Lisa Bardwell

2017 Enos A. Mills Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient

Lisa Bardwell, 2017 Enos Mills Recipient

For over 35 years, Lisa Bardwell has been an exceptional role model for innovation, research, and leadership in environmental education (EE).  Her vision and drive to have people work together to understand their relationships and connections to environmental systems have had a profound and lasting impact on Colorado and the nation.  She is a fearless facilitator for and supporter of the power of community whether it be engaging young people as agents of change or working across sectors to ensure all the players have the resources they need to be effective environmental advocates. 

A Colorado native, Lisa grew up in a family steeped in the values of social justice and of fighting for a more fair and truly democratic society.  A powerful legacy, Lisa’s deep belief in synergism through the power of collaboration, where there’s always space for others to be involved and room for them to grow, as well as a passionate commitment to the common good has impacted hundreds of leaders, young adults, and students who are now leaders in their own right.  Mentored by Lisa, these leaders are now professionals in the corporate world, in education, in the environmental field, and in government.  Those affected by Lisa’s lessons of inclusivity, environmental efficacy, and civic engagement carry with them a capacity to engage a boarder range of stakeholders in their own work.  

After graduating from University of Denver (DU) in 1978 with her bachelor’s degree, Lisa’s career started at the Denver Museum of Natural History (now of Nature and Science) where she worked in Zoological Collections and led urban nature trips focused on instilling fascination with nearby nature—in the crack in the sidewalk, the ponds, and trees of City Park.  Lisa left Denver in 1984 for graduate school at University of Michigan (UM), hoping to up her expertise in urban nature.  She had no idea what a fortuitous choice it was. 

The 1980s were the heyday of the environmental movement and UM was an epicenter. She worked with Bill Stapp, and participated in the beginnings of Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN).  She and her colleagues were engaged in conversations around environment and social justice.  She collaborated with Rachel and Steve Kaplan, whose research underpins much of our understanding about the importance of nature on human functioning.  Lisa had the honor of being part of the team to receive the first EPA Environmental Education and Training grant to fund the National Consortium for Environmental Education and Training (NCEET).  This effort reflected convictions that would guided Lisa’s work for the next 25 years—insisting on civic action as essential to high quality EE, expanding the boundaries of EE by elevating the role of community and young people, and pushing the hard conversations around privilege and environmental equity. 

Lisa’s commitment to civic action in EE emerged in part from real data.  She fought her own despair around environmental issues in the 80s recognizing that despair all too often leads to apathy.  Her dissertation looked at the impact of how we frame a problem on people’s willingness and sense of efficacy around addressing it.  While she worked to integrate her findings into her teaching at UM and then Utah State University, these findings were validated and manifested in her work with FrontRange Earth Force, a nonprofit working to engage middle school youth as active citizens who improve the environment and their communities.  Earth Force’s approach mirrored the findings in her dissertation around helping people to be effective problem solvers, and to address those problems in ways that facilitate their ability to take meaningful action.  For the next 17 years, Lisa played a critical leadership role at Earth Force.  She co-founded the Front Range office and later became CEO of the national organization.

Throughout her career, Lisa has been unwaveringly committed to communities that are politically marginalized and environmentally degraded.  Her personal and professional commitment to inclusivity emphasizes her ability to work authentically in those communities.  She put the voice of the community at the center giving it priority in any community-focused work.  Earth Force gave her a platform to advocate for the revolutionary approach of young people becoming stakeholders in environmental work: “You don’t have to be 18 to be a change agent in your community.”  She pushed that EE isn’t just about getting young people out into the environment; it’s about connecting young people to a sense of place, elevating youth to leadership roles, and helping youth develop the knowledge and skills necessary to be engaged and lifelong environmental citizens. 

Lisa’s greatest talent is seeing the possibilities, potential, and power of working together and building connections.  She adopted the idea of “uncommon collaboratives” as a way of bringing groups to the table where the agenda is shared, not stacked, and the dialogue is deliberative, not divisive.  Lisa was instrumental in bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders in Northeast Denver who committed to addressing environmental issues and engaging young people in one of Denver's most under-resourced communities.  Work that started with Healthy Air for Northeast Denver continued with the establishment of a Youth Engagement Zone.  With funding from the Corporation for National and Community Service, Lisa engaged partners who represented various sectors—K-12, higher education, public and private organizations, all working together to more effectively and better support students as they went out into their community to identify, research, and address environmental issues. 

Lisa’s determination, compassion, insight, resourcefulness, and enthusiasm combine to make her a coveted thought leader and mentor.  She was asked to serve on Greenprint Denver, and then as chair of Denver’s Office of Sustainability Advisory Council, responsible for agenda setting and facilitation of the Council.  As a Governor-appointed member of Colorado’s Pollution Prevention Advisory Board, she helped develop pollution prevention goals and supported non-regulatory public and private efforts that promote pollution prevention.  She has served on the founding boards of a number of nonprofits, including cityWILD, HECHO, and Groundwork Denver, and is currently Board President for the Beaver Ponds Environmental Education Center in Fairplay, Colorado.

Since leaving Earth Force, Lisa has returned to academia as adjunct faculty at DU, teaching in its Pioneer Leadership Program. She is also consulting for reDirect, a foundation established by the Kaplans to bring their research findings to nonprofits across the country.  Both of these endeavors have allowed Lisa to continue work she cares most about – nurturing the growth of leaders and organizations who commit to being part of positive change, and who see the value of supportive environments, be they built, natural, or informational, in ensuring a healthy, sustainable future for all.

Donny Roush, former Earth Force Program Manager, shares, “Our community, our state, and our profession are stronger and more resilient because of Lisa’s work, and the multiplier effect of those inspired by Lisa’s work.  Her leadership is quiet, sustained, and often visible only in its results.  She does not seek the spotlight…though I hope it finds her once again with this award.”