Notes from the Field is space where Fellows share reflections, moments, and thoughts inspired by their fellowship experience. 

Breaking down Barriers and Building Bridges: A community approach to research by Teona Williams, 2016 Fellow

If it is inaccessible to the poor, it is neither radical nor revolutionary. Those are the words that proudly cover my Facebook timeline photo. I start with this because I have always seen myself as a “woke” academic. For those of you unaware of that terminology, “woke” refers to a person who is aware of inequalities and inequities that happen all the time in the world, and works to dismantle them. Being a “woke” academic allowed me to engage in my first passion, historical research, while still feeling directly engaged in my own community of S.E Washington D.C. In essence, I could spend all day in the National Archives, and all night protesting gentrification in my neighborhood. Being a “woke” academic also allowed me to avoid the negative connotations rightly placed on academic research. In Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, I learned how research as currently practiced today has legacies of exploitation among marginalized groups. As a proud African American woman from one of those low income communities that to some would be a perfect sociological experiment, I could avoid all the pitfalls associated with academic research because I was aware of those issues. 

Enter my work with the Environmental Fellows Program. I was placed in Flint, Michigan during the aftermath of the turbulent water crisis, which the city will be dealing with for decades to come. I was an outsider in every sense of the word. I was not from Flint or Michigan. I attend an elitist institution that many Flint residents will not have the opportunity to attend, a lesson I learned painfully at one of the community events I attended. In my mind this was all okay because: I had an environmental justice background; I was “woke”; I was from a similar community. These elements of my identity shielded me from a truth I denied in myself for years: that I was trained as a “formal” academic. I was cultivated in the Ivory Tower. I am ashamed to admit this out loud, but I used jargon.

 It wasn’t until I was held accountable to a community that I really had to start wrestling with my own privilege. In academia our work is judged by institutions, it rarely is judged by the people we research. We produce to get into major publications and conferences. While the issues we highlight are important for the world to see, rarely do we have to return to that community to start working on solutions. In this community I was out of my element. I was sitting in a meeting with two Flint residents presenting my proposal, spewing out my jargon, ready to receive a standing ovation for how articulate I sounded or compliments on my well thought out proposal. Instead I received question after question, challenge after challenge. I was pushed to think in new ways. I knew whatever I produced could not be for my own gain, it had to be for the neighborhoods who would use it.

Rarely, as academics, do we have to go back to that community we spent so much time “working with” to help move beyond having a dialogue about the issues and working to find solutions.

 This project is for the community based organization that went out of their way to help me connect to residents. It is for the woman who told my friend she wanted to take her “babies” to the park, but she didn’t feel safe. It is for the grandma who told me she tries to organize trips to take her grandkids up north to swim because the water in Flint is dirty. It is for the single mother who spent 25 minutes diligently completing my survey, because she was going back to school for urban planning, and thought park development is so crucial to a neighborhood.

 My research was not my research; I was merely a vessel who had been “trained” to do it. The data and the project belongs to the neighborhoods. It was a very humbling and introspective moment for me. I realized very quickly how ingrained I was in the Ivory Tower, and how insecure I feel about my own place as an academic. I realized that I rely on jargon and theories, because I want to present myself as a “credible” researcher. I don’t want people to hear the “poverty” in my own voice. During my undergraduate years, I was immediately forced to do more than code switch, I had to assimilate so people would look at me and not see an affirmative action baby.

 Having the privilege to be accountable to a community helped me realize that I never had anything to be ashamed of. My upbringing is my strength. Doing research with a community versus for a community is my passion, and jargon is left best for those journals no one ever reads. I want the world to read and understand my work, because it is not my research, it is for my community, my family, my people.

 This blog post is dedicated to the 100 or so residents that my team and I had the honor to speak with, and for the community organizations that took the time to nurture me this summer.

Teona Williams is a second-year Master's degree student at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Her field of study is Environmental Justice, where she researches the nexus of race, class, gender, and nature. Her master thesis focuses on African American university students' attitudes towards outdoor recreation. After graduation, she plans to pursue a PhD in environmental history in which she hopes to focus on race and protected areas. Before moving to Michigan, Teona spent two and half years working at The Pew Charitable Trusts as a Communications Assistant in their international environment program. She is also a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship alum. As a Watson Fellow, she received funding to conduct research in India, South Africa, and the Caribbean for a year.

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Applying the Academy by Janae Davis, 2016 Fellow

So I’ve been hearing from various sources within and beyond the halls of the higher education that the academy is losing relevance in the applied arena. Some have suggested that there is often a disconnect between what decision makers want and what academics can offer. I’ve also heard from academics and professionals alike that this misalignment of interest combined with many academics’ lack of engagement with issues on the ground have reinforced the perception of the academy as an “ivory tower”, an elitist institution that is detached from and out of touch with the real world. As a result, the contribution of academics is often seen as irrelevant and sometimes even unwelcome in some spaces of the applied arena.   

While I’m not planning to join the academy upon graduation, it is undoubtedly my background at this point and the dominant perspective I brought to my fellowship at the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center (NWF-GLRC) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. During my time there, I had the opportunity to learn about some of the ways my studies can make a difference in conservation advocacy.  One story in particular stands out to me and I’d like to share it with you.

As a political ecologist, I study the intersections of society, the environment and forms of sociopolitical power that impact both humans and nonhumans. A major topic in political ecology is the ongoing power dynamics inherent in environmentalism – power dynamics that are rooted in historical struggles tied to race, class, gender and a variety of other social categories.  As I began my fellowship, I wondered how this knowledge could inform my work at the NWF-GLRC. As it happened, my fellowship coincided with a time when NWF-GLRC staffers were beginning to address the lack with racial diversity in their staff and networks. NWF is just one of numerous environmental organizations that have been criticized over last twenty years for its neglect to engage people of color.  Recent events in the US showing that racism permeates our social institutions (ex. police shootings, voting rights discrimination, environmental injustices) have dramatically increased attention to the issue. Dorceta Taylor’s 2014 groundbreaking report exposing the meager progress environmental organizations have made toward reflecting the racial diversity of US in their staffs served to highlight the role of the environmental movement in perpetuating systematic racial exclusion. 

At NWF-GLRC, staffers were just beginning to grapple with issues of race and white privilege in a concerted way.  It was a somewhat emotional time because some staffers were passionate about dismantling long-held biases within the organization’s work while others felt uncomfortable with the ways that engaging diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) might challenge some of the most fundamental premises that guide conservation advocacy.  For an organization like NWF that focuses on protecting wildlife, social problems and the environmental needs of humans (ex. clean drinking water) are not a priority.  The challenge for environmental organizations pursuing DEI is for them understand that their whiteness is a social problem that directly affects conservation outcomes.

As I began talking to staffers, I realized that most of them knew little about the racial and class biases that shaped the early environmental movement and how they continue to limit the participation of racial minorities today. During a meeting with my supervisor, I offered to give staff a presentation on the topic.  He thought it was great idea and immediately arranged for me to present at the next staff meeting.  During my presentation, I explained how the modern day environmental movement’s racial and class homogeny can be traced back to the movement’s inception. I also discussed why engaging DEI was critical to the NWF-GRC’s strategic vision and future viability.  At the end of my presentation, staff members commented on how it gave them some context for the changes they were being asked to make. One staff member put it succinctly.  He stated, “Everyone is telling us that we need to do this work but no one has ever told us why we should do it, until now”. 

At that moment, I realized the value that an academic perspective could lend to the applied field.  Until then, I also had my doubts about academia’s relevance to professional organizations like NWF.  Like many of my colleagues, I too have been disillusioned by many academics’ disengagement with the world.  However, my experiences this summer have shown me that this is just one way of pursuing a career. I have decided to straddle the fence. In this time of rampant ecological degradation, climate change and social injustice, academics and those working in the applied fields cannot afford to be segregated. Current problems require thinkers and doers from all fields and backgrounds to work together.  Collaborators must approach this work with humbleness, openness, curiosity, patience and an expectation to learn about “the other” and their perspective.  The beauty of all of this is that I get to return to my academic life with the knowledge and experiences I gained this summer and help scholars consider the view from the ground. There so much work to be done.  Let’s find a way to actually do it.

 

A little about me . . .

I’m a PhD student in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts studying equity and inclusion issues in international conservation.  Before working with the National Wildlife Federation, I collaborated with the National Park Service and American Rivers. I would describe myself an activist, outdoor enthusiast and spiritually-minded woman who loves to dance. If you have any questions, feel free contact me at jadavis@clarku.edu or find me on LinkedIn.