Over the course of this summer, I partook in a research project headed by Professor Judith Pajo and alongside Shen Yang, Zoe Kim, and Emma Wolkenstein. The purpose of the project was to gather information on how people who work in a field that deals with environmental maintenance in an urban setting approach their work, how they came to work to uphold the environment, and what they expect out of their work moving forward. To gain a thorough understanding of both the participants in our research and the areas that they work in, a multi-layered methodology was used.
Methodology: The first thing that we did was individual research. We looked online and to previously known connections and places for organizations or public spaces that dealt in some way with the environment. These places include community gardens, compost recycling plants, and water filtering centers. Once a list of places was made, each person contacted the organization to explain the purpose of the project and our interest in the organization and its employees participating in it if possible. For the organizations not normally opened to visitors, we asked about a site tour, to better understand the environment a participant would be working in. These places would be contacted by email or phone if they were unknown to us previously, and reached out to personally by a researcher who had known them from a previous encounter whenever possible.
Once somebody from the organization expressed interest in participating, a site visit and interview date would be set up. Even if we didn’t hear back from a contacted organization, those that allowed access to the public were visited for fieldwork. At these places, I and the other researchers watched what was happening both in the place itself and its immediate surrounding area if relevant. We would take photos and fieldnotes, and strike up conversations with employees and volunteers at the organization and possibly gain a participant or two out of these conversations, and if so, a later time or date for the interview would be set up. At the places where participants had agreed to interviews the same thing would take place, but would include videos, audio recordings, and photos of participants who gave written consent to such.
Interviews took place at the organization site, with a document explaining the purpose of the research, it’s contents, and requesting various permissions of possible identification of the participant given to them at the start of the interview. If permission was given, the participant would then be photographed, audio-recorded, and named in research results. The interviews varied in length, taking anywhere from 15 to 120 minutes. For the most part interview questions were the same: How do you think about the environment? How were you exposed to it in childhood from family, teachers, and other influences? How does the environment play a part in your work? Have you always worked in the environment sector? What brought you into it? Did you come into this job with prior environmental experience related to your work or did you learn it along the way? Are there any particular concerns you have for the environment in the future, both related and unrelated to your work? Aside from a recording of the interview taking place when allowed, notes were taken by the researcher(s) over the course of the interview. Most interviews were followed up with another round of site participation and notetaking, both in its own right and in comparison to previous site visits.
All information was gathered in several folders in a shared google drive between me and the other researchers. Separate folders were made for photographs, interview transcripts, audio recordings, videos, and field notes. These were updated over the course of the summer whenever new research was gathered. The results and analysis of the research are as follows:
The research collected is primarily focused on the opinions and experiences of individuals working or volunteering with an environment-supporting organization or group in urban spaces, but also takes into account the settings where they work and the unique way in which their work enriches the environment. Gathering the data into a comprehensive database was the first step in analyzing the research, followed by comparing and contrasting the varied experiences and approaches to environmental work shared by research participants.
The first step in the research was to gather field notes and observations of the settings where research participants work. These places had two main categories of being focused on improving or maintaining the local quality of the land or water, but some others also focused on protecting local wildlife, flora and fauna, and air cleanliness. These minor categories of focus were present in the sites we visited, but in tandem to their overarching focus on environmental protection, preservation, and rehabilitation. The differences between the sites in New York and California seem stark to me. Despite both areas being surrounded by water, more sites in California either focused on water cleanliness and accessibility or included it in their services than the sites I visited and heard about in New York. This might be partially due to how the natural waters in California are more accessible and relied upon by the public, so there are more organizations dedicated to upholding the water’s accessibility. That being said, the sites in New York that included marine cleanliness and conservation in their efforts were also very open and eager to discuss said efforts. Another similarity seen across sites was the tenuous relationship they had with the government. Several sites relied on local government for funding and collaboration on programs offered at the sites, but were also in disagreement with the government’s plans on increasing development in the area, at the behest of the environmental work espoused by the sites. One site was involved in a case against the government at the time of my visit. Most, if not all of the sites put a focus on education, usually for the local public, but some also arranging educational visits for students, camps, and other groups. A large part of these organization’s goals need increasing public interest and support to be met, and so outreach and raising awareness of their goals and how they could be accomplished was a prominent part of their work. Where the sites differ, aside from what their particular goals are, is in their placement. Although all in urban spaces, the diversity of the placement and prominence of the sites surprised me. Some were small and unnoticeable at first glance, in hard to reach areas with unclean surroundings. Others were highly visible and busy, with a loud appearance. A couple had booths at other environmental sites, such as a compost drop-off and textiles drop-off location at a greenmarket, although the majority had one location.
The sites we visited were diverse in function, goals, and scope. Despite the differences between them, many emphasized education and public engagement. Some worked in tandem with government funding or land allocation, a few in legal issues with the government simultaneously. Others were vocal about their approval or disapproval with government policies and plans that would impact their environment. The individuals interviewed came from varied backgrounds, some growing up with an interest in the environment, and others developing it in recent years. A few notably first developed an awareness and appreciation for the environment at sleepaway summer camp as children, whether learning to appreciate wildlife in its natural habitat or realizing the disparity in nature available in the countryside compared to scarcity in urban city spaces. Interest in the environment ranged from a desire for recycling of reusable materials to saving and repopulating native marine animals, from reintroducing natural flora and fauna to urban environments to reducing air pollution and protecting native forests from destruction. There were some who spoke about a particular cause relating tot the environment that they were passionate about while for others it was a range, or a desire to improve the environment as a system rather than focusing on one aspect over others. Some interviewees spoke about their views on the environment in relation to their jobs, and others had opinions that were independent of or differed from their line of work. All of the participants believed in education and making the environment and civic engagement more accessible to the public. Everyone we spoke to were passionate about their beliefs and clearly held them with conviction.
Overall, a lot was accomplished this summer. We were successful in locating and contacting different organizations relevant to our research, as well as visiting them and observing what goes on inside as well as how they appear from an outsider’s perspective. We were able to set up multiple interviews with volunteers and workers at these sites, who spoke to us at length about both their work and their personal outlook on the environment and what it means to them. Aside from formal interviews, we struck up informal conversations with passersby at some of the sites, giving us additional perspective on why people engage with these sites and the environment. When given consent, interviews were recorded and photographs and videos of the sites were taken, ensuring that the information would not be forgotten, so that we can properly assess it.
I really enjoyed this experience. It was daunting at first, having to strike up conversation with strangers and raise the subject of my research, but it became easier the more that it happened since I came to know what to expect. I really enjoy research, the individual aspect of it as well as the engagement with others that comes along with the job. Overall it went well, and I look forward to continuing it this year. I learned a lot about different approaches to improving and conserving the environment, as well as about local sites that I would be interested in attending myself. This research became something I was actively looking for subconsciously, to the point while on vacation in Boston upon passing by a local tree planting project my first thought was about how this would be a good site to do research for this project. This project has definitely made me more aware of my surroundings, as well as the small and large things I could do to reduce harm to the environment in my daily actions. It has also reiterated the need for organization, how having everything in one or certain spaces makes it much easier to decipher and examine in the long run. I look forward to seeing where this endeavor will take me in the fall and winter.