January 14, 2021

In 2021, create community engagement as a science activator

Posted by Laura Guertin

I typically write my New Year’s resolution blog post to go live close to January 1st – but 2020 was quite a year, and 2021 is having its own incredible start. Prior posts have included spending time unplugged, reading #365papers, helping the public learn about NOAA, generating climate optimism, and answering Dr. Lubchenco’s call for a renewed social contract, to name a few.

This year, I want to suggest and share something that was discussed at the 2020 AGU Fall Meeting during the second Virtu-Ale Happy Hour hosted by climate rapper Baba Brinkman (recording still available in the AGU virtual platform, from December 8, 2020, 6-7PM (ET)).

There was one phrase mentioned by comedian and radio personality Chuck Nice that has stuck with me that I’m still reflecting upon: “I’m not an activist, I’m an activator.” Here’s a little bit more of the conversation from the Happy Hour:

[Chuck Nice, starting at 18:49 in the recording] – [We’ve got to] stop thinking like an activist, and I don’t call myself an activist, I call myself an activator. What I’m trying to do is to get other people to think like me. I’m not trying to get you to go out and protest. I want you to vote about climate, because that makes a real difference. But then I want you to start taking action on your own to change your world.

Fellow panelist and climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann continues the conversation:

[Michael Mann, starting at 20:10 in the recording] – You make a really important point. When you do even the little things – even if they don’t really make a difference in the end – they get you on that path of engagement. They lead you down a path where you become more activated. And ultimately, then yes, it’s about systemic change. And so there’s a transition that can happen there, and we have to help people along on that transition, So yeah, let’s do those things. Let’s just not think that we’re done.

My mind was furiously processing this conversation and reflecting back on what I do and how I would label myself and my own actions. I’ve blogged here on GeoEd Trek about Advocacy and Activism – what they mean, why they matter (one of my highest-read posts of all-time). But the term “activator” was a new way for me to think about how I refer to what I do in the classroom and with students. Another post I wrote shares information contained in a teaching module on the SERC (Science Education Resource Center) website, Helping Students Advocate for the Earth – from InTeGrate. If I rewrote that post today, perhaps I would say that faculty are acting as an activator for students to engage in advocacy? But in order to be an activator, by default, aren’t you advocating for something?

In our socially-distanced communities and virtual Zoom classrooms, I like the idea of being an activator for science. It’s about thinking of ways to plant the seeds of science topics and how those topics are relevant to our lives; then, some individuals may then enter the advocacy stage on their own. For example, last summer I organized a virtual podcast discussion “club” with community members on various nature- and sustainability-themed topics (see article in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America). After only a few discussions, the participants (non-scientists) were asking me how they could take action and make a difference for waterways, pollinators, etc. Now I know that by bringing people together for conversations, that put me in a role as an activator (thank you, Chuck Nice, for giving me a term for this!).

Time to think of more ways for us scientists to be activators. Sometimes, the non-scientists in our communities may just need to hear our voices to move them to the next steps of taking action.