Pono Science

Healthy Departments Initiative

Language Matters: Communications for Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Person holding their hands in the shape of a heart with sunlight in background

Caroline Nagel, JEDI Committee Chair

Caroline NagleOver the next several months, we’ll devote space in this column to the perspectives of JEDI Committee chairs as they continue implementing AAG’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) plan through the framework of TLC GRAM, which stands for Training, Listening, Communications; and Governance, Reports, Advocacy, and Membership. Caroline Nagel is the chair of the JEDI Committee and also chairs the JEDI Communications subcommittee.

As geographers, we are often reminded that geography means earth-writing. Put another way, we are in the business of words. The identification of communications as a pillar of the JEDI strategic plan acknowledges explicitly that our words are important—that the messages we convey among ourselves as geographers and to the rest of the world matter.

As chair of the AAG Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee, as well as chair of its Communications subcommittee, I am charged with overseeing a process that has ever more importance: enhancing AAG’s capacity to achieve greater diversity, equity, and inclusion within the discipline, whether on college campuses, in private sector work, or in government agencies. Before I discuss some of the committee’s specific activities, I’d like to comment on the context in which we are doing our work.

TLC GRAM logoThe weeks and months following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis saw an outpouring of public support for racial justice in the United States. America, it seemed, was ready for a long overdue ‘racial reckoning’.  American corporations, government agencies, and academic institutions hurried to introduce an array of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) measures designed to address institutional barriers to equality.

The backlash against DEI efforts, however, was swift, and, in hindsight, not entirely surprising.  DEI opponents in ‘red’ states moved to cut spending on DEI activities at public universities, while well-financed conservative legal groups successfully challenged the vestiges of ‘race-conscious’ admissions policies.

As chair of the AAG JEDI Committee, I have watched these disheartening developments closely and have pondered what they mean for the AAG’s DEI efforts.  In this fraught moment, my thoughts turn to how words are laden with political meaning. DEI opponents often argue that DEI, and the critical scholarship that underpins it, is a form of ideological indoctrination that limits freedom of thought and expression.  Their response, ironically, has been to restrict or to eliminate narratives around race, gender, and sexuality that they associate with ‘wokeness’ and to replace them with other, more ‘acceptable’ narratives—for instance, that America is a colorblind society.

As the so-called ‘war on woke’ has gained momentum, some organizations wishing to preserve elements of their DEI programs have looked for new, less overt, ways to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion.   At my university, for instance, the administration preempted pressure from conservative legislators by folding DEI activities into a new Office of Access and Opportunity.  Although this new office does much of the same work that the old DEI office did, I was struck by how our university president, in explaining the name change, emphasized outreach to first-generation students and to veterans and, in so doing, seemed to downplay the focus on students of color. This is not to discount the validity of any such outreach, but, rather, to indicate how certain signifiers of difference—especially of race—are viewed with suspicion despite evidence of their continued relevance in South Carolina and beyond.

While tactics to “rebrand” DEI may be prudent, we should be wary of backing off from the language associated with DEI.  Justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are not the buzzwords of some woke agenda; rather, they are terms that speak incisively to empirical realities.  Take, for instance, the concept of ‘justice’, which has been part of the vocabulary of geographers for many decades.  In some corners of the social media universe, the term ‘justice’ has taken on almost pejorative connotations—hence, the widely mocked figure of the ‘social justice warrior’. But how else are we to talk about the dumping of toxic waste in poor communities, the lack of public investment in affordable housing, the devastation of communities and environments caused by the extraction of resources, or the dire impacts of climate change on countries that have contributed almost nothing to global warming?  If these aren’t matters of social justice, what are they?

This is not to say that concepts like justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion should not be held up to critical scrutiny. Geographers, for instance, have rightly been critical of diversity discourses in universities and other institutions, which often avoid substantive responses to systemic exclusions.  But critiquing these concepts and demanding more of them is different from discrediting them altogether.

I would venture that for most geographers, it is an obvious statement of fact that the world is replete with social inequalities that are reproduced through political structures, institutional policies, and everyday behaviors.  The aim of the AAG JEDI committee is to ensure that geography as a discipline can produce knowledge that captures these complexities; to do this, we need to acknowledge and to elevate perspectives and experiences that have typically been ignored; and we need to ensure that many different voices are shaping conversations within all disciplinary subfields.

Within the JEDI Communications Committee, we have focused on a heightened presence for JEDI activities on AAG’s social media and other platforms, as well as the work underway to help reorganize the AAG website and JEDI page so that they serve as a hub for JEDI-related resources and tools. This will involve collating resources from past DEI initiatives and making these resources more readily available for AAG members.  It will also involve creating profiles of departments that have successfully recruited diverse groups of undergraduate and postgraduate students; posting curricular resources that emphasize critical geographical thought; providing curated lists of sources that explain community engagement; and short videos of AAG members who are making a difference in their institutions and communities.  We also plan to post information about upcoming JEDI-related events (including AAG sponsored workshops and forums), and to highlight JEDI-focused conference sessions.

As we work toward the implementation of the JEDI strategic plan, we invite AAG members to get involved and to keep the principles of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion at the center of our mission as geographers.

The AAG Culture of Care column is an outreach initiative by the AAG JEDI Committee. Don’t forget to sign up for JEDI Office Hours. The current theme of Office Hours is An Ethos of Care in the Research Enterprise.

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Research Partnerships: The Foundation for a Culture of Care 

Person holding their hands in the shape of a heart with sunlight in background

By Risha RaQuelle

Photo of Risha Berry

Last month, I shared the news that AAG is embarking on a a collaborative project with the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) to create pathways to an ethos of care within the discipline of geography and scientific disciplines. This project, funded by the National Science Foundation, exemplifies the kind of work that AAG wants to encourage and support in the geography discipline.

We can’t do it without partners.

In 2024 and beyond, AAG is seeking interested collaborators, especially at emerging research institutions, to help us examine, enhance, and reform research practices, teaching, outreach across sectors, career development, mentoring—in essence, anything that will advance the discipline with a culture of care in mind.

AAG has a vision: We want to be a national fulcrum for grant and research opportunities for the discipline’s transformation, and we want to provide technical support to partner institutions and organizations seeking to share their knowledge and level up their prominence in research. The common throughline of the projects we encourage is commitment to the central principles of belonging, access, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (BAJEDI).

We are especially interested in lending our technical expertise to institutions that are not considered R1 and may otherwise, without a partner, be less competitive for research opportunities.

To learn more about the ethos of care framework, read this perspective from Inside Higher Ed, by Emily Skop, Martina Angela Caretta, Caroline Faria and Jessi L. Smith, offering a call to the discipline.

In the coming months, I’d like to focus the JEDI Office Hours on connecting with interested AAG members who might want to create a collaboration. Are you interested in exploring this opportunity? Please take a moment to sign up for a time to chat about partnerships and ideas to create a culture of care in the research enterprise.

The AAG Culture of Care column is an outreach initiative by the AAG JEDI Committee. Don’t forget to sign up for JEDI Office Hours. The theme in November is An Ethos of Care in the Research Enterprise.

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Building Vibrant Departmental Cultures, Part Two: Creating a culture of respect and care for students, staff and faculty

A group of students explores geography with using their sense of smell over drinking glasses filled with liquid.
A group of students explores geography with their senses. UI Geography now prides itself on its environment of trust, respect, and creative inquiry.

Photo of Rebecca Lave

My previous column began the story of Indiana University Geography’s near-death experience in the 2010s and our decade of collective work to transform the department. Walking away from the traditional physical/human-environment/human geography division was a key aspect of that transformation, but creating a culture of care and respect and developing more transparent, horizontal governance were key components as well. In this column, I focus on how we created a more respectful and supportive departmental culture; I will address governance in the third column in this series.

Building respectful and supportive practices

I don’t know when the culture at IU Geography broke down; by the time I arrived to interview in spring 2008, the level of intellectual and personal disrespect within the department was intense enough that I nearly refused the job. In the end, I accepted, thinking that if I could keep my head down and my office door shut the cultural issues would not affect me. But as anyone who has been in a toxic department knows, bad behavior has surprisingly pervasive effects.

Our departmental meltdown in Fall 2011 had many long-term causes, but the immediate catalyst was two physical scientists declaring during a meet-and-greet with our new Dean that their situation was untenable because of teaching load and the presence of social scientists, and that they had independently begun negotiations to merge our department into the Geology Department. The rest of us were shocked and horrified. Our new Dean was unimpressed by our collective dysfunction, to put it mildly.

The year that followed was deeply stressful and upsetting. We were nearly forced to merge into two other units and multiple faculty moved to other departments or left IU. In the end, when the Dean decided to support our continued existence and gave us hires to rebuild, one of our highest priorities was building a more supportive and respectful culture. That took many different forms, but I’ll highlight three here.

The first was a commitment to respectful speech. We asserted, and then reinforced, the importance of treating everyone in the department (students, staff, faculty, colloquium speakers, etc.) respectfully in person and in email. This included an explicit acknowledgement that people in the department employed very different models of scholarship, and that all were worthy of respect.

Secondly, we changed department practices to better support each other’s lives outside of work. The point was not to recast the department as family, but to acknowledge that we are all human: some of us have care responsibilities; others have chronic illnesses or other vulnerabilities. We acknowledged and tried to support that in multiple ways, such as stepping in to cover classes when someone had surgery and moving the timeslot for our colloquium earlier to accommodate childcare pick-up times.

Perhaps the most important of these changes has been our collective commitment to only hire people who treat others well (the “no a**holes” rule).  This rule has been challenged occasionally when one or more of us was starry-eyed about an exceptionally strong CV; so far, though, we have held the line. Those of us who survived the meltdown at IU, or who came in from other departments with toxic cultures, are all too aware of the value of collegiality.

Meal trains as a metric

There are many metrics for assessing attempts to build more supportive and respectful department cultures; mine is meal trains.

Meal trains are a form of mutual aid in which people cook and bring meals to someone who needs support. When my daughter was born at a difficult time for my family, our community in Berkeley brought us dinner every other night for six weeks, getting us through the worst of the transition. Meal trains are powerful symbolically, drawing the recipient into a network of care. They are also powerful practices: there is nothing like preparing a meal with your own hands to ground you in care for another.

When I arrived at IU, there was no tradition of meal trains; frankly, there was only a 50% chance that another faculty member would say hello if you ran into them in the hall. I made a few solo attempts to get the tradition started, but it wasn’t until my colleague Justin Maxwell’s second child was born that we had our first departmental meal train. At first, we organized them only for faculty; then we expanded them to staff. I opened a bottle of bubbly when we voted to extend meal trains to graduate students. The hierarchies in academia are no joke, but it is possible to extend care, respect and appreciation within them.

The topics I’ve called out here are part of a broader set of endemic inequities within geography, both inside and outside the academy, that stem from a range of factors including unequal job security; race, ethnicity, gender, class, and ability; differences in institutional status, including research v. teaching institutions, but also Global South v. Global North; and the increasing dominance of English as the language of academic and professional life. These inequities play out in different ways. Some, like pay, job security, and career support, are obvious. Others, such as the expectations around who will do take on the work of mentoring and advising, and who is allowed to make ground-breaking scholarly contributions v. who is expected to demonstrate the relevance of others’ theories, are less obvious. As you think about how to make your own department a more respectful and supportive place to work, I strongly encourage you to check out AAG’s initiative with the University of Colorado Colorado Springs to identify and strengthen cultures of care within the geographic research community.

This is the second of three parts of a series on culture change at University of Indiana Geography.

Read Part 1

Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at rlave [at] indiana [at] edu to enable a constructive discussion.

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Convening of Care

Member Profile: Neal Lineback

Neal Lineback's SUV and RV displaying Geography in the News logos
The GITN Mobile, outfitted by Lineback for geographic adventures.

As an adventuresome boy growing up in the 1940s and 50s in Forsyth County, North Carolina, Neal Lineback became a geographer before he knew what it was. Working summers for his uncle, a surveyor, since Neal was 11, he learned about topography and mapping by cutting brush and helping identify property lines, eventually training to operate the surveyor’s transit for observations.

“I was constantly exposed to maps and surveys. I loved maps and cartography and spent days plotting bicycle and car trips,” Lineback recalls. By the time he was 14, he had plotted an 80-mile backroad bicycle trip with a friend to earn Boy Scout merit badges. The trip was interrupted by Hurricane Hazel, the deadliest, costliest hurricane of the 1954 season. “We had to camp out in a dilapidated house at the foot of the Blue Ridge as the hurricane brought driving wind and rain,” says Lineback. “Our parents had no idea where we were.” Fortunately, the boys arrived at their destination unharmed the next day, and earned their badges.

At sixteen, Lineback bought a used Model A Ford for $100, intent on driving to Alaska. He changed his mind after the car broke down while he was still in North Carolina, resold it for the same amount he bought it for, and turned his attention to a more formal education. In the meantime, he worked a year in manufacturing as a millwright before he seriously began his college education.

Then as now, geography was a “discovery major.” It was not until his second year at East Carolina College that Lineback met two young and dynamic geography faculty, “Fritz” Gritzner and Louis DeVorsey and departmental chair Robert Cramer. “Thanks to them, I realized I had already been a geographer for 10 years and didn’t know it. Maps were my life and still are.”

In 1963, Lineback took his first teaching job, as a high school teacher in Henry County, Virginia. “I was told I was the first trained geographer to teach in the state. I entered the classroom with four things on my desk: a roll book, an out-of-date geography textbook from the 1950s, a 1930’s world map, and a paddle.” The Vietnam War was ever-present, and Lineback soon found the need to keep himself and the 30 students in five classes — many of them boys who might be drafted — up to date on the Southeast Asia daily news. That’s when he first had an epiphany about the work that would become a passion project of public scholarship: Geography in the News, which finally came to fruition nearly 25 years later and continued for more than 1,200 published articles. (In 2023, Lineback transferred the trademark and archives of Geography in the News to AAG, which is developing a repository of the articles and publishes highlights from the collection.)

College Teaching, Atlas of Alabama, and Field Work in Syria

Lineback went on to receive his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee and also taught there for two years as a graduate student and adjunct instructor before taking up a post at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. For 18 years, he served as editor of The Atlas of Alabama (1973, The University of Alabama Press) and several computer atlases, among the first of their kind. He served as department chair for 12 years, and also did field work as a hydrologist in Syria, studying the Figeh spring, which brings water to Damascus.

In 1986, when Lineback became chair of the Department of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University, he was finally able to bring GITN to life. His idea for GITN’s  journalistic approach to blending geography and current events met with the enthusiasm of dean William Byrd. What clinched it was when Lineback met political and environmental geographer Harm de Blij. “I told him that I was contemplating starting work on Geography in the News that summer. He listened intently, then said, ‘Great idea! If you don’t do it, I know of someone who will.’ I immediately pitched the idea to my local newspaper, The Watauga Democrat.

The column was a hit with local readers and was increasingly requested by teachers. Within four years, Lineback had signed a contract to publish GITN online with Maps.Com in Santa Barbara, California. The Internet made it still easier to produce the column and send maps and text by email from coast to coast weekly.

I took considerable pride in involving both my undergraduate and graduate students in GITN and other work, particularly to the point of making sure their names were on my research papers and published maps.”

 

Using Geography to Delve Beneath the Headlines

How did Lineback address breaking issues in the news with thorough, thoughtful geographical perspectives week after week? The process went something like this: The first draft for the week would be written every Sunday evening, in time to meet his graduate or undergraduate cartographer on Monday morning for instructions for a map. Then he sent the draft to his long-time University News Bureau editor. Lineback used his lunch hour between classes to edit the article. After a few days of edits back and forth, Lineback would be ready to email the final version to California by 10 a.m. Friday. By this time he was doing 52 articles a year, never missing a week.

“I wrote them on vacation in Mexico, during Christmas week with the family, on a two-week cruise ship speaking tour around Scotland, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, and on fishing trips to Cape Hatteras. “Nobody else would be so stupid,” he laughs now. “It was almost non-stop for more than 20 years.”

The 27-year success of “Geography in the News” has given Lineback his greatest source of achievement. At its height, through school adoptions, subscriptions and media publications, the column enjoyed an estimated weekly readership far exceeding three million in the early 2000’s, winning awards from the AAG, SEDAAG, Travelocity and more, including a 2-year run on the NGS Newswatch blog.

Portrait of Neal Lineback and his daughter Mandy Lineback Gritzner, who has followed in her dad’s footsteps and become a geographer.
Neal Lineback and daughter Mandy Lineback Gritzner, who has followed in her dad’s footsteps and become a geographer.

 

During the last five years he teamed with his daughter, geographer Mandy Gritzner. “A Godsend,” he says. He continued to teach two or three classes per semester, preside as Department Chair, and serve on AAG and University committees, as well as writing for research projects, including a co-author of Global Change in Local Places, funded by NASA through the AAG. He debuted the World Geography Bowl to SEDAAG (1990) and two years later at AAG after witnessing it as a simple game among North Carolina college students and realized that it could be a thrilling exercise for both geography students and faculty. It was immediately a resounding success. The World Geography Bowl is now a popular event at the AAG annual meeting.

In his experiences, “Geography departments should adopt the academic model of a three-legged stool: promoting well-rounded faculty who carry out good teaching, provide good academic service to their disciplines, and accomplish/publish research in their field,” says Lineback. “In all of these tasks, they should involve their students. I took considerable pride in involving both my own undergraduate and graduate students, particularly to the point of making sure their names were on my research papers and published maps. University teaching shouldn’t go on solely in the classroom.”

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Opening Up the Research Enterprise

Person holding their hands in the shape of a heart with sunlight in background

By Risha RaQuelle

Photo of Risha Berry

This fall, AAG got good news: The National Science Foundation has awarded AAG and the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) a collaborative grant to confront and address implicit bias in the research enterprise, broadly defined as the research activities across and within institutions. This grant will strengthen AAG’s pursuit of an ethos of care within the discipline of geography and scientific disciplines.

In 2024 and beyond, we will work with members and partners, especially at emerging research institutions, drawing on our collective knowledge, skills, and talents to reform research practices with a culture of care in mind, from proposal and principals to study design and participation, all the way to final results. A forum of up to 30 participants will take place September 19-20, 2024 to bring together our body of knowledge and determine specific, scalable steps toward change.

Our work will build on the insights of our co-PI in the grant, Emily Skop of UCCS, and her co-authors who wrote a call to the discipline and to all in the research community in an article for Inside Higher Ed in 2021. In particular, we aim to bring to life the central principles of belonging, access, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (BAJEDI) literature to galvanize the research enterprise community.

We are seeking collective answers among scholars of all backgrounds, ages, and experience to inform this project. Outreach to find participants will start in 2024.

This month, I’d like to focus the JEDI Office Hours on the vital questions and observations on creating an ethos of care within the research enterprise. Do you have insights to share, ideas to explore? Please take a moment to sign up for a time to chat about creating a culture of care in the research enterprise.

JEDI Committee Updates

Here are highlights from among our seven subcommittees. Here is a glimpse into the activity of three AAG JEDI subcommittees this month.

Focused Listening

Our focused listening subcommittee chair is convening a panel discussion at the Race, Ethnicity and Place Conference October 11-13, in collaboration with our JEDI Chair, and committee members this month, and is exploring how to engage with members through focused listening sessions at annual and regional meetings.

Governance

The governance subcommittee is seeking additional members to support a more diverse representation on the governance subcommittee and is developing a workplan with three dimensions focusing on: utilizing an equity lens to review policies, practices, and procedures in AAG governance; while identifying opportunities to support inclusion; and continuous improvement (ex. quick, response, annual review, and protocol for equity auditing).

Advocacy

The advocacy subcommittee is focusing on developing a workplan to address the following deliverables:  enhancing geography as a discipline, applying collective expertise and skills; and supporting policy issues at the intersection of Geography and JEDI advancement.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0142

The AAG Culture of Care column is an outreach initiative by the AAG JEDI Committee. Don’t forget to sign up for JEDI Office Hours. The theme in November is An Ethos of Care in the Research Enterprise.

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Donald J. Zeigler

An Exemplary Geography for Life Explorer

Don Zeigler’s colleague, Jonathan Leib, reports that Don knew at an early age that he wanted to be a geographer. While in high school he joined the American Association of Geographers (AAG) and was a member for the rest of his life. His career began with teaching high school geography for three years. After earning his Ph.D. in 1980 from Michigan State University, he became a professor in the Department of Political Science and Geography at Old Dominion University until he retired in 2016. He was department chair from 1990 to 1994.

In 1986, in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Education, Don wrote a proposal to create the Virginia Geographic Alliance (VGA). He worked to secure funding from Gilbert Grosvenor, Chairman of the National Geographic Society (NGS) and Gerald Baliles, Governor of Virginia. He helped lead the VGA for more than 30 years and the organization continues to serve students, K-12 educators, and higher education faculty across Virginia.

Don was president of the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE) in 1997. He was president of Gamma Theta Upsilon, the international geography student honor society in 2009 and 2010. During the 1990s he worked to create the Advanced Placement Human Geography (APHG) program. In addition to a term as Chief Reader, he led annual readings and conducted workshops, institutes, and travel seminars for high school teachers. Thanks to his consistent efforts APHG is offered in thousands of high schools across the United States.

The first National Standards in Geography in the United States, published in 1994, were aptly named “Geography for Life.” The title encompasses the profound meaning of places and environments in every human life and recognizes that each person is engaged in a lifetime adventure of meaning making through exploration, discovery.

Don was an exemplary “geography for life” explorer. Earth was his primary source of inquiry, his knowledge, analytic skills, and diverse perspectives. All his senses were on alert as he traveled widely and attentively across many time zones, cultural landscapes and physical environments. He developed a keen sense of place while immersed in unique places, always knowing that the places were all interacting in a complex web of global physical and cultural systems. He could skillfully trace and explain those multiple interactions.

Wherever he found himself, he was a keen observer of his surroundings. He saw details others missed or disregarded, he listened intently to other people and to sounds in the environment. He tasted and touched his way across many countries. In his mind he carried an extensive atlas of mental maps to draw upon when doing research or presentations. He developed his own geographic information system and personal navigation system before the widespread use of computer-based GIS and GPS. Don had an extensive repertoire of five-minute lectures through which he explained complex concepts in simple terms or provided a detailed description of a landscape he had experienced.

Although we may be sometimes alone in our explorations, we are also embedded in communities in particular times and specific places. We need geographic knowledge, skills, and perspectives to inform us as we journey together seeking our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of our life companions.

Geography is for life and for a lifetime. Don embraced this perspective and lived it out in several professional and personal communities. He invested many years serving and leading geography organizations. Examples include, Gamma Theta Epsilon, 53 years; Association of American Geographers, over 50 years; National Council for Geographic Education, over 50 years; Old Dominion University, 36 years; Virginia Geographic Alliance, 36 years; and Advanced Placement Human Geography, over 20 years.

Don received numerous well-deserved state and national awards for research, teaching, and service. Among the major honors he earned are a State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) Outstanding Faculty Award in 2006, Gilbert Grosvenor Honors in Geographic Education in 2009, the inaugural AAG Harm J. de Blij Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Geography Teaching in 2016, and NCGE George J. Miller Award for Distinguished Service in 2017.

During his career, Don taught more than 50 different courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels. They included large lecture sections, graduate research seminars, foreign area field studies, transects across Virginia for teachers, world geography and history webinars, and televised courses for students, teachers, and the public. Additionally, he served as Fellow at the American Centers of Oriental Research, Amman, Jordan in 2001, Fulbright-Hays Scholar, Morocco, in 1989, Visiting Scholar, Aleppo University, Aleppo, Syria in 1993.

In his personal and professional life, Don offered no negative judgments of others, praised generously, criticized sparingly, and seldom complained. He always offered others support, encouragement and compassion. As he spent his life exploring Earth’s diverse and constantly changing environments, I am certain that along with his backpack, he carried an attitude of gratitude at every latitude.

Don Zeigler inspired us with his unfailing humility, grace, and enthusiasm for the next exploration. As “geography for life” explorers, let’s follow his example.


Submitted by Robert W. Morrill, Professor Emeritus, Geography, Virginia Tech

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Climate Change and the 2024 Annual Meeting in Honolulu

NASA aerial of the Lahaina fire on Maui.
NASA aerial of the Lahaina fire on Maui.

Photo of Rebecca Lave

This summer has been suffused with visceral reminders of the consequences of climate change: intense and extended heat waves, poor air quality, high ocean temperatures, and the list goes on.  As geographers, we knew climate change was already here, but even so the last few months have caused grief and shock.

The fires in West Maui continue to be particularly upsetting. As I write this column nearly a month after the fire, emergency organizations have confirmed the death of 115 people and have posted the names of another 385 who are believed to be missing. It is one of deadliest wildfires in U.S. history.  And history clearly matters here. The Maui fires were enabled by economic and ecological imperialism, as Kanaka scholar Kamana Beamer explained in a recent piece in The Guardian.

Until the nineteenth century, a dense Hawaiian population thrived in an abundant Lahaina landscape that featured flowing streams, waterways that irrigated taro and other crops, and a fishpond. But this sustainable food system was appropriated, manipulated, and in some cases destroyed to enable extractive plantation monocropping that lasted over a century. When the former sugar plantation shuttered its business in 1999, increased diversion of surface waters and the absence of active agricultural cultivation resulted in overgrowth of invasive non-native grasses, shrubs and trees that fueled the fire. As geographers have been arguing for more than half a century, there is no such thing as natural disaster.

Local resident's tribute of tagging "Lahaina Strong" on a wall beside a road. Credit: State Farm Insurance
Local resident’s tribute, Lahaina Strong. Credit: State Farm Insurance

While there has been an outpouring of public support, other responses to the fires have been profoundly disheartening. Indigenous and environmental groups are contending with opportunists exploiting the tragedy to grab water and land rights. Residents of West Maui have instead advanced post-recovery visions for reducing inequality and increasing the strength and interconnection of human and non-human communities. That is a future worth fighting for (see the Maui United Way’s response to the fires; the Na’Aikane o Maui Cultural Center, a key player in the fight for Kanaka land rights; and ongoing efforts by the Hawai’i Alliance for Progressive Action).

All this means that climate change and AAG’s role in mitigating or exacerbating it are heavy on my mind.

AAG’s Work on Climate Thus Far

Thanks to the big-picture thinking of the Climate Action Task Force and the efforts of staff, AAG has made some important initial steps in mitigating its climate impacts. The entire AAG endowment has been de-carbonized, so that we no longer financially support the fossil-fuel industry. AAG has moved into a LEED Gold building, notably reducing its day-to-day emissions. The first cohort of the Elevate the Discipline program, intended to increase geography’s impact on public policy, is focused on climate change. Through these and other programs, Gary Langham and the AAG staff have made it clear that they are serious about climate change.

AAG’s remaining climate impacts come primarily from the annual meetings. That means that AAG as an organization and we as a discipline will need to make some hard choices if we are to have any hope of bringing our net emissions down to 0 by 2050 as spelled out in our climate action commitment.

 

Mitigating the Climate Impacts of Annual Meetings

There are multiple options that we could pursue to mitigate the impacts of our annual meetings.

While many other professional societies have backed away from hybrid conference models because they are expensive and logistically challenging, AAG is continuing to make it possible to attend the annual meeting virtually. Thus, one approach would be to eliminate or reduce travel emissions via virtual attendance and the node model pioneered this spring. Nodes would have the added benefit of allowing us to contract with smaller hotel chains and vendors with better approaches to mitigating their impacts.

Another option would be to change the pattern of our annual meetings more radically, holding large in-person conferences every other year. In the alternate years, AAG could organize a set of smaller “hubs” connected by video-conferencing, perhaps linked to the existing regional meetings; an entirely virtual meeting every other year would reduce emissions further. In either case, it would take creative thought to enable the intellectual community building that is such an important component of the annual meeting, but I believe it is doable.

A third option would be some sort of offset. As geographers and others environmental scientists have demonstrated repeatedly, offsets have a terrible track record. Leaders of the Energy and Environment Specialty Group recently suggested instead that AAG make a long-term investment in an alternative energy project that might actually offset some of our emissions, preferably one with a strong social justice component. If it were possible to find a legitimate project, this could be an important component of AAG’s climate mitigation strategy.

Over the long term, we need to pursue some combination of these more interventionist approaches (along with other creative ideas from the Climate Action Task Force and AAG members), if we are to have any hope of moving AAG to net zero. The bottom line here is that AAG is going to have to change, and to change radically.  That means we as geographers will have to, too.

Immediate steps AAG members can take to mitigate the annual meeting’s climate impacts

There are things AAG members can do immediately to reduce the climate impact of the annual meeting: attend virtually and/or help to organize a node.

Attending virtually is one straightforward way to reduce emissions associated with the 2024 annual meeting. We need to work on making virtual attendance more engaging, though. AAG’s data shows that in the past few years, the average virtual participant attended fewer than two full sessions: their own and part of another. Thus, I would encourage anyone going the virtual route to think carefully about viable ways to increase their engagement with the annual meeting. I would also encourage specialty groups to develop at least one virtual networking event for their members.

Another thing members can do to reduce the carbon footprint of the 2024 annual meeting would be to help organize a node. This approach was pioneered last year with a mini-conference that brought together geographers in Montreal, and a watch party for students at Cal State Fullerton.  Both were very successful, but organizing them took a substantial amount of work. If more people volunteered to help organize it would make a big difference. If you are interested in co-organizing a node, please contact Patricia Martin or Betsy Olson, the current co-chairs of the Climate Action Task Force.

Our work to reduce AAG 2024’s impact on carbon and climate change is intertwined with the important work so many are putting into centering Indigenous Hawaiian history, knowledge, struggles, and victories at the meeting in Honolulu. I hope, too, that all virtual attendees and nodes will prioritize attending the talks, panels, and featured sessions that focus on Kānaka Maoli. As geographers, we know that climate change is inextricably social and biophysical: prioritizing one at the cost of another cannot move us forwards.

I am very grateful for Neil Hannahs and Aurora Kagawa-Viviani’s review of and suggestions for this column.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0137


Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at rlave [at] indiana [at] edu to enable a constructive discussion.

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