Systematically Organic: An Interview with Sara Taliaferro—Part Two of Heating Up: Artists Respond to Climate Change

NOTE from USDAC: This is the second of three blogs on Heating Up. We want to share all that went into this impressive series of events cosponsored by the USDAC Lawrence Field Office. Part One detailed the wide range of activities working in unison. Part Three, to come, lists all of the people and groups who helped make it possible, and what they did. Part Two, below, is based on an interview Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard conducted with planning committee member Sara Taliaferro, focusing on how such a series is organized and the impacts it has already had.

Arlene Goldbard: How did this impressive program evolve?

Sara Taliaferro: Climate change is such a big issue that one often feels a sense of being overwhelmed, not knowing where to start. But also the sense of urgency and that we can never do too much. Different groups were already having conversations about what can we do as an action on climate change. Somewhere during those early conversations the call went out through national USDAC to take part in the People’s Climate March in September 2014. That became the galvanizing action. It took it out of those smaller private conversations into a more public arena. 

We had a solidarity march and an artmaking event. Folks from Haskell Indian NationsUniversity got involved—that was where we held our first Imagining. Some of us were part of a book group who had read a book by Dan Wildcat, a professor at Haskell (Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge). So some of his students and others came together and joined the USDAC and Lawrence Ecology Teams United in Sustainability (LETUS) in making the events in Lawrence happen.

 Volunteers receive instructions at  Haskell’s 1  st   Annual Wetland Restoration Day .

Volunteers receive instructions at Haskell’s 1st Annual Wetland Restoration Day.

Arlene Goldbard: Part One of this blog series describes a year-long planning process. How did that build a foundation for people saying, “Okay, it’s time to make a plan?”

Sara: After the Climate March, the LETUS folks held a series of meetings. There was a series of lectures and focus groups. Lora and I ended up in a group with some other USDAC folks who were artists and creatives who wanted to bring that sensibility to climate change actions. A small core of us started meeting. Early on, we brainstormed all the possible things we could do; the list was much more ambitious than what we eventually did! Then we started talking about what’s our capacity: what can we do?

All these relational things happened. Lora had this conversation with a local business friend. The three of us walked over to Haskell and poked our heads into doors and said, “Hi, we’re here. We don’t want to take up your time now. Can we come back?” They invited us in, and we ended up talking with Professor Wildcat and his students. Haskell is very active on sustainability and climate change issues. They have a group and that was one of the events in our series, the Eco Ambassadors. 

And then the conversation started. The planning committee met almost every week for over a year. We were fairly systematic and organic about it at the same time.

Arlene: I like that pair of words systematic and organic. This is a real contrast with putting out an email and saying “You all come” rather than doing that time-consuming, sustained work of relationship-building that I hear you say was so essential here. How did it come to pass that you narrowed things down to the impressive range of events that were actually sponsored?

Sara: Well, it wasn’t a juried process. Someone said “curated process,” and that might be appropriate. We contacted artists who we knew or knew of who had already done climate change art. We always made sure that we had a core group of people who wanted to be involved. It was kind of organic. We came up with an initial list of people who we invited directly, and through conversations and connections in the community: “I have a friend who is a ceramist who did this really beautiful piece on climate change, please look at her work and see if it is something that you want.”

Arlene: Anything else to say about the process of organizing?

Sara: It was important to check in with each other early on. This is something that we do at our Field Office meetings too. We never cap the initial ideas or put the kibosh on anything. At some point we shift gear and ask what might you personally have capacity to do: “What does your life look like in the next year? Are you willing to be the champion for this piece?”

Each of us had core responsibilities and a commitment to show up to meetings. Sometimes it was incremental but we always carried the plan forward and had a very strong sense of where each other were on our capacity to make it happen. And the other part was that the richness of our relationships only deepened. We met for coffee: it was time we took that it didn’t feel like it was another meeting. And if we felt like it, we’d take a couple of weeks off. So having that intentionality and flexibility I think is important. Each of us had some homework to do and bring the next time. So, yes, having structure and flexibility.

Arlene: Talking earlier, you recounted how people said that the panel, for example, gave them a different experience, a more fully dimensional, embodied presence. What was that feeling, where did it come from? 

Sara: My experiences in helping facilitate different events for USDAC gave us a notion of how to structure things differently. We engaged with people as soon as they came in. We had Alex Williams performing instrumental music when people came in. Once people gathered and it was time to start we had Ron Brave, a Lakota singer, sing and drum. Before he did that, he explained to us a couple of words that his grandfather had taught him: a word that talks about the interrelationship of all things—plants, insects and everything on the ground, like the moving parts of a clock, that if they are in harmony everything functions as it should. And then he had another word which talks about those things not being in harmony. The song was about that, and that set a tone.

We had it fairly organized and formal for the first part and then we had a series of questions. Then we opened it up: the audience got up and the panel went out into the audience and we did “Burning Questions, Lightning Answers” [individuals wrote down burning questions, then picked someone near them they did not know and took two minutes to share quick answers to each]. The room just lit up. At first it was personal and quite reflective, then everyone was introducing themselves to someone they didn’t know, each listening and then telling something important.

We had people from all these different circles; none of them had all been in the room together. We talked about the role of art and stories and music and popular expression. People saw that as a real way to open a conversation and make an impact that is different than throwing words at something.

 Poet Topher Enneking reads at the opening for  Heating Up: Artists Respond to Climate Change.

Poet Topher Enneking reads at the opening for Heating Up: Artists Respond to Climate Change.

Arlene: You had a lot of partners in this. In particular, what does it say about the future work of the Field Office?

Sara: Every organization I’ve ever belonged to, there is always this core of workers and people who show up, and there are people who float in and out who are willing and very able to engage on a specific project or a specific action or event. You just capitalize on that—as long as you don’t wear out your core people.

You keep this extended mailing list. People who don’t show up for meetings come to events and get charged up. It’s like putting a little pebble in a pool and the ripples go out and you make connections. Accepting and embracing that idea of getting new champions for specific projects and then the core of us also show up. And have great potlucks. Celebrating is another big part of it.  Don’t forget to celebrate!

On a personal note, I did feel empowered by not thinking about these things alone in my home or my office but by reaching out and continuing to show up. It had a transformative effect on me and helped me to feel that my own capacity has expanded. Also as a group—I looked around the table as we were doing the post review and I said, “We did something amazing here. We are all amazing!” And of course, people are not in it for their own egos and they all just said, “Oh well, oh well..” And I said, "No, really, let yourself feel it! It's true!"

Arlene: Own it!  That’s part of the compensation: to see what the impact it made.

Sara: I have been part of so many different efforts—and I continue to be—where I put in a lot of time and in the end all you can get is a badge that says “you’ve participated.” But with this, I walked out of it thinking we are all stronger together and none of this felt like a waste of time. It felt like something more because we did it. So wow.