Nora McDowell speaking about women’s environmental leadership at the Smithsonian Castle

This spring I was honored to host Nora McDowell as the inaugural speaker at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum’s first “Dinner and Discussion” series, which is part of their Women’s Environmental Leadership programming.

I met Nora through my research on California environmental justice activism, and in particular through a project to document the 1990s-era fight against the construction of a nuclear waste landfill in the Mojave Desert’s Ward Valley, on the traditional lands of the Mojave people. Nora grew up in Needles, California and currently lives on the Fort Mojave reservation in Mojave Valley, Arizona. She was elected as chairperson of the Fort Mojave Tribe at age 24, a position she held from 1985 to 2007. During that time she helped lead a decade-long campaign to block the construction of a nuclear waste landfill in the Mojave Desert’s Ward Valley nearby. Additionally, she was part of forming the Ten Tribes partnership to represent Colorado River tribal water rights to the Colorado River Water Users Authority. She also started the water and sewer company as well as the electrical company owned and operated by the Fort Mojave Tribe.

Now, Nora is the Project Manager of the Topock remediation project at the AhaMakav Cultural Society of the Fort Mojave Tribe. Topock is the name of the place that is the passageway to the spirit world for the Mojave people. PG&E built a natural gas compression station there in 1950, which leaked chromium six into the groundwater for over 40 years. Nora focuses much of her time on the cleanup of this site, and in particular trying to minimize the impact on the remediation process on Mojave landforms and artifacts. She also serves in an advisory capacity in a number of other settings, including on the Tribal Advisory Committee to the California EPA. She also serves on the Colorado River Basin-wide tribal advisory board, which advises a consortium of federal agencies, tribes and NGOs active on the Colorado River. She is also on the Fort Mojave telecommunications board and is a founding board member of WEWIN – Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations.

The Anacostia Museum hosted the evening in the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. It was an intimate event. I asked Nora questions about her leadership experiences in front of 40 or so attendees, and then we all discussed the themes she raised and shared a meal together. You can find the audio recording below, as well as photos taken by Susana Raab. Audio, photographs and captions are provided by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.

The next “Dinner and Discussion” event will take place in September, this time featuring Dr. Adrienne Hollis, hosted by Vernice Miller-Travis.

 

Tracy Perkins and Nora McDowell Thumbnail

Dr. Tracy Perkins (left) and Ms. Nora McDowell (right).

Ms. Katrina Lashley Introduces Special Guests Thumbnail

Ms. Katrina Lashley introduces Dr. Tracy Perkins and Ms. Nora McDowell.

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Ms. Alexis Dickerson and Ms. Nora McDowell.

Tracy, Nora, Lisa, Katrina

Dr. Tracy Perkins, Ms. Nora McDowell, Ms. Lisa Sasaki, and Ms. Katrina Lashley.

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Dr. Elgloria Harrison thanks special guests.

 

New(ish) journal article on public engagement in the environmental humanities

2018 zoomed by without me stopping to share a co-authored journal article to which I contributed on public engagement in the environmental humanities. Without further ado, here it is!

The article describes our varied experiences doing publically engaged work in the environmental humanities and nearby disciplines. My contribution focuses on the practicalities of producing scholarship on independently built, multi-media websites. I enjoyed the opportunity to give a shout-out to my tech-mentor Allen Gun and the other good people at Aspiration.

The article takes a question and answer format in which Julie Sze poses questions and the rest of us answer them. We wrote the first draft together in one sitting (via Skype’s chat feature, if I remember correctly). Basically, we all logged on remotely, Julie wrote questions, and we all typed in our answers simultaneously. Sometimes we would see each other’s responses and then respond to them in our responses as well. At the end of the extended “chat,” Julie pulled the conversation into a word-processing document and that became our first draft. We edited to flesh out ideas from there. One drawback is that because we were writing simultaneously our answers in the finished piece don’t engage with each other as much as they might. Nonetheless, it was a fun way to quickly get a lot of content down to work from. I’ve continued to experiment with simultaneous writing since. This semester I am working on a co-authored piece with three Howard undergraduates who took my Sociology of Food and Agriculture class last semester. We are regularly meeting to have co-writing sessions in which we simultaneously contribute to our draft on Google Docs. We first built a general outline and then each selected sub-sections to work on. So far, it has been working well.

Enjoy the article!

Teaching students to contribute to Wikipedia

This week I crossed the threshold in which summer no longer seems to stretch out endlessly before me and I start to think about updating my fall classes. I’ll be teaching two, a graduate seminar on the Sociology of Environmental Health, and an upper-division undergraduate class on the Sociology of Food and Agriculture. Last year was my first time teaching the latter class. I have a few tweaks in mind for the readings compared to last year’s syllabus, and I intend to once again center the class project around teaching students how to contribute new content to Wikipedia.

I was pleased with how the Wikipedia assignment worked out last year. The good people at Wiki Education helped me set it up before the class began by walking me through the various assignment modules they have available for instructors to adapt to their own purposes. Some are short assignments that teach students how to add images or citations to existing articles. I chose the most extensive model, in which students spend the entire semester learning how to, 1) evaluate existing Wikipedia content, 2) identify areas that need improvement, 3) read the existing scholarly literature on their chosen topic, 4) summarize that scholarship on Wikipedia, and, 5) respond to other Wikipedia contributors who may alter, delete, or add to their work. These are all transferable skills for traditional academic research, as well as for critical thinking, writing and collaborative work in general.

The assignment also gave us an opportunity to discuss the social construction and politics of knowledge. Wikipedia contributors skew heavily white and male, and this impacts the kinds of content available on the site (articles on military history and video games are apparently particularly well-developed). This leaves a number of topics wide open for student contribution. Accordingly, one of my students created an article on Black Land Loss in the United States. Others added content to existing articles: one student added a description of the Freedom Farm Cooperative that Fannie Lou Hamer organized as part of her civil rights work; another added content on the challenges faced by female farmworkers to the Agriculture in the United States article. Another researched labor conditions on organic farms to add to the article on Organic Food, though her content was ultimately never added to Wikipedia.

This assignment generated more student interest in assessing the credibility of what they read and supporting their own work with strong citations than I have seen in other assignments. Some of this is likely due to the fact that real people all around the world will read their work. Indeed, Wikipedia has become a massive online encyclopedia with global reach. The dashboard available to instructors tracks how many “views” there are of the articles that students create or edit. Less than one year later, the articles to which my students contributed have been viewed 661,000 times (actually, I suspect the number is higher – students sometimes added their contributions without remembering to sign in to their user profile first).

While the Wikipedia protocols for adding content and interacting with other users are a bit cumbersome to learn, I was impressed by how much support Wiki Education offers. Beyond the adaptable assignment modules and training videos they have created, they also assigned my class two staff helpers. The helpers were on hand throughout the semester to answer my questions and to interact directly with my students, they even provided direct feedback on their writing.

This semester I’ll make an effort to streamline my assignment somewhat, which ended up confusing myself and the students with a few too many due dates for editing and revising. Beyond that, I plan to stick with last year’s winning formula. If you teach with Wikipedia, I’d be interested to hear about your experiences. And if you teach Food and Agriculture, send your students over to my students’ work to continue to improve upon it.