I intend to work in academia or with state and federal planning agencies. This is because I have coupled my sense of worth and purpose to a mission to help others and right wrongs. Regardless of who my employer is, I understand that in the end, I serve people and the notion of a public good. I believe in both. My personal philosophy, regardless of where it is applied–professionally, academically, etc.– is built on principles of inclusivity, social justice, and accessibility. These ground me as a person and are couched in an socio-ecological-systems world-view. Finally, my philosophy on community engagement rests on three pillars: education, social responsibility, conservation and stewardship.
Inclusivity, because all people deserve an opportunity and I welcome all who want to be a part of what I am doing. One example of a moment where I was mindful about inclusivity involves a recent set of panelists I organized for a VT Graduate School workshop (Teaching for International Students). I put out a call for participants from VTGrATE membership and selected based on diversity of academic background, assuming I would automatically be inclusive culturally and ethnically. I was wrong. After the panelists were gathered, a potential volunteer reached out to inquire if I had included anyone from her ethnic community and I had to admit to her that I did not know because I had not asked. I then connected her with the workshop facilitators so that she could participate as an additional panelist so that her community’s needs could be met. Even when we mean well, we can still make mistakes and leave people out. I believe that we should approach our professional lives with a certain level of awareness so that we have space to self-correct as we learn, especially in leadership positions.
Social justice, because without it, we are actively working against the people we claim to serve. White supremacy is real. It is oppressive and abhorrent. Black lives matter. Period. Trans rights are women’s rights. We should abolish modern-day slavery which exist through incarceration, which is proven to be ineffective at rehabilitation. Economies at all scales are predominantly exploitive, wasteful, and destructive. And I go a step further to argue that environmental rights are human rights. We have to listen to the marginalized and the underrepresented. We need big-picture structural change and I am here for it.
Lastly, accessibility, because if we claim to work for people, then we need to work for all people, using as many modes as we have the capacity to offer. Buildings and landscapes should be physically accessible to those who wish to access them. With landscapes I understand that this presents complex challenges and arguments about what it means to make a site accessible. For me, designers should rise to the challenge of making as much of their site accessible to as many people as possible. With respect to content creation in general, we should strive to deliver high-quality content in multiple modes so that we can reach as many people as we can. This means accessibility for screen readers and other optical character recognition technologies. Closed captions, whenever possible live; and always on content, such as class recordings, that will be posted on course websites. High contrast options, alternative text for images, nested headings and other textual descriptors, and clear hyperlinks are some of the other necessary accommodations that contemporary teachers and administrators should be considering.
These key components should be considered through the lens of landscape architecture and ecology. I think art and design are central to constructs of humanity and society. Without them, life is meaningless and uninspired. Human beings have been making art and designing their landscapes for thousands of years. From grading and terracing to harvesting rainwater, cultivating crops and domesticating animals, developing art and music, and culture… all of these things have miraculously occurred within the relatively limited and finite Earth-system where we find ourselves. On the scale of geological time, we are but a blip. The planet was here long before us and innovation willing, we will be here long into the future on our changing planet.
The Earth is comprised of biogeochemical systems and processes. Elemental cycling. Climate and weather. The vastness and complexity of it all, simmered down into a collection of ecological theories in a planetary paradigm–many ideas just decades old or younger.
And here we are: a species that somehow fell-forward and lucked-out evolutionarily with our opposable thumbs and our big brains. There is no place on earth that is untouched by mankind. We are out there making choices every day that impact the environment directly and indirectly.
As a landscape ecologist, I believe that the Earth will figure it out regardless of what we humans do. I just hope that through the collective and cumulative decisions and actions of our global society that some form of humanity is around long-term. Until then, I have to think about what kind of an impact I can make in my own communities, small-scale stuff, helping individual people and groups where I can. I believe that like a ripple effect, I can positively touch lives and in my own way, make the world a better place.
Three Pillars of Community Engagement
As stated above, for me, the greatest emphasis for the philosophy of community engagement includes the following four pillars: education, social responsibility, conservation, and service to the soul.
The importance of education cannot be overstated. Considering the state of higher education today, we are challenged to think of new ways of engaging with our changing local and global communities to share our unique intellectual resources. As we reach further with technology, research, and applications of knowledge, it is increasingly important to engage with younger students and offer ourselves as academics and mentors for the world’s future scholars and advocates. Along my educational journey, a handful of passionate and caring educators provided me with special learning opportunities and encouragement which helped me get to where I am today.
An important component is connecting with youth in the community. I believe it is important to work with K-12 students to increase their access to resources, opportunities, and knowledge. As a Fellow of the Leadership and Social Change Residential College, I consulted with the Pulaski Community Youth Center in Pulask, VA on their Community Garden, built Spring 2019. Part of this included lining up VT Big Event (1-day, university-wide community service campaign) volunteers to assist with various labor tasks and spending time volunteering on the weekends to get the site prepped and plans in place. Looking to the future, I want to continue to work with community groups, helping them to simultaneously realize their landscape plans but also provide a place for kids to get their hands in the soil. Maybe this will lead to more curious minds entering the landscape, horticulture, and construction disciplines.
Social responsibility is the next pillar of my philosophy. Landscape architects are responsible for the health and well-being of people in the places they design and build. They are concerned with providing great spaces and democratic design to all citizens, regardless of socio-economic status, background, or belief. Because of this, it is responsible to advocate for social justice. Great places are not just for the affluent. All people, regardless of income, benefit from well-designed places. Great places are the result of thoughtful consideration and planning. As a practice, one must consider the public good in design. As an educator and student of experiential service-learning, I plan to engage my students in studios where they will work with clients in the community on real projects in need. Design school should include opportunities to gain experience working for local people and organizations. The service-learning model can be deployed for the mutual benefit of both the students and the community. Students will then have practical on-the-ground mentored internship experience where they learn to listen, work, and be sensitive to a client’s needs and in return, the client gets a project that makes a meaningful difference in their lives.
Conservation and stewardship, arguably the most important because they ensure that we maintain a global environment worth living in, are critical to my ideas about community engagement. Design students must be conscious of planetary limits and mindful of conservative planning and resource use. Projects must carefully consider materials, context, and potential impacts to the environment. In a world where human population and consumption are constantly rising, it is increasingly important for citizens to make mindful decisions about their consumption and resource use. It is important to understand the lifecycle of natural resources and materials that we consume in our lives and also through what we design. Once we know, it is our responsibility to communicate with our clients so that we are meeting their needs as well as advocating for the environment.