Earth Week: The Planet and the People On It: Opening up Conversation on Campus

7 May

Like every Earth Week, we didn’t have the biggest turn out. Rain and wind forced the array of student justice and environmental organizations inside the campus center; many passersby avoided catching our eye so they could hurry on without being stopped for a signature, promise, or pamphlet.

Those who did stop, though, gave an incredible energy to the week. People proudly penned promises on up-cycled cloths, accepted challenges and asked for more information on everything from intersectionality to permeable pavements.

The week was dotted with workshops, panels, and gatherings geared towards opening up the Smith community on a variety of topics. Environmentally friendly menstrual products, labor conditions of undocumented farmworkers, indigenous land rights, and the Gaza water crisis: the College was flooded with waves of discussion on a myriad of global environmental justice issues.

Lily-earthweek

It can be hard not to feel a bit jaded when it comes to doing outreach on a campus so full of soapboxes: occasionally, it seems to me that Smithies have an attitude of “I don’t have time to listen to you talk, I’m busy saving the world”. However, unlike previous Earth Weeks, the focus this year on intersectionality really brought more of the campus together than ever before. Instead of a lecture on why we’re not doing enough to celebrate and take good care of the Planet and the People on It, it felt more like a conversation on how together, we can do more than enough.

We can’t talk about land subsidence in marginalized neighborhoods without talking about race; we can’t talk about waste crises without talking about class, and we certainly can’t talk about climate change without talking about global political power asymmetries.

I think that this past week was an important step in creating a more equitable space for discussion on campus. If we all took one step off our own soapboxes, it would lead us onto someone else’s; out of a lecture, and into a conversation.

-Lily Carlisle-Reske is a sophomore at Smith College from Alexandria, Virginia. She is studying environmental science and policy with a concentration in sustainable food and Italian. When she is not working she is probably in the kitchen stirring a pot of soup and baking bread. #veganchef

A Week with ACE: Lessons from an Environmental Justice Organization

29 Apr

This spring break I left the books at home and hung out with an environmental justice organization in Roxbury, MA. Known locally as ACE, the acronym stands for Alternatives for Community and Environment. Through a series of workshops, adventures, meetings and hands-on work, I had my eyes opened to what environmental justice can—and ought to—look like from the ground on up.

One of my first surprises upon entering the organization was how friendly and easy-going the staff were. I was there with a UMASS grassroots organizing class and the ACE staff had us dive right in—right from hour one. I quickly discovered that about 80% of the staff were between the ages of 17 and 24. They were young, furious, and working hard to improve their neighborhood and to fight for their community. Specifically, their environmental justice campaigns focused on better air quality for Roxbury, improved public transit, anti-gentrification and food justice.

One room of the office space was devoted entirely to the REEP program (Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project and part of ACE). REEP is a youth empowerment program that works with and recruits local high school students—and thus the office was always alive with spunk and energy. It was difficult to not join in the fun!

As a group, my class attended workshops led by the youth organizers. They taught us about environmental justice issues specific to Roxbury, gentrification 101, and the power of story-telling to effect social change. Each of us had to informally present on life experiences that influenced us to pursue environmental justice. Being from a rural town in Northern California, my daily concerns differed vastly from the youth of Roxbury. While I drew the following (and beautifully artistic) rendition of my hometown, the youth organizers from Roxbury were distributing flyers relating to transit justice within their own community (see flyer below). Roxbury is a 95% black neighborhood and has been historically—and notoriously— ignored and marginalized by transit development and air quality control.

My beautiful rendition of environmental hazards in my hometown, Northern California.

My beautiful rendition of environmental hazards in my hometown in Northern California.

The flyers that we distributed throughout Roxbury.

The flyers we distributed throughout Roxbury.

In fact, in 1997, REEP was founded by a high school led campaign to hold the MBTA accountable to the Massachusetts anti-idling law. Roxbury has a higher rate of residents with asthma than any other neighborhood in Boston and it was apparent that the MBTA’s bus parking garage was a major contributor to the problem. Buses were left idling on a daily basis, generating excessive exhaust that permeated the neighborhood. On a “Toxic Tour” of Dudley Square led by one of the youth, we were exposed to the air quality monitoring station that was installed as a result of their anti-idling initiative.

A view from the local high school in Roxbury of dirty stormwater.

A view of dirty storm water from the Roxbury high school.

My biggest take-away from the week was learning the difference between environmentalism and environmental justice. In a 1987 study titled “Toxic Wastes and Race” by the United Church of Christ, it was determined that race is the most significant factor in predicting the distribution of environmentally hazardous facilities. A repeat study, conducted twenty years later, showed that people of color are now found to be even more concentrated around hazardous waste facilities than previously shown. Thus environmental justice is focused on equality of healthy resources and environments for ALL people. To this end, ACE’s mission is to “build the power of communities of color and low-income communities in Massachusetts to eradicate environmental racism and classism, create healthy, sustainable communities, and achieve environmental justice.” Their Vision of Change is as follows:

“Systemic change means moving beyond solving problems one by one to eliminating the root causes of environmental injustice. ACE is anchoring a movement of people who have been excluded from decision-making to confront power directly and demand fundamental changes in the rules of the game, so together we can achieve our right to a healthy environment.”

After this experience I encourage all of us to move beyond popular narratives of environmentalism. Instead, we need to reevaluate our commitments to the Earth AND to its people.

To learn more about ACE, or to donate, visit: www.ace-ej.org.

-Odessa Aguirre is a senior at Smith College from Sonora, California. She studies Anthropology with a focus on immigration and Spanish. When she is not at Smith College, she is somewhere sunny and warm. Her future plans include backpacking in every feasible mountain range–and for the non-feasible mountain ranges, she has plans to train as a mountaineer.

Otters at Paradise

22 Apr

Every year, spring thaw means river otter time in Western Massachusetts.  Just as the ice on ponds and lakes starts to melt, I keep an eye out for these playful aquatic mammals to pop out onto the ice and munch on fish and crayfish.

otter on ice  otter face

This year, nature lovers at Smith were treated to an especially good view of a pair of rivers otters on Paradise Pond for about a week running.  I took these pictures and videos over the course of about 3 days as the otter (or otters — I’m not sure if I was looking at the same one all the time, and I never got to see both at once) ate fish after fish.


Now it’s time to look for otter pups!

-James Lowenthal is a professor of astronomy, co-director of the environmental concentration: climate change, and a CEEDS Faculty Fellow.

Jeffrey Sachs: an Economist himself

18 Apr

I’d heard it all before; sustainable development is the only future for an increasingly global society, steeping in a burning cocktail of social injustices, stark economic inequalities and environmental degradation. I have been privileged to hear countless environmentalists, scholars, and activists preach the importance as well as the challenges of sustainable development over the past few years.

The big difference between that and Jeffrey Sachs’ April 8th evening lecture on Sustainable Development at Smith College was that I was hearing about it from an economist. And not just any economist. Sachs is a world-renowned economist who serves as a senior adviser to United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon on the Millennium Development Goals. He is Director of the Earth Institute, and Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Sachs

Sachs led a full auditorium of captivated students, community members, and professors through the ins and outs of sustainable development, the rise of capitalism, and poverty. He finished the lecture with harrowing statistics and evidence describing the environmental crises we are faced with as a result of capitalism’s insatiable, unsustainable appetite.

What intrigued me the most about the lecture were his concluding slides detailing the responsibilities of the “moral” university. The role of the university in sustainable development is special, critical, and enormous in helping to create a future for the billions of people on the planet. Education in sustainable development, research and design of sustainable development systems, organizing social outreach to all stakeholders, and fostering and protecting a moral outlook are some of the responsibilities outlined by Sachs at the tail end of his lecture.

Craning my neck, I tried to gauge the President’s reaction to this slide. After all, administrative offices, classes, and student groups like Divest Smith College have been preaching these same principles for years now. Their biggest hurdle in seeing any action from the College has been economic; any mention of the changes needed to become a more sustainable institution generally leads to hysteria about the billion dollar endowment, so critical to Smith College. And standing on the stage in Weinstein Auditorium was someone ready and willing to make the jump over the hurdle and onto the right side of history; an economist himself.

-Lily Carlisle-Reske is a sophomore at Smith College from Alexandria, Virginia. She is studying environmental science and policy with a concentration in sustainable food and Italian. When she is not working she is probably in the kitchen stirring a pot of soup and baking bread. #veganchef

Florida Adventures with Native Bees!

14 Apr

I am a student Fellow in the Kahn Institute of Liberal Arts yearlong project “The Power of Disappearance”.  There are 15 faculty and 4 student Fellows in my group and we are all studying vastly different topics that revolve around the single word “disappearance”.  My honeybee passion has been ongoing for a few years now, and for this Kahn project I decided to push my boundaries and study disappearances within native bee species. I went into the project knowing I wanted to make a film, because making a film is much more fun than writing a paper or creating a powerpoint, both for me and the viewer.  Plus, I saw this as an issue that could inspire action, and films often have the power to do that.  The film Queen of the Sun is what initially got me into studying bees, and I wanted to pay homage to that.

Over Spring Break I traveled to Gainesville, Florida to interview researchers in the native bee biology lab at the University of Florida.  I had never been to Florida! Cory Stanley-Stahr, a post-doc in the bee lab, is an incredibly kind and knowledgeable person and was the person who I organized the trip with.  She picked me up from the airport and helped me set up interviews with people in the bee lab and community.

I filmed Cory explaining what native bee hotels are, and how people can help native bee populations by building bee hotels and providing more nesting spaces for these bees.  I also interviewed two of Cory’s lab technicians, including Mary, who dissected a frozen bumblebee hive to show me its components (have you ever seen the inside of a bumblebee nest?).  My aim is to create a film that educates people about bees (other than honeybees), explains why native bees matter, and addresses simple ways people can help native bee populations.

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The inside of a bumblebee nest- a still shot from my film.

You can read more stories and see pictures from my adventure at thesecret-lifeofbees.blogspot.com.  Also please come to my Collaborations presentation where I will be debuting my film on campus: Saturday April 18th at 10:45am in Seelye 106.

-Haley Crockett is graduating this May and is an American Studies major and proud Sustainable Food concentrator at Smith.

Spotlight: Amelia Burke, ’15

11 Mar

Meet Amelia: Amelia developed a well-established interest in Middle Eastern studies and sustainable agriculture in the year before she arrived at Smith. During her gap year, she worked in the West Bank, writing for a Palestinian news site, went WWOOFing in Italy and hiked a portion of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. She arrived at Smith ready to focus on environmental sustainability and land revitalization through sustainable agriculture. This spring, she will be graduating with a degree in Middle Eastern studies, a minor in environmental science and policy, and a concentration in sustainable food.

Ab4

During her first two years at Smith, she worked on research projects relating to climate refugees and abuses of freedom in Northern Africa. By her junior year, she decided to take another year off to engage in foreign sustainability issues in agriculture. Amelia had plans to return to the West Bank for an internship at a women’s olive oil cooperative, but upon being denied entry at the border, she was forced to improvise the following year’s plans.

Working her way across continents, she lived in Jordan, worked on a dairy farm in Turkey, a horse farm in Bulgaria, and a kiwi farm in Italy. Her travels then turned south, where she worked on permaculture at an Eco lodge in Egypt and then headed to Zimbabwe for an internship at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management. There she focused on improving degraded soil through proper cattle management. She next headed up to Morocco with plans to use Smith’s Praxis scholarship. Up in the Moroccan highlands, she worked at the High Atlas Foundation, engaged with rural development strategies through fruit and nut tree cultivation and production. In her last year at Smith (oh yes, she accelerated a year) she applied for a Fulbright and is now a finalist for goat and sheep management systems on rates of pasture regrowth in the Middle Atlas.

Amelia

When asked how Smith has contributed to her academic goals she responded: “there is no defined outcome [for what you get out of an academic institution].” As we can see, Amelia patchworked her own academic trajectory through Smith and beyond.

Thanks Amelia for sharing your unique navigation through Smith and good luck with all your future endeavors!

-Odessa Aguirre is a senior at Smith College from Sonora, California. She studies Anthropology with a focus on immigration and Spanish. When she is not at Smith College, she is somewhere sunny and warm. Her future plans include backpacking in every feasible mountain range–and for the non-feasible mountain ranges, she has plans to train as a mountaineer.

Green Team’s Third Annual Climate Justice Open Mic

27 Feb

The stark white bar was laden heavily with cheese, cookies, crackers and tea cups. Heavy ochre curtains were tugged across the entrance way to the dim room, crowded with plastic chairs circled around a small, brightly lit stage.

Last night, I attended Green Team’s annual Climate Justice open mic. The atmosphere was warm despite the excited jitters that pulsed through the crowd like electricity. Green Team’s president, Siiri Bigalke, opened up the night with a moving story about coming to understand environmental injustices during her time abroad.

Another student read a chilling anecdote about her first time visiting receding glaciers. One sophomore, who had dropped by spur of the moment, recalled the various forms of pollution she saw affecting the environment and local residents during her 6 month stay in China. I read a poem about the constricting, overwhelming nature of the climate injustice conversation, or lack thereof.

As attendees became more comfortable, the pieces and stories being shared began to foster stimulating conversations. Students were discovering injustices within the injustices being spoken about; they were learning, listening, and opening their minds as peers braved the bright stage lights.

Perhaps we can look to this event and others like it in searching for ways to open up conversations about environmental (in)justices.

Calling

Footsteps reverberating, exponentially.

Around this hallowed space

curving walls

and dripping ceilings, concrete

pressing and stretching

and acres of black and white tiles.

Drowning in uniformity

echoes of disparate voices

I, too, call out.

 

Deeper down, down we slide

grit, grime wearing as we accelerate; a

perverse progression

and yet there’s a way to

devour, hopelessly

and it cranes our necks to look back at all.

Scraping at the only dust that remains

that would give our floundering feet traction

the void calls out.

 

Along the way, bulbs in dusty prisms

gleam dull and cruel; like

hoarded luxury

and insatiably hungry eyes, all framing an

unfathomable maw

and blinding us against the unknown.

The glow is warming inside these walls

the night never comes, but however stifled

we call out.

 

Billions of eyes focusing

forward through the chaos, reflecting

speckled trees

and cacophonous Springs

righteous respiration

and rusting, silent chains.

Voices presently choked, almost muted

a technological compromise and no one need leave

but they call out.

 

Beaten bodies building

soils sown with poisons

seas roiling; a pot over flame

and yet we march

walls contracting

and we grow restless.

These tunnels were not built to burst

but the breath of the Earth beyond is rallying

the climate is calling.

DSCF5035

-Lily Carlisle-Reske is a sophomore at Smith College from Alexandria, Virginia. She is studying environmental science and policy with a concentration in sustainable food and Italian. When she is not working she is probably in the kitchen stirring a pot of soup and baking bread. #veganchef

The Final Day- Sharing the Lessons

19 Jan

Okay, you’ve all learned about what a carbon footprint is; you can see your footprints in the snow…who made these prints?”
“It’s a BEAR!”
“No, it’s a mongoose!”

2015-01-16 12.28.14
The crowd of rowdy sixth graders under our supervision exploded into peals of laughter that rang about the young woods. We were attempting to identify animal tracks, keeping in line with the footprint theme of our lesson plans. Another dozen students were taking their turns exploring the Bechtel Environmental classroom; the composting toilets were hard to tear them away from.

This past week, 16 Smithies have been braving sub zero temperatures up at the MacLeish Field Station in Whately, Massachusetts for the Interterm course, Interpreting the New England Landscape. We trooped through ice encrusted snow each day, learning the trails, about the history of the property, the engineering of the Bechtel Environmental Classroom, and winter ecology.

Spending the day sharing this information with the campus school sixth graders really established a sense of community and connection with the landscape that had been building all week.

-Lily Carlise-Reske, ’17

 

Prior to Monday, the last time I had set foot onto the MacLeish Field Station grounds I was a nervous first-year with a poorly packed backpack preparing to spend my first night of college sleeping in a tent with strangers. The Bechtel Environmental Classroom was nothing more than a concrete foundation. It’s amazing how much changes in three years time.

2015-01-16 11.25.13

Our class this week was made special by the breathtaking view from our meeting table in the Classroom, the company and camaraderie we shared as a class, and the learning that was experienced both firsthand and witnessed with our 6th graders this morning. The process of walking through the crunchy woods identifying tracks, trees, sounds, smells and tastes with the intent of sharing our knowledge created an incredible sense of responsibility that motivated my own learning throughout the week.

2015-01-16 12.00.34

My favorite moment of the week took place on Thursday morning in the middle of the frozen vernal pool. While chiseling through two inches of ice under the enthusiastic guidance of Paul Wetzel, I heard and felt a chilling CRACK that reverberated directly below me to the edges of the pool. My heart stopped and a shiver went down my spine. Everyone around me jumped. Our collective instinctual reactions were a startling reminder of how wild we are underneath it all.

-Anne Ames, ’15

 

The only other time I have ever been to MacLeish was second semester my first year, for an environmental perspectives class.  I remember first walking into the Bechtel Environmental Classroom and immediately being struck by the beauty of the space with its natural lighting seeping through the 3 sets of windows and the amazing vista in front of the main classroom table. I’ve always been aware of the necessity and amazing benefits of being in such a setting, but having the unique experience to be in such an environment in an integrated academic setting was truly inspirational.

Slightly contrary to this, was my experience at MacLeish this week.  Although this class mimicked the experience of taking part in an academic class in the same setting, with the same natural light and aesthetic beauty I remember from last time, my experience was a deeper one.  Because this class was based around building a working knowledge of the field station and classroom, and gaining a working knowledge of the space, I was able to enjoy being in a space of the classroom I could now interpret in a language appropriate for the living building, as well as better understand why the space was so beautiful to me.

2015-01-16 11.12.53

During this week at the classroom we learned about the ‘7 petals’, or ways in which the classroom incorporates aspects of sustainable and ethical standards of living into the building, construction and use of the living building as a whole. These standards, overseen by the International Living Future Institute, surprisingly and incredibly have only been met by five buildings in the world, of which Smith is the most recently certified. While inside the classroom after our morning hikes or other outside activities, seeing the way these ‘petals’ were used in the environment of the classroom, was an amazing experience.  One of my favorite times of day throughout the week was simply having lunch or spending transitional times inside the main room of the classroom.  It wonderful to essentially be in a space created to enjoy these simple and necessary pleasures of existing in an environment in which being in the moment helps one better connect to their natural surroundings in a way that wakes the imagination like no other.  It’s amazing what natural beauty can do!

-Blythe Coleman-Mumford, ’17

Interpreting- Day 4

16 Jan

On Thursday, we spent the morning learning and exploring with the Field Station’s Environmental Research Coordinator, Paul Wetzel.  As we ventured into the woods, he pulled out various thermometers and showed us how the blanket of snow works as an insulator, thus enabling small animals like mice and voles to travel under the snow because it is warmer than above the snow. Plants and animals that have adapted to our Northern climate depend on this temperature differential. As a result, winters without snow are much harder for grasses, for example, than those with plenty of snowfall. Next, we ventured further into the woods and spotted some deer tracks.  As we followed them deeper into the forest along the Porcupine Trail, we found numerous other tracks and used tracking books and Paul’s expertise to determine that squirrels, rabbits, deer, and foxes, had all been through that area.  We even found some deer scat, which Paul excitedly showed us came in piles of small, brown pellets that are green on the inside.

IMG_6616newA student in the class checking the temperature in the air to compare to the temperature in and under the snow.

IMG_6633new
There were many different types of animal tracks in the snow, the class identified this one as belonging to a deer.

IMG_6657new
Annie Ames, ’15 cracking a layer of ice at the vernal pool.

IMG_6666new
The temperature under the layer of ice at the vernal pool was around 40°F.
Even though the weather above the ice might be below freezing, this temperature differential allows fish and other animals to survive the winter under the ice.

As we walked through the woods, Paul also taught us quick and easy characteristics useful in the identification of different tree species. For example, white birch has peeling, white bark and alternating branching and the dogwood lives in damp environments and has opposite branching, where the branches sprout directly across from each other. Besides the conifers, the beech trees are the only trees around the Ada and Archibald MacLeish Field Station that retain their leaves into the winter. Paul presented both tree and track identification as intuitive problem solving processes that each of us could use in the future. Before we ventured too far into the woods, we were offered sticks of black birch and told to chew on them. Though hesitant at first, I willingly put the stick in my mouth. It tasted surprisingly good, like some combination of maple syrup and mint.

IMG_6621new
Laura Krok-Horton, ’17 and Reid Bertone-Johnson sample the black birch branches.

– Julia Comeau, ’17
– Anuujin Elbegdori, ’15
– Anna George, ’17
-Pam Matcho, ’17

Interpreting- Reflections on Day 3

16 Jan
Blindfolds and icy trails are a great way to build trust, and it definitely established some new bonds at the Field Station. After separating into four groups of four, one person lead their three blindfolded group mates through the snowy trails to the best of their abilities. Using only our voices and a rope to keep the group together, we all struggled to keep our peers from sliding down hills of ice and walking into trees. Throughout this activity we learned that most (but not all!) of us can direct each other quite well, and that it involves a lot of laughter and more than a few startled exclamations of “oh no!” Starting off the morning by stumbling around in the snow really allowed us to tune in to our senses, and helped to strengthen the class’s sense of community in a fun and engaged manner.
-Liz Nagy, ‘18
 trust
In the afternoon, we started brainstorming for when the 6th graders arrive on Friday. The group divided into two groups based on what they wanted to focus on: the Homestead in the woods, with activities to and from on the trails, and the Station. At the MacLeish Field Station, kids can learn about the Living Building Challenge and do actives including looking at the composting toilets, Weather Grams, and reflecting on what they learned with us. We can’t wait to have the 6th graders come on Friday!
-Laura Krok-Horton
As a reflection exercise, the class all took 10 minutes today between activities to just go outside, spread out in all directions, and experience being out in the woods alone. One option was to create a sound map, using your location as the center of a radius and visually recording the sounds around us based on distance. It was a useful exercise to simply appreciate the opportunity we have to enjoy a place like the field station, which is a privilege many people don’t get. It also allowed me to understand even more what we had learned the previous day in class–that this area we may perceive as a wilderness is not fact so far removed. You can hear the hum of cars, the revving of a motor, and even the crunch of the rest of the class’ feet in the snow. However, as someone who grew up in a city, I also enjoyed hearing a relative silence; the trees were quiet, the birds were distant, and the loudest sound around me was the rustling of my coat. My own contribution to the sounds around me is not something I often think about, and something I am eager to see the 6th graders think about.
– Catherine Campbell-Orrock
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