Heather O’Leary: Equipping Students as Scholar-Activists

Heather O’Leary

Heather O’Leary, PhD, describes herself as an “environmental anthropologist with deep commitment to teaching students about power disparities, natural resource distribution, and intersectionality.” Her research explores the cultural dimensions of the technologies of legitimacy in India’s water allocation through engaged ethnography. She considers the impact of infrastructural, economic, and gender disparities within a rapidly changing urban context at both micro and macro levels. In addition to introducing WashU students to her own research initiatives, Heather serves as a lecturer in anthropology, an affiliated faculty member in environmental studies, and an Institute of Public Health faculty scholar.

In May 2017, Heather received a Community-Engaged Teaching grant through the Gephardt Institute’s Civic Engagement Fund for a new course, titled Dimensions of Waste. In this course, students learn how local stories from citizen-experts in St. Louis communities integrate with larger, cutting-edge research on waste, gleaned from direct, in-person contact with leading waste scholars. This semester, her students had direct contact with renowned experts visiting for the 2017-2018 Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar on wastelands. Course content draws from core texts in environmental anthropology and ecocritical theory. Students learn to analyze contemporary perspectives on waste by reading scholarly and activist “texts” (publications, author visits, blog posts, etc.) as not only disseminators of facts, but also as cultural artifacts of specific epistemologies of waste.

Dimensions of Waste students on waste walk

Dimensions of Waste integrates theoretical engagement with local, student-led ethnographic case study research in partnership with members of the St. Louis community. Students interact with both campus and community partners who animate issues of environmental justice through the lens of waste. A core student learning outcome is to develop the skills needed to become informed “scholar-activists,” translating the needs and insights of academic and local experts in this field. Early in the semester, for example, students participated in a “waste walk” with staff from the Office of Sustainability. During the walk, students documented chains of waste on WashU’s campus by physically tracing the material flows of food waste in campus dining facilities and how its footprint extends to St. Louis and even global communities. Heather noted that this helps students “understand theories as they play out in community and (re)produce knowledge for the academy.”

One of Heather’s favorite aspects of the course is her role in “helping students recognize that their questions are worth pursuing and are applicable to everyday community experiences.” The course trains students to map theory at the local level, test it through dialogue with community members, and empower themselves as critical thinkers who can translate theory into action. Student inquiries have led to the development of unique partnerships and projects. For example, one of her students has partnered with Just Moms STL to amplify both public awareness and the scholarly relevance of the devastating impacts of radioactive material in Coldwater Creek and West Lake Landfill. Another student is using music as a lens to understand artists’ flight from St. Louis and musicians’ self-reported feeling of the “cultural wasteland” that emerges in the flight of the creative class. A third student is examining the flow of medical waste from the United States to other countries, the questions it raises about the path to development, and alternatives to the disposal of this waste.

As a final assignment, students will produce a mini-documentary and podcast using their own original fieldwork interviews with community partners. Heather provided training on how to produce and edit this content with a priority placed on community voice. “The partners drive the narrative,” she explained, “and the students leave them with promotional pieces about their organizations or initiatives that shed light on waste flows and needs at the local level.” At the end of the semester, students will present their projects to partners during a mini “Cannes Film Festival” screening and reception—it is free and open to the public. Their work will also be featured in professional and academic podcasts like AnthroPod, a podcast by the Society for Cultural Anthropology.

When asked about the impact of Community-Engaged Teaching, Heather emphasized the importance of students immersing themselves in the broader community and re-imagining the style and reach of their impact beyond the academy. “By firmly grounding nascent environment justice courses in pedagogies of community engagement,” she said, “we can ensure a future of community partnership as a cornerstone of growing environmental justice initiatives.” She seeks to leverage the momentum of this course to organize an interdisciplinary seminar that will introduce first-year students to diverse epistemic approaches to environmental justice while connecting them with community mentors and best practices for local engagement in global issues.

Heather encourages other faculty members to consider a community-engaged component in their teaching. “The Gephardt Institute and WashU have many resources to assist faculty with these courses, including funding for transportation and free equipment at the library,” she noted. Courses like Dimensions of Waste also “demonstrate to community partners that the resources of WashU can be harnessed for their benefit – not simply in a donor-recipient relationship, but rather a mutually-guided synergistic partnership.”

“Without cultivating these connections and demonstrating ethical partnerships to our students,” Heather sums, “we are remiss as educators.”