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Reflections on 2021 as a CLIMAS Environment & Society Fellow | CLIMAS


Reflections on 2021 as a CLIMAS Environment & Society Fellow

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

In late August of 2021, I called Rebecca Jim holding back tears. I had met Jim around 2013 when I was working with a coalition to raise awareness about tar sands extraction and to oppose the construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. Jim is the director of Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD), and she has devoted much of her life to bringing attention to the Tar Creek Superfund Site and other environmental justice issues in Ottawa County, Oklahoma. Jim’s work was inspiring and exciting to me, and from 2013 to the present, we maintained a relationship centered around our shared concern for environmental justice issues in Oklahoma. As I began my PhD program and envisioning my dissertation research project, I contacted Jim and asked her if there was some way my research could be useful to her and LEAD. She was excited about the possibility, and over time, we developed a collaborative research project focused on residents’ stories and experiences of water and work throughout processes of industrial development, environmental remediation, and ongoing environmental concerns around the Tar Creek Superfund Site.

Superfund sites are designated areas in need of clean-up due to their toxic effects. Among these sites, the EPA has referred to the Tar Creek Superfund Site, as one of the “most challenging” and “most complex” environmental remediation projects in the United States. Named for Tar Creek, which runs through the county and connects with multiple waterways, the site has no clearly defined boundaries but is broadly made up of areas in Ottawa County affected by the legacy of lead and zinc mining and other industrial practices. The area is dotted with large mounds of mining waste known locally as “chat piles.” They are made up of lead, zinc, cadmium, and other metals discarded and abandoned through mining processes. These metals seep into the soil and pollute groundwater. The overflowing toxic waters of flooded mine shafts have led to deeply entangled forms of water and soil pollution at and around the site. Importantly, Ottawa County is made up of the territories of the Quapaw, Seneca-Cayuga, Miami, Modoc, Wyandotte, Ottawa, Peoria, Shawnee, Eastern Shawnee, and Cherokee tribal nations, and the site embodies the ongoing and entangled processes of industrial development, environmental injustice, and settler colonialism in Oklahoma/Indian Territory. 

Our project was initially designed to focus on peoples’ experiences with water and work throughout environmental remediation and was planned to be my dissertation research focus. But when I called Rebecca this past summer, I stumbled over words and struggled to speak as I told her that I was leaving my PhD program. She knew that I had been considering this for some time, but I had waivered, dug my heels in, tried desperately to stay, and tough it through. At this point, I was navigating numerous personal and mental health challenges and felt as though I had reached my limits. I still felt committed to our project, and I was unsure how to proceed. I felt like the only reason I remained in my program was a feeling of guilt. I felt guilty towards my advisor, fellow graduate students, my committee members, faculty who had mentored me, but most of all, I felt guilty towards Rebecca Jim. I had admired her for years before I even considered doing a PhD, and we had spent months (maybe years) building and dreaming up this project. Our IRB had just been approved. We were finally ready to begin, but I had reached a breaking point in my program and could not move forward.

As the words came tumbling out of my mouth, Jim listened calmy. She responded encouragingly and assured me that her desire to work with me had nothing to do with a PhD As our phone call came to an end, Rebecca said that she wanted me to “find the joy that every day can bring.” After I got off the phone with her, I sobbed, and I felt tremendously grateful for her and the relationship that we had built. Our relationship and our commitments to illuminating peoples' stories in Ottawa County were not reliant on my career or my PhD trajectory, and I wanted to see the project carry on and be realized. I hoped to continue as part of the research team in some way, but I wanted to do whatever was best for the project even if it meant the research carrying on without me. I knew that I would likely navigate and be forced to confront feelings of possessiveness or ownership about the project, and I had to instead embrace the collaborative potential of the project to exist and thrive regardless of my involvement.

Throughout meetings and conversations, I began investigating ways for the project to carry on with or without me. I spoke with the IRB about potential options to continue the research project, and I was notified that the best way to ensure the efficient continuation of the project was to identify a new principal investigator. With thoughtfulness and care, Dr. Laurel Smith, Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Sustainability at the University of Oklahoma, stepped in as the principal investigator and became a new mentor for me and collaborator on the project. Smith brought together a new team of graduate students to carry on and revise the project.  The team now consists of Dr. Laurel Smith, Rebecca Jim, Jenna Randall, Valerie Doornbos, and me. Smith has graciously allowed me to remain part of the research team, and she has added valuable insights and points of concern to the project and expanded the scope of the project to include a broader focus that encompasses the collaborative interests and skills of the team.

While the project has shifted significantly and been delayed by personal hardships and life shifts, the project has benefited from the strong relationships, care for one another, and open communication that underpinned the initial imagining of the project. Additionally, these hardships and changes have led to a stronger and more varied research team and focus that will benefit the project in the long term. The year has demonstrated for me the value of relationship building and networking beyond the execution of a particular research project, and the importance of honest, open, and clear communication rooted in care for one another’s well-being, not simply for the efficient completion of an individual research project. Research projects’ success should not be solely measured by their overt outputs, but in the relationship-building and dialogue that collaboration can foster. Collaborative research can shape communities in long-lasting and unexpected ways through dialogue, connections, care for one another, and the emergence of new conversations and lines of inquiry. The fellowship year and these relationships helped me to realize and prioritize how the project could carry on even as my academic career came to an end (or perhaps a pause and redirection).

Some thoughts on leaving my PhD program and writing this blog post:

Broadly, I began studying anthropology because I was searching for a way to direct and explore my concerns and frustrations with aspects of U.S. society and culture, and I was craving deeper connections with human beings through peoples’ stories and experiences. However, something about my PhD program, my own personal experiences, and the practice of doing, reading, and thinking about anthropology made me feel more disconnected from people than I ever had. I still held intellectual curiosity, deep concern for environmental justice issues, and a commitment to exploring connections and aspiring towards more caring environmental and social relationships. But aspects of the anthropological lens and the academic experience left me feeling alienated and disconnected, alone. I am still grappling with why and how I had to leave anthropology and my PhD program. I do not have concrete or definite answers, but I simply know that I could not move forward. I also know that many of the issues I faced resulted from my own mental and emotional struggles, and I want to be clear that I am not trying to criticize anthropology as a discipline in this reflection. Lots of valid and fair criticisms exist, and at the same time, I know that for many people anthropology is a valuable and meaningful tool for critical inquiry and engagement. There were things I valued about it, or I would not have entered a PhD program in anthropology. There were things I questioned, or I would not have left. I am also tremendously grateful to the faculty members who mentored me and the fellow graduate students who pushed my thinking in new and exciting ways at the University of Arizona, and I do not intend to criticize my department in this piece of writing. I was honestly hesitant to write this blog post because I am still navigating complex feelings about all of this, but I decided to share these reflections because I hope other graduate students who hold similar feelings might feel less alone if they stumble upon it. I also hope that as people engaging in research, we find ways to foster relationships, inspire curiosity, and aspire towards more caring collaborations that can thrive within, without, and beyond our individual research projects and academic pursuits.  Leaving an academic career track does not have to mean leaving the curiosities that excite me, the relationships that developed, or my engagement with environmental justice issues.