Building Community Power: Science and Storytelling

April 7, 2015 | 5:36 pm
Miranda Chien-Hale
Master of Environmental Management Candidate, Duke University

My class on California’s water crisis finished a few minutes early last week. I immediately rushed over to Duke University’s Bryan Center, hoping to still grab a bit of food before Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish, began his talk. I managed to scoop up two appetizers before I headed into the theatre.

Within a few minutes of listening to Paul, I knew he would have my complete attention. He started with a few jokes recounting his early bachelor days in New York City as a fisherman; I was reminded, once again, of the importance of a good story. Despite the mid-event fire alarm, which forced the event to relocate across campus, Paul Greenberg, during his entire speech–or rather during his storytelling–created an instantaneous connection with the audience. I know well that it is this type of connection with people that can inspire individuals to take action and make some sort of change.

Last summer I had the privilege of helping develop an equity storytelling project when I worked as the Science and Environmental Justice intern for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The project featured notable leaders from various backgrounds who shared their experiences and expertise with the broader public. These stories about environmental injustice were told through the voices of emotionally invested intellectuals as a way of inspiring action from others. All of the scientific and community experts I spoke with weaved together their research and experiences with story, creating solutions with a mix of passion and sincerity. As a reader, one could not help but be moved by their stories; stories that others can relate to provide an irreplaceable depth to a conversation, thereby connecting us as humans. This human connection escalates the importance of the issue and can encourage people to act.

Miranda measuring groundwater infiltration in northern Minnesota.

Miranda measuring groundwater infiltration in northern Minnesota. Photo: Stefanie Mayer

In addition to the breadth of personal history and passion brought to each blog post, I also found it remarkable how one issue, such as clean air or oil extraction, could be looked at from so many different angles depending on each individual’s viewpoint. There is richness in having something told in someone’s own voice. By hearing personal stories, you begin to see an issue through someone else’s eyes. By linking science and practice, the voices in these stories about environmental justice urge a broader community to discover more about the situation.

After returning to Duke University for my second year of graduate school I continue to see the value in a good story and I am more convinced than ever of the importance of hearing a diversity of voices in this country. As an environmentalist and activist, I believe that the key to getting others to participate is to make the link between those who relate to the world emotionally with those who are more intellectual in their approach. This link is best made through personal stories. With this in mind, I decided to take a short audio documentary course this semester. Audio, like written word, is another medium that can foster the connections between emotion, scientific knowledge, community empowerment, and action.

As my graduation in May rapidly approaches, I am forced to spend more and more time thinking about my future. I am constantly challenged by questions of my future career, my future home, my future family, and so on. While I am still unsure how to best answer these questions, one thing is certain: Inspired by the individuals I worked with last summer, I will strive to use stories as a method for spreading knowledge and awareness of environmental issues. Perhaps more importantly, I want to continue to learn from others, discovering and promoting community expertise.  As I have learned, developing communal expertise about issues that affect us all will inevitably bring people together to work towards positive change.

Read more stories in the series from the Center for Science and Democracy:

Community Voices: Science, Democracy and Environmental Justice.

Miranda Chien-Hale served as the Science and Environmental Justice Intern for the Center for Science and Democracy during the summer of 2014. During her internship she helped to design a three-part series that aims to increase awareness of and address environmental and social justice issues within the Union of Concerned Scientists and beyond. Long-term, Miranda is most interested in working to bridge the gap between science, community, communication and action. She is currently a graduate student studying water resources management at the Nicholas School of the Environment and received her B.A. in Geology from Occidental College in 2013.

The UCS Science Network is an inclusive community of more than 25,000 scientists, engineers, economists, and other experts, focused on changing the world for the better. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the authors alone.