New DC-based publications: part 1

Publications from the work I initiated in Washington DC during my time at Howard University have just started coming out, even though I’ve now moved to Arizona for a new job at Arizona State University.

When I moved to DC in the summer of 2015, I started to nose around to get a sense of what kind of environmental justice work was happening in the area. I met Parisa Norouzi of Empower DC, Katrina Lashley at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Lesley Fields at Sierra Club, Mike Ewall at Energy Justice Network, Michael Dorsey, who was then at the National Academy of Science, Rhonda Hamilton from Syphax Gardens near DC’s Buzzard Point, Fred Tutman of Patuxent Riverkeeper, Kamita Grey in Brandywine, and more. It was a pleasure to meet a whole new host of people doing important work locally and nationally. Many meetings and a few protests later, some potential synergies became clear between my role as an educator, Katrina’s work preserving the stories of people along the Anacostia River with the Anacostia Museum, Rhonda’s activism on the redevelopment of Buzzard Point, and Empower DC’s efforts to support affordable housing and people’s health, both of which were threatened by the Buzzard Point redevelopment.

During my second year in DC, we built a plan around our overlapping interests in which the students in my Environmental Inequality class would conduct oral-history interviews with Rhonda’s neighbors to document their history in the near-Buzzard Point neighborhoods, interaction with the Anacostia River, and current experiences redevelopment. Buzzard Point was undergoing a transformation from an industrial site to a mixed residential and commercial space, and the nearby residents were experiencing the resulting impacts: dust from the construction, rats that relocated from the construction site into their homes, and potential displacement from their homes.

I was pleased with how the project worked out in terms of what the students got out of it. They were introduced to research skills: the first year of the project, students practiced and conducted oral history interviews, and during the second year the next batch of students coded the interviews for cross-cutting themes. We also went on field trips to the Anacostia River and to Southwest DC. Many reported that talking to people struggling with the real-world problems we were reading about in class added a new level of gravity to their understanding of environmental inequality. The archival objectives of the project have also been largely met. Transcripts of the first round of interviews we conducted with Rhonda’s neighbors in Syphax Gardens are held by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, while a second round with residents of broader Southwest DC conducted by graduate student Jesse DiValli (formerly Card) are available at the DC Public Library. However, as often happens, we can’t say that any particular improvement in the material lives of the people we interviewed came out of the work.

Still, we are hopeful that the project was valuable not only for the students and myself, but will also in some small way help raise the visibility of the challenges faced by residents impacted by the redevelopment of Buzzard Point.

Here is the first piece to come out of that work, a profile of the indomitable Rhonda Hamilton, long-time resident and elected representative of her neighborhood in the city’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission:

Rhonda Hamilton: Community Leader and Public Housing Advocate in Southwest D.C.

Rhonda Hamilton, talking with my students in Southwest Washington DC. September 9, 2017.

 

Two other prior blog posts about the class project:

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.

 

New book chapter just published

My fellowship at the University of Arizona came to an end in late May, after which I drove back across the country to Washington DC. The drive was fun – it included stopovers to sightsee in the Four Corners and see old friends in Albuquerque. I also visited with activist Earl Tulley and others in Dilkon, AZ, at the 30th anniversary of the Navajo environmental group Diné CARE.

As much as I enjoyed my time away, it’s a pleasure to get back home to my friends and household routines. I was also happy to find this book waiting for me in the mail when I arrived:

IMG_4100.jpg

Sustainability: Approaches to Environmental Justice and Social Power, edited by Julie Sze, is newly available from NYU Press.  I contributed a chapter with Aaron Soto-Karlin titled, “Situating Global Policies within Local Realities: Climate Conflict from California to Latin America.” Aaron and I met about five years ago when we were both conducting research on the implementation of the landmark California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. My research was for my Ph.D. dissertation, his research was for a film. Aaron had long lived and worked in Chiapas, Mexico, while my work focused on environmental justice activism in California. Our interests converge in this analysis of a memorandum of understanding to tackle climate change through linking California’s carbon market to forest preservation efforts in Chiapas. The MOU also included the state of Acre in Brazil, but we focus on just California and Mexico in this chapter.

We wrote this chapter with the hope that it would be assigned in undergraduate college classes. Accordingly, we made a special effort to write something that doesn’t require prior familiarity with carbon offsets, carbon markets, and climate change politics. It should be of interest to anyone tracking US climate change politics, and California’s in particular. The chapter also helps readers think more broadly about how environmental policies designed for global use are impacted by on-the-ground realities in the places where they are implemented. It also highlights how difficult it is to create “win-win” solutions that meet both environmental and social justice goals. In the case of carbon offsets between California and Chiapas, tension emerged between meeting environmental goals, such as preserving forests and reducing carbon emissions, and social justice goals linked to land tenure and human health.

If you assign the chapter to any of your classes, I’d love to hear how it goes. There are also many other great contributions in the book, you can find a list of them here.