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Stanford Student Researcher Investigates Collective Environmental Literacy in Watsonville

Watsonville's Bless Romo, now a senior at Stanford University, describes her local research on Collective Environmental Literacy.

For the past 11 years, I’ve called the small coastal and agricultural city of Watsonville, CA home.

My connection to this home has been largely influenced by my experiences with the localenvironment. Trips to the beach or park with friends and family. Walks along the levee andagricultural fields. Glimpses of the wetlands when driving across town. While my experiences with the environment were mostly positive, they opened my eyes to how environmental issues –such as climate change, sea level rise, and pollution – manifest in my own community.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to explore how Watsonville takes action against such environmental issues when I worked on the Collective Environmental Literacy Project in Dr. Nicole Ardoin’s Social Ecology Lab at Stanford University, where I am currently a senior.

Collective environmental literacy (CEL) is loosely defined as the process by which a community comes together to take action to address environmental and sustainability issues. Historically, the concept of environmental literacy has focused on the individual’s understanding rather than the collective. The purpose of this project is to better understand how to measure and foster environmental literacy and action at the collective level. Central to this research is piloting interviews and other CEL-measuring tools in different communities across the country to understand how those communities learn about environmental issues and leverage resources to take collective action to solve such issues.

As a research assistant to the project, I interviewed some staff and friends of Regeneración – a nonprofit climate justice organization in Watsonville, CA that aims to help the community flourish and adapt to climate change. I wanted to partner with Regeneración because I was eager to learn more about collective environmental action from a local organization in my community.

The interview questions touched on overall thoughts about community, examples of collective action, and key ingredients that foster or hinder CEL.

Although these remote interviews were only a glimpse at action and CEL in Watsonville, they revealed some interesting trends and themes. All of the interview participants considered Watsonville as one of their place-based communities and stressed the importance of human relationships and support in that community. When asked about the environmental issues that affect their community, participants mentioned issues that ranged from climate change, wetland pollution and tree coverage to environmental racism, housing access and policing.

The interviews revealed that people in the community seem to most often hear or learn about theseissues through personal experiences, conversations with friends and family, interactions in public spaces, radio and television, community events hosted by organizations and the City, and local schools. Many examples of environmental action were discussed in the interviews, especially actions facilitated by organizations or city staff. For example, some interview participants mentioned an in-person climate justice survey that was conducted by Regeneración.

The survey aimed to find out which community members were most impacted by climate change and what resources those community members needed. The City has also taken action through the formation of a Climate Action Plan and by organizing community events such as tree planting days. Other examples of action include community education events coordinated by local organizations and the City and community members leveraging support for environmental resolutions or policies.

The youth of the community, especially young women, were highlighted as important participants and facilitators in these actions. The interviewees revealed that having incentives for community members to participate, enough volunteers to coordinate, and accessibility of information and events are important for fostering the examples of action above.

While some perceptions of CEL varied, some participants defined environmental literacy at the community level as having a set of common knowledge and resources that a community can use to learn about and care for their local environment. However, there was no consensus on the level of environmental literacy in Watsonville. Some felt that Watsonville was not environmentally literate yet, while others felt there was some level of environmental literacy at the community level. Still, many participants agreed upon the key ingredients that would be necessary to foster CEL. Such ingredients included environmental education, personal experiences with the local environment, knowledge sharing, government and financial support, environmental groups or organizations, and community members that are committed to supporting the environment and one another. On the other hand, interviewees identified community members’ lack of time and money as a barrier to CEL.

As a student researcher, I’m excited to continue reflecting on this interview data and what it means in the context of the Collective Environmental Literacy Project. And as a Watsonville community member interested in climate action and resilience, I am incredibly inspired and

hopeful for the future of my community. I’m very thankful to the folks at Regeneración for participating in this community-based research and sharing their amazing stories and knowledge about collective action and environmental literacy in Watsonville. This research experience not only allowed me to explore my academic interests, but allowed me to learn about some of the amazing efforts and groups of people that are trying to address our most pressing environmental challenges. After I graduate, I hope I can contribute to such efforts to help ensure that all our community members can feel safe and thrive in this small coastal, agricultural city that we call home. For more information about the Stanford research study, contact Bless at

Photo credits: John Speyer and Andi Susantio

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