Activism and Our Day Jobs

At the December climate strike in Lewisburg, PA. Photo: Julie Louisa Hagenbuch

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The latest in our “Not Your Day Job series.

Can we teach and research our way out of our current social and ecological crises? If the answer is no (spoiler: it is), then how willing are we to engage in activism and advocacy, pursuits that are not our day jobs? 

In our lifetimes, we have  witnessed accelerating environmental transformationwidening economic inequality, and a well-funded opposition delaying climate action by buying politicians and bankrolling disinformation campaigns. Just in the past twelve months, we have watched (and participated in) the largest demonstrations for climate justice in global history. This new wave of the environmental movement is led by teenagers who have yet to step foot in a college classroom. In the face of this, our scholarship on nature’s past can feel insignificant, ill-suited even, in a historical moment that calls desperately for action.

This is certainly how I have felt. And so, in the last year, I have waded into the worlds of community organizing and nonviolent direct-action campaigning. Today, I help coordinate a climate action group with roughly 30 active members and an email list of more than 700 supporters. We have moved the needle of climate action at our university and with our local municipality. Nearly all of my time working with this organization has been off-the-clock: on nights and weekends, on sabbatical, and without expecting much of it to count toward promotion or tenure. For anyone out there contemplating activism and trying to square it with your everyday responsibilities, please enjoy these reflections and lessons learned.

Fig. 1. Standing with students, faculty, staff, and community members for a “Green Out” in support of a Green New Deal in February 2019. Photo: Megan Martzolff.

Starting somewhere 
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Emma Marris shares a 5 step plan for moving past climate anxiety into meaningful action:

  1. Ditch the shame about your contribution to the crisis.
  2. Focus on systems, not yourself.
  3. Join an effective group.
  4. Define your role.
  5. Know what you are fighting for, not just what you are fighting against.

Because you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you have already arrived at either step #2 or #3. Good for you! Now, there are likely a handful of organizations on or around your campus fighting for climate justice at the system level. You probably already know people in these groups. Ask yourself: which have made real gains, earned meaningful wins in recent years? Then, show up to a meeting.

My own story is a bit more complicated, but not really. I work at private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, whose reputation for sustainability efforts is decidedly middling. In February 2019, I sent an email to some friends, asking if anyone else wanted to work on climate advocacy together. A dozen folks responded (encouraging!). We met one night to talk about the Green New Deal resolution that was being rolled out in U.S. Congress. Other than that, there was no agenda. 

I was surprised at the cathartic release of simply sharing my concerns with like-minded folks. We decided to formulate a plan of action (i.e. leaning toward Step 4 above). On Feb. 26, the day the resolution officially entered the House of Representatives and Senate, we held a “Green Out” flash mob photo in front of the campus science building (see Fig 1, above). When we circulated the photo via social media and saw hundreds of similar groups around the country doing the same, it felt empowering to know we were part of a movement for social change.

Giving what you can
Admittedly, our primary roles as academics complicate our identities as activists. How do we do this while keeping up with teaching and research? How should we weigh the interpersonal and professional risks of speaking out against the pressing need for action? Historians in particular may be reluctant to engage in advocacy for a number of reasons: disciplinary standards around “presentism,” the limitations placed on our work by publishers, or a general fear that applied scholarship is dismissed as “political.”

Bill Moyer’s “4 Roles of Social Activism” provides a handy framework. According to Moyer, activism manifests in four roles: Citizens, Reformers, Change Agents, and Rebels. Environmental historians are accustomed to being Citizens and Reformers — promoting widely held values, like justice and sustainability, while using official channels to make change (think shared faculty governance or public hearings). In April of 2019, after being energized by our “Green Out” photo, my group organized a Town Hall on the Green New Deal resolution that had been recently introduced to the U.S. Congress. A set of bold proposals to tackle the climate crisis and social inequality together, the Green New Deal shifted the center of gravity of climate discourse in the United States. We wanted to convene a conversation about what a Green New Deal could look like for central Pennsylvania. Students designed the event, which included a kick-off song by a local musician and a fascinating panel of dairy farmers, a resident of the nearby Anthracite coal region, and students. I played the role of facilitator during Q&A. What emerged from that event was a sense that, despite media sensationalism around the Green New Deal, the resolution did appeal to people of various occupations, economic situations, and ideologies. When we host such conversations around key environmental conflicts or emerging policy solutions, we’re occupying both the Citizen and Reformer roles (see Fig 2, below). But what would it look like to be a Change Agent or a Rebel? 

Fig 2. Facilitating Q&A with dairy farmers, a resident of the Anthracite coal region, and a student at a Town Hall in April 2019. Photo: Alex Gao.

It doesn’t have to look like chaining yourself to a tree or marching in the streets (though it can). A Rebel, in Moyer’s definition, is anyone who says No! to violations of widely held values, by targeting powerholders with nonviolent direct-action. Similarly, a Change Agent organizes an engaged citizenry by building grassroots organizations and networks. If you are not yet comfortable with leading nonviolent direct-actions or organizations, you can support them. One of the most sought-after resources of Change Agents and Rebels is money. Many academics have plenty of it. Why not give some to a local effective climate activism group – like that one you just joined? We can also offer meeting space and housing to the Rebels and Change Agents among us. More senior scholars have a unique ability to amplify messages and campaigns at universities, because of our particular form of free speech and our access to campus-wide list-servs. For other ideas on how to explore the roles of Change Agent and Rebel, check out this list from the Sunrise Movement.

Creating the world we want
As environmental historians, we seek to promote a long-term perspective, to put issues on society’s agenda, and to insert a creative tension between what is and what was — so we can envision what could be. These are exactly the aims of the Change Agent and the Rebel in Moyer’s taxonomy of activists. Like our teaching and research, we can think of activism as a praxis: a process by which a skill is embodied and enacted. Whether in conference halls or town halls, we are building cultures of equity, exchange, and empowerment. We are creating the world we want.

Our syllabi and research agendas sprout from the kernel of an idea–an inkling that we’re on to something. This is how our activism ought to grow too: with a growing recognition that there is more (than) work to do.

*I am certainly not the only one out here doing this work alongside teaching, research, and other forms of service. I lay no claims to expertise and I have many privileges, which allow me to do this with few roadblocks, little resistance, and little fear of retribution. Beyond my identities that place me in the dominant cultures of society and academia, I have tenure at my institution. I definitely would not feel as comfortable in activism and advocacy without it. To those of us who enjoy this job security, we should take advantage of it and lead the way.

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