Thursday 9 July 2020

Connected, Aligned & Powerful: Storytelling for a Better World

Climate change – it’s popping up in movies, television shows, books, music, and political debates. There’s a growing awareness, particularly among young people, that the technological solutions we have been focusing on to address climate change aren’t enough and we cannot avoid environmental damage. This has led to growing levels of concern as demonstrated by a September 2019 study by Abacus Data which indicated that 50% of Canadians felt there was an urgent need to reduce emissions while an additional 40% felt it was important. 32% of 18-29 year olds felt they should do a lot more to reduce their impact on climate change with an additional 41% feeling they should do a fair bit (this contrasts with the 25% of Canadians of all ages who felt they should do a lot more and 36% a bit more).

“We’re being told that people don’t know enough or care enough about climate change,” says Rachel Malena-Chan, a climate change activist and founder of the Eco-Anxious Stories website. “But that’s not necessarily the case. I know lots of smart people who care about climate issues but don’t know how to do something meaningful.”

Making Meaningful Choices 
Rachel believes that eco-anxiety can get in people’s way, but it can also be a channel for making the world a better place. “We need to make space for uncomfortable emotions and connect with other people who are feeling the same way,” Rachel says. “Then we can turn it into something positive.”

Rachel chose to focus her graduate-level research on why more people weren’t acting in response to climate change. She interviewed young people who were actively engaged in environmental or social justice work. Slowly, the answers began to emerge. It wasn’t a lack of information or interest. In fact, people often had an over-abundance of information and cared deeply about climate change. The challenge was in bridging the gap between knowledge and action.

Rachel found that one of the barriers to bridging knowledge and action on climate change is a sense of powerlessness. One young woman Rachel interviewed for her study expressed deep concerns about the environment but felt overwhelmed when trying to craft a response that would be in line with the scope of the problem. Without government leadership, a personal-level response didn't feel meaningful, leaving her feeling like climate change is “constantly in the background of everything else, that meanwhile everything is burning.”

“People want to have a meaningful impact,” Rachel says. “To do that, they need access to meaningful stories in which the choices they make can actually change outcomes. Eco-anxiety can bubble up when we acknowledge that, on our own, our access to that kind of power is limited. Instead, we need to make courageous choices that connect us with others and find support, joy, and energy to sustain the work that needs to be done collectively.”

In coming to a meaningful story about her choices, the young woman wrestled between focusing on creative endeavours that bring her joy or running for political office in the hopes of someday having enough power to make a real difference. Today she combines her love of dance with her passion for policy, working within the dance community and related spaces to build up power, particularly among women and non-binary people – who are disproportionately harmed by climate impacts – to fight for human rights.

Rachel's work is premised on the idea that by telling climate stories, individuals have an opportunity to recast themselves as new characters – characters that aren't alone in their fears. “This is key because it’s only through connection and collaboration and strategy that we can gain power to create solutions.”
Eco-Anxiety Stories 
Rachel’s graduate research highlighted the value of storytelling for developing a meaningful relationship with climate change. She realized that the stories could serve an additional purpose in creating a sense of community among individuals concerned about climate change. “People already feel powerless. If we are also alone, there will be nothing we can do to address the problem,” Rachel says.

Trading services to get it online, Rachel has spent the past year setting up the Eco-Anxious Stories website. Her goal is to hold a place online for people’s stories so that they will feel less alone. “There’s a lot of power in naming who we are as part of a bigger movement,” she explains. “It’s all about solidarity. I’m powerful because I’m connected and aligned with something bigger than myself.” In addition to stories, the website includes resources for navigating eco-anxiety and photo essays as part of a bigger goal of supporting and taking care of each other as we create the world we want to live in.

The website has attracted interest from a number of sectors, including education. Currently, Rachel is partnering on a curriculum about climate change for young people. Her goal is to provide a lens through which to view young people’s climate anxieties by pairing the factual information about climate change with a more personal perspective. Through worksheets and storytelling, students will be encouraged to develop their own climate story. The toolkit will help students to explore what they, just like plants and animals, need to thrive and how they feel when they learn about climate change impacts on the world around them. The final section of the toolkit will look at people who are taking action, identifying what matters to them and what they are doing about it, to help students make their own personal choices.

“It’s exciting to see more attention on the emotional and psychological dimensions of engaging with climate change,” Rachel says. “Kids in particular are likely to feel powerless about what they are learning, but the reality is we all have a role to play in shifting power dynamics.”

Rachel Malena-Chan continues her work in strategic storytelling through her consulting business, EAS Solutions. As a communications strategist, Rachel offers tools, frameworks, and strategies to help make sense of what matters, what’s at stake, what we want, and what it will take. Using her experience in the field of community health, Rachel is working with small entrepreneurs to help them acknowledge their eco-anxieties and contribute in a positive way to addressing the problem of climate change.

Further Information 
A narrative model for exploring climate change engagement among young community leaders, Rachel Malena-Chan

Making climate change meaningful: Narrative dissonance and the gap between knowledge and action, Rachel Malena-Chan [thesis]

Eco-Anxious Stories

EAS Solutions

Eco-Anxiety & Eco-Anxious Stories, From the Ground Up (Climate Justice Saskatoon)

Photo Credit (first and last)
Meghan Mast & Jodi Sawatzky, Caring at the End of the World