Even as she watched the smoke from the Pipeline Fire from her studio window this summer, artist and assistant professor of art Debra Edgerton was thinking about water. What is going to happen with the monsoons, she thought in June as she watched helicopters carry water from a reservoir near her home to fight the blaze.
Over the next two years, Edgerton will explore the interlock of fire and water and questions of resilience. She will shadow scientists and land managers at Fossil Creek in central Arizona to explore the effects of the 2021 Backbone Fire on freshwater ecosystems. Edgerton plans to compare what she learns at Fossil Creek to research she is doing on the intentional burning of the African American Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 and its cascading aftereffects.
Edgerton is one of five artists, teachers and scholars at Northern Arizona University to be awarded the CEED Fellowship, a two-year grant to support community-centered climate change programming. Supported by the Frances B. McAllister Program on Community, Culture, and the Environment, these Climate Education, Engagement, and Design, or CEED, fellows will work in their respective fields to imagine inclusive new ways to engage and educate their communities around climate.
In a region shaped by and tied to the fate of the Colorado River, it’s perhaps little surprise that water is at the heart of other CEED-backed projects.
On Saturday, Sept. 24, the eighth annual Rumble on the Mountain will take place at the Native American Cultural Center on NAU’s Flagstaff campus at 2:30 p.m. Hosted by Tewa and Hopi musician, artist and “edu-tainer” Ed Kabotie and his band Tha ‘Yoties, Rumble on the Mountain features Indigenous artists, speakers and performers who gather to build solidarity for the protection of sacred lands and spaces across the Colorado Plateau.
“The Little Colorado River is the heartbeat of the Plateau,” Kabotie said. “Its health represents the well-being of the water systems throughout the region.”
The Rumble kicks off a series of events that Honors assistant teaching professor and CEED fellow Kara Attrep is helping to organize with partners throughout the region.
“I’m really excited to look at climate action through different forms and lenses over the next two years,” said Attrep, who emphasized that variety is an important aspect of the series. “We wanted to be as eclectic as possible, so if someone isn’t interested in filmmaking, there’s a concert, or a workshop. They can enter the conversation a different way.”
On Oct. 3, the CEED program, Honors College and Cline Special Collections and Archives will host photographer Dawn Kish to discuss her work documenting the re-emergence of Glen Canyon as Lake Powell disappears. Later in the fall, Diné filmmaker Deidra Peaches will offer a filmmaking workshop for a group of Native students at NAU.
Many of this year’s CEED fellows look to the arts to engage people on climate change. Attrep believes the arts can open a conversation about climate “that isn’t always possible through a scientific presentation.”
Like Attrep, Edgerton thinks art has an important role in changing the climate conversation. “Often, the arts are seen as leisure,” Edgerton said. “Of course, they’re not just that, but this social media-driven age may be the perfect opportunity for visual artists to show that and be out front, using their voices to make a difference.”
One of the strengths of the CEED program is that each of the projects imagines community in a different way, said Bruce Hungate, chair of the McAllister program and director of the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society. “The work proposed by this group of CEED fellows is so exciting because each scholar is taking a really different approach to the big questions: How do we face current and future climate challenges, and how do we bring more people into that conversation?”
The second NAU Climate and Justice Teach-In, slated for Spring 2023, will be an opportunity to explore those questions. Nora Timmerman, an associate teaching professor in the Sustainable Communities program and CEED fellow organizing the event, said a teach-in prioritizes community building and dialogue over traditional concepts of top-down knowledge sharing.
“We all have a part to play in this conversation,” Timmerman said. “If part of the reason we’re in climate chaos is the existing power structures of capitalism and patriarchy, creating a container for dialogue is a way of disrupting those structures and learning from one another.” Timmerman said that one reason the 2022 NAU teach-in was a success was that it brought together more than 400 students, staff and faculty as well as people from the wider Flagstaff community.
“We’re more powerful when we can work together,” she said.
For CEED fellow and associate professor of English KT Thompson, community is built both through the course they will teach in 2023-2024, “The Colorado Plateau Grasslands Documentary Project,” but also in the conversation that relays across time through reading and writing. Thompson said the spark for their project came from reading McAllister’s journals.
“McAllister was so specific about the kind of lumber used in building the cabin, for instance, or describing the grasses in a meadow where I now walk,” Thompson said. “Reading these journals was the first time as a settler where I thought, if I work a little bit harder, I can understand the land from a kind of primary theft until now.”
The research Thompson will conduct under the auspices of the CEED program will both shape the grasslands documentary pilot course and inform a section of their current book project, Contingent Love, Unsettling Futures. Thompson speaks of this segment, “Core Sample: A Land Acknowledgement,” as a “provocation.”
“Queerness helps me understand the if-this-then-that of contingency: to be queer and to have a body that’s read as such is an experience of contingency,” Thompson said. “And contingency is always forward-looking. What is the future, and how can it gesture to reparation? If the land acknowledgement is a form that ultimately fails,” as Thompson argues—fails to restore stolen land or to make real reparations—”then can we use the form to provoke a conversation about ways to do better?”
Robert Neustadt, a professor in the Department of Global Languages and Cultures and one of the new CEED fellows, also is interested in provoking conversation that leads to meaningful action. With project partner Shawn Skabelund, Neustadt will invite NAU students to have their portraits taken, and then post these large-format photos on campus near the climate teach-in. The installation will be part of a global photography project, Inside Out, and will pose the urgent question: “What kind of world are we leaving for our youth?”
“I think we’ve got to keep trying to motivate people to take action,” said Neustadt, who has led public art projects with Skabelund at NAU in the past to draw attention to immigration and to remember the thousands of people who have died crossing the U.S-Mexico border. “We’ve got to raise awareness in order to work on different levels. Keep looking forward and getting more and more people to take more and more meaningful actions on climate.”
For Edgerton, asking more people to engage on climate comes back to teaching.
“I try to instill in my students the idea that they could have an expansion of purpose with their art,” she said. “So that they might not only enjoy that aspect of being taken away from the problems of the world, but also use their voices to help other people see what is happening.”
Learn more about the CEED fellowship and the McAllister Program on Community, Culture, and the Environment online.
Top photo: Sunrise over Coal Mine Canyon near Tuba City. Credit: John Fowler on Unsplash.
Kate Petersen | Center for Ecosystem Science and Society