In the Beginning, There Was Nothing… Then, We Went on a Field Trip.
I took Environmental Engagement as soon as I could because I was eager to learn more about the major program. Having only recently been introduced to the concept of environmental engagement in my ENVS intro class, it was fresh in my mind at the start of second semester. Class began with discussions of a partnership and a field trip. On our trip, the visit that I enjoyed most was to Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm (some of my classmates documented it here). At the time, I couldn’t remember which partner I had chosen for our engagement projects. I was later very happy to find out that I had indeed chosen the Oregon Farm Bureau because our connection at OFB would be the woman who spoke to us at Wooden Shoe (my team’s engagement homepage can be found here).
Our class trip took us to museums, places of business, and government buildings. We drove through beautiful classic Oregon scenery. Visiting these places and focusing on what our speakers had to say for two days helped me reconnect with why I was there in the first place- both in Oregon and in the ENVS program. A lot of what drew me into environmental studies came from similar trips and experiences of my own. The trip also helped me to begin thinking about how engagement applies to my life and the things I want to do; in other words why it matters to me.
Lessons at the Wooden Shoe
On our class visit to Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm, owner Barb Iverson spoke to us about her life, what it means to be a farmer, and what struggles she and her fellow farmers face. She also talked a bit about the struggles of Oregon farmers in her capacity as the newly-elected president of the Oregon Farm Bureau. The way Barb approached talking to us about these topics is what made me so excited about working with OFB.
What I noticed most was how open-minded she is. As a group we are, understandably and for the most part rightly, assumed to be pretty dang liberal. Many of the other groups we visited, such as CRITFC and PCUN, would likely anticipate presenting to a sympathetic group eager to learn about their struggles. But for Barb, this was probably different. Environmentalists and farmers have been known to clash over some issues. There wasn’t the same assumed agreement as with, for instance, PCUN. I hadn’t thought much about Barb’s side of our interaction, but at times it seemed to me like she was not defensive but maybe preparing for judgement from us. I think I remember her occasionally saying things like “you may not agree with this, but,” or quickly explaining the reasoning behind her opinions. This was what I valued so highly. Her willingness to work with us, for our benefit, despite our possible perceived differences, and the way she approached speaking to us.
The way Barb presented resonated with me so much because she spoke in a rational and tolerant way that I really respect. She explained some of her opinions on topics like immigrant labor, pesticide use and other regulatory issues with candor and respect for those she disagreed with. She also wrapped up her talk by discussing her personal views on engagement and the importance of being open to speaking with people you disagree with. I remember really agreeing with a lot of what she said. The experience got me thinking more about my existing opinions on engagement.
Engagement: A Radical Idea!
When I hear the word radicalism, I usually think of someone extremely conservative or extremely liberal, like Alex Jones‘ viral rants on conspiracy theories or Greenpeace’s alleged destruction of GMO crops. A while ago, I think one of the first weekends of the current semester, I met someone I would call very radical at the Portland State farmer’s market. He holding a large sign with the words “ask me why you deserve to go to hell.” I would estimate he was about my age. An associate of his was shouting about sin into a megaphone for all attendees of the market to hear. My friend and I were intrigued, we watched in suspense as a man in a jean jacket walked away from the sign man, yelling “You’re a robot. You’re not a human being!” The man with the sign threw up his hands, exasperated, looked around, and loudly asked, “Will anybody talk to me? Will anyone have a conversation with me?” My friend and I looked at each other, then at our other friends, standing a safe distance away and shaking their heads at us, telling us not to engage with this man. After a moment of hesitation, curiosity won out and we moved towards him.
The idea of engagement as an avenue to agreement is pretty radical. Environmental issues, for example, laws to protect air or water quality, often require public consensus. However, engagement says that large scale initiatives to educate often won’t persuade and may even disengage the public from these issues. To me, “large scale initiatives” are things like ad campaigns, movies, or other persuasive media. Engagement says that this educational approach is weak compared to a dialogic approach, in which you engage in open-minded dialogue with another person with the ultimate goal of persuading them to see things the way you do (my partnership team wrote more about these approaches in this post). This means that persuasion has to happen on a much smaller and more personal scale, something much more costly and time-consuming to implement, which is why I call it a radical idea.
Here’s how our interaction with this man went. He spoke to us calmly and intensely. First, he asked if we had any questions for him. We asked something about why the sign held by the man with the megaphone was covered in hateful words. He launched into an explanation that relied on his fixed interpretation of the laws of the universe. In the end, we weren’t able to come even close to any kind of mutual agreement or understanding, because everything he believed was rooted in his own all-encompassing religious truth. All of his opinions were, in his eyes, unwaveringly justified by that, and it seemed he wasn’t willing to question it or further explain any part of it to us.
How It All Ties Together
The experience of speaking with that man made me look at how I view the world. Just like him, I have my own interpretation of the laws of the universe, things I believe to be unarguably true. More often now, I question why I believe those things. In environmental studies, I think this is very important. If I am asking why the world isn’t changing, I have to be able to explain why it needs to. I have to recognize, like Barb did, that other people have their own opinions for a reason, and not simply because they are uneducated. My conversation with the radical man at the farmer’s market has served as a reference which I can apply the ideas of this class to. Although he and I never talked about environmental issues, the concepts of engagement certainly apply. Thinking through them in the context of my own personal experience has helped me process them and understand the principles of engagement.
Note: this post’s featured image is my own photo, taken on public land near my house. Growing up so close to such beautiful outdoor recreation is a huge part of why I am invested in protecting those spaces and why I am an ENVS student.