Using the Active Witnessing Model to Tackle Environmental Issues

Written by Renmart Buhay, a Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology student.

Recently, during one of my staff training days, I was introduced to the Active Witnessing Model. What is Active Witnessing?

Active Witnessing is a mode of action where individuals move beyond the bystander role and move towards social responsibility. The Active Witnessing model was created by Dr. Ishu Ishiyama, Associate Professor of Counselling Psychology from the University of British Columbia. Based on an anti-oppression framework, the model fosters individuals to take action in situations that perpetuate forms of discrimination and social injustice in order to promote community safety. While this model applies to social sustainability I think it also works in an environmental perspective when looking at the context of environmental issues negatively affecting people in our communities.

Why does this matter?

When looking at the news regarding issues like climate change, the public response in Canada can range from intimidation and apathy to skepticism. Most commonly, people end up being bystanders towards environmental issue, thus contributing to the bystander effect, the phenomenon where individuals observe conflict or negative behaviour but take no action. That’s why I think this model is useful in self-analyzing how we perpetuate environmental and social issues through our habits, actions or lack of action. This model also focuses on intercultural understanding of how our actions and words can affect people in our communities and beyond. In dealing with environmental issues, a lot of empathy and social responsibility is needed for the indigenous communities and vulnerable populations affected by climate change.

In summary, the Active Witnessing Model it is arranged into four levels of witnessing.

The lowest level is Dis-witnessing: the individual is unable to recognize the context that they are in. Not hearing, not seeing, not feeling and not doing.

The next level up is where most people fall into Passive Witnessing: This is when the individual begins to enter into the witnessing stage. They are beginning to recognize the context they are in and are responding privately in their own head. The individual is engaged emotionally but not externally. Hearing, seeing, and feeling, but not doing.

The level where meaningful action starts is Active Witnessing: The individual is putting their awareness into action by critically self-reflecting. They are engaged both emotionally and intellectually. Hearing, seeing, feeling and doing.

The final and most challenging level is Ethical Witnessing with Social Action: In this stage the individual goes beyond critically self-reflecting and takes action at the social level. It involves starting campaigns, engaging in dialogue and educating others. The individual os moving beyond merely “hearing, seeing, feeling and doing” towards social leadership.

What to take away from this?

Reflecting on Embark Sustainability’s focus on student leadership, I think that we are on the right track towards making meaningful changes. Leadership is important in making positive social change, but it also requires components in Active Witnessing like critical awareness, empathy, courage and self-reflection. It is only when our communities empower individuals with social responsibility that we can make important strides to engage and address complex issues like climate change. Also, as we try to strengthen our communities and build social capital, it is important that we always try to maintain intercultural understanding and connection within our communities. By looking at the bigger picture and moving beyond ourselves, we can find many reasons to be passionate in mitigating the harmful environmental issues of our time. What I hope you can take away from this model is that when we try to understand and try to care about the issues happening to the people and the planet we can better connect and communicate in a way that is healthy for everyone.

SFU students, as we strive to build a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive planet, I hope you can think of ways to be active witnesses in making positive social and environmental changes! 


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