I recently stumbled across a podcast that made a wonderful addition to my students’ study of the climate crisis. As She Rises combines climate-inspired poetry with on-the-ground storytelling from activists working to respond to the climate crisis in eight different U.S. communities, including Puerto Rico. In doing this, the podcast highlights two strategies I’ve returned to year after year in teaching about climate change — using poetry to nurture students’ emotional understanding of the crisis and introducing them to the voices of activists whose hard work and commitment can ignite students’ imagination for a better future.
In the podcast’s introduction, host Grace Lynch explains that the goal of As She Rises is to “personalize the elusive magnitude of climate change.” This should be an essential goal in our classrooms as well, because it’s not only the global scale of the crisis that can make it feel out of reach to students, but also the mind- and heart-numbing barrage of climate disaster statistics that are standard in so many readings, films, and other resources about climate change. By contrast, As She Rises offers students personal stories, rooted in specific places. For example, Lynch shares her hope that “through poetry [we] can begin to empathize with those looking at an unrecognizable Alaska.” My students’ experience with the podcast confirmed this when they connected their own experiences with last June’s “heat dome” in Portland with the line from Iñupiaq poet Joan Naviyuk Kane that “June really isn’t June anymore / is it?”
To introduce students to the podcast, we listened to the first episode, “The Bayou,” together as a class. Before inviting them to explore the remaining episodes on their own, I wanted everyone to be familiar with the style and format of the podcast, which always begins with the featured poet reading a selection of their work before moving into interviews with the poets and community activists. Before we listened together, I shared the passage/response journal that students would use to take notes and asked them to listen for words, phrases, or images that they might want to respond to after we finished.
After the opening sounds of a brass band playing on the streets of New Orleans, we heard Jerika Marchan read from her poem that gives life to the Mississippi River during the storm surge that followed Hurricane Katrina:
The story survived upstream of me
This, the river bloated, turned outward on itself
A breakthrough wide, a more natural state
Forget the walls, the artificial banks setting a thin route south into the gulf
River found its mouth lacking
Made itself big to accommodate the surge
Water by volume, water by the ton for miles
Fills its container, won’t be kept out
One student, Amy, captured how poetry can help reframe our understanding of climate change in a way that can be missed in statistics about the height of a storm surge, square miles of flooding, or billions of dollars in property damage:
In the poem, Marchan personifies the river and its actions. Speaking of the river as a being, she justifies the damage it caused, saying the “river found its mouth lacking.” I would imagine that many people blame the river, or nature, for these types of catastrophic events. Instead, Marchan explains that the river doesn’t have control over the destruction, that it simply carries the message of climate and the earth’s hurting.
I also appreciate that the series consciously centers the voices of women of color. While Indigenous, Black, and other women of color are at the heart of organizing for climate justice across the country and around the globe, mainstream coverage of the movement often neglects their stories. In the first episode, Colette Pichon Battle, founder and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, explains that women are “invisibilized” because they’re not always working within formal structures:
For the last 15 years since Katrina, it has been women on the front lines of everything. Inevitably when there’s a movie, or video, or ability to speak to Congress, there’s a man that has been given the talking points that have been cultivated by a lot of women who are working really hard down here. . . . This community has been able to recover because of the work of women in this region, in particular women of color and Native American women.
I want my students to hear Pichon Battle’s perspective to counterbalance the prominent images of white, male heads of state meeting to “solve” the climate crisis at U.N. meetings, as well as the mostly white, male climate scientists and environmentalists featured in so many documentaries. Representation matters and it’s essential that our students see accurate portrayals of the people doing the lion’s share of grassroots climate justice work. In addition, Pichon Battle explains that there is further value in the stories of the communities struggling, organizing, and repairing on the front lines:
If we want to know how to survive what is coming, we’re going to have to talk to the survivors. And I’m excited that those survivors are Native American and African American. There’s an acknowledgement that has to come in order for us to survive, and it’s that the strongest, most knowledgeable people are the ones that our capitalist society values the least, but if we’re going to survive this climate crisis, we’re going to have to value them the most.
The idea that we need to listen to the survivors resonated with Lucia, who wrote:
Not recognizing the contributions of women of color or actively working to uplift their voices and the issues they raise is not only a disservice to their communities, but a disservice to all who care about the planet. In order to create long-lasting change within the climate crisis, we ought to be listening to the voices of those who are most affected by the often disastrous consequences of climate change.
The generational knowledge, resilience, and commitment to community exemplified in the stories told in As She Rises are exactly the antidote needed to fight off the understandable despair our students feel as they watch the adults in power fail time and again to create meaningful climate policy at the scale called for by the crisis. But the lesson underlying Pichon Battle’s words and As She Rises as a whole is that the sort of transformation we need will start not with those in the halls of power, but with the local efforts of people acting in right relationship with the land and their communities. If our survival depends on listening to the survivors, then our classrooms are a great place to start.