Audacious Faith, and Hope

Leverage Point #2: The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.

The fossil fuel divestment campaign at Dartmouth.

The fossil fuel divestment campaign at Dartmouth.

In 2011, widespread protests and peaceful civil disobedience against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline sprouted all over the United States. In 2015, President Obama formally vetoed the project.

In 2012, the fossil fuel divestment movement began to take hold. By 2015, more than 3.4 trillion dollars had been divested from the world’s top 200 coal, oil, and gas companies, and there were divestment campaigns at more than 1,000 institutions worldwide.

Many of the climate organizers I interviewed mentioned either or both of these two campaigns when asked to give an example of a successful climate change policy or campaign.

In conversation with people over the past few years, I’ve often heard that the successes of these two campaigns were historic, and, most of all, completely unexpected. Most organizers didn’t believe the divestment movement could become so successful, or that there was any possibility the Keystone XL pipeline could be stopped.

Why do we tend to discount ourselves within the climate movement? I mentioned earlier that celebration within social justice movements is sometimes critical to their survival. Why don’t we have faith in our ability to succeed?

People oftentimes say that working on climate change is a lofty goal. We are told that there is no way the entire planet can cooperate on this problem. We are told to “be realistic”. We are told that we’ve passed the thresholds, that it’s too late, too hard, too complex, too idealistic, too impractical, too big. This problem is just too big, and we, as young people, as inexperienced people, as new people, as students, just aren’t equipped to solve it.

Working on climate change is hard! It’s so hard. We know the magnitude of this problem – we know it all too well.

What does it look like to feel the gravity of what we are facing, but to hold that weight simultaneously with fervent, deep hope?

When I was in Ottawa, I interviewed Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands (and Green Party Leader) Elizabeth May. She is a stalwart defender of environmental rights, and has dedicated her life toward fighting for aggressive climate change policies. As an activist and now a policymaker, she has been involved with environmental issues for decades. When I asked her to provide an example of a time where she noticed an imbalance of power, she said, “I think it’s a generalized failing of grassroots movements to miss, or to underestimate our own power. So, if you underestimate your own power, you’re constantly hedging your bets against your own success, and downgrading what your goals are, because you don’t think the real goal is possible. The environmental movement is doing this right now, by the way. “

I think she is right. Time and time again, we underestimate ourselves. We think it’s impossible to get presidential candidates to talk about fossil fuel industry influence, that it’s impossible for renewables to become cheap enough, that it’s impossible to have 400,000 people in the streets of New York City demanding climate justice. Yet, time and time again, we see this happening. We surpass even our own expectations, with flying colours.

There’s no doubt that, if we sell ourselves short, it is more likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to dream big, but more importantly, to believe in the feasibility of these dreams.

I know this is hard. And I recognize some irony: I have a very hard time finding this faith myself. But, I think it’s important to keep this perspective in mind.

One of Dana Meadows’ most powerful Leverage Points has to do with paradigms and our ability to recognize them. Currently, we live in a paradigm that sets us up for failure. We limit ourselves before we even get started. There is a little voice that tells us we cannot accomplish enough – a small voice that fears failure. Or, perhaps, a cynical voice that doubts the general public’s ability to take action on climate change.

Believing in our ability to reach even the loftiest of goals is a paradigm-shifter: it enables us to reach even higher than others – and we – expect is possible.

We can accomplish so much more than we think we are capable of.


Being a Canadian Outsider – in Canada

The TV in our inn at Clyde River this morning.

The TV in our inn at Clyde River this morning.

Today – my second day in town – the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear Clyde River’s appeal against seismic testing for offshore oil and gas. This is a really big deal! It was so great to be gathered with everyone around the TV, which was playing live news of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to Washington, D.C., hearing both Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama address Arctic issues, on the same day that the Supreme Court made its decision.

It was even more incredible to be watching this with the Arctic right outside the window, to be sitting with people who have been so dedicated and involved in protecting their communities, livelihood, and survival in the face of seismic testing.

This tiny hamlet has received international attention for its battle against seismic testing. The Government of Canada has granted three fossil fuel companies – companies whose identities have not been revealed – permits to conduct seismic testing off Clyde’s shores. The community argues that they live off the land – that the seismic testing will affect narwhals and other marine mammals, sources of food that they depend on. These fears have been supported both historically – the seal population in Clyde River suffered after seismic tests in the 1970’s – and through scientific research.

I was obviously very happy to hear this news yesterday, but I also came to a realization.

As a community organizer around climate justice issues, I am all too familiar with so many community battles against fossil fuel infrastructure (in fact, my Senior Fellowship application was in large part motivated by a desire to contribute to these campaigns). However, I realized that I am not even close to being a part of this campaign, even peripherally. I can share petitions or write opinion pieces, trying to bring attention to their cause, until I am blue in the face, but I am not from here, and this fight does not directly affect my livelihood (even though global climate change does). In fact, wearing my researcher’s hat actually makes me even more separated from this community.

I am Canadian, but I am a southerner. I love the Arctic, but I am not from here. I can care about these issues, but I need to be invited to be a part of this community. It is not a given. And, as a researcher, I cannot stay here for very long. How can I expect to be welcomed when I am not here for very long? How can I be welcomed if I must gather data? How can I use the resources I’ve been given to benefit this community, how can I be of use, how can I learn so that we can better work on solving climate change issues?

These are the questions I’ve been grappling with this week.

Go With The Flow! (Go With The Snow?)

The view outside my window in Clyde River.

The view outside my window in Clyde River.

I’m finally here in Clyde River! Woohoo!

Things haven’t exactly been going according to plan. I arrived to Clyde six days late (and my luggage didn’t get here until later). With only a few days here, I am trying to make the most of it.

But, I am very happy to finally be here, and I must admit Clyde River is magically beautiful.

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And, I have met some incredible people here. Everyone is friendly, the air is crisp, and I feel as though I can see the entire world from here.

More updates coming soon!

Welcome to the Arctic! (Not Yet)

My initial itinerary.

My initial itinerary.

There is a common understanding if you’ve ever traveled to the Arctic: expect nothing to go according to plan. There is so much that can get logistically in the way of your research: difficulty getting a permit, overbooked flights, and – my favourite – bad weather.

I have been having exceptionally bad weather. I expected a snowstorm on Thursday, March 3rd, when I was planning to drive up from Hanover to Montreal. To my surprise, though, the weather was perfect, and I made it there in no time.

That’s where the good weather ends. On Friday morning, I arrived at the airport only to find that my flight was cancelled. “There’s a blizzard,” they told me. I was rescheduled to fly to Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Saturday, but, since there were no flights available to Clyde River on Saturdays, I had to spend the night in Iqaluit.


5 March 2016, 10:00AM: Flight Montreal-Iqaluit, stop in Kuujjuaq

6 March 2016, 3:15PM: Flight Iqaluit-Clyde River

I arrived to the airport again on Saturday, excited to finally board my flight. This time around, the airline made a mistake. “We don’t have flights to Clyde River on Sundays,” they said. “Come back Monday.”


7 March 2016, 10:00AM: Flight Montreal-Iqaluit, stop in Kuujjuaq

7 March 2016, 2:45PM: Flight Iqaluit-Clyde River

On Monday morning, I awoke to a blizzard in Montreal. Despite the bad weather, we finally boarded our plane to Iqaluit, two hours late. I would have made my connecting flight to Clyde River, if it were not for the fact that we stopped in Kuujjuaq on our way there. In Kuujjuaq, we needed to refuel, but alas, the fuel truck was broken, so we had to taxi our plane to the fuel. Another two hours on the runway..

By the time I finally arrived to Iqaluit, it was 5PM. I had spent 7 hours in a plane, only 3 of which were actually spent in the air. I missed my connection to Clyde River, and was placed on standby for the next available flight.


7 March 2016, 10:00AM: Flight Montreal-Iqaluit, stop in Kuujjuaq

8 March 2016, 1:15PM: Flight Iqaluit-Clyde River, STANDBY

(alternate) 9 March 2016, 7:45AM: Flight Iqaluit-Clyde River

But alas, we’re not done yet! I woke up this morning to a blizzard in Iqaluit:


The view outside my window this morning.

I don’t yet know if my plane is going to take off. I am constantly monitoring airport web sites. Please keep your fingers crossed for me!

These travel hiccups are frustrating, but they’re also commonplace: traveling to more remote regions means being prepared for delays. As many have already told me, I’m receiving a very Arctic welcome!

UPDATE, 11:01AM: I got off standby! Woohoo! The flight is still scheduled and I am running to pack my bags. Wish me luck!

UPDATE, 11:49AM: And the flight was just cancelled again 🙁 Better luck tomorrow! In the meantime, please tweet me any recommendations for Iqaluit.

Balancing Advocacy and Research in Engaged Scholarship

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I have a tendency to be honest on Twitter.

This isn’t a bad thing – I strongly believe in speaking truth – but, online, it’s sometimes easy to forget who’s reading what I’m writing.

I wear many hats. I am a community organizer. I am a student researcher. I am a budding scientist. I am a policy wonk. Reconciling these different world views is very, very hard – sometimes, it feels downright impossible.

I was excited to spend my senior year at Dartmouth pursuing a yearlong research project. The Senior Fellowship has provided me with the resources and mentorship to pursue graduate-level work as an undergraduate, and I am very grateful. It also goes without saying, though, that embarking on your first ‘real’ research project is challenging: hurdles will come, and part of the process is learning to be resilient in the face of them (endless praise to both my faculty advisors and the Undergraduate Advising and Research office for guiding me through my inevitable research crises).

At the same time, this project is challenging in more personal ways. I’m an advocate – I strongly believe in science communication, and science diplomacy. I believe in advocating for the outcomes of your research – not for advocating a certain cause based on values. As a young person, I know it is my duty to hold elected officials – government representatives who have a responsibility to uphold citizens’ concerns – to account when it comes to climate change. The movement for climate justice is a beautiful one, filled with young people who have the audacity to dream of a safer and more stable world.

I also hold another identity, though. I am a researcher who is in love with science and the ways in which it allows us to further our collective knowledge of the world. I see so much beauty in the natural and social sciences. I am always in awe of ecosystems and how humans fit within these systems. My big-picture systems thinking is what sparked the curiosity that made me apply for a Senior Fellowship in the first place.

As a person, I don’t see these two parts of my identity – an organizer and a researcher – as conflicting. At the same time, though, we live in a society that has created a siloed structure. We encourage each other – organizers and academics alike – to pick a path, to be specific in our goals. (This is a leverage point, by the way!) We tell ourselves that we don’t need any more climate science – indeed, the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is overwhelming – and we proclaim that research must be objective. I don’t personally believe that research can be fully unbiased – I think that we must strive to eliminate our biases, but that we must acknowledge the inherent biases everywhere – but that’s another blog post..

My point is that I have been walking a delicate balance juggling these two roles as I progress through the year. I have become much more self-aware of my language, and how it can alienate certain groups of people, even if my intention is never to do so. I am learning about how our world views and values affect the decisions we make, which means that it is really important that I frame things in certain ways depending on who I am talking to. I am learning that bridging the gap between researchers, advocates, and policymakers is much harder than I expected – it involves being able to simultaneously translate between three very distinct languages.

I am working on striking the right balance between research and advocacy as an engaged scholar. I recognize that it’s a crucial part of my learning process and methodology.

But, I’m still learning – and I would love your feedback.

Do you have thoughts about how to balance these two goals? Do you think scientists have no business pushing to communicate their research findings?

Drop me a line via email (leehi [at] dartmouth [dot] edu) or on Twitter (I promise to be honest!)

Emails as a Leverage Point?


Leverage Point #6: The structure of information flow (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information)


My inbox, the week before COP21 began. I ended up receiving upwards of 1,200 emails a day as the conference progressed.

My inbox, the week before COP21 began. I ended up receiving upwards of 1,200 emails a day as the conference progressed.

I never thought the day would come – a blog post about emails.

Pretty much all of the stakeholders I’ve been interviewing are inundated with emails. These days, who isn’t? I didn’t consider the possibility that emails would play an important role in my research.

One of my interviewees, Dr. Michael Dorsey, told me in preliminary conversations that sometimes the most telling information is found in the most uninteresting places. He gave the example of researchers who look at Yellow Pages to tell trends in society based on the services and products that are most prominently advertised, and how these advertisements change year after year.

Could emails be one of those uninteresting yet telling things?

Many of us are constantly connected to emails – yet also constantly behind on handling our inbox overflow (I, for one, am one of these people). Emails have become so engrained with our daily life that we take them for granted, sometimes unaware of the access they are providing us.

Emails during COP conference are never-ending. I typically expect to receive about 300 emails a day during COPs – at COP21 in Paris, this peaked at about 1,200 daily emails.

The onslaught was extraordinary, mainly stemming from the many organizational network listservs I was on.

What I didn’t realize as I lamented at my ever-growing inbox in Paris was that the emails I was receiving were a privilege. Firstly, my ability to sift through all of them so quickly is a skill that many NGOs and front line communities – not to mention negotiators from smaller countries – might not have. Secondly, the fact that I had the networks and intel to know which listservs to be on meant that I had a certain level of familiarity and access to the UNFCCC.

Evan Weber, Executive Director of the U.S. Climate Plan, mentioned that email listservs were a potential source of information during COP conferences. Organizations can keep up with the different events and meetings being planned through the emails that are sent to these large groups of people. Those who aren’t on the right listservs might miss a very important message that could significantly hinder their ability to contribute to a campaign or participate in the negotiating process.

Dana Meadows mentions “the structure of information flow (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information” as a leverage point. Clearly, emails are such a leverage point. A large majority of my interviewees so far have mentioned that COP is an overwhelming and bewildering process – and, through controlling information flow, emails and listservs have a large role to play in making this process either more transparent, or more opaque.

Why Focus on Youth?

Young people leading an action at COP21 in Paris, France.

Young people leading an action outside COP21 in Paris, France.

“Millennials! Millennials!”

Sometimes, it feels like those words are all I hear at events relating to young people and climate change. We have been told that we are the future (yay!). We have been told that we are fighting for our own future (cue the violins). We have been told that we’re great with social media (#millennials). We have been buzzword-ed to death (we’re hip! we’re cool!). We have been told that we are inexperienced. We have been told that we are too idealistic. We have been called “kids” – despite our degrees and life experiences. We have been told that polls show we don’t care about politics (this is also usually told to rooms packed beyond capacity with young people concerned about climate change).

Most of the people who tell us this – with some exceptions – are older. They also don’t look like us – they are mostly white, and almost always male.

[A caveat: this is not to say that anyone who is older, white, or male cannot be an ally, or that they will always talk down to young people. In fact, my staunchest supporters, and the mentors to whom I am indebted most, are my professors, who defy this patronizing stereotype.]

What is it like to have someone who looks nothing like you consistently patronizing you? What is it like to have people refer to young people as a homogenous voting bloc? What does it mean to have people refer to studies being conducted about you when you in fact are right there in the same very room?

I for one am tired of the tokenizing. I am tired of sitting in the UN space – a privileged space, nonetheless – and being held up symbolically without being given a voice nor a seat at the table.

How can we change these power imbalances?

I wish I knew the answer (don’t we all?). But I know that, as a young researcher and community organizer, I am well-placed to tackle that question.

That’s why I’m focusing my action research on youth: I am tired of having older people tell me about my own identity. I want to help our generation get an active seat at the table.

There are no guarantees – other than I know that I will not find a silver bullet to this issue – but I want to work hard at getting to some answers.

Powerlessness in the Most Powerful City on Earth

Leverage Point #8: The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against

Leverage Point #5: The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishment, constraints)

Leverage Point #4: The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure


Sunrise over the Washington Monument. Photo: Leehi Yona

Sunrise over the Washington Monument. Photo: Leehi Yona

I have been spending the past week in Washington, D.C., interviewing stakeholders and attending events related to young people and climate change.

In my interviews, I have been going through the same standard laundry list of questions. One of my favourite interview questions – which also happens to be one that elicits some of the most insightful responses – is, “In your work on climate change, can you provide me with an example of a time you noticed an imbalance of power?”

Typically speaking, interviewees tell me of a specific time when they noticed an imbalance of power. Many mention the UNFCCC, in particular their participation in COP21. Others talk about social injustice. There was one answer I hadn’t ever heard – until I came to D.C., that is.

In four out of the six interviews I have conducted thus far, interviewees have told me: “Everywhere. The injustices are everywhere.” Some left it at that, while others sought to give me specific examples.

I found it striking that so many of the people working in D.C. felt this way. Maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. As someone who’s worked in D.C. before, though, I had the impression that the people who are drawn to work in the nation’s capital do so because they acknowledge the inherent power (in whatever shape or form – concentration of NGOs and think tanks, proximity to legislators) that is present in the federal American government.

But maybe, by being in a space with such concentrated power, the imbalances inherent in society – beyond just environmental issues – become too big to be seen as distinct from anything else.

What does this mean for climate justice work? It’s hard to say. Maybe the most opportunity for change doesn’t lie in D.C. after all. Maybe it does – because here injustices are inflated, and here there is a lot of concentrated political influence. At the same time, how much can you change things when you feel so powerless? How much can you change things when politics gets in the way?

Some food for thought..

Research Challenges: Community Engagement

Leverage Point #3: The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure


An action in support of the Climate Vulnerable Forum at COP21. Photo credit: SustainUS

An action in support of the Climate Vulnerable Forum at COP21.
Photo credit: SustainUS

Research is hard!

I know – to any current and former graduate students out there, this statement is a no-brainer. But to someone who is embarking on independent, full-time research for the first time, it is quite the shock.

I spent almost two years putting together a proposal for my Senior Fellowship. I agonized over choosing the right topic (not broad enough to be considered vague, not narrow enough to be considered not socially relevant). I knew what I wanted to study, and what kind of research I wanted to pursue. I knew that I wanted to empower young people and marginalized, frontline communities. I knew that I wanted my research to benefit community organizers in their pursuit of climate justice.

I also knew what kind of research I didn’t want to do – I didn’t want my research to be exploitative. I didn’t want to extract data from Northern communities. I wanted my research to engage them. I wanted my research to be useful to them – I wanted their input.

This is so much harder in practice than in theory (surprise!).

Having this self-awareness going into my research made it all the more discouraging when I realized that – despite my good intentions, despite my own personal critiques of research – I was not practicing what I preached about justice-based action research.

As I’ve gone through the past seven months (already?!), I am realizing how it is nearly impossible to engage these frontline communities and actively work with them. I have been constantly racing through my work – always pushing deadlines back. I know that this isn’t necessarily my fault – as a first-time researcher, I tend to underestimate how long work will take, and my project, to borrow words from my Committee, is “exceedingly ambitious” – but I am realizing how the pace and requirements of research (permits, reports, logistical and bureaucratic minutiae) make it very hard to truly consult with communities.

This realization hit me when I applied for a research permit in Nunavut. For my Senior Fellowship, I wanted to work with the community of Clyde River, Nunavut because I knew that they were opposing seismic testing for oil and gas drilling off their coast. Clyde River is a tiny hamlet on Baffin Island with a population of around 935 people, the majority of whom are under eighteen years old. As someone who has helped organize youth campaigns against fossil fuel infrastructure in the past, I wanted to offer my time and resources to this community.

In theory, this sounded great (and, I must say, I am still excited about it). But in practice, it has not been possible to actively consult with community members as much as I’d wanted. In fact, I have been so overwhelmed with my other deadlines, attending COP21, and conducting research interviews that I wasn’t able to connect with any Clyde River community members until late January.

I know that my self-awareness places me already a step ahead of many other research projects, but I am still disappointed that I only began consulting with this community as of late.

However, I also had an “a-ha!” moment: I realized that – just as much as I am studying how the structure of policymaking inhibits progress – the structure of academic research inhibits  active community consultation as well. (It was quite meta.)

The structures of systems – big Leverage Points according to Dana Meadows – are powerful because they often affect us without our awareness of them. We are told that the current structure of academic research – the peer-reviewed process, tenure-track, etc. – is simply the way things are. I’m not saying that the tenure process is bad, but I am saying that we need to recognize that the goals of current research – to produce as many peer-reviewed journal articles as possible – doesn’t incentivize community consultation beyond what is required of us to receive our research permits. If we are always overwhelmed by other research obligations, and community engagement throughout each stage of the process isn’t prioritized, the latter will inevitably fall by the wayside.

The good news is that, once we are conscious of this structure, we can go about changing it. I know that I won’t be perfect when it comes to engaging the communities I am working with on this project, but I am going to constantly strive to get as close as I possibly can.