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Under her eye: Communicating climate change more effectively

My name is Adriana Suárez and I’m a 3rd year PhD Student at the School of Geographical Sciences. I am working on community based water management in rural areas in Chile, where I am from.

I came back from fieldwork two months ago and in a way, I am still getting used to being back in Bristol as it is easy to feel a bit lost when you are swimming in a sea of data.  It was an intense fieldwork experience as I spent five months in Chile doing interviews with different participants, collecting documents and texts, and doing participant observation. The method I am using is called Institutional Ethnography, a method of inquiry developed by feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith and which has not been used yet in natural resources management.

My aim is to learn from rural communities who are involved in water management as a way to explore a form of management that is different to the usual way in which water for human consumption and sanitation is provided in urban areas. For example, in most cities like Santiago and Bristol, water is provided by sanitary companies which capture, purify and deliver water to our households. They also collect waste water and treat it to then return it to rivers so it can be used again in other activities. Usually, sanitary companies are for profit corporations that make a profit out of this service.

However, the way drinking water is organised in rural Chile is very different as in these areas the State works in partnership with the community. In this model, the work is done with a social aim and not as a way to make a profit, as opposed to the work of sanitary companies involved in the provision of water to urban areas. On the one hand the State is in charge of investing in the construction and provision of the infrastructure needed to capture, accumulate and distribute water, such as water tanks and a network of water pipes that distribute water to each household. On the other hand, the community is responsible for managing the system. This work includes repairing any breakages, leaks and charging water tariffs to keep the system running.

Coming back from fieldwork is not an easy task and I felt like I had many questions and concerns I needed to discuss with others. I realised I also needed to engage with my data in as many ways as possible, and that meant not only in academic ways. This is why I have been looking for opportunities to engage in conversation with other PhD students as well as with people who are not doing research or are not involved in academia. The ‘Research without Borders’ festival has offered me an opportunity to do this in a non-academic way, and to think of ways of talking about my research I had not considered before.

I also committed to preparing a stall at a public engagement event in Colston Hall on the 9 May 2018, in which I would develop an activity about my research. Someone had suggested me to use a cut out of James Bond to exemplify the gendered patterns of water management in my research. However I wasn’t entirely convinced I could develop a meaningful activity with a real-size cardboard image of Daniel Craig.

So, as I was getting – or not – ready to present my project in an engaging and fun way, I received an email from the Cabot Institute inviting me to participate in the Under Her Eye fellowship program which involved participating in a conference taking place on 1 June 2018 in London. I quickly went on their website and did a bit of research and I soon realised this was an opportunity I could not miss! This conference is about communicating climate change effectively by encouraging collaboration between scientists and artists. Moreover, Margaret Atwood will be the ambassador of this conference! I applied immediately and was thrilled to hear I had been chosen to participate.
Scarborough. Image credit Adriana Suarez.
Last weekend we met in Scarborough with the Invisible Dust team, who are organising the conference and I met the rest of the participants who were from different universities across the country. It was an incredible experience and it opened my eyes to new ways of collaborations I had not considered before. It was an intense and productive weekend, dedicated to improve our presentation skills, to think about engaging different audiences, about communicating and about how to affect change. It was inspiring and thought provoking, and it was a sharing experience among people I had never seen before, but with whom I shared values, dreams and concerns with.

We were invited to think about an activity we would like to develop during the conference and we came up with an idea to involve the public in a sensory experience that would take them all the way to Chile, to explore how avocado production is competing with a rural community and their human right to access water. I had never thought I had a creative facet, but now I’m starting to think I might not know everything about myself yet, which is quite refreshing. The whole weekend in Scarborough was a discovery, an exploration of our own research and of ways in which to look at it from different angles, from creative approaches and involving others in reflecting about it too, which was an invaluable gift.

I did not realise how meaningful the connections made with the other young women participating in this fellowship would turn out to be. We introduced ourselves with a nice ice-breaking activity in which we started drawing connections that would then help us develop conversations around topics that mattered to us such as climate change, gender, vegetarianism and curry. Our love for chocolate and coffee also came up, together with our concern about the risk of losing them as we found out from Sarah Mander’s presentation. Sarah works @TyndallManc and explained the ways in which the UK is working to meet the commitments it has taken to reduce carbon emissions and help combat climate change. She mentioned that if the global temperature rises to 4C we would be losing chocolate and coffee.

Later, we had Laura Harrington’s presentation which I thought was very personal and generous. She talked about her research in landscapes and her interests in geomorphology, especially in the peat bogs of Cumbria/Northumberland. She showed us a video with different takes on the landscape she was working on and I could feel I was there, almost a part of it.  She was doing art by recording sounds on a wet day, filming the dripping and melting of snow and the drenched soil which made me feel cold. It was interesting to see the amount of patience and endurance she had to have to be able to film these scenes for hours, waiting, looking and absorbing the landscape through all her senses. I was surprised she enjoyed being there as I thought I would have only been able to stay in those conditions for a little while, comforted by the idea of soon going back to a warm and dry place. She put sensors, cameras, and films under the ground to see how they became part of the landscape after some time there, being exposed to these harsh conditions. It felt intimate as she was telling us what went through her head and what she wanted to do with the equipment. I admired Laura’s conviction and the way in which she would not listen to scientists’ advice when telling her “there is nothing to see here”. These suggestions did not prevent her from going to Finland in winter time and experiencing the landscape for herself.

She praised procrastination, as it is a place where imagination and creativity can emerge, which made me think about how much I fear procrastinating, without really valuing the precious gifts that leisure time can offer.

After this intense afternoon, we went for a nice walk into the TEC Campus, a beautiful place where we would get our own room, and space to walk, to meet, a great Canteen and friendly staff who were all the time accommodating to our needs. On the Friday, we worked on different ideas, especially about what makes as curious and thoughts we wanted to develop. We had an interesting talk by Julie Doyle, professor of media and communications at Brighton University. We worked on a critical reflection on media types, and on examples of effective and ineffective ways of communicating climate change. We also discussed the gendered aspects of some media depictions, we saw ways in which irony was used to spark discussions and we talked about different art forms and exhibitions that can reach audience’s attention while entertaining them and also offering a hopeful message. We mentioned the importance of responsibility when communicating climate change impacts, especially when talking to younger generations, so that we avoid making people feel disempowered.

We then had a Skype workshop with Gayle Chong Kwan in which we talked about the changes people can make in food consumption, and how we can all relate to food, which was one of the things that came up in our first ice breaker exercise. This was a great workshop in which we became active participants in the preparation of the Microclimate Banquet taking place at the Conference in June.

Gayle showed us pictures from the late XIX century were ice was brought from Norway to London as customers demanded ice for food preservation, for making ice cream, and for medical use. She also showed pictures of cattle in jails, as a way for us to imagine how meat production and food supply was organised in the past. This was a great prompt for starting a conversation on the impacts we have on the environment by consuming fruits that are grown in faraway lands, or products that travel long distances to get to our tables, like the avocados from Chile.

After lunch, we had the valuable input of Sarah Cartwright who taught us several tips for communicating effectively and present our ideas with confidence. We learned about the importance of breathing, of concentrating in our body and grounding ourselves so that we can be assertive and authoritative. Many of us were impressed with the fact that the content of our presentations is only 7% of what counts to make an impact. The rest of attention is related to our body language, the way we speak, and the tone of our voices. We learned tips for warming our vocal cords, making eye contact and on what to do with our hands. It is surprising that we hardly ever get advice on how to communicate our research, which makes me think of the important challenges that academia faces when researchers try to connect with people located in other spheres of knowledge such as the arts. These so called “soft skills” are generally overlooked and we spent more time working on our content than on the way we deliver it and the impact we make.

After this we split into two groups and we developed in 15 minutes, a 5 minute presentation in which we would use these suggestions to structure our talk. We all received very valuable feedback on our presentation style and were able to see what we were doing well and what things we could improve.

That night we watched the short film ‘Pumzi’ by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu, a sci-fi short film that pushes us to think about alternative futures. We also watched/heard Sabrina Mahfouz’s potent poem on climate refugees ‘‘The Environmental Refugee Holding Centre (ERHC)’.

Under Her Eye group of fellows.
Towards the end of the weekend we worked on learning how to make our ideas happen by applying for funds, doing a proposal pitch and looking for funding sources. This was practical advice on how to concretise our ideas.This weekend has boosted my curiosity and my practice of reflecting on the what, why, how and why of climate change action and communication. Moreover I made 14 new friends who I will be working with in the next six weeks leading up to Under Her Eye. It has been inspiring and a luxury to take time off to explore and celebrate the role of women taking action on climate change, and I appreciate the opportunity to have been part of this experience.

This weekend was a gift, as I could dedicate three full days to pause, reflect, write and share ideas and dreams with like-minded women. This time, when experienced, becomes an avenue for exploring our own abilities but also for creating in collaboration with others possibilities for transformation and hope, which are essential when communicating and engaging audiences in climate change action. 
This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Adriana Suarez, who is a PhD Candidate in Environment, Energy and Resilience at the School of Geographical Sciences. She is exploring community based water management in rural Chile through Institutional Ethnography, a feminist method of inquiry into social relations.
Adriana Suarez

Twitter: Adri_H2o

‘Under Her Eye’ is curated and produced by award-winning arts science organisation Invisible Dust and supported by the Wellcome TrustEuston Town BIDCreative ScotlandMooncup and Arts Council England.

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