Recently I’ve been having many conversations about waste management. It’s especially relevant here on the Hawai’i island where most of the solid waste goes to landfill. Since China no longer accepts recycled materials from the US, the county stopped recycling paper and plastic. Shopping at local supermarkets has become a torture. I look at all this packaging and know that putting it into a trash bin is almost the same as throwing it out of the window.
But is there really no other way? The plot above shows that plastic pollution in the US started in the 60th of the 20th century (the US is currently the world leader in generating plastic waste per capita). In other countries this process started much later.
I was born in an industrial megapolis (St. Petersburg, Russia), and during my childhood the households were almost zero-waste, except for the food waste. Milk or yogurt were sold in glass bottles, bread and veggies without any packaging. Shoppers brought their own jars, boxes, and bags for things like grain or sour cream. The only packaging we knew was paper, metal, and glass and it was carefully recycled. I was spending my summers on a farm with my grandparents. There we literally had no such thing as a trash bin. Food waste went into the compost on our property, even old clothes that we couldn’t fix were further used as cleaning cloth. Can you guess when it was it? In the 90th, less than 30 years ago!
I clearly remember how packaging started to arrive together with the supermarkets. It was such a novelty! Plastic bags were expensive and families washed, dried, and reused them. My grandma kept little plastic yogurt jars because they were so useful in the household. It all changed very quickly though. Within a couple of years the amount of waste we were producing was comparable to an average European or American family.
When I’m talking about zero packaging, I often get the response that it’s unrealistic. I cannot stop wondering – why? Why something that was so natural and simple in my childhood seems so impossible now? Luckily, there are people sharing my hopes. For example, a new zero packaging shop just opened on the street where I live in Heidelberg, Germany.
At the moment such initiatives are still rather small-scale, but with the governmental support zero packaging could easily become a norm. For 60 years we’ve been filling our planet with plastic waste. How long will it take us to stop doing it?
I won’t spend time describing the facilities on the ship. Let me just say that we were provided with every comfort exceeding the wildest expectations. The crew was taking care of us in the best possible way. The food was incredibly good. As to my knowledge, there were no serious health issues on board. Instead of going into the details of it all, I’d like to focus on the social aspects of being in a relatively confined space with 100+ strangers with little connection to the outside world and going though an intense and emotional learning process.
When still in Ushuaia, before embarking on the ship, we’ve done several socializing exercises led by Fern Wickson, our Lead Facilitator during the voyage. Fern describes it in detail in her blog. One of these exercises was on establishing our group norms for the next 3 weeks given the diversity of our cohort. This process was extremely important for the following journey. The participants formulated the group norms themselves without directives from the faculty and as a result truly embraced them. For example, some of the norms were about suspending judgement, enabling each others growth, respecting boundaries. I believe that the process of formulating these norms contributed greatly to the supportive, inclusive, and non-judgemental culture on the ship.
For example, the respect for boundaries and openness made sharing cabins very easy, so that sharing felt more comfortable for me than having it for myself. The non-judgemental and inclusive culture allowed us to create a truly safe space. For me personally, one important indicator of it was the absence of any gossip. There was no single moment during the 3 weeks when I heard people discussing those who were not present during the conversation.
Self-reflection and focus make it possible to suspend explicit judgement, however we all have unconscious biases. Controlling implicit biased reactions is much more difficult. When we meet a stranger, we rather quickly jump to a conclusion on whether we can get along with this person or not based on fairly superficial characteristics. It was interesting to observe how my unconscious biases were challenged during our Symposium at Sea where people were talking about their STEMM journeys and passions in 3 minutes (see my previous post for more details). In some cases, 3 minutes were enough to turn my idea about a person completely upside down.
The faculty encouraged us to get to know as many participants as possible and to avoid creating isolated cliques with people connecting to whom was easier. For example, before each new session they would ask us to change seats and sit next to someone else. Sometimes it was annoying, because you had to pick up all your belongings and squeeze through the room of 100 people moving in all directions, but it totally served the purpose. Sitting next to different people each time became our habit. By the end of the voyage I had a chance to speak to almost every participant and faculty member and would feel comfortable with any of them even if we had to share a desert island for a while. However, this approach also had drawbacks for me personally.
Joining Homeward Bound, I was expecting to find new collaborations among like-minded people in both science and activism. And I was also hoping to make new friends. When our cohort first met in Ushuaia and the faculty members shared what brought them to HB, I was completely blown away by their personalities and life stories. The same was happening during our voyage when I was getting to know the participants and learning about their expertise, stories, and passions.
However, creating deep connections during our voyage happened to be challenging for me. To do so I need one-on-one time; bonding in a group has always been difficult. The faculty has never discouraged us from spending one-on-one time, but I was discouraging myself constantly keeping in mind the “meeting new people” principle.
You meet someone with whom you click, but then you literally can’t predict when you bump into them next time during a session or at lunch or in a zodiac. Maybe it won’t happen for quite a while, unless you are actively looking to spend time with them. I was not doing so, because I didn’t want to keep them from meeting someone else. As a result, after the first third of the voyage I felt exhausted from attempting to connect through group conversations. Everyone else seemed to be happy and making friends, while I was gradually feeling more and more alone, invisible and not belonging.
One evening when I felt particularly down, the situation got unexpectedly resolved. First, I had a meaningful one-on-one conversation over dinner. Second, an expedition crew member lent me his guitar and after dinner I played and sang quietly by myself. Both these things allowed me to finally relax and express my thoughts and emotions. I realized that trying to fit didn’t do me well. I accepted the situation and since that evening I was just going with a flow without any expectations and feeling comfortable with everything.
Interestingly, later on I learned that a few other people were feeling the same way or struggling with something else and not sharing it. Our daily Open Frame sessions were meant for the participants to raise issues, but people hardly talked about anything negative. One reason for it might be that the overall mood and language of the voyage was set to be overly positive. Talking about things that were not great or amazing felt like spoiling it for everyone else.
This experience taught me many valuable lessons about socializing practices and confirmed that expectations and efforts to fit can ruin it. But most importantly, by the end of the voyage I was happy to discover that I did develop new prospective collaborations and hopefully was even lucky to start up long-lasting friendships.
My last post will be about the carbon footprint of our voyage, privilege, and Antarctic tourism.
As I’m flipping through my Homeward Bound notebook, I’m amazed that it’s nearly full. Last time I took any notes was probably during my bachelor studies. Nowadays, I write rather than type only when I’m putting my signature. However, the HB notebook proved to be quite useful for the learning and reflection we were doing on the ship in Antarctica and now it’s time to revisit it. This post summarizes the most important lessons I learned from the program (see my previous post on what I learned from being in Antarctica).
Leadership as it is understood in Homeward Bound has nothing to do with career building, competition and struggle to be acknowledged and rewarded. Instead, it’s about stepping up and leading based on our values and vision, with the purpose of making a positive change and contributing to something we really care about, something that is bigger than ourselves. Even before we embarked on the ship, Fabian Dattner encouraged us to work on understanding our core values relevant for the three areas: work, relationships, and self. For many of us, this happened to be a difficult but eye-opening process.
Building on the core values, we developed our Personal strategy with Kit Jackson. For me, this was the most anticipated and useful program stream. It changed my perspective on my potential to make a difference. When joining the HB program, I already knew that I was not feeling fulfilled in my current work situation and planned a transition to applications of computer science for the ocean and the environment. I was thinking about this transition as follows: “Given my life situation, what are the existing meaningful projects I can join where my current skills will be useful?” Now I think about it differently: “What do I deeply care about? What needs to be done to make a positive change in these areas? What skills do I already have and need to develop, how do I need to change my life situation to be in a position to make this difference? Who are other people caring about the same things? How do I connect to them and work for them and together with them?” This was a big mindset shift for me. Now everything seems possible, especially given the support of the Homeward Bound network of like-minded people.
On the ship, we worked on our 100 days and 1 year strategic plans, turned and twisted them over and over again, bounced them off our peers and coaches. As Kit has repeated multiple times: Strategy is only as good as the capability to execute it. The next year will show how good my current strategy is and how it needs to be adapted to become more realistic.
Lorraine McCarthy worked with us on the Life Styles Inventory™ (LSI) diagnostics meant to support effective leadership and make people more fulfilled in their personal lives. In particular, we studied our aggressive and passive defensive behaviours in order to move to self-actualization and constructive leadership styles. One of the big realizations for me was that aggression and ambition are often related to insecurity and need for approval. My favourite exercise was on collectively constructing an LSI profile of an ideal leader.
Being a public figure has never been my thing, therefore I was initially sceptical about investing energy into Visibility. But Julia May was very convincing when explaining that visibility is a crucial part of leadership when it is driven by our values. This quote is now seared into my memory: Visibility without value is vanity. We practised being authentic and vulnerable and thinking about our audience first. Designing a message starts with understanding what actions you expect from your audience as a result. But it is even more important to figure out what are the needs of the audience and what you can offer them. Jules calls it “the generosity principle”, give first in order to receive, and I’m now trying to organize my communication (work-related or private) based on it.
Graciela Sczwarcberg shared with us many wisdoms about Team work. My main take from her is that people are more important than tasks, especially in a long-term perspective. Sounds trivial, but in practice I would sometimes push for getting work done at the expense of someone’s comfort. Gracie taught us several vital principles of a positive team culture, for example, how to build trust and safety, reward each other, have difficult conversations, foster motivation and accountability. A cornerstone to a successful collaboration is shared vision and goals, which should precede anything else. Easy to say, but difficult to implement as we have discovered during a tower building exercise and discussions about our work situations.
Musimbi Kanyoro shared with us her experience of Global leadership and international networking and led discussions on diversity going beyond gender and racial equality. The diversity discussions were also greatly enriched by the HB4 participant Hinemoa Elder, a Maori from New Zeeland. Among other things, we were exploring the dominance of the Western values and culture in both global leadership and academia (see a related post I wrote a while ago).
One of the last leadership-related sessions on the ship was on Recovering from failure with Jen Martin. The ability to analyse and rewrite stories we are telling ourselves about our failure is the key to this process. Among other exercises, Jen suggested us to write down these stories and focus on distinguishing between facts and assumptions, then check the assumptions and turn them into facts if possible or dismiss otherwise. The final step is to rewrite the story based on facts only. I found this exercise particularly useful and applicable to many emotionally difficult situations.
We learned a lot about Antarctic science, politics, and policy making from Justine Shaw and Cass Brooks, from the Polar Latitudes expedition crew as well as from the scientists at the Carlini and Great Wall research stations. The amount of information we received on the topic cannot be summarized in a paragraph. Very briefly, there were two main take-home messages. First, because of climate change Antarctica is loosing its ice sheet and sea ice, which results in global sea level rise, destruction of the marine food chain, and changes in biosphere. Second, the Antarctic treaty was a significant international achievement, and the next important task is to make the Antarctic peninsula a marine protected area (see my previous post for more details). Honourable mention goes to the Shackleton Antarctic expedition leadership story by Seb Coulthard, who also taught us how to open a bottle of champaign with a sword.
Fern Wickson ran a Negotiation role game on whaling and sealing imitating real negotiations she facilitates. I ended up in a team of commercial whalers, which is especially ironic, because whales are my favourite animals and I’m vegan. It was interesting to explore the variety of arguments for and against whaling and sealing coming from such diverse interest groups as indigenous communities, animal rights activists, sustainability groups, environmental scientists etc. Although I’m obviously strongly inclined against whaling, this game confirmed for me that such negotiations should be based on economic and environmental rather than moral arguments.
Sandra Radovini ran a session on Self-care, burnout, and climate change anxiety. Unfortunately, I missed it because during this session I was practising self-care and catching up on much needed sleep. Now, reading the endless stream of news about Australia on fire and feeling so desperate and useless, I regret it.
Ana Payo Payo together with the HB4 participant Jessamyn Fairfield organized a workshop on Improvisation comedy. I’ve never been interested in comedy and my sense of humour is quite alternative to what is socially acceptable. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this workshop a lot. It offered us simple yet effective exercises demonstrating that pretty much anything said and done without self-control and filtering can be funny in a certain context and anyone can be a comedian.
There were more sessions organized by the HB participants themselves. Plastic pollution in the ocean, current environmental policies and practices in China, sustainability aspects of meat production are a few topics that I can remember. There were thematic lunches and dinners, e.g. a marine science lunch or a dinner on academia and parenting. I cannot even begin listing things I learned from these sessions, otherwise this post will never end.
Last but not least, I’d like to mention our Symposium at sea (S@S) where each participant talked about her work in 3 minutes and max 2 slides. For many of us, this was one of the best parts of the program. This symposium was very different from scientific conferences where people mainly present themselves and their achievements to receive acknowledgements possibly leading to a promotion. Presentations at S@S were all about purpose and values, about our stories and journeys including personal obstacles, successes, failures, aspirations. Some people were talking about very emotional experiences which brought them and the audience to tears.
It’s hard to believe how much content could fit in just 3 weeks. But we were told many times – it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s only the beginning of us processing and applying what we’ve learned. It’s also hard to believe that I spent 3 weeks in the company of such knowledgable, talented, and dedicated people. This is what made this voyage one in a life time and I hope that it is also only the beginning of us enriching each others lives.
On our way back to South America, when crossing the Drake Passage and being one day away from Ushuaia, we had a special session on how to respond to the question “How was Antarctica?”. We were recommended to come up with a catchy one-liner that would make the audience curious and invite questions. Since I have never been particularly good with one-liners, there will be lengthy posts instead.
This first post is on what Antarctica taught me during these three weeks of exploring the peninsula (see my previous post on why I travelled there).
First of all, Antarctica showed me what our planet has looked like before humans started to exploit it. I remember reading about first European expeditions to California. The early explorers found the coast full of wildlife: seals, pelicans, cormorants were occupying the beaches in such numbers that it was difficult to pass between them. The Californian coast looks very different nowadays.
But Antarctica is still teeming with wildlife. Penguin colonies cover most of the snowless land. Gentoo, chinstraps, adelies and macaronis are busily walking between enormous bodies of elephant and fur seals. Leopard seals can be spotted on the beach, in the water, or resting on drifting ice. Skuas are always ready to steal a penguin egg or a chick. Albatrosses, shags, and petrels cover the sky. Almost every day humpback, minke or fin whales can be seen surfacing in the bays. Family groups of orcas hunt penguins and seals.
Our landings were limited in time and space. No more than two hours per landing and we had to stay on narrow and short designated trails. Initially, these restrictions frustrated me. I’m used to hiking deep into the wilderness on my own and spending weeks dissolving into nature. Here I was surrounded by so many people and almost nowhere to go. Such a pristine breathtaking place and I was not able to connect to it.
But later on I realized that us being restricted gave the necessary time and space to the animals. Penguins and seals felt mostly at ease, going about their business and not minding us humans. For example, penguins are using paths called penguin highways and we were not allowed to walk on them. Once a penguin decided to lye down on a human trail just in front of us. The whole group stopped and was patiently waiting for the penguin to continue walking which took quite a while. This was a valuable lesson. To co-exist in harmony with the nature, we humans have to limit our intrusion into it.
Antarctica taught me how inter-connected everything on our planet is. We were watching the sea ice and ice shelves and learning how important they are for the entire planet. For example, ice shelves serve as barriers holding back glaciers and ice rivers. If ice shelves shrink or disappear, melting of the Antarctic ice is accelerated which results in global sea level rise. Melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, where most warming happens, would raise sea levels by 6 m. The ocean food chain presents another example. Antarctic krill was shown to depend on algae growing under sea ice. No sea ice means no krill and thus no food for fish, marine birds and mammals. Overall, Antarctica is currently losing about 152 cubic km of ice per year.
Another lesson I learned is that shared values and appreciation for science and nature can enable fruitful collaborations despite political disagreements. Antarctica is the only place on Earth that is fully international and dedicated to peace and open scientific cooperation as defined by the Antarctic Treaty in 1969. While we were on our voyage we got to celebrate the 60 year anniversary of this international treaty.
There are currently 70 permanent research stations in Antarctica, which represent 29 countries from every continent on Earth. Our group has visited two: Carlini (Argentinian) and Great Wall (Chinese). On both stations, we received the warmest welcome and got an opportunity to learn about the everyday life and science of the Antarctic researchers. For example, we learned how to live in a sphere capsule and that the sea leopards pose the main danger for divers.
Political tensions in the default world do not obstruct support and sharing of information, food, resources, and data between the research stations.
We returned home with a strong desire to maintain Antarctica as untouched, peaceful and open for international cooperation as we found it during our voyage. However, the effects of climate change on the continent are more visible every year. Today Antarctica needs more protection than ever. The Homeward Bound participants committed to work together on supporting the introduction of a new marine protected area in the Antarctic peninsula, the region which sustains most of the Antarctic wildlife, is most visited and at the same time most affected by global warming.
In the next posts, I will write about my experience on the ship, our leadership training, and future plans.
Climathon is a global movement dedicated to solving local climate challenges and supported by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology. Every year on the same day, climate hackathons held all over the world in which developers, engineers, scientists, and innovators gather together to tackle local climate challenges.
Heidelberg Climathon was supported by Theresia Bauer, the Minister for Science, Research and Art of Baden-Württemberg and sponsored by Carl Zeiss Foundation.
Theodore Alexandrov and I have been working on organizing this 24-hour event for more than half a year on a volunteer basis and a natural question we ask ourselves is if it was all worth it.
First, let me show you some statistics. In total, 81 participant registered for the event. On the first Climathon day, around 50 of them actually came. As an expert said, we probably lost about 10 people to the unusually good weather on that weekend. 47 participants worked through the weekend and 39 of them were presenting their solutions on Sunday.
We asked the participants to fill out a pre-event survey about their expertise and preferences given 5 challenges we have offered. 41 participant filled out the survey.
The participants have worked on 7 projects and received 3 awards sponsored by Carl Zeiss Foundation and presented by Matthias Stolzenburg.
Winner of 1.000 Euro award selected by the participants:
Touch Climate – interactive graphical user-friendly application for exploring climate data and learning about local effects of climate change in the region. [Github repo][Solution description]
Climactiv – a platform for organizations and companies for engaging employees and citizens into sustainable behaviour using a system of rewards and a gamification component. This team was supported by Martina Vetrovcova from the Heidelberg University. [Github repo][Solution description]
Climate Inc – a climate data based online game on global joined climate action to tackle climate change. [Github repo]
POLL PLAN ACT – a concept for creating a sustainability master plan for the University of Heidelberg through collecting and analysing already existing grassroots initiatives and using them for influencing university policymaking. This team was supported by Martina Vetrovcova from the Heidelberg University.
Multi-location conference – a concept for designing a conference taking place in different locations at the same time, so that the participants wouldn’t need to travel between sites, which would result in less travel-caused emissions. This team was supported by Assol Rustamova, Nathalie Sneider, Elisabeth Wintersteller from EMBL.
We very much appreciate the amount of work, energy, and creativity the participants put into developing the solutions. The next task for me is to make sure that those teams that are interested to follow up on their developments, have an opportunity to do so.
The participants were supported by 6 hackathon expert coaches coordinated by Raoul Haschke from Heidelberg Startup Partners. 4 speakers gave talks at the pre-Climathon workshop on October 25. 8 jury members were deciding about the awards. The detailed information about the coaches, experts, speakers and jury members can be found at Heidelberg Climathon website (scroll down).
In total, apart from the participants, 22 people were directly involved into the Climathon event on a volunteer basis and we are very grateful to all of them. Without them, Heidelberg Climathon wouldn’t be possible. We would also like say a hearty thank you to the Carl Zeiss Foundation. In addition to sponsoring the awards for the participants, the foundation covered our organizational expenses, which mostly included food, since everything else was arranged by volunteers. And of course many thanks to EMBL for letting us use the amazing ATC venue and providing all kinds of support.
This was our first try organizing a Climathon and we have learned a lot from it. I have to admit that there were times when Theodore and I felt quite desperate and regretted that we got ourselves into it. But after seeing the solution presentations and hearing the feedback from the participants, we are convinced that all the time and nerves we put into it were worth it. Together, we managed to create a unique companionship of people sharing values and willing to invest their free time and energy to do something for our planet and the region. If we manage to follow up on the developed projects, this will have even more value. But even just sharing this experience turned out to be extremely educational and thought provoking and will hopefully inspire all of us for more constructive optimism and action.
A year ago I joined the Homeward Bound program. The first post in this blog describes my motivation and what the program is about. It has been an intense year. Discussions, reading, reflections, work with coaches and mentors. But most of all – the projects I started inspired the program. For example, interactive workshops on climate change, implicit bias, and ally skills. Climathon – a climate-focused hackathon that just happened last weekend and will be a topic for a separate post. And now the time has come for the Antarctica journey.
Homeward Bound culminates in 3 weeks in Antarctica, on board a ship. We will visit 6 research stations (Esperanza, Palmer, Vernadsky, Gonzalez Videla, Frei, Great Wall), learn more about how climate change in Antarctica affects our planet, intensively collaborate on developing climate-focused interdisciplinary projects. The schedule is tight, it’s definitely not going to be a vacation.
But why exactly is it necessary? Why do participants of a climate change program have to travel to Antarctica and thus cause carbon emissions? To answer this question, let me come back to the objectives of the program.
The main goal of Homeward Bound is to create a network of 1000 women in STEMM that care about the future of our planet and are willing to step up and influence the academic community and human behaviour as well as policy and decision making with respect to climate change. To equip the participants with the necessary skills, the program offers a year of online training, master classes, reflection homework, sessions with coaches etc. However, knowledge and training might not be enough to empower participants to act as agents of change on a long-term basis.
In addition to the scientific collaborations and training, the Antarctica journey is meant to create an emotional experience. Polar regions are most affected by climate change and witnessing it first hand has a powerful and motivating effect. In Antarctica, one is surrounded by pristine breathtaking landscapes full of wildlife, while knowing that the biodiversity and life on our planet are under a serious threat. We humans can be infinitely creative and committed to a purpose, but only if there is a true motivation coming from inside. A logical understanding of an issue is important, but an emotional connection can strengthen the motivation and make it personal.
Sharing this experience in an isolated environment with almost no interaction with the default world creates a bond between the participants which goes far beyond collaboration or like-mindedness. I’m in the fourth cohort of the program and from the previous cohorts I learned that it was not the year of training but the 3 weeks in Antarctica that made a unique companionship with unconditional support possible. The current disastrous situation requires changes on all levels: global, national, organizations, personal. To enable these changes we need to act together. Having an interdisciplinary global network of scientists whom I trust, who shared the same powerful experience with me and are willing to work together towards a common goal, is not something easily found and can make a big difference.
But what about the carbon footprint of the Antarctica journey? Although the program offsets the travel-related emissions and follows strict environmental regulations and rules of travelling in the polar regions, it is still an issue of course.
From my point of view, even a bigger problem is that the trip to Antarctica makes participation in the program so expensive. The participants have to fundraise or pay by themselves more than 15.000 Euro, which is a huge amount of money for people like me and an impossible amount for many other people (if you want to support me, here is my fundraising page). While Homeward Bound provides a limited amount of scholarships for people from developing countries, it is definitely not enough to call the program truly accessible and inclusive.
These are the issues that seriously concern many participants including myself and there probably will be discussions about the future of the program on board of the ship. Initially, I joined Homeward Bound not because but rather despite the Antarctica trip. But over the past year I learned to trust in the process and now I’m looking forward to figuring out where our ship will bring me.
My previous post in this blog was on the idea to design teaching materials for viral climate education. I’m happy to report that this project turned out to be successful! The key to success was teaming up with the right people. I was lucky to have met Jan-Marcus Nasse, an environmental physicist and science communicator, who was independently thinking about a similar idea. Together we explored the topic of climate change science, politics and action and created 2.5 – 3 hours workshop materials including a 1.5 hours lecture with a discussion session as well as an hour long interactive role game World Climate developed by Climate Interactive. I dare to say that our materials are not only comprehensive and backed up by solid science, but also visually appealing, due to the contribution of Alberto Bailoni, who made our initially messy slides beautiful. Finally, we received feedback from our friends and colleagues, which helped us to further improve and clarify the content.
So far, we ran this workshop 3 times: at EMBL, University of Heidelberg, and LCOY conference and made a video of our lecture. We hope that anyone who is passionate about the topic and would like to educate their colleagues, neighbours, friends and family members can use our materials to do so.
A couple of concluding remarks concerning future work. First, from the discussion session we have learned that our lecture did not cover an important aspect people were interested in: economical consequences of climate change. This is an area where we have no expertise and would be happy to team up with a professional to extend the materials.
The second remark is related to the audience. Although we had fruitful and deep discussions and got lots of positive feedback from the audience, there is still one aspect where we failed. Initially we aimed at attracting sceptical people having doubts about climate change and its anthropogenic origins, so that we could answer their questions and evoke an open debate in a safe and comfortable space. Unfortunately, we did not succeed in it. There were almost no provocative or disagreeing comments/questions from the audience, which means that sceptics either did not attend the workshop or did not feel comfortable to speak up. The first option seems to be more likely.
There was a very different situation at the implicit bias workshop last year, where the discussion was quite heated and some of the audience reactions were clearly negative. My hypothesis is that the topic of gender bias and equality, quotas etc. bothers people much more, because it is now on the agenda of most of the research institutions, which implies certain policies concerning everyone. At the same time, despite the recent progress in public awareness, the topic of climate change remains rather marginal in our everyday life. If someone does not believe in it, then they have little motivation to explore and discuss it further. This situation might however quickly change, if institutions start introducing offsetting policies and other regulations.
In any case, a better strategy to invite climate sceptics to the debate is needed.
When attending the Climate Neighbourhoods conference, I noticed that one of the most discussed questions was: How to raise awareness about climate change and motivate people to do climate action outside of the bubble of those already immersed into the topic? I hear the same question over and over again from my friends and colleagues.
There exist numerous educational videos on climate change and related issues, and these efforts are very valuable. However, only an already motivated person will spend time on watching the videos and educating themselves on climate science, climate action, politics around climate etc. But how to we reach people who are not yet engaged or sceptical about the issue?
There exist trainings for climate activists like, for example, the Climate Reality Project. However, such trainings require a serious committent and are aimed at people who plan to be actively involved in climate action on a long term.
How can we make it simple for people caring about environmental issues to share the climate facts with their colleagues, neighbours, family members? My suggestion is viral climate education. In every workspace and community, there is at least one person well informed and passionate about climate change. If we can equip this person with educational materials, they will be able to run a workshop or a discussion on climate issues.
It’s crucial that such workshop provides a space for every participant to speak out, ask questions and express any kind of scepticism. Ideally, the workshop should be interactive and allow participants to work in groups, discuss, and actively engage themselves into exploring the topic.
I would include the following topics into a climate workshop: 1) climate science facts and forecasts, 2) impact of climate change on humans, 3) action for tackling climate change (on the levels of countries, institutions, and individuals), 4) climate action success stories.
This year, I’m co-organizing a Climathon in Heidelberg. Climathon is a global movement dedicated to solving local climate challenges and supported by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology. On October 25th, 2019, there will be 24-hour climate hackathons held all over the world in which developers, engineers, scientists, and innovators will gather together to tackle local climate challenges.
In preparation to a Climathon, cities identify their climate challenges. The main idea is that realistic and effective solutions developed by the Climathon participants are later implemented by the local partner organizations. Here are some success stories:
London: mobile air pollution sensor enabling better coverage over the city area (link)
Washington: picking up durable goods (e.g. furniture) and reselling for lower price (link)
Zurich: an app for offering unwanted food to your neighbours (link)
Cork: a transport app that awards citizens discounts in local stores based on the carbon savings they make (link)
Manchester: sustainable drainage systems and community parkland architectural planning (link)
Climate challenge ideas we started discussing so far:
solutions for multiple-location conferences, with the goal of reducing flight CO2 emissions; run the same conference simultaneously at different locations
factors for finding attractive cycling routes
connecting tree bloom to local microclimate and climate change dynamics
a sustainable behaviour campaign on the local campuses
I’ve already learned so much from these discussions. For example, that growing CO2 emissions in Heidelberg are mainly caused by overseas tourism. And which streets in Heidelberg are most dangerous for cyclists. And that there are repair cafés in the area. And what are the issues with the university campus traffic. And how waste separation is organized at EMBL. This list goes on and on and I’m looking forward to learning more.
Last week, Malvika Sharan, Sofya Mikhaleva and Paul Gerald Sanchez invited me to co-organize a session on ally skills as a part of the Women’s Day at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. The concept of the ally skills training was originally developed by Valerie Aurora, a former Linux kernel developer. Valerie has designed extensive and well structured materials offering guidelines for learning and teaching how to step up and use our social advantages to support others in workplaces and communities. Here is Valerie’s talk on the topic.
Let me cite some of the definitions introduced by Valerie.
Privilege: an unearned advantage given to a person or a social group. Oppression: systemic, pervasive inequality present throughout society that benefits people with more privilege and harms those with fewer privileges. Target: someone who suffers from oppression. Ally: a member of a social group who enjoys some privilege and is working to understand their own privilege and end oppression.
Each of us can be a target or an ally depending on the context. For example, in the gender bias context I’m a target, whereas in the LGBTQ or racial context I’m privileged. Valerie is teaching how to recognize oppression and consciously act as an ally.
Most of the diversity and equality initiatives are aimed at changing the behaviour of targets (e.g. special scholarships, programs and mentioning for the under-represented social groups). Valerie points out that it’s efficient to focus on changing the behaviour of privileged people. Privileged people acting as allies have more power and influence as well as more time and energy as compared to targets. Moreover, they are not penalised for “diversity-valuing behaviour” and not accused of jealousy, but are rather seen as altruistic, giving, and kind.
Following these ideas, we set up an 1 hour ally skills session. After an introduction of the basic concepts, terminology, and motivation, we did a short empathy exercise. Everyone was asked to stand up, look around and think of something nice about any 3 people in the room. Then the main part of the session started.
The participants were split into 6 groups from 4 to 6 people each. Each group received two scenarios to discuss. Here’s an example scenario:
A woman you don’t know who is using a wheelchair is near your group at a conference. She is alone and looks like she would rather be talking to people. What would you as an ally do?
Looks easy, right? Just invite her to join! But if we think deeper about it, questions arise. Does it make a difference that it’s a wheelchair user? Does it make a difference that it’s a woman? Can we even assume that it’s a woman without knowing the person? What is the best way to invite the person to join?
Before starting the discussion, the groups were asked to select a gatekeeper responsible for interrupting people who were speaking too much and asking people who weren’t talking as much if they wanted to speak. Our goal in this session was to simulate an ideal comfortable space for discussing most difficult topics with mutual respect so that every voice was heard. We suggested the participants to pay attention to the dynamics of the conversation and be mindful about it.
It often happens that targets feel uncomfortable speaking publicly. Although it’s totally fine to be an introvert and to have no need to share, nobody can represent people’s interests better than themselves. Therefore it’s important that every person has a chance to speak and be heard when they need it.
Since we had only 1 hour for the whole session, we could afford only 15 minutes for group discussions. This definitely proved to be not enough; the recommended time for an ally workshop is at least 3 hours. After the group discussions were over, each group briefly presented their solutions and we further discussed them all together. During this last part of the session organizers were giving further recommendations and pointing out interesting patterns. For example, in a few cases the groups were assuming that a protagonist of a scenario was a man, although the scenario was introduced in a gender-neutral way.
Overall, the participants were coming up with well thought out solutions and the atmosphere was very positive and productive. We hope that this experience will motivate them to act as allies in their work environments and communities.