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 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.
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:
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.