Engaged Faculty Spotlight: Environmental Sustainability

March 15, 2019

Amid contentious debate about the environmental realities of our time, faculty at Brown--including Professor Kate Schapira and Dr. J Timmons Roberts--tackle issues of climate change through varying methods within their fields, transforming the way students and community members understand and address environmental sustainability and our collective future. 

Kate Schapira, Senior Lecturer in English and poet, negotiates the often-reinforced distinction between academia and activism. She invites us to imagine a reality where the term “engaged scholarship” might be collapsed under a new normative understanding of what scholarship can offer and affect. In a recent interview with Priscilla D. Vienrich, Schapira speaks about the value of compensating community members for the knowledge they can offer: “Let’s not replicate the notion that we decide things here and then we bring them out into the world. Let’s be critical about these questions and also, let’s start paying people for their time and for their exchange of knowledge.” In Schapira’s course True Stories, students write several nonfiction pieces about a topic of interest that requires them to research by listening to people. This means going to city council meetings, making phone calls to people they don’t know, or other forms of active information gathering. Schapira advises students to ground their work in these thoughts: “What are some of the strategies that they use when listening to people? When asking questions? For waiting. For seeking. For making themselves available in certain ways for the kind of things that people are saying. Teaching them to be willing to let go with what they came in with -- at least temporarily.” 

Her Climate Anxiety Project puts this spirit of thoughtful and open inquiry into practice. Setting up a booth in a public space, with “CLIMATE ANXIETY COUNSELING 5 CENTS” painted in yellow against muted greenwood, Schapira offers passersby a moment to pause and share any response they might have. Schapira describes her motivating impulse: “I could be part of building a vocabulary to talk about climate change and what it means to us, what it feels like, and what our responses to it could be.” 

Folx that walk up to the booth often expressed a sense of alienation, based in fear and powerlessness when confronting large scale issues. These conversations, at once public and intimate, contribute to Schapira’s alternate histories project. In a way, this is also a type of creative counseling—she responds to a concern by writing futures that have the world’s well- being in their best interest. Schapira shares, “What do we hang on to as people, as scholars, as teachers, as learners, and what do we let go of? Everybody that you encounter is giving you information about how to be a person.” She is sitting at her booth and inviting us to have these encounters, settle into our anxieties, and hear what wisdoms they may offer for how we relate to each other, to systems, and to potentials, both scary and hopeful. Can we sit down, let go, and listen to what asks to be received? To stay connected, see Schapira’s blog and twitter, where you can find updates on booth locations and information related to her work.  

J. Timmons Roberts, Ittleson Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology has taught and directed environmental science and policy programs at Brown University since 2009. His climate and development lab has generated attention nationally and internationally for their impactful research and collaboration with top global research institutes and environmental international organizations. His engaged course, "Engaged Climate Policy in the U.S.: Rhode Island and Washington, DC" (ENVS 1574) examines the intricacies of climate action, global governance, and development in the United States. Students in this course are immersed in the practice of environmental policymaking and are specially positioned to conduct original policy research alongside the world’s top environmental scientists and scholars. In the summer and fall of 2018, the cohort of engaged scholars developed eight new research projects which tackle various components influential to environmental policy change such as investigating climate countermovements coalitions and generating guiding principles for a sustainable and just transportation system in Rhode Island. Dr. J. Timmons Roberts also routinely gives public speeches on climate change such as at the Environmental Council of Rhode Island, OccupyProvidence, and the Blackstone Park Conservancy. When asked about his experience in teaching engaged courses in a recent interview conducted by Priscilla D. Vienrich, Roberts speaks to the ability of alternative pedagogy to transform a student’s sense of civic identity, “As an educator of engaged learning, there is a profound impression within oneself. Witnessing students becoming enriched by this style of teaching gives them a sense of purpose in the world. After graduating, students go on to become engaged citizens and go on to integrate themselves into society in an active way. There is a privilege in being able to witness this metamorphic impact.” However, teaching an engaged course often comes with difficulties within academia and he calls for there to be deliberative institutional support of faculty that integrate engaged pedagogy into their coursework. Nonetheless, Roberts believes engaged pedagogy is keenly important across the disciplines because academia has a role in changing the current course of the world: “The academy holds a lot of power and we need to do good things with this power especially during this time in our society.” 

Contributing author: Claribel Wu '19, Storytellers Fellow (2018-2019)