An Introduction to Engagement
Environmental engagement is a broad topic; there is no one definition of the two words as separate entities, let alone a conclusive definition when they are together. In our ENVS 295 course, titled “environmental engagement,” the phrase is used to describe the ways in which conversation, particularly conversation with an emphasis on environmental discourse, can lead to action with fruitful, worthwhile results. The course uses a number of different resources and strategies to explore these processes, all of which serve as very good foundations when trying to digest what meaningful engagement consists of.
As a precursor to the course, our class went on a two-day reconnaissance trip, meeting with a number of organizations and hearing their take on what engagement means to them. This began with a visit to the Columbia River Interpretive Center Museum, where we were introduced to mechanisms essential to Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods, as well as machinery used to transform the fishing and timber industry. We then visited the Columbia RIver Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), an organization that operates at the intersection of Indigenous communities on the Columbia River and tribal law. It was here that we were briefed on the organization’s mission, which is to protect the fishing rights of Indigenous communities, restore fish runs, and organize inter-tribal law enforcement. Our class next met with members of the Hood River Forest Collaborative. Over the course of an hour and a half, we spoke about forest management – maintaining quality, meeting timber demands and recreational use – and the need to involve local communities in the decision making processes that affect them the most. This post offers a more in depth view into the Collaborative and what they do. Our first day of the trip ended with a visit from historian Liza Schade and Judy Goldmann for a brief history of the Willamette Valley and the Indigenous peoples who inhabited the area.
The second day of the trip began with a visit to the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm, where we spoke with the president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, Barb Iverson. She spoke about farming regulations in the world of CBD production, as well as immigration and pesticide use. We next drove to the Willamette Egg Farms, where we spoke about the Oregon egg industry and the ways in which local markets and customers inform their practices. The last organization we visited on our reconnaissance trip was Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN). This organization acts as a union for Latinx farm workers and Latinx communities in Oregon, providing services such legal representation, political advocacy, and day-to-day guidance in the face of poor working conditions, wage theft, and even ICE raids.
Although I may not be able to speak for everybody, I believe that these organizations and their work demonstrates the importance of multi-party engagement. Each organization, while having different interests and sometimes conflicting perspectives, remains loyal to approaching their work with communication and collaboration. I think that a particularly strong case for valuing engagement even when perspectives differ is on display when examining the opposition between PCUN and the Oregon Farm Bureau. While Barb and the Bureau oppose regulations on the use of pesticides, PCUN objects to their usage on the basis that it is harmful to farmworkers, particularly the more vulnerable populations that they work so hard to protect.
Our Partnership with Sustainable Northwest
The reconnaissance trip, combined with the perspectives explored throughout the duration of the semester, served as a great foundation for building partnerships with real-world organizations to see what engagement looks like in a contemporary context. Lindsey Dickmeyer, Monai Chanon and I chose to partner with Sustainable Northwest, an organization that focuses on engagement based in Portland, Oregon.
Sustainable Northwest acts as a liaison, bringing together people, ideas, and innovation so that local environments and communities can thrive. These are the organization’s “what” and “who”; the who being those in which they engage with, and the what being the conversations and projects they help facilitate. Sustainable Northwest puts great emphasis on involvement, ensuring stakeholder understanding and considerations during decision making. The organization goes beyond just the decree of facts when communicating; they implement strategies of listening, as well as speaking, to ensure that they bring local interests together to develop community-driven solutions.
Understanding Environmental Engagement
After our reconnaissance trip, our class was given the opportunity to dive deeper into the world of engagement through group work, class discussion, and some very influential readings. This incorporated talk of effective action, the notion of post-truth, the divided who, and the “how” of environmental engagement.
In our efforts to better understand how to engage meaningfully, we first looked at Effective Altruism, a movement that hopes to find the most effective way to enact change. The philosophy argues that to be most successful, one should prioritize issues based on how big of a difference their efforts will make. There are three categorizations for effective action: the cause should be great in scale, highly neglected, and highly solvable. This means that it affects many people’s lives and that few people are working on the problem. What is intriguing about effective altruism is the fact that the movement described monetary donations as being the best approach to problem solving. While there are certain benefits to adhering to effective altruism and the criteria laid out in it, the nature of the philosophy may not be inclusive to those whose values differ and those who have different ideas as to what might need a solution. This post offers an analysis of effective action in relationship to our partnership organization, Sustainable Northwest.
Engagement in a Post-truth World
We next looked at two pieces, one being written by Thomas Edsall titled “Trump Is Waiting and He Is Ready,” and the other being written by Laura Chinchilla titled “Post-Truth Politics Afflicts the Global South, Too”. Both of these articles remind us of a familiar sentiment, which is that of political polarization. In particular, they speak of viewing realities through different lenses; that is, both call attention to the ways in which we are experiencing the same reality differently due manipulation of information on online platforms. Edsall argues that lies and distorted news are what makes room for these different lenses, the same phenomenon that saw Donald Trump put in the White House and perhaps see him re-elected. Chinchilla’s article highlights the ways in which the notion of post-truth is expanding into the global community with the help of online platforms and improved technologies. Interestingly, the idea of post-truth may not be discussed enough within environmental engagement. Sustainable Northwest, however, does a great job in acknowledging it, which can be seen in this post.
The Divided Who
After concentrating on the “what”, we turned our focus on the “who” of environmental engagement: the audience and participants. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a significant amount of participants in environmental engagement are stakeholders. In other words, this concerns who is involved and their identity relative to the project and each other. This was explored predominantly through our reading of Luyet et al.’s article “A Framework to Implement Stakeholder Participation in Environmental Projects”. The authors of this piece write that despite long experimentation with participation, there are still possibilities for improvement in designing a process of stakeholder involvement by addressing heterogeneity and the complexity of decision-making processes. We also read Heterodox Academy’s Problem Statement, a piece that calls for a wider range of perspectives when addressing complex issues that arise. These articles combined showcase the value of inclusivity, diversity, and the engagement that ensues as a product of both.
For Sustainable Northwest, an organization that brings local interests together to pioneer balanced community-driven solutions in the face of change and conflict, the concept of “who” is crucial, and it can be read about more here.
Asking How: The Dialogic Model of Communication
Our final engagement deep dive focused on the “how” of engagement, focusing on recent dialogical approaches to environmental communication and the potential that lies within each. The focus of our discussion was a piece written by Aaron Fellows and Jim Proctor, titled “Models of Environmental Communication”. This article outlines three models of engagement: the classical (deficit) model, the framing model, and the contemporary (dialogic) model. While the first two models leave little room for communication and rely on explanatory, one-way flows of information, the contemporary dialogic model involves both speaking and listening in an effort to reach an understanding. This model is extremely relevant in the context of environmental engagement.
This is especially true for an organization like Sustainable northwest. They approach their “how” by putting a tremendous emphasis on involvement, ensuring the stakeholder’s understanding, the collection of stakeholder suggestions, and considerations of stakeholder input during decision making. To read more, see this post.
Luyet et al. 2012. “A Framework to Implement Stakeholder Participation in Environmental Projects.” Journal of Environmental Management 11: 213-19. (link)