Ashley Funk ’16 and Idalmis Vaquero ’16 Learned the Power of Public Writing in a Calderwood Seminar

April 29, 2016
Ashley Funk ’16 and Idalmis Vaquero ’16

Ideas and information can change perceptions, but only if they are communicated effectively. Wellesley's Calderwood Seminars in Public Writing teach juniors and seniors how to present complex issues to general audiences and show how progress is possible. The seminars give students the unique opportunity to focus on a particular subject area and work collaboratively with their professor and peers.

Jay Turner, associate professor of environmental studies, teaches the Environmental Synthesis and Communication seminar. "What is most exciting about the course is that students choose an environmental 'beat' to cover for the semester," he said. "They become the experts on issues they are deeply passionate about, teaching their classmates and me as they hone their skills as public writers."

That formula worked well for Ashley Funk '16 and Idalmis Vaquero '16 last semester, who have since published work that was completed during or evolved from the course.

Funk, an environmental studies and human-centered design engineering major (the latter through Olin College), found that she kept writing in the seminar about the culture and social dynamics of communities that are dealing with environmental problems. "I felt I needed to address social issues, because if people don't feel safe and supported, they are not going to care about the environment," she said.

As the weeks passed, Funk, who grew up next to a coal dump in southwestern Pennsylvania, realized that communities have both a physical and a social infrastructure. "We must address the roadblocks that are preventing communities from embracing more sustainable practices and developing a solution together," she said.

That insight helped shape an article, "Why I’ll Let Chevron Pay My Family's Bills, for Now," which was recently featured on The Huffington Post.  

As she explains in the essay, her mother, who has been laid off twice in the past year, announced during winter break that she and 72 members of her extended family had sold the mineral rights to some land they owned to Chevron. The agreement allows the company to drill for gas via fracking, a controversial process that may contaminate groundwater around the fracking site.

Her family assumed that Funk would be upset because she stood, at age 17, in front of the White House at one of the first protests against the Keystone Pipeline, and she has spoken out against hydraulic fracturing at public rallies, international conferences, and even in a short film that was hand-delivered to President Obama.

"But, I’m not going to oppose my family’s decision to sell their land to Chevron," she wrote. "Currently, we are part of an economic system which makes it profitable to take extensive measures to extract and burn fossil fuels like natural gas, despite their impacts on our health, environment, and climate. How are we supposed to expect families and communities to reject these industries which many depend upon financially?"

Funk said the Calderwood seminar helped her learn to combine various genres of writing, such as personal reflection and political commentary, to reach a broad audience and persuade people both emotionally and intellectually.

"I believe strongly that personal narratives provide opportunities for empathy and connection, even between people with conflicting ideologies," she said. "Calderwood gave me the confidence to share my story in such a public forum, which I had never done before. With so much peer review and revision, I got the feedback I needed to feel comfortable sharing my story with thousands of readers."

Vaquero, an environmental studies major, took the Calderwood seminar in part because she was frustrated that mainstream environmental organizations were not communicating with environmental justice organizations to find ways to collaborate. "I felt a need to be able to communicate the importance of working toward a common goal of fighting for clean air and water, especially with communities that are socially marginalized," she said.

Vaquero focused on research-based writing in the seminar, learning the importance of revising, creating a persuasive argument, being concise, and understanding both sides of an issue, she said. Those skills were crucial as she drafted a news story for Ensia, a nonprofit magazine that spotlights environmental solutions in action.

Turner and her peers provided feedback on early drafts of her story, "Latinos Care About the Environment. So Why Aren’t Green Groups Engaging Them More?" as did science journalist Aleszu Bajak, a mentor provided by Ensia.

Vaquero's research showed that mainstream environmental organizations don't engage Latinos, who are becoming more influential voters, largely because of the misperception that Latinos are only concerned about immigration.

In reality, many Latinos are committed to improving the quality of life for their families. As one paragraph explains, "Working for a brighter future for children in many cases means concern for clean air. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 percent of poor Latinos have asthma, compared with 12 percent of poor whites. And Latinos are 60 percent more likely to visit the hospital for asthma-related complications than are non-Latinos, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health."

The story highlights the successes of several Latino environmental groups that have found a variety of ways to work for environmental justice in their communities and to increase people's knowledge of environmental and public health issues. It also shows how some mainstream environmental organizations have begun to build relationships with Latino environmental advocates, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.

"My main motivation was to show people that the mainstream environmental movement is missing opportunities because they haven’t built ties with the Latino community. If they were more inclusive, they would move more toward their goals," said Vaquero, who grew up in a section of East Los Angeles that was contaminated by an old lead-acid battery recycling facility.

When Vaquero's story was posted in December, she was overwhelmed by the positive feedback she received via social media. "I was new to Twitter then, and I thought, what are all these retweets?" she said.

Vaquero, who hopes to become a lawyer, said the skills she learned in the Calderwood seminar will help her develop professionally. "I learned the importance of storytelling," she said. "It was a great experience."

Many students have published work after participating in a Calderwood seminar. "These kinds of experiences show the power of the Calderwood model," said Turner. "Every student who takes the course writes for a public audience, posting their work to a class blog and tweeting about it on social media. Sometimes it turns out people are listening, and that gives the entire class a sense of purpose and consequence that is unique and powerful."