Environmental engagement is a tricky subject to digest. It calls attention to questions of what, who, and how – what is the environmental issue; who is the audience or participants; and how might we engage in dialogue? It is precisely these questions that students in ENVS 295 – appropriately titled “Environmental Engagement” – aim to address. Throughout this course, in an attempt to see how engagement can lead to action with fruitful, worthwhile results, students have partnered with a number of organizations, each of which having their own takes on what meaningful engagement consists of. Two other students and I have partnered with Sustainable Northwest, an organization that hopes to bring together people, ideas, and innovation so that local environments, economies, and communities throughout Oregon can thrive. To document all of our analysis of the organization thus far, we have created a partnership record, which can be seen here!
Sustainable Northwest puts a huge emphasis on involvement, doing their best to ensure the stakeholder’s project understanding and input during decision making. The organization goes far 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 balanced community-driven solutions. They recognize that engagement might only be considered truly prosperous when those who are affected by the issue at hand are not left out of the conversation (Luyet et. al 2012).
When thinking about an engagement project that we might start with Sustainable Northwest, our team wanted to build upon their existing infrastructure and philosophy rather than begin anew. The current infrastructure includes programs covering forests, water, energy, and rangelands, with their mission being to function at the intersection of these natural resource programs and groups of people such as tribes, farmers, ranchers, and rural communities. These are essentially the organization’s “what” and “who”; the who being those in which Sustainable Northwest engages with, and the what being the conversations and projects they help facilitate. When analyzing the “who” of Sustainable Northwest – especially in the context of the unexotic underclass – we spoke in length about who the organization leaves out of the equation; that is, who they do not include in their development initiatives and the decisions they make. Sustainable Northwest’s projects have been exclusive to established groups within natural resource sectors and as a consequence of that, their initiatives may lack input from the younger generations or those living outside of their bubble of operation. This brings us to the purpose of this post — the “how” of our engagement project. How might we be able to bridge this gap between those already operating with the realm of Sustainable Northwest’s initiatives and those who are not?
To foreground our understanding of how we might go about engagement, we began by looking at the different models of environmental engagement, which 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 almost solely on a one-way flow of information, the contemporary dialogic model involves both speaking and listening in an effort to reach an understanding. Because of how crucial it is to Sustainable Northwest, our team has decided to ground our proposal in the dialogic model in hopes that it can breed fruitful results.
Another key aspect, along with our discussion of these models, was our examination of a particularly interesting article written by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, titled “Durably Reducing Transphobia: A Field Experiment on Door-to-Door Canvassing.” The article is interesting in that throughout its duration, it demonstrates the effectiveness of using something like the dialogic model when attempting to engage with others. It indicates, above all else, that through continued and worthwhile communication, bias and prejudice can be alleviated (Brookman, Kalla 2016)
Keeping that in mind, our team has proposed a few things. The first of which is an academic workshop with Sustainable Northwest and younger demographics looking to get into the practice of natural resource management or even those interested in multi-party discourse, such as other organizations. Over the course of the workshop, Sustainable Northwest could perhaps share how they have found success in using multi-party engagement in what they call the “radial middle,” a philosophy that sees them trying to produce community-driven solutions in the face of change and conflict. It is our hope that this workshop can inspire the possibility of Sustainable Northwest working with / partnering with organizations whose main participants are outside of their bubble of operation, bridging the gap between the organization and the people who may not be involved with their current projects. Across divisions of class, race, gender, religion, political affiliation, education, and more, we hope that opportunities for a workshop – and perhaps even a few partnerships – might create an environment where everyone can speak and listen to each other in search for commonality and understanding, doing so in a manner that was not possible before.
Turning this project proposal into a reality for Sustainable Northwest is no easy feat! Perhaps the greatest reason why lies in the fact that there exists an urban-rural divide in Oregon; that is, nearly sixty percent of Oregon’s population lives in and around the Portland metropolitan area. This means that with an organization like Sustainable Northwest, whose work is very much so situated in rural Oregon, more than half of the state’s population is not having their concerns taken into account in the decision making that takes place.Consequently, this can also lead to an environment where opinions differ greatly. In situations like this, which may be a reality were our proposal to be acted upon, dialogic approaches to communication may be the best way to engage and facilitate conversation towards action (Dickinson 2005).
Turning this project proposal into a reality for Sustainable Northwest is no easy feat! It is, of course, contingent upon Greg Block and the whole organization being excited and willing to participate in such a thing. In communicating with Sustainable Northwest, we hope to ensure that our project is a worthwhile commitment with ample opportunity for fruitful results!
Broockman, David, and Joshua Kalla. 2016. “Durably Reducing Transphobia: A Field Experiment on Door-to-Door Canvassing.” Science 352 (6282): 220–24.
Dickson, David. 2005. “The case for a ‘deficit model’ of science communication.” SciDev.Net. June 27, 2005.
Luyet et al. 2012. “A Framework to Implement Stakeholder Participation in Environmental Projects.” Journal of Environmental Management 11: 213-19.