Public Engagements, Part 1

March 21, 2018

What does is mean to do public research in the environmental humanities? This and other questions lie at the heart of this series of essays, "Public Engagements." Contributors, PPEH Fellows and students, reflect on: Who is the "public" in my public research? How will they be engaged? Does my project need a public audience? A participant audience? Participant observers? Am I looking for research subjects? Co-creators? How will I document my social practice research?


Hanna Morris, Doctoral Student, Annenberg School of Communication

Public Engagements, Part 1

Type “global warming” into Google Images and you are met with pictures of cartoon globes on fire, thermometers, polar bears, icebergs, and apocalyptic scenarios. Few photographs appear (most images are cartoons) and the handful of “photographic” images that do surface are either highly edited or are photo-realistic composites. According to Google—which is the largest online search engine and aggregator of information for a popular, global user-base—global warming is no more “real” or “human” or “present” than a cartoon globe or polar bear.

But global warming is very real, very human, and very present. Climate change is not a far-off apocalypse to come. It is not a hazy mirage or fantastical possibility. Global warming is an intimate, immediate, and material presence “stuck” to each and everyone of us. And yet, this intimacy is difficult to visualize in everyday life.

An intervention is required.  

I’m currently working with artists and image-makers to develop a set of visual interventions for the collaborative re-imagining of climate change. I’m asking: How can the current, de-humanized and abstracted vision of climate change be altered? How can (and how should) climate change be visualized as an intimate and material presence?

From these imagistic intercessions, I will curate an online blog/collection of visual interventions. This online collection will continue to grow and serve as a site for the collaborative reimagining of global warming. The collection will look quite different from the pages of Google Images.   


Nicole Welk-Joerger, Doctoral Candidate, History and Sociology of Science

Public Engagements, Part 1
A farmer’s home peeks behind their feed mixer and tractor. Image from author, 2018.

On Friday, January 26th, I walked with a dairy farmer around his property. We mainly talked about his animals. He pointed to their feed bins and described the technical issues he was having with uneven feed distribution. He told me about a recent interaction he had with his veterinarian. We spoke about the gloomy freezing weather, and the gloomier milk market. And then, just as quickly as it started, he left our conversation. One of his hired hands had been standing for a long time at the calf hutches. A calf wasn’t taking her bottle. It was clear that her welfare was the priority; our conversation was a privilege.

I’d call this interaction “research,” perhaps even “ethnographic” given my time with this farmer, his workers, and his animals. But was it public? When I later wrote about our conversation in my field notebook, intended to be included as evidence for my dissertation project, did it become public?

A farmer’s home peeks behind their feed mixer and tractor. Image from author, 2018.

Ethnographic research is sticky with issues that pin private interactions against public knowledge. To combat assumptions, anthropologists use long term participant observation – from friendship building and fly-on-the-wall listening – to make their cases for a more complicated and universally entangled world. They are private interactions intended for public conversations. The balance between the two relies on the relationships researchers build with their informants/subjects/friends/acquaintances. These individuals often remain anonymous to protect their private lives. However, their essence – attached to a clever pseudonym and crafted prose – becomes public academic discourse.

As private an interaction I may have with farmers and their animals, the stickiness of these relationships stays with me and finds itself in my writing and my ways of understanding my research topic. My dissertation, in ways, is my public project – the transformation of private worlds into a public conversation. But this work should not be limited to this form. As I co-create knowledge with my farmer friends, I will continue to think through how this work can reach different publics. I want to demonstrate how private practices have public consequences: the invisibility of this farm work often missing from our conversations about food.


Xelba Gutierrez, Master's Candidate, Environmental Studies, Concentration in Environmental Justice

Public Engagements, Part 1

What makes food justice so special?

The food justice movement focuses attention on the racial and class inequities of food. It can inspire collaboration to generate locally-controlled, sustainable food systems, that also engage and empower community members. At a larger scale, local food systems can improve ecological health, and they don’t partake from the exploitation of farm workers.

In Philadelphia, the food justice movement is buzzing. Groups including Urban Creators and VietLead are producing safer and stronger communities through food gardens that are intentionally led and preserved by the communities they serve. Similarly, a new food garden project is taking shape in the Fairhill neighborhood of Philadelphia. Fairhill, a community of color, is imprinted with the struggle and oppression that comes with our racist history. The new food garden has the potential to help the community reimagine a food system that can nourish bodies, and strengthen human bonds. The food garden will be located at the Lillian Marrero Branch of The Free Library of Philadelphia. I will be co-leading the project’s public engagement through a series of surveys, canvassing excursions, informal interviews, community meetings and chance encounters. The community will be given agency to be co-creators, leaders, participants or observers of this project as they desire, building knowledge and capacity along the way. This process is vital for supporting the community to feel emboldened to search for social and political change.

Public Engagements, Part 1

Recognizing that Fairhill is the poorest community in Philadelphia, it is clear that they need more than just food. But do you see what I see? I see food having the potential to inspire and help people fulfill their hierarchy of needs. Let’s dream of achieving fulfilled lives through food. Now, let’s get to work.   


Emma Singer, Undergraduate PPEH Fellow, Urban Studies

“I was born by the river/In a little tent/Oh, and just like the River/I’ve been running ever since”.

Sam Cooke and I differ in quite a number of ways. Most significantly, I’m an undergraduate student struggling with a thesis and he’s the inventor of soul music. I wasn’t even born by the river, or any river, if we’re being technical.

Still, I love this song. It’s beautiful, it’s powerful, and it imagines life as unfettered water, twisting and backtracking, petering out and eddying over time.

Public Engagements, Part 1
One Way Bicyclists: Philadelphia citizens concerned with claiming their right to the city and its streets or some disruptive teens? (Photo by Dan Lidon)

My research this past year has moved in similar ways. I began the year wondering how my propensity towards biking in Philadelphia was related to my identity as a privileged, white-passing, Penn student. I wanted to ask the (too) broad question of how Philadelphians benefitted from bicycle infrastructure. Although I planned to focus on theory and Lefebvre’s right to the city, I was quickly pulled down a rabbit hole of convoluted city planning policies, histories of elitist bicycle advocates, and long-standing inequities among access to green space.

I found that bicycle infrastructure in Philadelphia is often dictated by a slew of city policies and politics that do not allow it to meet the needs of specific neighborhoods, particularly those of color and low-wealth. My research focused on one notable example, the 58th Street Greenway, where this issue stemmed from a lack of meaningful engagement with existing residents.

With my work as a PPEH Fellow, I plan to build on my thesis and work with the publics currently isolated from bike advocacy and the bicycle infrastructure planning process. I will ask questions related to how people of different identities recreate and how natural spaces, historically reserved for privileged populations, can meaningfully engage with and welcome communities of color and low-wealth.

“It’s been a long time coming but I know/A change gone come/Oh, yes it will”.


Originally posted March 21, 2018