#MySciComm: Kirsten Schwarz on Community-Based Research as SciComm

This week, Kirsten Schwarz (the C&E Section incoming Chairperson) responds to the #MySciComm questions!

Woman smiling at camera
(Photo credit: Brittany Bays Photography)

Kirsten Schwarz is an urban ecologist studying environmental amenities and hazards in cities. Community engagement, social justice, and equity are central themes of her research. She has addressed community-level food insecurity and soil contamination in underserved neighborhoods of Sacramento, CA and the environmental drivers of soil lead patterns in Baltimore, MD.  Currently, Schwarz is leading a research team developing green infrastructure designs for vacant lots in partnership with community members, non-profits, city officials, and planners in Newport, KY. Schwarz earned her PhD in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers University in 2010. She is currently a AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow. Kirsten is an Associate Professor of Environmental Science at Northern Kentucky University. She is also Director of Northern Kentucky University’s Ecological Stewardship Institute.

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Okay, Kirsten…

1) How did you get into the kind of SciComm that you do?

Like many that find themselves in the environmental sciences I was a kid that loved nature and being outside.

I loved summer nights in our suburban yard, ate strawberries from my grandfather’s garden until I was sick, and begrudged the new housing development down the street that took away the bike trails we had carved through the woods (never mind that our house too was built atop farmland that was once forest). Later in high school when college catalogs started piling at the door, I remember vividly the one for a tiny school in Maine. A young woman on the cover was wearing waders, holding a seal, and smiling big. I was sold – I left the suburbs of Philly for College of the Atlantic (COA) hoping to turn my passion for the environment into a career. Like my childhood hero the Lorax, I too wanted to speak for the trees and save the environment from the greed and destruction of humans.

At COA, I pursued a degree in human ecology. It didn’t take long for my early formed notions of humans as external forces on environmental systems to be transformed.

I learned that humans were an integral and inseparable part of ecosystems.

Humans may drive environmental degradation, but they also generate the technical and creative solutions that address environmental challenges. It was also at COA that I learned about the field of environmental justice and saw an opportunity to bridge my passion for the natural environment and social justice and equity. The leaders of the environmental justice movement opened my eyes to the intersectional basis of environmental issues and the role that long-entrenched structural inequities played in shaping environmental outcomes. The story of the Lorax became more complex in the light of income inequality, racism, labor rights, and power imbalances.

After graduation, I found a new home in the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES), one that sparked my interests in, and taught me about, the kind of SciComm that I do – community-engaged research. At the time, BES was one of two urban, NSF-supported Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites, dedicated to understanding cities as ecosystems and doing science where people live, work, and play. If COA taught me the importance of integrated human-natural systems, BES taught be how to translate that thinking into practice, the doing of science in social-ecological systems.

It taught me the importance of trust and relationship building, and the need for partnerships among different disciplines, sectors, and communities. It also taught me that I had a lot to learn.

One of the most powerful interactions I had while doing research in Baltimore was with a resident that had agreed to have their yard tested for lead as part of my dissertation research. They asked me several times if I would be adding anything to the soil. I assured them that I would not, and we agreed to get started. After a few minutes of sampling they appeared in front of me with a camera and asked if it was okay to take my picture. They wanted a picture of me in case I added something to the soil. It was difficult to smile for that picture because in that instant I knew that I had failed at effective communication and engagement. Even after careful planning and working with local organizations and non-profits, I wasn’t able to build the necessary relationship that allowed for mutual trust. And I had not fully recognized the lasting legacy of past research done in the neighborhood. There was more work to do and more to learn.

Since BES, I’ve continued to do community-engaged research, studying:

  • soil lead and urban agriculture in Sacramento;
  • the impact of historical smelting on soil lead in northern Kentucky and Cincinnati; and
  • community-led design of green infrastructure in Newport, KY.

My work affords me the privilege to collaborate with many different groups.

These include non-profits, city governments, public health agencies, neighborhood groups, local businesses, and the people that live, work, and play where we are doing research. As my works shifts and changes over time, it remains rooted in the belief that humans are an integrated component of ecosystems. For me, that’s a strong motivation for community-engaged research simply because if humans are part of the system and not external to it, they are the solution.

All humans are part of ecosystems, but not all have been included in the science that we do.

Equity is central to any conversation on community engagement in science. Who are we engaging in the process of science? Historically, science has been overwhelmingly driven by white and male voices, which doesn’t support an inclusive, democratic, broad science that is our best chance at addressing the most pressing environmental concerns. In addition, community-engaged research has a history of being extractive and exploitative of under-served communities, leaving legacies of mistrust and suspicion. Recognizing these truths means that my reasons for studying environmental science are now more motivated by advancing social equity and justice than speaking for the trees, because I see addressing these fundamental structural inequities as the path forward toward environmental health and justice.

Nothing against my childhood hero the Lorax, but we are not lacking a spokesperson for the trees. We need to stop silencing the many voices that are already invested in the health and future of the forest.

2) What are your top 3 SciComm tips and/or resources?

Three things I’ve learned through community-engaged research:

1. Engagement starts at the beginning

Anyone involved in community-engaged research will tell you that relationship building and trust are central to success. But we often don’t focus on, fund, or even appreciate that this means forming alliances long before research starts. Engagement can start even before research questions are developed. Relationship building and trust take time to develop, more time than often elapses between an RFP and proposal submission. As practitioners of community-engaged research, that means that we need to find the language that conveys the importance of these relationships to our colleagues and administrators and fiercely advocate for their support, including financial support for community partners – people deserve to be paid for their time and expertise. Co-developing research with the communities in which the research will take place is also necessary. If we continue to craft research questions in our offices and labs, we’ll always be working backwards, trying to convince communities that our questions are the right ones (i.e., important, impactful, and necessary), and frustrated when we are unsuccessful. People that are part of that community where research takes place are the best to evaluate whether a question is the right question.

2. Center equity and focus on the process.

If we center equity in the research process, better science will follow. Centering means evaluating equity every step along the way and making it a guiding principle in the work we do. Centering equity may come more easily when we focus on the importance of the process of engagement. In research we often focus on the product or outcome, but the process of how we get there is equally or even more important. Who is involved, welcomed, invited along the process from start to finish helps us to keep equity, and better science, at the heart of what we do. Community engagement can be a necessarily slow process – it may take longer because we are consulting with community partners, working through administrative red tape that is preventing an inclusive and welcoming event. And that can be really frustrating especially if we are focused on the product. Instead, focus on the process.

3. Listen, learn, and unlearn.

In graduate school, a mentor told me there were three things I needed to do to succeed in research – publish, publish, and publish. The analogous skill in engagement is to listen, listen, and listen. The deep kind of listening that can be really, really difficult. The kind of listening where you have to abandon all grad school training that told you if you didn’t have anything to say (better yet, criticize) you weren’t contributing. Listening is especially important if you’re doing work with a community that you don’t identify as being part of or one that you are new to. You are not the expert so you’ll need to learn from the experts. And the only way to find out what works, is to listen. I’m still learning what good community engagement looks like, but in my experience it’s context dependent and dynamic and requires flexibility. Don’t assume that the engagement that worked with one community will work with another. And check your assumptions. Listening may lead to the most useful of all learning, unlearning.


This piece was edited by Annaliese Hettinger.