This paper unites the transformative potential of dialogic pedagogy with the narrative tradition of testimonio to support youth engagement in climate action. Drawing from the fields of environmental studies, composition studies, education and pedagogy, Indigenous studies, and Latina/o/x studies, this paper explores the power of storytelling both as a means to process the realities of climate change and as a political act to prompt policy change. The study provides educators with strategies to facilitate the creation of student narratives, emphasizing the importance of dialogue, empathy, and critical consciousness, ultimately advancing a socially just approach to climate change education across disciplines.
Over the 15 years that I have taught writing and literature, at five postsecondary institutions, in three states, and across three countries, an increasing urgency has emerged around the topic of climate change amongst my students. Again and again, this subject surfaces in class discussion, essay, research projects, in storytelling, and creative writing. The majority of the people I teach were born after the year 2000, into a frenetic world, connected globally by the internet but still deeply divided by lived experience.
What I began to see were expressions of “eco-anxiety,” that were increasingly intense and hard to ignore. The term “eco-grief” has been used to describe this feeling by Joanne Macy who cautions against the “deadening” of ourselves to this phenomenon: “…pain is the price of consciousness in a threatened and suffering world….As in all organisms, pain has a purpose: it is a warning signal designed to trigger remedial action” (Brown & Macy, 1998, p. 27). And in many ways, this is but a quiet echo of the profound ecological grief endured by generations of Indigenous peoples from colonization to the present day. Human impact on the environment, compounded by what I call the “desired ignorance” we have so deeply ingrained within ourselves and as drawn from the dominant societal worldview, only serves to instill an acute sense of hopelessness in young people, robbing them of the optimism and agency needed to confront the challenges of the future.
Indeed, a survey across 10 countries of 16-25 year-olds found that climate change is a pressing concern that is top of mind daily. 75% of young people agreed with the statement “the future is frightening,” and 83% that “people have failed to take care of the planet” (Hickman, et. al 2021, p. e868). And, in response, educators and parents seem to agree that collective understanding and reckoning are needed within our classrooms. When U.S. parents were asked whether they thought climate change should be taught in public schools, 80% said yes in spite of the political polarization around this topic. Similarly, 86% of teachers also believe it is an important topic of study, yet 60% of those same teachers “do not teach climate change because they believe it is outside of their subject area” (Kwauk & Winthrop, 2021, para 6). It can be difficult to find a way into discussions of climate change, to weave them into our curriculum in meaningful ways, to stand with our students and bear witness to their struggles, to their grief. But so it is with many of the great tensions of progressive education; that is, how “to preserve open-mindedness while teaching current systems” (Gerard, 1946, p. 499) or balance the need for imaginative wonder with the need for rigorous challenge. And, actually, the creative tension, or energy, produced by this “gap between vision and current reality” (Senge, 2006, p. 126) could be the seed for powerful pedagogy.
Given the critical need to channel this creative tension into transformative education, many thought-leaders, organizations and institutions have been exploring innovative strategies to prepare young people for an uncertain future. Two years ago, the Brookings Institute provided a heuristic and framework for a “new green learning agenda” (Winthrop & McGivney, 2020, para. 4) which outlines both the approaches and mindsets needed to confront what is perhaps the greatest challenge of our species’ history. They provide a continuum of mastery, beginning with the “green skills” necessary for employment in the next several decades (including engineering, entrepreneurship, and project management), leading to “green life skills” (such as collaborative thinking, empathy, and resilience) and, finally, those skills necessary for a “Green Transformation” like disruptive vs. normative thinking, environmental stewardship and valuing traditional and Indigenous knowledge (Winthrop & McGivney, 2020, “Figure 1. A green skills framework”). Educators and practitioners will recognize echoes of these skillsets in a number of different frameworks and approaches that have informed teachers’ education programs and curriculum from kindergarten to graduate school in recent years. These include Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), 21st Century Skills Framework (the 4 “C’s”), Place-Based Education (PBE), Socio-Emotional Learning (SEL), and Culturally and Linguistically Sustaining Pedagogy (CLSP) among many others. All of these speak to a critical need for us to reimagine what education is and what it could be.
That is not to say that the work is easy. It is confronting work, and there are many barriers that hinder educators and their institutions from fulfilling this critical purpose. Singh (2021) identified five “roadblocks” on the path toward transdisciplinary, justice-centered education for climate action. These include 1) students’ misconceptions about climate change that mirror those of the general public 2) resistance toward transdisciplinary work within siloed institutions 3) onto-epistemological barriers, specifically the “paradigm blindness” we experience in the attempt to fashion new systems out of current ones 4) the feelings–of anxiety, depression, frustration—that arise for young people and which present psychosocial barriers that teachers and institutions may not have the capacity to fully attend to 5) the absence of faculty training and development which highlights a fundamental quandary of education: whether its primary purpose is to prepare a future workforce or societally engaged citizens of democratic systems (Singh, 2021, pp. 170-172).
These barriers resonate deeply in my own experience. And still, the need–for education, for climate action, for change–remains. For this, educators may look toward the wisdom, guidance, and solutions that can be found in sources of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), or in the strategies and tools used in movement work by organizations like Indigenous Climate Action (ICA). There are also underlying philosophies that can guide design, such as the integrative approach of “Two-Eyed Seeing,” discussed by Mi’kamaw Elder Albert Marshall (as cited in Bartlett, Marshall & Marshall, 2012, pp. 331-332) and the “Seven Generations Principle,” often attributed to the Law of Peace enacted by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy but also shared by many Indigenous cultures globally; it urges all people to live their lives, and make decisions, with regard to potential impacts seven generations hence.
Cajete (2000) noted that the word for “education” in many Indigenous languages could be better translated as a “coming-to-know….a journey, a process, a quest for knowledge and understanding. There is then a visionary tradition involved with these understandings that encompass harmony, compassion, hunting, planting, technology, spirit, song, dance, color, number, cycle, balance, health, and renewal” (p. 80). There are many practices that can deepen understanding of content and community, though, in academia, we often privilege only certain types. “Canon” by its very definition, is used to describe information that is written down, and this underpins much of what we come to accept as “knowledge” in postsecondary education. But this neglects or negates other ways of understanding the world in which we live, other literacies that may be as vitally important in confronting climate change. Sandra Styres (2019) writes, “Indigenous literacy is based on reading the cosmos—it is about reading all the things around us that are not necessarily the written word but nevertheless contain valuable information” (p. 25). This recognition, honoring, and incorporation of “funds of knowledge” (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992) into learning experiences is fundamental for innovative solutions-finding.
Ultimately, our collective responsibility is to present young people with an accurate picture of current reality while also weaving into our practice a sense of “critical hope” (Duncan-Andrade, 2009, pp. 185-186) that can empower mitigation efforts, adaptation, and resilience. The shift toward climate education is a transformation that is long overdue both in curricular design and in teaching approach. In light of this, one might wonder how such a transformation begins.
A Way In: Testimonio / Testimony
In my discipline, one of the anchoring concepts for every course is storytelling and this provides an inroad to address personal experiences of climate change but also advocate for necessary action. Whether this is done through speeches, personal essays, photo collages, neighborhood soundscapes, podcasts, social media, or data visualizations, all of it is rooted in the act of personal narrative as a site of meaning-making for both the author and audience. Young adults are naturally drawn to this form of discourse; from a developmental perspective, they are in the “mythic” stage of their lives and often in the midst of “psychosocial moratorium” (Erikson, 1968, p. 156), actively forming identities through the exploration of different values, attitudes, and conventions. The rapid change we are experiencing globally—technologically, economically, socially, and otherwise—combined with the personal journeys young people must all embark on to find purpose in their lives make fertile ground for powerful testimonies about the impacts of climate change and possibilities for climate action.
Testimonial, or testimonio is a narrative literary tradition common in Latin America, which features first-person narratives “situating the individual in communion with a collective experience marked by marginalization, oppression, or resistance” (Delgado Bernal, Burciaga, & Flores Carmona, 2012, p. 363). Tuhiwai Smith (2012), also notes that the form, in Indigenous contexts, is “a way of talking about an extremely painful event or series of events…a form through which the voice of a ‘witness’ is accorded space and protection” (p. 145). Yúdice (1985) further emphasizes the political dimension of testimonios, defining them as “an authentic narrative, told by a witness who is moved to narrate by the urgency of the situation (war, revolution, oppression)….Truth is summoned in the cause of denouncing a present situation of exploitation and oppression or exorcising and setting aright official history” (p. 4). The aims of the genre–to amplify marginalized voices, increase solidarity, build political advocacy, create a historical record and to empower and heal the narrators–have made testimonios a liberationist pedagogical tool as well, especially in classrooms that center social justice, critical consciousness and empathy (Delgado Bernal, Burciaga, & Flores Carmona, 2012; Huber, 2009; Reyes & Curry Rodriguez, 2012; Saavedra & Pérez, 2012). In the context of climate change, the practice of testimonio supports young people in expressing their concerns, fears, and hopes as an act of advocacy.
Testimonios toward Climate Action
There are, of course, many examples of young people who are telling stories about the impacts of environmental injustice on their lives to foment collective action. “Fridays for Future,” as conceived of by Greta Thunberg in response to 2018 wildfires and a record-breaking summer heatwave in her native Sweden, shared the origins of her activism in a TEDx talk that same year, “…when I was 11, I became ill. I fell into depression, I stopped talking, and I stopped eating. In two months, I lost about 10 kilos of weight. Later on, I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, OCD and selective mutism. That basically means I only speak when I think it’s necessary – now is one of those moments” (Thunberg, 2018).
While Thunberg has garnered much publicity for her activism over the past five years, Indigenous youth have been engaged in climate activism for decades, and their stories provide powerful exemplars of the ways personal narrative and political action can be interwoven to create meaningful change:
Xihutezcatl Martinez, former youth director of the organization Earth Guardians, reflects on the origins of his activism in a handbook for movement work, titled We Rise, and offers ideas for political action: “One of the benefits of fighting for a cause at a young age is that your ideas have no boundaries. It allows you to use your creativity and imagination to solve problems” (p. 24).
Xiye Bastida, another young Indigenous climate activist, co-wrote a digital comic entitled “Our Home is on Fire” which chronicles her journey into climate activism, detailing her experiences of living in Mexico and witnessing the effects of climate change firsthand.
Sônia Guajajara, a Brazilian Indigenous activist, has been vocal about the fight to protect the Amazon rainforest and Indigenous rights for herself, her children, and future generations. In a New York Times op-ed, she shares her perspective on the urgency of climate action, anchoring it in the loss of biodiversity in her region of Maranhão, emphasizing the importance of listening to and supporting Indigenous peoples in the fight against environmental destruction (Guajajara, 2020). In 2018, she ran for president of her country and in 2023, was appointed to lead the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.
Autumn Peltier, the chief water commissioner of the Anishinaabe nation, was the subject of the documentary The Water Walker (2019), which follows her journey advocating for clean water access for Indigenous communities, a cause she was inspired to join by her aunt, Josephine Mandamin, who walked over 25,000 miles around the shorelines of all the Great Lakes, carrying a bucket of water, to bring awareness to water pollution and the 73% of Indigenous peoples in Canada who do not have access to safe drinking water (Council of Canadians). Peltier (2019) discusses her connection to this cause in relation to the Anishinaabe worldview: “In my culture, my people believe that water is one of the most sacred elements. It’s something we honour. My people believe that when we’re in the womb, we live in water for nine months and our mother carries us in the water. As a fetus, we learn our first two teachings: how to love the water and how to love our mother” (para. 7).
These examples are only a small sampling of the multi-modal ways young Indigenous activists are engaging in testimonio as a way of highlighting climate degradation and amplifying Indigenous survivance. In the introduction to her book, Red Pedagogy, Sandy Grande reflects on her own story and the purpose for telling it: “…I learned that experience is far from self-explanatory; that language and the ability to name one’s experience are precursors to emancipation…” (p. 5). This approach emphasizes the importance of polyphonic storytelling, highlighting the human dimension of global challenges.
Testimonios in the Classroom
Testimonios can be conceived of in a number of ways–as memoirs, oral histories, prose, poetry, visuals, performance, lyrics, or spoken word–because they are a process, rather than an outcome, “a process of healing, of art, of history, activism and truth” (Passos DeNicolo, 2017, p. 435) and their purpose is to “…offer an opportunity to ‘travel,’ positioning a listener or an audience for self-reflection” (Cruz, 2012, p. 462) where both the narrator and the listener can experience profound realizations. As such, here are some general principles for enacting them in a classroom:
In order for students to think critically and creatively, then relay stories from their lives, they need a supportive, safe environment in which to practice, to hone. Attention can be incredibly generative in this regard, and it is important for educators to encourage dialogue while also ensuring all voices are deeply heard. Talking circles, or sharing circles, provide a useful and simple structure for ensuring mutual respect among students during dialogue. In this practice, all participants (including the instructor), are seated in a circle, and pass along an object to indicate who is speaking and only the person holding the object may speak. In addition to facilitating discussion, this protocol can also be used in decision-making, problem-solving and conflict resolution.
Provide Structure if Necessary
As has been discussed elsewhere in this paper, there is no set structure or medium for testimonios. Having said this, students often need direction and form as a way to actualize abstract concepts. Marshall Ganz, who worked with the United Farm Workers for 16 years and in grassroots communication for decades, advocates for “public narratives” as “an exercise of leadership by motivating others to join you in action,” (Ganz, 2009, para 1). His model provides an interconnected, tripartite process, where the storyteller shares a “story of self,” a “story of now” focusing on strategy and action, and a “story of us” grounding the audience in a shared purpose. Within these three broad themes, smaller stories are embedded that speak to the plot of the narrator’s life or experience, structured as challenge, choice, and outcome (Ganz, 2009, para. 10) Though not explicitly a storytelling framework, Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” (1998) is a model consisting of four movements: 1) “coming from gratitude” for what the Earth provides and its interconnectedness, 2) “owning and honoring our pain in the world” through the acknowledgement of social injustice and environmental degradation 3) “seeing with new eyes” that encourages an expanded sense of self and resilience 4) “going forth” which focus on action and solutions (p. 71). This “spiral” practice could provide a narrative arc for testimonio or an entry point into the discussion of climate change in a classroom setting.
Use Model Texts
The idea of using “model” or “mentor” texts is a common practice in composition classrooms with the aim of improving student writing through exemplars. As we have seen in this paper, and throughout this anthology, there are many examples of testimonio–speech, readings, visuals, and video–that can serve as “model texts” for students to draw inspiration and learn from. There is also the possibility of using other texts from the traditions of “ecological literature,” or “environmental writing” and, in particular, those written by Indigenous authors. Science fiction is another genre that can open up new understandings of our current world and imagine possible futures. Those stories which center Indigenous futurisms and feature concepts such as the Native slipstream, a literary trope which “…views time as pasts, presents and futures that flow together like currents in a navigable stream” (Dillon, 2012, p. 3), can be good fodder for the discussion of nonlinear time and the interconnectedness of generations.
The above suggestions are descriptive rather than prescriptive. There is no one way, or even recommended way, to engage with this practice, and no one way to create a generative space for students to explore these topics in the classroom. As Priscilla Ybarra Solís (2016) noted in her book on environmental themes in Mexican-American literature, “the ways to address our current environmental (and many other) problems do not always lie in the future or in the new. We can learn so much by paying attention to those around us, even if—or especially because—they are not the ones we conventionally look to for wisdom and insight” (p. xv). When I find myself struggling to create a learning experience, imagining all the possibilities and frustrated when I can not find a “right” way into a subject or learning objective, it is then that I know I must pause, ask and listen to what my students need and want from their education.
One of the most important roles of the educator is to support students as they grapple with their individual and collective contexts. Beyond teaching the fundamental concepts of our respective disciplines, we are increasingly called upon to create learning experiences that “include students as co-designers” so that we can realize “socially just educational systems” (Koch, 2022, p. 1) and, by extension, a more socially just world. Environmental sustainability, climate change, and fostering empowerment for immediate action are not only the purview of life sciences classrooms but the collective responsibility of all educators. And, beyond this, concepts such as mutual dependence, conflict resolution, and land-based knowledge should be integrated into various disciplines to foster a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all life and promote more responsible stewardship of the Earth. This involves the willingness to listen to the stories of young people, to engage in perspective-taking that honors their experiences and encourages them to make meaning of this world, and to dare to imagine a radically different one.
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