EPISODE 6: JENNIE STEPHENS

Episode 6
36:43

Podcast Excerpt:

“One of the things that I’ve really come to experience and understand is that when women, people of color, and indigenous folks and others who’ve been historically excluded from leadership positions are given an opportunity or take the opportunity to be in these spaces, we bring very different life experiences and we also bring different perceptions of risk and different priorities and different ways of interacting. When you think about the climate crisis and issues of sustainability and the environment, diversity is so important because we’ve been missing opportunities for engaging with folks and really prioritizing what people need and what communities need with too much of a technocratic, technology-focused approach, I would say. So that’s one of the messages in my book.”

Episode Transcript:

Tracie:

Hello everyone and welcome to Traceability Podcast. I'm your host, Tracie Edwards. Today, we are so very fortunate to have Dr. Jennie C. Stephens with us. Dr. Stephens is the director of the School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs and the Dean's Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Her research and teaching and engagement focus on social justice, feminist and antiracist perspectives into climate and energy resilience. And she's the author of a book published last year called Diversifying Powers: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy. So Dr. Jennie Stephens, thank you so much for being with us today.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

Thank you, Tracie. Great to be on your program.

Tracie Edwards:

At Traceability Podcast, we are very interested in careers. So I'd like to take you back a little bit and kind of explore what made diversity a value for you, and how did that lead you in your career choices.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

Yeah, so I have a training and background in environmental science and engineering, and so I have a technical background and I always knew I was interested in the social and political dimensions of science and technology. And it's really through my own experience as a woman in a male-dominated field to really pay attention to and acknowledge how diversity impacts not just those who have the opportunity to engage in whatever kind of positions or issues that we're working on, but also how diversity or a lack of diversity really constrains how people are thinking about innovation and the issues that any organization or area is exploring.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

So as you mentioned, most of my career has been in academia. That happened partly, not because I wanted to be a professor, but I had a passion for environmentalism. And after my undergraduate degree, I actually followed my partner, who was going to get a PhD in sciences, and ended up in a PhD program which has kind of led me then into this academic track. So it's interesting how the personal and the professional are always linked.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

I would say also that my experiences in academia and in, as I said, mostly working on climate and energy issues, energy in particular is a very male-dominated field, realizing... I'd go to energy conferences where there would only be a handful of women in the room, and we'd all notice each other and maybe have lunch together and build collaborations and friendships. And then I started realizing that, "Well, all the women in the room are actually thinking about some of these issues in different ways," right, "and why is that?"

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

One of the things that I've really come to experience and understand is that when women, people of color, and indigenous folks and others who've been historically excluded from leadership positions are given an opportunity or take the opportunity to be in these spaces, we bring very different life experiences and we also bring different perceptions of risk and different priorities and different ways of interacting. When you think about the climate crisis and issues of sustainability and the environment, diversity is so important because we've been missing opportunities for engaging with folks and really prioritizing what people need and what communities need with too much of a technocratic, technology-focused approach, I would say. So that's one of the messages in my book.

Tracie Edwards:

Well, so how has that been sort of taking the interdisciplinary approach? Because on one hand, you're very engaged in the social sciences, and on the other hand, you're very engaged in the physical sciences. So what has that been like sort of trying to mold them together into an interdisciplinary effort there?

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

Yeah, really great question. I think I must have recognized somehow early on that having a more technical science engineering background would be valuable and kind of open up doors for me. So I was quite intent on studying and kind of having the credentials in science and engineering. But then once I was in that space, I realized how narrow some of that is, and really, if you don't integrate the social and the political dimensions of the science and engineering you're doing.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

And so many of my mentors, I actually was kind of disappointed to see senior scientists say, "Well, I can't really get involved in that because I'm not an expert in that," or, "That's not really my area." Because academic scientists are very often kind of conditioned to just stay focused on what the narrow thing that they're an expert in, and not speak up and engage and contribute in more broad ways.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

So I knew that that wasn't for me, but I knew that I wanted to engage more broadly and have a different kind of impact. It's not to say that the narrow scientific contributions are not very important, it's just not what I was drawn to. So when I finished my PhD, I knew I wanted to broaden rather than get more narrow. That's where I was drawn to more policy-related work, thinking about energy policy and the technologies.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

And not just the specific technology, but how technology has been put forward as kind of sometimes this perception that we have a very technologically optimistic society, right? That technology will save us. And with the climate crisis, there's some dangerous and I think really risky trends toward funding technological innovation, but not funding enough social innovation and social change. And when we don't focus on the social sciences and social dimensions of these areas, we're actually missing the social justice implications. That's how too many of our energy and climate policies have actually been exacerbating inequities and disparities inadvertently, because people haven't been thinking about how those technologies are being deployed.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

For example, if you think about the policies to incentivize people putting solar on their rooftops, it has been mostly well-off single family homes that could take advantage of those incentives, and they get a big financial benefit and then they get solar on their roof. And then for decades ahead, they're going to have free solar energy, right? Those same opportunities have not been given to lower income households. So too many of our energy policies have actually been exacerbating these inequities, rather than the opposite is what... The opportunity that we have is to do the opposite, that are investments to move society toward a more renewable based future and sustainable future. Those investments could and should be really prioritized directly to the lower income families and communities that have been under-invested in for too long.

Tracie Edwards:

Well, when I think of... I mean, my personal experience, growing up, I grew up along the Mississippi River and the Columbia River, and very much part of the hydroelectric dam phase of environmentalism kind of thing. And nowadays, that approach is definitely changing, right? As far as dams and hydroelectric power and sort of being... I'm not sure what the phrase would be, but sort of the removal of dams in favor of more indigenous ways of taking care of the environment and that kind of thing. So would that be sort of an example of the type of things that you're researching?

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

Absolutely. Those kinds of... The lack of consideration for how people and communities are impacted by some of the technologies that have been put forth is exactly the kind of omission that we see over and over again in so many examples. Particularly with fossil fuels, some really important work by the NAACP's Environmental and Climate Justice Program has revealed the degree to which fossil fuel industry, who have been strategically investing in trying to continue and perpetuate fossil fuels despite all the health harms and the environmental harms of continuing to rely on fossil fuels.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

But those industries and representatives from the fossil fuel sector have been really kind of manipulating black communities in particular throughout the country, investing in kind of tactics to get community support for increased fossil fuel infrastructure projects, even when those projects actually end up being harmful for those communities. I mean, there's all kinds of examples of this and really how energy infrastructure has been really contributing to health disparities as well as other kinds of injustices.

Tracie Edwards:

It seems to me that in large technical organizations, that there's very much a profit motive as well as a self-interest motive because of that profit motive. So as you're trying to bring different groups together, what are some techniques you use for helping people to understand that there's sort of a shared common interest instead of a particular narrower self-interest?

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

Yeah, so one of the ways to kind of elevate this is to talk about the polluter elite, which refers to kind of the corporate interest and fossil fuel interests and others that have been really resisting a transformation toward a more sustainable society because they've been profiting over it. And really for decades, many have been strategically investing to confuse us about the climate crisis and the dangers of fossil fuels. And then also to encourage us to be mistrustful of government regulations that are designed to protect us.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

Also, they have been investing to also reduce workers' rights. It used to be corporate culture. There's been a shift in corporate culture. It used to be that corporate culture was prioritizing often proud of how well they treated their employees. Whereas there's been this shift toward more of a prioritizing shareholder interests, and then actually trying to minimize how much you had to support your workers, right? That has really led to this disenfranchisement and disempowering. I don't mean specifically about voting, but just about that this... And the widening wealth and income gap in the United States and in other countries as well.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

So one of the ways to... You asked about how to help folks understand that this isn't good for anybody, right? It's not just about, "I'm going to make more money if I keep doing this." I think the pandemic has really helped us see how our whole society suffers when we don't have adequate healthcare infrastructure, when we don't have... We have so many people who are really struggling and don't have adequate resources to maintain their own well-being, right? It's actually a negative for all of us.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

So I'm optimistic that what we've learned during this very hard time and with so many people suffering has actually... There's a possibility for that to really inform future priorities so that we recognize that we need to prioritize the public good, right? Rather than corporate interests. And I think we need to come to terms with and acknowledge how much corporate interests have been influencing our policies and our priorities as a society in ways that some of us, we've kind of gotten used to, and so we're kind of complacent to it. But we need to kind of reclaim that and say, "We can do better than this."

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

And we should, as a country... I mean, I'm speaking about the United States here. As a country with the resources and the potential that we have, we should have such better infrastructure. And I don't mean just physical infrastructure, roads and bridges. I mean healthcare infrastructure, educational infrastructure, social infrastructure in terms of allowing people to have time to take care of themselves, take care of their loved ones. Rather than the way we've evolved now into this society where so many people have to work double shifts, right, just to cover the rent. That does not lead to a healthy society, and we are seeing some of the impacts of that now.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

So again, that's why this is a disruptive time we're in right now, and there's also some reason for hope and for kind of a collective action that we can all take in this time, and not just try to go back to the way things were, right? Because the way things were were not actually very good for most people.

Tracie Edwards:

Right. Definitely. As we've seen, not sustainable. So in the last year, we've had a real confluence of all of these topics sort of coming together at the same time. We've had the Black Lives Matter movement happening, we've had the Me Too movement happening, we've had energy events like what happened in the South here just a few weeks ago. So do you find that sort of with all of that happening at once, is it more stressful trying to get people to come together, or are you seeing a willingness to get people to come together?

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

There's actually been quite a lot of new coalition building. Because a lot of the different challenges that you mentioned, we have multiple intersecting crises, right, that are kind of unfolding in front of us, the pandemic, the extreme weather and climate disruptions, systemic racism, and all of its forms of kind of the structural and legacy issues that continue to be really evident and being perpetuated in ways that are just so troubling. And then we also have a housing crisis and the economic crisis that's part of the... Some of it is connected to the pandemic, but some of it was there before, right? Particularly with these growing inequities in wealth and income.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

So I think people are... And that's what I see in the climate and environmental movement is that people are realizing like, "These issues are all connected," right? And when we actually are in solidarity and build multi-racial, multi-generational, and multi-issue coalitions, that we can actually advocate for the systemic changes that are needed. Because none of these issues, none of these interconnected crises can be solved with band-aid solutions, right? They require kind of a more fundamental shift in our priorities and how we invest and support each other and allocate resources.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

So that recognition is coming more to the mainstream, I think. So while I'm optimistic, I'm also really inspired by some of the new leadership, particularly more younger people and people of color and more women getting into politics and coming up with new policies that really link these issues together.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

For example, in the chapter one of my book is actually called Growing the Squad. The squad are these four junior congresswomen that came on the national stage two and a half years ago and have transformed the conversations in so many policy issues. Particularly with respect to climate and energy, they have been so innovative by linking climate and energy with economic justice and jobs, and linking climate energy with housing and the housing crisis, and advocating for big investments in public housing, because we have so much housing insecurity in the United States and it's getting worse with the pandemic. And then also linking climate and energy with the structural racism of our country and also criminal justice issues. So I think there's a lot of creative and inspiring policy work going on right now that we can get behind and engage with in new ways.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

Here, in I'm in Massachusetts, where my congresswoman is representative Ayanna Pressley, who has been one of the leaders, one of the members of the squad who has just... She speaks truth to power and has an urgency about the way she presents and really prioritizes these issues and say, "This is unacceptable," right? We don't have to accept this, and we can no longer accept that this is the way our society is. That's just really powerful and inspiring and exciting.

Tracie Edwards:

Do you have any tips that you could share as far as bringing, for lack of a better term, sort of both sides of the aisle together to sort of have that common goal? Because it seems to me that we're still pretty far apart on some of these things. We're starting to come together, but we're still pretty far apart. So do you have any tips for bringing us closer together once we are trying to engage?

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

One of the things that I think sometimes works... As you said, we're quite a divided society right now, but I think obviously listening to each other and not villainizing each other is fundamental, and understanding that everybody is doing the best they can and trying to navigate under these increasingly difficult conditions, right? That's kind of across the board. And if we acknowledge that and then realize how people's political views result from those experiences, right? And I think validating and acknowledging where people are coming from.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

But another piece here is... I guess I will mention Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland. She's an international climate justice leader. She has really emphasized the point that if you put a people-first approach, like, "What do people need?" These ideas don't seem so radical, right?

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

And kind of helping people see how kind of dysfunctional are so many of our policies and our governmental systems have become because of the power of the corporate interests. We don't have people collectively looking out for the public good, and some people are actually quite explicit about that, right? Holding people accountable in a respectful way and pointing to the investments and the possibilities for when we do trust our government and when we do allow and support government to invest in communities that have been under-invested in.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

When we do, again, I think that's where there is potential. Again right now with the pandemic, we see an expectation of huge public spending and investment, right? It's necessary to recover from where we are. And even though there's some saying, "We shouldn't spend this much," but people can actually see through those arguments and see that if we don't spend the money, it's worse, right? If we don't invest in what's needed to help people, the future for everyone will be actually worse.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

So that same kind of logic can be used when we think about the climate crisis and investing in the transformation away from fossil fuels toward a more renewable-based future. If we don't invest in this transition that needs to happen, everything will be harder for everyone, right? Even if the polluter elite continue to make some money for a few more years by delaying, that's not good for the public and it just slows things down and makes it harder. So there's these kinds of demonstrating how making proactive investments in changing the way things are so that things are better is actually good for everyone and it doesn't necessarily have to be so divisive. So I think that's one way to think about that.

Tracie Edwards:
Sort of a follow-up question to that is as individuals and as organizations, what are some small wins that can help us either to be more enlightened about climate and diversity, or can help us take a step towards a more equal opportunity?

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

Yeah, so a couple things to think about here. One is to think about all of us as leaders in our own ways, right? My book is about leadership, and specifically I talk about antiracist, feminist leadership. But when I talk about antiracist feminist leadership, it's actually a broad invitation to all of us to be thinking about the power dynamics and the legacy of each of us and our individual kind of positioning in society and what power we have and what structural issues limit our power, right? Antiracist, feminist leadership is anybody, regardless of your race or your religion or culture or your gender identity, can embrace antiracist, feminist leadership, because it's really about acknowledging those power dynamics and the legacy of harm that has been done, right? And then trying to resist it at every step along the way, right?

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

I think that's a key thing that we can all embrace as well, is that the kinds of transformations that we would like to see, or many people are advocating for, are really systemic changes. So it includes everything from how we interact with each other in the workplace, or in our families, or in our communities to these bigger structural things. But we need for our own consciousness and our own learning in kind of a racial justice journey or racial equity journey, and also in our thinking and learning about climate and all these things, we can be thinking about these issues and trying to integrate them into everything we do, right, at all of the different levels. And there's real opportunity there for us to be demonstrating, I guess, modeling, right, and living our lives in ways that demonstrate what we'd like to see.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

So I think in that sense, there are opportunities for all of us, both individually and in our organizations, to question the norms, right? Because it's actually about... For real transformative change, you need disruption, right? You need to stop what you're doing and assuming that that's the best way to do things, and actually do things differently. So disruption as a form of change, and then kind of be acknowledging we can either be perpetuating the crises that we see in front of us, or we can be trying to resist what contributes to those and disrupts the processes and policies and priorities that are reinforcing. And when I'm talking about these things, I'm thinking both in terms of the climate crisis and racial justice, and kind of connecting those in ways that we can, as I said, be intentionally disrupting the norms.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

I mean, I think one thing that's been really powerful for me is acknowledging that if you ignore these issues and think, "I don't have time to deal with this," or, "I'm not part of that," you're actually unintentionally contributing because you're not part of the shift that needs to happen. So that's an open invitation to everybody to really spend some time to consider based on each of our own positionality, our own place and communities that we're part of, what can we do to elevate and expand and have impact and not be on the sidelines. Because again, when you're on the sidelines, you're actually contributing when we're talking about systems change, because you're reinforcing the normal, right? The status quo. So yeah, I think those are some of the ideas with regard to that.

Tracie Edwards:

I always want to be part of a solution. And like you say, I think it's having that mindset where you do want to be part of the solution, and then just ensuring that you're continuing to hold yourself accountable to that and have those meaningful conversations. So wrapping up, I sort of wanted to get a feel for where do you think this is all going in, say, the next five or 10 years, and does it leave you optimistic or not?

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

I am optimistic. I mean, I tend to be optimistic and try to see the opportunities in most situations, but I really do think there is some changes happening that are quite positive. If you look at the Biden-Harris administration, obviously it's early days, but there's been some real initial commitments. And in particular with some specific appointments and hires, one of my own colleagues and friends, Shalanda Baker, who was a professor at Northeastern with me in the... She's had a joint appointment in the law school and the policy school. She has been sworn in as the deputy director for energy justice at the Department of Energy. The Department of Energy never before had that position focused on energy justice. Her role is to design and implement the commitment that the campaign made, that 40% of the investments in climate energy would go to frontline communities, communities that have been underinvested in for too long. So the intention and some key people have been put in place to do things quite differently.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

I also do see some progress and optimism. Climate change has also become such a divisive and partisan issue, right? Which is disappointing and obviously difficult for the progress to be made. But it seems like currently with some of the current strategy it looks like with the Biden-Harris administration, is to integrate investments in renewable energy, and workforce training, and jobs related to renewable energy into kind of pandemic recovery policy, right? And not necessarily focus it as a separate initiative, right? Integration. This is what integration of these different crises, as we were talking about before, is probably arguably the way to move forward on multiple things at once, right, and have a larger impact. So there's also some evidence that that's the strategy that the Biden-Harris administration is taking on some of these issues as well. So that also is a positive sign.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

I do think that a really important point is our elections and voting. In the end of the book, I actually talk about why don't we have an assumption that we have 100% participation in elections. We're so far from that and there's these new attempts to even further restrict voting rights. But I think representation and making sure that everybody have access to vote is really important. And I think these efforts to restrict voting is really troublesome, but I also feel like it's kind of people are seeing through it and realizing what's going on here and how that's not good for democracy.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

So again, I'm optimistic that we will be able to continue to prioritize that as a fundamental part to address any of these issues. Because if we want change, we have to have better representation and hear the people's voice so that we can focus on what people want, not what the elite and the corporate interests want.

Tracie Edwards:

Completely agree with you. This has been such a fascinating and fun conversation for me. Before we go, sort of what's next for you? Where's your research taking you?

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

Yeah, so it's been a great opportunity writing this book and then being able to have conversations like this with all kinds of folks about the linkages, and the intersections, and the new coalitions that are emerging. I think I'm continuing with research on kind of how to connect this transformation away from fossil fuels toward a renewable-based future with the other social issues.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

As a university professor, I'm also very involved in thinking about the role of higher education and education in general, and how educational systems are supposed to be opportunity and opening up opportunities for folks. We have a lot of possibilities in education to improve access and make sure we're not further exacerbating inequities and disparities. So I think a lot of my current initiatives and future are really... I'm going to be thinking more about education and how our educational systems also need to be transformed to better contribute toward a more equitable and sustainable future.

Tracie Edwards:

Well, I'm really excited to hear what your results on that are, because I agree with you. I think the educational system, as it is today, sounds like is pretty ripe for some disruption. Well, thank you so much for your time today. This has been a fun and just really interesting conversation for me, and so I really thank you for being here today.

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

Yeah. Well, thank you, Tracie. And I will just say, if anyone's interested in buying my book, all the author proceeds for the book go to NAACP's Environmental and Climate Justice Program to advance their great work. So thank you so much for the opportunity to be a guest, and thank you for this great conversation.

Tracie Edwards:

Thank you. How can folks find you? Through your website, through LinkedIn?

Dr. Jennie C. Stephens:

Yes, I'm on both. I also have a Twitter handle. Jenniecstephens.com, @jenniecstephens. I'm also on LinkedIn. So yes. Thank you.

Tracie Edwards:

Fantastic. Thanks again. We'd like to thank Dr. Stephens for being with us today. If you liked what you heard, if anything in particular resonated with you, please shoot me an email at Tracie, that's T-R-A-C-I-E, @traceabilitypodcast.com. I'd love to hear from you. The takeaway from today is to be part of the solution. To use your purpose, your passion, your willingness to engage to be part of the solution and make this world a better place for all of us. Thanks again for listening. Bye-bye.

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