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Posted - 01/15/2018
Comfort With Discomfort by Faith Kearns and Clare Gupta
Building the capacity for relational engagement on climate change between scientists and communities. By Faith Kearns and Clare Gupta

Participants gathered at Mayacamas Ranch in northern California for an interdisciplinary pause. Photo by Susie Kocher.

It was a warm weekday night in the middle of our typically dry California summer as our group gathered around a fire ring at Mayacamas Ranch in Sonoma County to talk about relationship-centered approaches to climate change. We couldn’t have known then what we do now – that this beautiful ranch would suffer devastating damage in the wildfires that are still burning through this beloved part of the world. It now feels like a bit of a full circle moment – so much of the work that we are carrying out today was inspired by the collective grief around a large set of wildfires that happened in an adjacent California county just a decade ago.

We’d spent a full day talking about, and experiencing, emotions around climate change and how scientists, particularly those working in cooperative extension who interact with California communities every day, might approach the issue differently. And yet, even after delving deeply into some challenging material, that night around the fire we spontaneously started to sing campfire songs. Something about that singing was reflective of larger truths: that exploring even the “dark emotions” isn’t something to fear, and that connection offers a way through.

Walking the talk over coffee.  Photo by Faith Kearns

Earlier that day, we had learned about relational theory and tools from a lawyer, a medical anthropologist, and a psychotherapist. As we mentioned in our previous post, many of these fields have greatly advanced relational research, practice, and tools that are readily applicable in the natural sciences.

Gail Silverstein, a clinical lawyer at UC Hastings, shared the theoretical underpinnings and evolution of relational work in law, and led us in some profound exercises she does with her students. Leslie Davenport, author of Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change, helped us to think (and feel) more about the role of denial and grief in climate work based on her efforts to support psychotherapists to work with clients on climate change related issues. Juliet McMullin, a medical anthropologist at UC Riverside, pushed all of us to do something we didn’t think we’d be able to do – create a comic representation (in about 20 minutes!) of a conversation we’d had with somebody about climate change. It turned out to be an incredibly insightful exercise.

Our climate change conversation comics. Photos by Faith Kearns, comics by Faith Kearns, Susie Kocher, and Dan Stark.

The second day of our pause was spent planning concrete steps that we can take moving forward – both collectively and individually. Some of that work is already taking place. For example, we are working to create a community of practice within our UC Cooperative Extension community and keeping an eye out for professional training and other opportunities to engage a larger group of our colleagues. In addition, we have already submitted a proposal for one of bigger ideas, with more to come.

Near the end of our time together, we asked everyone to describe an “aha” moment they had at our gathering and the feedback was exactly what we’d hoped for. For example:

“I learned the importance of ‘knowing your audience’ as central to developing a relationship-centered approach to extension and climate change, including understanding social-cultural context and structural barriers or forces that inform people’s perceptions, values, and reasons for taking actions, or lack thereof.” Jennifer Sowerwine, UC Berkeley

“I learned language to put around the relationship-building aspect of addressing climate change. It’s clear that humanity won’t be able to address climate change without uniting across difference. This meeting emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary, creative thinking that happens when people put their egos aside and learn from one another. I will incorporate the ideas of ‘window of tolerance’ and increasing the tolerance for conflict into my classroom teaching so that my students can become more comfortable with touch, cross disciplinary conversations.” Elizabeth Allison, California Institute for Integral Studies

We all walked away having learned so much from each other and, most importantly, from having practiced the work we are trying to bring into the world by having the time and space to be in deeper relationship with each other.

Thank you to Mayacamas Ranch staff for holding this space for us so beautifully. We are thinking of you.