“Climate Crisis, Justice, and Possibility”: Environmental Speaker Series Remain Strong During a COVID-19-Altered Year

Will Talbot, Scarlet Staff

One of my favorite aspects of the college academic experience here at Clark University is presentations given by guest speakers on campus. These presentations give me knowledge on specific pressing issues and promising developments in the world that I have been previously unaware of, supplement and enrich the knowledge I have learned in my classes, give me insight into the process of academic research and publication, and inform me of intriguing study occurring at other universities, and places of research and action. The postponement or cancellation of several presentations was one of the unfortunate consequences of the campus’ closure this March.

The best part of my return to campus this semester has been the return of a schedule of presentations from scholars, researchers, and activists from both inside and outside our Clark community, for health and safety’s sake, taking place virtually and primarily over Zoom. As I am a geography major interested in sustainability, cultural change, and development that takes into account social and economic justice, I have attended talks held by several organizations affiliated with Clark, including: A New Earth Conversation (NEC), Extractives@Clark, and the Graduate School of Geography’s Colloquium Series.

I have attended a total of seven of these events so far this semester. On September 25, I attended a morning tour of the University’s Hadwen Arboretum hosted by Clark Geography Professor John Rogan’s Arboretum Research class and sponsored by NEC. Later that day, Professor Rogan presented, for Extractives@Clark, “Extractives and GIS: Solar Panel Fields and Forest Loss in Massachusetts: Uganda-Tanga Crude Oil Pipeline Potential Impact,” a talk on two important research projects Professor Rogan has recently been conducting. On October 2, I attended a talk by Thea Riofrancos, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Providence College, sponsored by Extractives@Clark and entitled Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador.” On October 14, I attended an NEC-sponsored talk from Leah Penniman, a Clark alum who is the Co-Director and Farm Manager for Soul Fire Farm, “an Afro-Indigenous centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system,” called “Farming While Black: African Diasporic Wisdom for Farming and Food Justice.” After the talk, she participated in a Q&A with Steve Fischer, the Executive Director of the Worcester Regional Environmental Council (REC), and Stacie Brimmage, the Coordinator of the REC’s YouthGrow program. On October 16, I attended a talk from Esther Figueroa, a Jamaican independent filmmaker, called “‘Fly Me To The Moon’ Jamaica and the Global Aluminum Industry. How the Periphery Makes the Center Possible,” sponsored by both NEC and Extractives@Clark. On October 29, I attended a talk part of the Graduate School of Geography Colloquium Series, from Alex Tarr of Worcester State’s Department of Earth, Environment, and Physics, called “Beyond Berkeley: Critical Cultural Landscape Studies and A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area.” On November 5, I attended a Graduate School of Geography Colloquium Series talk from Sharlene Mollet of the Department of Human Geography at the University of Toronto, entitled “Tourism Troubles: Feminist political ecologies of land and body in the making of residential tourism space in Panama.” On Thursday, Nov. 12, Sacoby Wilson of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health spoke at noon for a Geography Colloquium Series and New Earth Conversation event entitled “A Syndemic 400 Years in the Making.”

I have been lucky enough to recently interview two of the people who have made these talks possible, Anthony Bebbington, a Professor of the Graduate School of Geography here at Clark and a member of Extractives@Clark, and Michelle Sayles, the Assistant Director of NEC and A Council on the Uncertain Human Future.

What is the theme of the speaker series you are involved with organizing [for a New Earth Conversation, Extractives@Clark, and/or the Graduate School of Geography Colloquium Series]?

Professor Bebbington: Really these are three different series, but we look for ways in which they might overlap. That helps us use very limited resources more efficiently, and also, we hope, helps different communities connect, though of course, this is harder under Covid.

The New Earth Conversation faculty convenor is Professor Denise Humphreys Bebbington, and Michelle Sayles is the Coordinator of NEC. I am just part of a group of faculty who support NEC. I think NEC is a particularly important vehicle for helping us all think about the relationships among different faces of contemporary and historical crises, in particular those around climate change, racial justice, social inequality, consumption, and capitalism. It’s not an easy discussion for any of us, and it can feel disempowering – but I think the spirit behind the NEC speakers and events has been one of simultaneously discussing crisis and possibility, with an emphasis on possibility in the face of adversity. Everything from the tour of the Arboretum and the cool work being done there, the great work of Soul Fire Farm, through the climate and elections panel last week, and the coming talk by Professor Sacoby Wilson.

Extractives@Clark is a much more modest initiative. It grows out of research done by a group of faculty and students [from undergraduates to PhDs], and in particular work bridging GIS and political ecology. In some sense, our events drill down into the same questions as NEC but look at how they are related to a specific activity, namely natural resource extraction (e.g., mining, oil, gas extraction, etc.). But the overall themes of crisis, justice, and possibility are still there.

The Geography seminar series is broader in its focus. We try to bring in four or five speakers a semester working in different parts of the discipline and also at different stages of their careers. This means that the talks this semester have ranged from Arctic climate, to the hidden histories and injustices in the Bay Area landscape. But those themes of crisis, justice, and possibilities are again never very far from the surface, whether the speaker is an Earth System Scientist (think of Professor Danielle Wood’s talk) or an urban geographer (like Professor Alex Tarr’s talk).

What was your role in helping find speakers for presentations and/or facilitating presentations during pre-COVID-19 semesters? Who else was involved in this process, and how did they go about it?

Professor Bebbington: In NEC, it has been Professors Humphreys Bebbington and Michelle Sayles who did all that work – and in earlier semesters Professors Foley and Buie. My role has been limited, though I did link my FYI last year to NEC and we brought in speakers from Peru, Honduras, and different [non-governmental organizations] NGOs – we also linked the class to a class at the Central American University in Managua and the students had four different sessions together (virtually discussing environment and development issues.

Extractives@Clark only began in fall 2019. There the coordination and identification of speakers has been done by a small group of faculty (myself, Professor Rogan, and Professor Humphreys Bebbington), post-doctoral and PhD students. We invite speakers directly.

In Geography, we have a committee of faculty and doctoral students who consult all the grad students and faculty on who they would like to invite to speak, then the committee comes up with a short list, and then the faculty member who chairs that committee invites the speakers. That has been me this year and last year, but it is a role that rotates every two or three years. The staff in the Geography department also help enormously. Also, independently, CUGA, the undergraduate student association of geography students, brings in a speaker in the Spring semester as part of Practicing Geography Week. Geography faculty and staff assist in this, but the students lead the process. I am not sure how that will work this spring, but it has been a really great innovation that we started around 2012 at the request of some forward looking Geography majors.

Sayles: Our NEC public programming and speaker series develops through the input of our Collaborative and Affiliate course faculty and recommendations from the NEC Core Advisory Group. We try to find points of synergy between our courses and identify speakers who can address issues of common concern. I’ve been involved with logistical support around our public programming.

How did you and/or others facilitate bringing guest speakers back to the Clark community (via Zoom) this semester?

Professor Bebbington: For me, at least, the Zoom modality has worked surprisingly well, and I think it won’t go away. There will be in-person speakers again for sure – because that allows all sorts of other student interaction with them. But I think we will use Zoom much more for speakers who are far away, who cannot travel, or whose travel costs would be too expensive in both carbon and financial terms. I also think people will be willing to do this – indeed, it wasn’t hard to ask people to do Zoom talks this semester.

Sayles: We’ve held the majority of our NEC events on Zoom this term, with only a few in-person outdoor events as part of Listening in Nature Week. We had Leah Penniman join us on October 14 for a lecture as well as a panel discussion with Stacie Brimmage and Steve Fischer from the Regional Environmental Council. We also have Dr. Sacoby Wilson joining us on November 12 for a public lecture, which will be followed by a smaller Zoom conversation with NEC and GSG students. Zoom has worked really well for NEC this term and has allowed us to easily record and share our talks through Facebook as a livestream and on our website after the event.

What has your favorite presentation so far this semester? What made it interesting and informative?

Professor Bebbington: I honestly can’t say. This is not just sidestepping the question – I think that the point is that we should look at these presentations as a whole and think of their strengths in terms of how they complement each other, explore different ways of thinking about issues, and also explore differing viewpoints.

Sayles: I loved Leah Penniman’s talk and the opportunity to have her in conversation with REC. Our hope with this program was to create a platform for deepening our conversations of racial justice and food justice on campus. Given Leah’s relationship to Worcester and the YouthGrow program, it felt important for us to be able to uplift local work around these issues as well.

How have the presentations changed with the online format, for better or for worse? How have they stayed the same?

Professor Bebbington: I think what we miss is the personal interaction with speakers around the edges of events. But the nature of the talks is, I suspect, much the same. I think, but am not sure, that the ability to ask questions through the chat or Q&A function has helped students who might have felt nervous or self-conscious speaking in an in-person seminar, to ask more questions. If that’s the case, and as I say it is only a hunch, then that is good.

Sayles: We’re able to include a broader audience now that our public events are online, but much does seem to have remained the same.

How do you navigate bringing a diversity of voices and perspectives to campus for your speaker series?

Professor Bebbington: Probably not very successfully. One thing is to ask different constituencies who they’d like to hear speak (we do this most explicitly in Geography, but could always consult more). Then it’s a pretty conscious effort to invite a group of speakers taking gender, race, career stage, and intellectual focus into account. But of course, another factor is who accepts invitations and who does not.

Who is the intended audience for the speaker series you are involved with? Professors, graduate students, undergraduate students, others, or all of these groups? Is there a group who you would like to reach out to more?

Professor Bebbington: All of the groups you mention. I think we would always like more undergraduates to come, but I also appreciate that (a) they are super busy and (b) we (faculty and graduate students) can sometimes make these spaces seem intimidating without even knowing that we are doing so – and that can keep students away. This is something we need to work on more. But I think the best thing is when professors encourage students in their classes to take advantage of these speakers, just to listen and hopefully hear something that surprises and interests them. For me, these sorts of events beyond the classroom are part of what makes campus life distinct and increases the likelihood that we will be surprised. But to be surprised we have to go to the events. And to go, we have to feel welcomed and at home. And as I say, on that issue there is always work to be done.

Sayles: Our goal with any of these events is to reach the entirety of the campus community. We hope to also share NEC events through our Alumni networks, and to offer our programs to other engaged community members working on related issues.

Is there a speaker who you would like to eventually have at an event open to members of the Clark community? If not, is there a topic you would like a speaker to bring to campus that has not yet been discussed here?

Professor Bebbington: There’s always more topics to be debated and to learn about. I would like to invite leaders of territorially-based grassroots movements from outside the U.S. to speak, but that generally raises challenges of translation; these are not insurmountable challenges, of course, but they are challenges nonetheless.

Sayles: In this time where media literacy and historical awareness is so critical, I’d love to bring Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika to Clark. He is an Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at the Rutgers [University] School of Communication and Information, whose podcasting work has been recognized by the Peabody Awards. He was a collaborative partner on the podcast Scene on Radio which traced the history of democracy in America, and examines how we might transform this country to live up to our democratic values. As we look forward to having a new presidential administration, I think Professor Kumanyika could help us to stay on track in confronting the systemic racism and injustice in this nation that so critically needs attending to.