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!

“25 Stories” grows up!

This month I proudly released an expanded, updated version of the 25 Stories from the Central Valley website.  Please meet…. Voices from the Valley!  In addition to the original photo exhibit and teaching aides, it includes these new features:

  • An interactive photo and oral history collage
  • San Joaquin Valley environmental justice news coverage
  • Slideshow of our playback theater events with Kairos Theater Ensemble
  • Environmental justice syllabus collection
  • A map of the San Joaquin Valley towns where we’ve taken photos and collected stories
  • An expanded list of groups working toward environmental justice in the San Joaquin Valley, and links to their social media
  • Suggestions for how you can volunteer

Lots of people helped make this relaunch happen, but the project is especially indebted to tech wizards Tyler LaGue (formerly of the John Muir Institute of the Environment at UC Davis), Allen Gunn and the rest of the team at Aspiration, and Grant Kinney of GMK Design. See a full list of the people and organizations involved with this project throughout its history here and here. I continue to be honored to know the environmental justice activists who have so generously shared their stories with me over the 6 years since this project began.

Read on for some of the thinking behind the changes…

Cumulative impacts: One of the concepts that environmental justice advocates regularly invoke is ‘cumulative impacts.’ People are exposed to multiple pollution sources as they go about their daily lives, not just one at a time.  However, our regulatory structure is largely inattentive to this reality, and often grants permits for new pollution sources by assessing them individually rather than assessing their contribution to the cumulative burden of pollution already felt in that area. Needless to say, poor people and people of color bear a higher cumulative burden of pollution than the rest of us.  The new Voices from the Valley website has several features intended to support this framing.

  • News feed/archive: By collecting news sources about all environmental justice issues in the Valley in the same place, the news feed underscores the multiple, intersecting pollution problems in the region.  This comes across particularly well when you navigate to the archive view and look at a long list of headlines from the year. I could using a screenshot of this page in a classroom setting when teaching cumulative impacts.
  • Collage: The collage features photos and first-person quotes/stories.  They can be sorted and viewed by theme (ie ‘water,’ ‘air,’ ‘pesticides’ etc), but the default view is to have all of the categories show at once.  (However, I think this feature still needs a little work to be more user friendly – suggestions welcome!).
  • Map: The map provides a way to visualize where all of the communities featured in the project are in relation to eachother.  Clicking on many of the town names opens up a pop-up window with photos from the photo exhibit. In the future, I’d love to enhance this feature to include data on the various pollutants felt at each of these locations.

Multiple learning styles: The new site is designed to work with as many different learning styles as possible.  It features slideshows, interactive collages, oral history, activity and lecture ideas for the classroom, and a searchable news archive that includes articles, videos, radio, television and digital multimedia projects. (When the first version of Voices from the Valley launched 5 years ago, we also did several interactive theater shows with Kairos Theater Ensemble. See this post for a description).

Social media: Advocacy groups are increasingly using social media channels to get their message out. The new site’s list of relevant organizations in the San Joaquin Valley now includes links to their twitter and facebook channels, as well as a way for viewers to subscribe to all of their twitter channels at once. We also now have our own Voices from the Valley twitter and facebook accounts. The folks at Aspiration have been a big help in thinking through how these accounts can promote the project’s goals.  I’m having a lot of fun experimenting with how to use them to engage in public conversations and connect to like-minded organizations.

New name: ’25 Stories from the Central Valley’ was a great name, but inaccurate in a lot of ways. The original name was built around the 25 interviews I did with women environmental justice leaders in the Central Valley. The idea was that I would edit each of their interviews into stand-alone stories for the website… hence ’25 Stories.’ Only thing is, that was a much bigger project than I realized when I picked the name, and I never made it happen.  So then I decided that if the photo exhibit was made up of 25 photos, that was close enough for the name to still work. But it got tiring explaining that to people, and eventually I also wanted more flexibility in the number of photos I could include in the  exhibit. Also, when I started the project I thought it would cover the entire Central Valley, but the environmental justice movement is at its strongest in the southern half of the Central Valley (the San Joaquin Valley), and all the women I interviewed lived there or got started there. The more familiar I got with the area, the more I realized how distinct the San Joaquin Valley is from the Sacramento Valley (together they make up the Central Valley), and how the project name needed to reflect that.  ‘Voices from the Valley’ got around the problems associated with the last name, and is a broader platform for growth in the future.  Talking all of this through with the folks at smartMeme was a big help!

Visualizing environmental inequality with Google Earth

My former student Mia Renauld recently sent me a link to a great post by Tim de Chant on his blog Per Square Mile. It features side by side aerial images of poor and wealthy neighborhoods in the same city. He got the images from Google Earth and invited his readers to do the same and send in what they came up with.  The result is a study in contrasts – the wealthy neighborhoods have dramatically more tree coverage than the poor neighborhoods.

I thought these paired images would be great to use in teaching environmental justice and inequality. Poor communities of color have a disproportionate burden of pollution as compared to wealthier, whiter communities.  They also have fewer environmental amenities like parks, sidewalks, and the trees in these photos.  See the photos from two neighborhoods in and next to Oakland below, or click on over to Tim’s post for more.

In an introductory class I might show both images without their neighborhood names and ask students to tell me which community they think is wealthier, and discuss why.  Or I might ask them to go home and bring in their own side-by-side images from other places to share. Or I might just add them to a powerpoint as a visual example of environmental inequality.

West Oakland


Ode to my web designer(s)

One of the really fun parts of my work over the last few years has been getting to work with web designers to build the 25 Stories from the Central Valley website.  In 2008, Derek Hunziker from the John Muir Institute for the Environment at UC Davis built the current site, and over the last few months I’ve been working with his replacement Tyler LaGue to add more content and revamp the site’s look and organization.

Derek built me a beautiful site that I loved.  I had a blast dreaming up ideas and seeing him bring them to life, only better.  The only problem was that it was really hard to update.  When we launched the site, clicking on one of the key menu items brought up the optimistic message “Coming soon!”  Three years later, the message still hasn’t changed.  : (

In the meantime, I met Aspiration’s tech guru Allen Gunn at the Greenaction holiday party last year.  He immediately diagnosed the problem as having created a custom-built website that locks me into relying on a programmer to make changes instead of a pre-fab one designed for people like me to be able to manage.  That meant that any small correction or addition I wanted to make had to wait to be addressed until I could fundraise more money to hire another programmer to make the changes.  That conversation launched my experiment with WordPress and this blog.  I had a great time browsing among the many looks available and and setting it up to appeal to my aesthetics.  It’s a much more whimsical, personal site than the 25 Stories site, and the look reflects that.

Now, Tyler is rebuilding the 25 Stories website to reflect the best of both worlds.  It’s a WordPress site that I’ll be able to update on my own, but he is using his programming magic to make it do more than I could.  We’ll finally do away with the “Coming soon!” message and replace it with an interactive collage  that features excerpts from my interviews with women environmental justice leaders of the San Joaquin Valley.  We’ll also have a slide show of the project’s playback theater performances by Kairos Theater Ensemble, and a media feed that collects and archives coverage of San Joaquin Valley environmental justice advocacy.

The whole process has been a blast, and a great way to balance out the other kinds of work I do.  I get to dream up what I want, bounce ideas around with Tyler, and then see how he magics them into existence. It’s richly creative and entirely satisfying.  Plus, how many times in your life do you get to hear someone say, “Whatever you want, we can make it happen.” ?!?  Stay tuned for the final product!

New presentation software

I know there’s a lot of Powerpoint haters out there but I’m not one of them.  I remember using it for the first time towards the end of college and being thrilled with how easy it was to show photos, and I still enjoy it as a visually rich medium today.  Yes, some powerpoint presentations are terrible, but many other kinds of presentations are terrible too.  I’ll risk following the lead of the gun lobby to say that ‘Powerpoints don’t bore, people do.’

Nonetheless, I was excited to see a different kind of software in action for the first time at a recent conference, and used it in a presentation of my own on Friday.  Prezi let’s you create one big canvas and zoom around on it to focus on different aspects of what you want to say.  Your presentation lives online so you can access it from any computer with an internet connection, and you can e-mail people a link to your presentation for them to view on their own.

That said, it seems just as easy to go wrong with Prezi as it is with Powerpoint.  The zoom effect is fast enough that you could easily get overzealous and end up with a roomful of disoriented audience-members.  The canvas-like starting point gives you more leeway to present your ideas in a non-linear fashion, but it still won’t organize them into something meaningful for you. If your presentation doesn’t have a clear organizing thread there’s nothing the software can do to help.

Check it out yourself! Clicking here will take you to the online version of what I showed on Friday.  If you have any suggestions for improvement, let me know!

Tech tools for graduate students

I seem to spend half my time keeping up with my computer.  It updates itself, deals with its own viruses, and is generally a miracle of the modern world.  Still, each update means some new twists to the programs I use, and figuring out how to make use of its massive capabilities feels like a full-time job.  Here’s a list of some of the tricks and tools I’ve been trying to master.

  • Backup your work!  Who hasn’t heard a horror story of the student who lost all their work in the final stages of writing their dissertation?  I double up.  My Mac uses Time Machine to automatically back itself up to an external hard drive.  I also use Carbonite for automatic online backup to a remote site (in case my house burns down and said hard drives become a gooey mess).
  • Accessing documents on my computer when you’re not actually at your computer (you know, in case inspiration hits while you’re on vacation or otherwise enjoying a perfectly good day away from your desk): Carbonite
  • Creating a virtual library to house all the crazy pdfs that would otherwise suffocate my desktop: Zotero.  I used to use End Note, but just switched over to Zotero.  So far it seems a lot easier to use.  Plus, it’s free!  They both also automatically format your citations and bibliographies in the style of you choice.  Wow!  Can they do my laundry too?
  • Finding things on the rabbit’s warren that is my computer: Google Desktop.  I just downloaded this yesterday so I haven’t used it much yet, but my friend Bernie assures me it does the trick.  It searches not only file names, but also what’s INSIDE the files.  Crazy!
  • Sharing massive documents and syncing e-mail accounts and other information across computers.  I use Mobile Me, but I hear Google does this pretty well too.
  • For when you go back to your desk and realize that although you thought you understood it at the time, you actually have no idea what your advisor was talking about:  Recorder app on a smart phone.  Record the conversation now, make sense of it later. Kind of like interviewing.
  • For organizing and analyzing interview transcripts: NVivo.  NVivo is designed for PC’s, so using it on a Mac also requires using Bootcamp or Parallels.
  • For recording and calculating student grades: Excel or Numbers.  They both work but I like Numbers because it has a pre-fab grading worksheet that automatically transforms number grades (92%) into letter grades (A-).
  • For staying up to date with the outside world: Google ReaderTweet Deck, and that old fashioned thing called the phone
  • Task management software (otherwise known as to-do lists): OmniFocus.  I was thrilled with this when I first got it, now I’m closer to lukewarm.  I’m back to using my whiteboard for day-to-day to-do lists, but I still like it for storing my longer term to-do lists.
  • One of my writing buddies uses Foxit Reader to read pdfs online and highlight and take notes on them, but it doesn’t look like it works for Macs. Plus, I don’t like reading things online.  Still, I may snoop around and see what’s out there for Macs and give it a go.

And that marks the end of my tech savvy.