Environmental Humanities, Public Engagement, and Community-Based Research

Off George Street, St. John's, NFLD. Source: Sean Kheraj, 2018.

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Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of posts focused on environmental humanities and public engagement. These posts emerged from a workshop held at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Nexus Centre for Humanities and Social Science Research in May 2018 called, “Environmental Humanities in the Public Realm.” Click here to read the entire series.

In May of 2018 a group of interdisciplinary scholars met at the Nexus Centre on the campus of Memorial University of Newfoundland for an Environmental Humanities in the Public Realm workshop (or, #EnvHumWorkshop as we tagged it in our social media posts). The Nexus Centre was a great host for this particular workshop, as it is an interdisciplinary research institute with a mission to foster interdisciplinary connections within MUN, with other universities, and within public settings.

There were historians, economists, scientists, philosophers, literary scholars, and advocates in attendance with the goal of discussing the ways that we, as academic researchers, can do better at bringing environmental humanities research into the public realm.

The idea of bringing environmental humanities research to the public appealed to me greatly, but as I was preparing my talk for the workshop’s Student Day, I struggled to see how my work on the environmental history of gold mining and resource colonialism in the Yukon fit within the greater theme of the workshop. But by the end of the workshop, I felt more engaged and more motivated by what I learned over the course of those three days, and began to see the many possibilities of my particular research engaging in public work. For those not familiar or presently engaged in public-facing work the task may seem daunting, but what the participants of this workshop made clear through presentations and discussions is that bringing our work to the public realm does not have to be an overwhelming task. In fact, you are likely engaged in public work already without even realizing it.

So, what does it mean to bring environmental humanities research to the public realm? Well, in short, it means engaging with communities and organizations outside of the academic setting. By ensuring our work is publicly-engaged, we listen to the needs of those we work with, and sometimes that means adjusting our research questions or research approaches to fit best with community research protocols. It also means being engaged in the production and dissemination of public knowledge and scholarship; this ranges widely from writing in open-access venues, to co-authoring with community members, to engaging in creative outputs like podcasts, art, and film.  Finally, it means thinking more critically about the contributions that our research can make to the wider public. This means asking ourselves: For who are we writing? What do we hope to achieve with our work? And how can we go about achieving these goals?

We must speak to non-academic audiences. Engaging with the public encourages us to rethink the way we present information and provides us with a transferable skill set. It offers us an opportunity to extend the ways we reach audiences, an increasingly important skill in a political and social climate where our work in environmental research is crucial. The question of audience was one that we discussed in depth during the Student Day. We discussed the various groups we can reach with our work from other academics, to policy makers, to the mass/general public. In order to reach those we intend to, we must determine who our audience is, and then define goals for engaging and disseminating information to those groups. Taking our work to public audiences means practicing adaptability.

We also discussed a wide range of ways of doing publicly-engaged work, including things like social media, storytelling, and activism. Publicly-engaged work allows us to take creative approaches in disseminating information. Jessica DeWitt gave a fantastic talk about using social media as a form of public history. For those active on social media platforms, especially Twitter, you know that there are large networks and online communities dedicated to discussing and debating topics of concern to each group. Within the environmental history network (#envhist), the members of this online community are not only academic scholars, but share insight and information from diverse backgrounds. We also discussed the multiple methods of storytelling we can use in the public realm including poetry, music, art, film, theatre, and podcasts.

Intricately tied with both social media and storytelling is the role of activism as a form of knowledge mobilization. Many of us at this workshop, who study environmental humanities, identified as advocates, activists, or allies in some capacity, and the research work we do and our value systems often coincide. Some of our discussions about activism, allyship, or being an advocate included questions of how settlers can contribute and lend support to Indigenous resistance to ongoing colonialism and fossil capitalism. Ashlee Consolo with the Labrador Institute gave a fascinating presentation on the connections with climate change and health and stressed that the ways in which northern communities express ecological grief, loss of identity, food insecurity, and decline in traditional practices are through telling stories.

These examples are only a few of the creative approaches we discussed during the workshop, but what stood out most for me was the focus on ethics and responsibility to stakeholders that publicly-engaged scholars think about in each stage of their work. Throughout my doctoral research, I worked with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation under a Traditional Knowledge Research Protocol. Since finishing my PhD I have continued working with them in trying to develop some research projects that address their historical and heritage research priorities. Lessons from this workshop were invaluable for doing Indigenous-focused research, but these lessons are further important for working with any community, as Max Liboiron with CLEAR discussed in depth. In short form, here is a list of six important lessons to think through in doing any community-engaged work:

  • Research should be useful to the communities in which you work. This is best achieved by community-based work, rooting the research within the community, and forming questions that people want answers to.
  • Know the community you work in. Do background research and spend time there. Relationship building takes time, and is a crucial step before jumping into knowledge production.
  • Be aware of the ways in which your research can be harmful to the communities in which you work
  • Try to disseminate as much of your research results as possible in open-access venues to better enable non-academic communities ability to read and engage with your work
  • Report back results. Don’t extract their knowledge and time without providing something in return.
  • Acknowledge the community’s right to participate or decline participation in your research. Safety and comfort are more important than research results.

In summary, a key theme that emerged from this workshop is that research should be useful to the public. This could mean through policy relevant work, using environmental humanities toward political transformation, community-based research, or reaching wider general audiences. For me, as an environmental historian, one of the most important questions that provoked reflection was the following: how do we make sure the historical research we do is beneficial? I am not an expert, but that very question is what underpins much of what drew me to environmental history to begin with, and it is something I strive to engage with. We have a wide range of approaches available to us in addressing publicly-engaged work, and these approaches not only offer us opportunity to get our work out to those it may effect, but through this process we develop an invaluable sets of skills that focus on adaptability, creativity, and compassionate reflection and awareness.

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Heather Green is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Saint Mary's University. She is interested in the intersections of environmental and Indigenous histories, histories of Indigenous and Settler Relations, and mining history, particularly in the Canadian North. You can connect with her on twitter @heathergreen21.

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