By Luc Bourassa, Alcoa Foundation Earthwatch Fellow
Alcoa is more than a leader in aluminum production; it’s a leader in sustainability. As an Earthwatch partner, the company has created the Alcoa Employee Sustainability Fellowship program, an initiative that sends 25 Alcoa employees per year on weeklong Earthwatch expeditions in Brazil, Canada, and France. The goal of the initiative is to raise employees’ awareness of key climate change and sustainability issues as they relate to forests, carbon, and ecosystem services, and to empower them to become advocates for Alcoa’s commitment to sustainability. In 2012, Luc Bourassa was awarded this fellowship and it changed his mindset in surprising ways.
I came back from my Earthwatch experience almost four years ago. In the summer of 2012, I spent a full week in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, measuring trees, counting monkeys, and making new friends.
I came back from Brazil almost four years ago but, come to think of it, I actually never came back. The experience changed me in such a way that I am not today the same person I was when I left. That’s what Earthwatch does to you.
I was one of the lucky Alcoa employees who received the opportunity to join an Earthwatch expedition. The experience is quite unsettling, in a good way. You figure it is going to be all about the forest, the plants, the river, or the frogs… that you are going to learn so many things about monkeys, dolphins, bugs, or plants. You get all excited about a full week out there, unwired.
And then you board a plane for the return home, and it hits you: the experience was actually about you, and about your relationship with the world.
Not a week goes by that I don’t think back to that experience, to the friends I made, many of whom I’m still in touch with today, but mostly about the things I learned that I try to apply in my daily life, at home with my wife Stéphanie and our three kids, and through my community engagement.
Because, once you understand that what happens in Brazil can have an impact thousands of miles from there, and that whatever decisions you make today will bear consequences – small or large – for years to come, you start acting differently. You start worrying about the little things. You see that the needed changes are as much about the big corporations as they are about individual citizens.
You may be just one small piece of the puzzle, but that puzzle is incomplete if you’re not a part of it.
I came back from Brazil wanting to make a difference. I had the strong belief that I needed to pay it forward. To multiply what I received. To awaken young minds and fully engage them in that mindset as they become tomorrow’s leaders.
So upon my return, as a board member of a local NGO involved in sustainability issues, I designed – along with Earthwatch staffers – an initiative that would provide funding for two teenagers a year from my community to participate in Earthwatch expeditions. I pitched it to the board, but they had some initial reservations: What difference would two teenagers make? What would they learn across the globe that they could use back home?
I was prepared. Two teenagers a year for 20 years adds up to 40 teenagers – 40 engaged teenagers who will become teachers, lawyers, and city counsellors, who will indeed make a difference! I told them about my own experience: traveling to Brazil gave me context, but the real lessons had been learned from within.
The board members agreed to a three-year pilot. In the summer of 2013, 2014, and 2015, we sent Elisabeth, Kelsy, Naomie, Alexy, Amélie and Myriam to California (Whales and Dolphins Under the California Sun), the French Pyrenees (Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees), and Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico’s Rainforest).
I put all six individuals on the plane myself and I lunched with all six upon their return. I know that it made a difference in their lives and has helped to shape the adults they are now becoming. They are now Earthwatch advocates. We involve each pair of fellows in the following year’s selection process and they now want the program to grow as much as I do. We were recently rewarded with good news. The board has confirmed funding for a second three-year cycle!
All of that started four years ago in the Brazilian jungle because my employer had – and still has – the belief that we can make a difference, one individual at a time.
And because a seed was planted, took root, and has grown ever since.
I came back from Brazil four years ago, but I never really came back. And I know that any Earthwatch fellow will tell you the exact same thing. Although the names, the places and the stories may not be the same, the change they impart will be.
That’s what Earthwatch does to you.