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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

EnviroThursday: student climate stories, psychology of activism

EnviroThursday: student climate stories, psychology of activism

 On Thursday, March 21, the environmental studies department held its weekly EnviroThursday event in Room 350 of the Olin-Rice Science Center. This EnviroThursday — titled “What’s Your Climate Story? And Why Does It Matter?” and hosted by associate professor of environmental studies Christie Manning — explored climate activism through the lens of psychology and storytelling. 

For the past year, Manning and her research assistants, Marta Toledo Alcarraz ’24, Solveigh Barney ’24 and Marshall Roll ’24, have been collaborating with founder of climate change organization Change Narrative LLC Jothsna Harris to investigate how storytelling can motivate people to involve themselves in collective action for environmental justice. 

“We remember things much better when they’re attached to a story than if it’s data and facts,” Manning said. “People who have participated in some of Jothsna’s storytelling work and other forums like it tend to go and dive in much deeper into … collective actions.” 

The event followed a rhythm that bounced between student speakers sharing their climate stories and prompts for the audience to discuss with a neighbor or think about on their own. It concluded with a speech from Harris and Manning’s presentation of her research. 

The climate stories, read by five students, were rooted in personal experiences that reflect broad issues that many can relate to. The stories dug into grief, uncertainty and anger but still conveyed celebration of progress and hope for the future.

The first climate story was told by Maddie Salunga ’27, who spoke on how her dream careers evolved as she grew up. From an astronaut to a journalist to a therapist, Salunga’s future became clear when she began working with activist groups. She shared how a career related to environmental justice is a necessary calling for her.

“I saw no point in dreaming if I didn’t have a future,” Salunga said.

After Salunga’s story, Alcarraz shared the first discussion prompt, which asked audience members to vividly describe a natural space that is important to them.

Lucy Flack ’27 told her climate story, which detailed how she witnessed the winters getting warmer in her “polar vortex” hometown and what would be considered the new normal.

“What was my normal?” Flack asked. “It felt like Earth was fighting us … [with] its desperate cry for us to notice what was happening.”

Oscar Reza Bautista ’27 then shared his climate story. He illustrated serene moments in the landscape of his hometown of Tijuana, Mexico, which has experienced climate devastation.

“Whenever I visit new places, I am advised to take many pictures because they may not be the same,” Reza Bautista said. “When I go back a couple years later, I am scared to think about a future where those magnificent places are no longer there to appreciate.”

Alcarraz gave the second discussion prompt, asking how audience members have experienced climate change in their lives.

The next story was told by Barney. She centered her climate story around the values of love and faith, which have pushed her to continue fighting for climate justice for her family, community and the world.

“I want my nephews to grow up in a world that is safe, life-giving, full of love,” Barney said. “Because of that, I’ve committed myself to do this work. A lot of it centers on creation care: bridging that gap between faith communities and bringing them into collective action to care for the Earth that has been bestowed upon us to be stewards of.”

The final student climate story was told by Alcarraz, who reflected on how rising sea levels may cause the beaches to disappear from Piriapolis, Uruguay, a town she has visited since her childhood. She also narrated the inaction and harm caused by governments around the world regarding potable water and the optimism she feels when she sees people collectivizing and demanding change.

“I know there are voices that together have power,” Alcarraz said. “I want to live in a world where people are worth more than commodities. … Even when dire, I want to be a part of embracing the future where we have a new vision of what is necessary.”

The final prompt asked audience members about what parts of their identity they value and what they can take away from the event.

As the special guest, Harris then shared words of encouragement and the importance of climate storytelling to her work at Change Narrative.

“We hear a lot of the science and the data and the facts, which is very important,” Harris said. “But if we don’t include the ways that we feel as humans living in this climate change world, then we don’t really get a fuller, broader understanding of what this issue actually means.”

Harris then gave these pieces of advice: engage in freewriting, continue asking yourself questions, read back your writing to look for vulnerability, honor your identity and lived experiences and reinforce your stories with climate facts.

Harris described the sharing of climate stories as “a vehicle to action,” which, by expressing emotions and memories, we inspire ourselves and others to act.

“I think when we tell stories in authentic ways, and especially when we tell them publicly, other people can see themselves, and we can see ourselves as more capable, which is a missing piece in climate dialogue,” Harris said.

To close this EnviroThursday, Manning shared a presentation outlining the results of her research from last fall. Manning first laid out the motivating question of collective action researchers in psychology, including her investigation: why do people act? Manning found these reasons to engage in collective activism: psychological distance, social factors, confidence in what one is doing, moral grievance and a sense of responsibility or obligation.

“All of these things, not one of these things on its own, moves people,” Manning said. “We have to feel some of all of them or some of most of them.”

Manning’s experiment surveyed participants on varying psychological factors before and after they engaged in climate storytelling workshops. The surveys revealed that participants’ psychological distance decreased and positive emotion increased after the workshops.

To continue this investigation, Manning said she and her team are working on breaking down the elements of the storytelling workshops to see how different kinds of engagement in them impact emotions and enthusiasm to act.

“I’m working this semester … and into the summer to try to tease that apart,” Manning said. “Some people get different pieces of the experience and [we want] to see which pieces move people the furthest on those different factors.” 

Manning hosted a climate storytelling workshop for students on Thursday, March 28, followed by a storytelling slam on a later date for those involved.

Many members of the audience continued discussing the prompts and stories after the event ended.

A message from Harris rang true with the central idea of the workshop: “I want to encourage all of you that even if you don’t think you have a story, I assure you that you do, and that your voice is powerful.”


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