Distillations: Bringing equity to community science in Chicago (& beyond)

While climate change is a global issue, it affects people on a local, and sometimes personal level. And it disproportionately affects those from traditionally marginalized backgrounds. Luckily, there are people out there like Amaris Alanis Riberior, Center Director of the North Park Village Nature Center at the Chicago Park District, who are working to create an inclusive, intercultural, and interdisciplinary understanding of climate change from a diverse community-based perspective with our colleagues in the Thriving Earth Exchange.

This episode was produced by Shane M Hanlon and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Olivia Ambrogio. Interview conducted by Laura Krantz.


Shane Hanlon:              00:00                Hi, Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:           00:01                Hi, Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              00:02                Have you ever had a job where you feel like you’re making the world a better place?

Vicky Thompson:           00:08                I mean, I’ve always, almost always, have worked for nonprofits.

Shane Hanlon:              00:13                Okay.

Vicky Thompson:           00:14                I really like that. Actually, right now, I feel like whenever I get to interact or do anything to amplify the voices of our student members, student scientists, I really feel like I’m doing something good. It’s my dream role. What about you?

Shane Hanlon:              00:32                Well, that’s lovely. Kind of the same. I left the research side of science, not because I didn’t think I was doing anything, but I wanted to have that more direct impact, not to be hokey.

Vicky Thompson:           00:47                Great.

Shane Hanlon:              00:48                What drew me to AGU and the job before, which I also do now, but before the podcast was around, was we are helping scientists communicate more effectively.

Vicky Thompson:           00:57                Right.

Shane Hanlon:              00:58                Especially with scientists who do… It’s important to really have all scientists have the ability to communicate more effectively to any audience. AGU work with a lot of scientists who have really direct impacts, whether that’s climate change or natural hazards or working in communities and all sorts of things.

                                    01:15                I do see that the fruits of those labors, helping those folks get out there and communicate the good work they do.

Vicky Thompson:           01:23                Yay. That is really good.

Shane Hanlon:              01:25                Look at us. Go us.

Vicky Thompson:           01:29                Yay.

Shane Hanlon:              01:34                Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientists for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Vicky Thompson:           01:34                And I’m Vicky Thompson.

Shane Hanlon:              01:45                And this is Third Pod from the Sun. All right, so today is day three of our special series coming from our annual meeting, and the theme of today is environmental justice.

Vicky Thompson:           02:01                Oh, that’s a really important one. This is great.

Shane Hanlon:              02:06                Very excited for this one, and we have someone today who works in local communities here in Chicago and thinks about environmental justice in just about everything they do.

Vicky Thompson:           02:15                Oh good. Okay, I’m excited about this one. Let’s hear it.

Amaris Alanis Ribeiro:   02:23                I’m Amaris Alanis Ribeiro:. I’m the center director of North Park Village Nature Center of Chicago Park District.

                                    02:33                I work with Citywide, so I do work with Citywide, but I also have a micro focus in the neighborhood called Albany Park. It is the most diverse neighborhood actually of Chicago and the third most diverse in the nation. I mean, it’s big to me, but we’re in Chicago, and so for an urban nature center, 46 acres I think is incredible. We have a prairie, we have a wetland, we have a woodland, and I mentioned the oak savannah, which is really a neat ecosystem.

                                    03:04                For visitors, it’s about a mile and a half main loop walk, so you can do it all in one day. You get that feeling of being away from the city, but also feeling safe in nature and you don’t have to drive a way to get out and be in nature. I think that that lends itself for us to do better and deeper work with the community being right in Chicago.

                                    03:26                I think a lot of people, a lot of organizational missions that are environmental, we all say it’s our role to connect people with nature. It doesn’t stop there, and what does that actually mean? People connect with nature in many different ways.

                                    03:42                I also think it’s important for us to be doing science collaboratively with the community. We do get visitors that come just for a walk, respite, health reasons. It’s just really a good way for people to be able to get away from the city of busyness.

                                    04:00                But we also collaborate on various community science projects. We do some wildlife monitoring. We are doing some restoration work. We engage with volunteers in the community to do some of that work. I think we do a lot of things to make it more comprehensive so that what we’re doing at our nature center is also impacting the local community and hopefully the environment at large.

Laura Krantz:                04:27                How did you get started doing this? What sort of brought you into this space?

Amaris Alanis Ribeiro:   04:32                I knew I liked science as I was a young one who was curious. I explored Chicago’s nature. We have an amazing lakefront, we have amazing parks. My parents are from Michoacán, Mexico. It’s a central part of Mexico. We would visit maybe every third summer or so. I enjoyed both of those landscapes, both urban nature and nature in Mexico.

                                    05:00                I thought I was going to be pre-med and studied sciences. When I graduated, I graduated a degree in ecology, ecology evolution. What came to mind was just the idea of working in public places where people were visiting, like zoos, museums. I mean, that was just what came to my mind.

                                    05:23                My experience has been in 15 years of working in informal science centers, so museums, botanic gardens and parks. Currently, I’ve been the center director at North Park Village Nature Center for five years.

                                    05:37                I knew I was a geek, a science geek, but I also had a particular keen awareness of the different issues. I remember in high school, for example, thinking about why does that community get to live next to the river and some don’t, and is that okay for the river? I was already questioning both the environment and people choices or abilities or privileges. I just didn’t have that language.

                                    06:05                When I was able to major in the sciences, I also felt isolated as a Latino from Chicago. Not many people of color were in those majors and classes, and not many people finished with a degree.

                                    06:20                Moving into the public institution world, it’s just startling to me how we’re public institutions. Our job is to engage the public in science, and we still have an issue of diversity. We’re still working deeply on equity, our country’s healing.

                                    06:40                From the get-go, I think I just had that lens and brought it to my work, and I bring that to the nature center as well. Just really rethinking what is the role of a nature center? What is the role of public parks and green space? My work is a lot about places and people, and it’s both protecting people and the environment at the same time in a holistic way.

Laura Krantz:                07:04                You were talking about access and how it’s true. Wealthier, whiter communities tend to have access to very beautiful places and parks, or they have backyards and nature’s something that they can get to very easily, but other communities haven’t traditionally had that, or at least since the industrial era.

                                    07:23                Do you see things changing as you’re working in this community and in this green space?

Amaris Alanis Ribeiro:   07:32                I do. I do think that there’s a couple of things that are changing. I think as we’re realizing the importance of nature for health, I think our generations and culturally our ancestors knew that. I think now that we’ve realized we’ve made some decisions as a society that we have to be more in balance and connect with nature, we’re making some changes.

                                    07:55                In Chicago Park District, for example, I look at my colleagues in the southeast side. They are taking these industrial corridors, these places and really restoring that land. There’s some bioremediation, but working alongside with the community as they do that. The southeast side of Chicago is one of the birthplaces of environmental justice in Chicago. I do think that we are making some strides.

                                    08:22                The other thing that I think about is it’s more than just access to nature. I think it’s also important to the center that the community has knowledge about nature. They are connected with nature. It just might look different.

                                    08:36                I do a lot of work around either cultural symbolism or ways that people connect ancestrally or inter-generationally with nature. To give you an example, at North Park Village Nature Center, we worked with Monarch Butterfly Conservation. It’s a very beautiful species, iconic. Everyone loves the monarch butterfly. But I also talk about it in a cultural way. I have to. My parents are from Michoacán, where the monarch butterfly migrates to.

                                    09:06                I feel like sometimes we think about it in a way of scientists came to the mountain tops of Mexico and discovered where the monarch migrates. If I asked my parents and their parents and their aunts, and everyone knows the story of the monarch butterfly. It really is something that the culture and community has carried that science story.

                                    09:31                They connect it with the harvest, they connect it with the weather and the climate. When the monarchs are migrating, is it a good year? Is it a bad year? How’s the corn doing? It’s all over the symbolism. In a restaurant, for example, if you walk down Albany Park and you walk down Lawrence Avenue, you will see monarch butterflies all over the restaurants. You’ll see it at soccer stores.

                                    09:55                That knowledge is there, that ecological knowledge about the monarch butterfly is there. Maybe they’re not talking about all the science research around it, but ancestrally when Juanita is having a conversation with the youngest of the child, those stories and narratives are there.

                                    10:15                That’s an example of some of the work that I do to really shift that, because I think that that’s one way of thinking about environmental justice is the right for people to be able to connect with nature in their historical cultural ways and practices. We’re seeing a lot of that in the work that the indigenous community is fighting for. I think it’s just a new way of shifting how we view the world and how we view communities. If we do some of that, I think that that’s going to be able to better help the future of science.

Laura Krantz:                10:51                How do you try to ensure that immigrant communities are treated equitably when the ideas for dealing with climate change are being put forth? Because that seems to be another place where you have a sort of top-down approach on a lot of things, and it really needs to be everybody pulling together.

Amaris Alanis Ribeiro:   11:06                Yeah, and that’s so true with Albany Park and migration, climate displacement, all of that. We’re seeing catastrophes across the world. It’s just something that is becoming more of a sense of urgency. But I also try to approach it with care in working with the community. It’s trauma for many, moving to a whole nother country because of climate and climate disasters.

                                    11:35                What we are engaging in at North Park Village Nature Center is a project called co-creating with the community on a climate migrant environment. It’s a Thriving Earth Exchange project. It’s a community science project. The whole idea is for us to move slow as partners, community leaders, and scientists.

                                    11:57                We want to first, even before we get to the point of listening, we want to first check our assumptions about what is it that we think when we think about climate migrants. Also, just know that as scientists, we have an understanding of migration. We see it in whales, we see it in birds, monarch butterflies, for example, that I talked a little bit about earlier.

                                    12:19                It is intersectional for those species. Of course, it’s intersectional for humans as well. Some people might not think that they migrated because of climate, and it could be like economic reasons, housing, education, a better life for my children. But it’s all related to our environment. We’re really working on checking our own assumptions.

Laura Krantz:                12:44                It seems in some ways that your work would involve not just engaging in working with immigrant communities that are part of this North Park Community Center that you’re involved in, but also residents of Chicago as a whole. Because I would imagine the idea is to try and expand these kinds of ideas outward.

                                    13:04                Does that make it more complicated when you are dealing with some of the fears people have about immigration and changing the way that they see the world?

Amaris Alanis Ribeiro:   13:14                I think it is something that’s complex. Both the idea of climate change, environmental justice, immigration, all of those things are very complex. When I talk about environmental justice, I mean, I think people start asking, what does a nature center have to do with environmental justice?

                                    13:35                I talk about one of the first principles of environmental justice is that to promote the sacredness of Mother Earth. We all care about Mother Earth, all of us. We’re all scientists and environmentalists. We really appreciate whether it’s nature or more closely related to our science field and our work, but we all care about the earth, and that’s the first principle.

                                    13:59                To me, it begins with just adding some layers of if we all care about the Earth, then we all care about the Earth and our choices and the people and the plans, and it’s all connected. Just trying to help people really see these issues in different ways.

Vicky Thompson:           14:25                I could listen to Amaris talk about her work all day long.

Shane Hanlon:              14:29                Yeah, ditto. Frankly, I’m just going to let her words speak for themselves. With that, that is all from Third Pod from the Sun.

Vicky Thompson:           14:39                Special thanks to Laura Krantz for conducting the interview and to you, Shane, for producing the episode. Audio engineering was by Collin Warren with artwork by Olivia Ambrogio.

Shane Hanlon:              14:49                If you’d like to see video for at least part of this interview, head over to YouTube and search for AGU TV.

Vicky Thompson:           14:56                We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please rate and review the podcast and you can find new episodes in your favorite podcasting app or at thirdpodfromthesun.com.

Shane Hanlon:              15:04                Thanks all, and we’ll see you tomorrow.


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