There’s a brutal, mission-critical irony at work in our country’s climate conversation right now. Nearly everyone worries about an issue that will affect literally everyone, and yet no one wants to talk about it.
By the end of last year, a historic fifty-eight percent, of Americans said they were either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, according to a long-running research project at Yale. But even more people said they “rarely” or “never” discuss it with people close to them. Something has gone wrong. We need to talk about the way we talk about climate change.
Jothsna Harris, senior community engagement manager at Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy, has made it her mission to bring personal storytelling to the forefront of the climate movement and help us break this conversational logjam. First we must teach everyone, not just polar explorers or writers, to see themselves as witnesses to climate change by discovering and sharing their own story. Then we must really listen to each other. Ultimately, she believes it's that process of deeply understanding someone else's world that inspires action.
Sharing people’s stories is bringing humanity into it,” Harris says. “It’s bringing people’s faces into it. Their experiences, their culture, their voice. If we don’t feel empowered that we have anything to say about it, how will we be a part of the solution?”
Climate Generation's mission is to empower individuals and their communities to engage in solutions to the climate crisis. Through numerous storytelling workshops and community convenings across Minnesota and the country, Jothsna and her team have helped thousands explore their connection to climate.
“Most people say they don’t have a climate story, or that the story they have to tell isn’t important enough, or what that they have to say doesn’t matter,” Harris says. “Because most people are not climate scientists, or coming from that background where they have all the facts and all the information, it can be easy to say you can’t have a meaningful conversation about it or you can’t communicate about it because you’re not an expert. But really in our experience is our expertise, which is more difficult to dispute. It is much harder for someone to discount your experience, to say that's wrong, or no, you haven't experienced that.”
Still, even when people know about the climate crisis and see a connection, the conversation has become one of those political third-rails. You might get burned by sharing your perspective.
“Climate Change is not political. But now, even the science has become politicized,” she says. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there. There’s a real fear. People fear they might not be received, or might even ruin a relationship even if they talk about climate change.”
As part of Talk Climate Institute, one of Climate Generation's signature initiatives, Harris promotes using a step-by-step process for handling these sensitive conversations.
1. Ask permission to talk to someone
2. Ask an open-ended question about the other person’s thoughts on climate change
3. Listen — do not interrupt
4. Repeat back to them what you heard vs. responding with your thoughts
5. Share your personal connection to the issue and your experience
6. Share a fact that helps ground your story
7. Ask: Would you like to know more?
8. Conclude the conversation; thank them for talking
9. Ask them to join you in a specific action
(Adapted content from the Alliance for Climate Education. Copyright 2020 © Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy. www.climategen.org.)
“You can speak in a way that moves past political ideologies and really gets to the heart of why something matters, and it can influence people in a much greater way,” she says. “They might not be able to agree on the facts, but they might be able to really see your experience from a different perspective.”
As a kid growing up in St. Paul, Harris was fascinated with how culture moved, how stories travel across the world and break up into fragments, how science worked and how to tell the masses about it, but it took a long time for all these pieces to come together in her activism.
In high school, she volunteered at the Science Museum of Minnesota, learning how to get people engaged and talking about science. She helped museum staff to see what they were doing through a teen's eyes. This experience influenced her decision to focus on environmental studies and political science in college and she eventually found a career in academic administration.
After almost a decade, she just couldn’t go on. She didn’t feel a meaningful connection to her work. Her husband was going through the same thing. They sold their house, and took their two kids, who were 3 and 6 at the time, to work on organic farms in Italy for a summer. There, after stints at a vegetable farm and an olive grove during harvest season, she had a realization: she’d been trapped into thinking the life they’d been living was the only possibility. It was time for change. A radical one.
“It took a while for me to process what it actually meant for us, but it was such a pause and a break from the regular routine that it made me discover the possibilities and look at them in a different way,” she says. “It made me think about how much our family consumed, what we chose to do with our time, what was important to us.”
When she got back, she still wasn’t sure where best to fit into the environmental movement, but she dove in anyway. She got an early taste of organizing and storytelling as a member of the Minnesota Green Corps, an Americorps program, with an assignment to help a school district conserve energy. She devised a "Battle of the Buildings" and a video contest to get kids fired up. At the end of it all, Harris helped save the district $55,000 in avoided energy costs. Soon after, she made her way to Climate Gen.
But that’s just one telling of Harris’ story, the moment of Big Inspiration in the olive groves of the old country. When asked where her climate story began, Harris told the story of her parents instead.
She says she grew up with “one foot in two worlds.” There was life in quiet, white, St. Paul: MTV, hot dish, church, her father biking through the snow to work. And there were visits back to her parent’s native Bangalore, India every few years: tropical heat, family she barely knew but who were deeply invested in her life.
“I have curious questions about my own history. I think for anybody that comes from an immigrant history, there’s always questions that you don’t know,” she says. “When I go to India, it feels familiar, but at the same time a bit foreign too. There’s all these untold stories that I know are a part of who I am, and I haven’t discovered them yet.”
Trying to find the answers to these questions required a deep curiosity, and the ability to really listen.
Curiosity, ultimately, is at the core of what she does now. To build we must connect with each other, and to connect we must be curious. You can’t fight for a better future without connecting with each other, and to connect we must be curious.
As the global scientific community has reported, the next decade is critical for bold climate action. Climate Generation will be hosting community-focused events throughout the year about sharing and listening to each other’s climate stories. The science is vitally important, Jothsna says, but it won’t do anything unless people see a connection, then act on it.
“It has to move to the heart before it can move to the hands,” she says.
One bit of advice for all of us from Harris as November approaches: log off. At least temporarily.
“It’s harder because you’re already starting with a platform that is disconnected from reality,” she says. “Getting someone together face-to-face is always going to be more impactful and always more helpful for building a real relationship. I'm not saying there aren't relationships that happen online, but in that face-to-face interaction, you can see somebody's body language, you can feel their energy. It is just a different kind of interaction."
The fight to save the planet from the worst of the climate crisis is not a normal kind of fight. It’s not a battle that can be won with troops and tanks. To Harris, the essence of the challenge is teaching people to understand the experiences , the lives, of those very different from them matter, and represent parallel chapters of the same big story. We might not be able to convince everyone, or encapsulate everything that we are in a few conversations, but a story is a beginning, and the world won't rewrite its next chapter without one.