In my time as an Environmental Studies major we are constantly made aware of the different perspectives, voices, and faces involved in environmental issues. While we can read and listen, there is nothing like meeting the people behind the words. Our course, Environmental Engagement, has taken us on an enriching journey through the many perspectives we are bound to work with in our coming years after graduation. We started the year off with a reconnaissance trip where we were introduced to seven different organizations involved with environmental issues on some level. We then launched into our partnership organizations, who we have been researching and working with for seven weeks now. Throughout our time exploring the inner workings of our partnerships, we have taken a deep dive into what engagement looks like and how it functions in our society today. By far, one of my biggest takeaways has been just how expansive the parties involved in issues can be. From the National Forest Service to organizations advocating for immigrant farm workers’ rights. This has broadened the issues I care about and want to learn more about, and opened up my eyes to what exactly is at stake and what can be gained when we choose to engage.
Framing the Semester
Like any good reconnaissance trip, we began with pre-reconnaissance reconnaissance readings to learn about what the seven organizations were all about. Already, we were engaging with a diverse array of issues, including, salmon fishing rights and forest management. Our trip began at the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum. This served to situate the context of many of the issues would eventually hear about. Many are rooted in the geological history of the Columbia River Gorge that shaped a fertile land. The museum presents the visitor with the conflicting experiences of the native tribes and settlers from the East coast.
From there we went to speak with members of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC). At the museum we were able to view a fish wheel from when Columbia Gorge was a bustling center for salmon fishing. While it transformed commerce in the Pacific Northwest, CRITFC had a more negative connotation for the contraption which displayed the traditional methods of the indigenous people. CRITFC now enforces and protects native treaty rights regarding fishing in the Columbia River, which was a long battle with the US government.
We then met with the Hood River Forest Collaborative. Environmental Studies teaches the dialogic approach, which the “Stew Crew” established on their own and we got to ask questions about. The Stew Crew consists of multiple stakeholders involved in managing the Hood River Ranger District. It was really valuable to hear about a real life project they were currently working on, how they reach a consensus, and the relationships they have built over time despite their differences of opinion. They were currently developing a management plan to encourage the growth of huckleberry shrubs which was declining due to little light exposure through the canopy cover. There were people invested in preserving the forest and others who would benefit from thinning the forest, and even the public who wants to maintain the natural appearance of hiking trails. The coalition has set up a charter that allows them to navigate all these opinions and reach a solution everyone is happy with through constant conversation and an understanding for others.
We meet regularly, take field trips, and strive for meaningful dialogue and consensus-based agreementsHood River Forest Collaborative mission statement
We wrapped the day up with a historical presentation from a PSU graduate student on the history of the Willamette Valley, where we were again presented with the conflicting histories of Oregon’s past. One of which is often wiped out. We learned the importance of taking historical context into account when engaging with a topic and understanding others perspectives.
While the first day mostly focused on indigenous and settler narratives, the second day juxtaposed farmer owner and immigrant farmer worker experiences. We started by visiting the owner of Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm, Barb Iverson, who also happens to be the president of the Oregon Farm Bureau. We were able to hear about the thought process behind business and legislative decisions, and the hurdles that farm owners face. We also spoke with Willamette Egg Farms for a similar perspective, especially focused on the farm-consumer relationship. To close our trip, we went to the nearby Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) center. This was certainly my favorite visit. PCUN advocates for immigrant worker rights through negotiating with local farms to improve conditions and wage, broadcasting a community radio channel, policy advocacy, and increasing voter turnout of Latinx people. Unsurprisingly, they were advocating for policies that didn’t exactly align with those of the two farms. Specifically, on things such as the use of pesticides. They may economically protect a crop but can cause severe side effects in the workers who apply it. It was incredible to hear all the ways in which PCUN is engaging with their community and farms. I found the trip really valuable in giving us tangible examples of engagement. For each organization this looked different from what topics they were engaging over, who they were engaging with, and how engagement was enacted.
A Deep Dive into Engagement
We walked away from the reconnaissance trip with examples of engagement and questions about what constitutes engagement. Some students continued connections with the organizations we met, and others began establishing new connections through our partnership assignment. I and two other classmates have been working with the Center for Diversity and the Environment (CDE). By completely delving into one organization, our class has focused on effective action, post-truth, a divided who, and dialogue as a broad context and within our organization. It has been very important to me to be able to work with CDE because while we, as a class, learn about different voices, it’s often forgotten that not all voices are heard the same.
What was significant about many of our reconnaissance visits is we got to see engagement in action. Discussing an issue is just one step towards engagement, while developing an action plan is a whole other. We framed the idea of effective action by reading about effective altruism. We all take action in our daily lives, but what action creates an impact? Effective altruism refines its definition by evaluating what good can be done based on who it affects and who cares about the cause. Our class was ultimately uneasy about this definition because it left out so much of the work some of our organizations are involved in. It too focused on the power of money, whereas I find engagement to focus on the power of discussion, empathy, and a more creative path towards action.
This launched us into thinking about the What, Who, and How of our partnerships. A common headline over the past couple years has been the extreme polarization of the US. We read about how a post-truth environment contributes to this. President Trump has consistently been fact checked and reports continue to expose his lies, which he has coined alternative facts. This has sparked organizations like the AAAS to further engage the public on topics like climate change. In the context of engagement, working in a post-truth world means finding our truth again. An organization like CDE, who provides equity training to institutions, will likely encounter push back and ignorance. It is at those times who have to find a common truth to avoid creating deeper divides. To evaluate the Who, we began with ourselves. Political spectrum and concern for climate change quizzes placed most of our class as Progressive Activists and Alarmed. I think many of our partner organizations would be similarly organized. However, the people they engage with may not be. CDE in particular tackles engagement on three levels: community building, institutional, and individual leadership. All are important and serve the purpose of addressing the Who that go unseen. In the eyes of the CDE this is people of color who are under represented and treated inequitably. This brings us to How of the CDE and engagement. There are three models of environmental engagement and our class focuses on the dialogic, especially when discussing controversial topics. The CDE enacts this approach by having conversations with the public on what their work is and how to improve it. They also train leaders through programs to go into the environmental workforce and engage with issues around equity in their everyday life.