirely on the path you would have chosen.

Amber and her colleagues found people in the quadding community who could legitimately engage with their peers about the need to protect sensitive waterways. They set up trust-building initiatives, including one where drivers and environmentalists worked together to — literally and figuratively — build a bridge for off-road vehicles. “And when the bridge was later vandalized, it was the ATV community that took to social media to call out the vandals and defend the project.”

Amber and Upãya are just wrapping up work on The Alberta Narratives Project. Working with UK-based Climate Outreach, the project trains people to have conversations with a broad mix of Albertans — people of faith, farmers, Indigenous communities, teachers, youth, government workers, ranchers, oil and gas workers — about what climate change means to them and their potential approaches and solutions to it. With more than 60 conversations to date, the project provides a uniquely Albertan perspective that will, ideally, lead to policies and strategies that people across the province can engage with. “Everybody cares about something,” she says. “We have to put in the work to find out what.”

“I never planned to be a consultant,” says Amber. When Louis was just nine months old, though, the idea of returning to her full-time job with the city just didn’t make sense to her. “I really couldn’t imagine leaving him then.” So she decided to take on consulting projects with the city, and the work has been pouring in steadily ever since.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that her children inform Amber’s work. So much of parenting, she says, is about being willing to change and to compromise. “You can’t have it your way all the time — otherwise your entire experience of your children is you saying no and fighting with them. You have to cede some ground. And then, maybe, at the end of the day, you still get to where you needed to be, even if it wasn’t entirely on the path you would have chosen.

“With climate change, I think we might get to where we need to be if we stop vilifying businesses and conservatives and entire industries and even each other. Maybe at the end of the day, if we listen to what everybody needs, we can have a whole suite of different solutions that get us to where we need to be — even if it’s on a path different than the one we originally envisioned.”

 


SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.

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The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.

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