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Voices Unbound: New perspectives on environmental challenges

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A group of researchers at the University of Washington Tacoma asked more than a thousand people in Pierce County what they viewed as their most important environmental challenges. Nursing professor Robin Evans-Agnew will present some of the findings from the Voices Unbound project on Monday, March 22nd.

Most of the people who wandered by the small, Voices Unbound booth at the Washington State Fair were not policymakers or scientists. They had probably never been to a meeting of the governor’s Orca Task Force nor had they publicly debated the best policies for salmon recovery. They were people of all walks of life in pursuit of some cotton candy or scones, enjoying a day at the fair. They were not expecting to be asked about their opinions on the environment.

Nevertheless, a group of researchers in the booth were hungry to know what those opinions were. They were asking anyone within earshot to fill out a brief, anonymous postcard answering two simple but far-reaching questions: “What environmental challenges are most important to you? And what do you do every day to survive those challenges?”

The view from the Voices Unbound booth at the Washington State Fair. Photo courtesy of Voices Unbound.

In many cases, the visitors were in too much of a hurry to stop, but the Voices Unbound crew — including UWT School of Nursing professor Robin Evans-Agnew, urban ecologist Christopher Schell and social scientist Tom Koontz along with several UWT students — started up friendly conversations and walked alongside, getting as much information as they could.

Occasionally, people talked about orcas and salmon and climate change, mirroring some of the dominant environmental topics of the day. A few others expressed their anger, saying they didn’t want to be part of a “liberal agenda” that they associated with talk about the environment. “Nothing is wrong with the environment,” they said. “The liberals are the problem.”

The answers seemed to vary from person to person, and the word “environment” became a Rorschach test of personal experiences. Strikingly, the researchers found little mention of more mainstream environmental issues. Instead, some respondents talked about poverty and food insecurity. A few answered that litter was a major concern. Others cited health issues such as drug addiction or air quality. In one postcard, a person describing herself as a “trans woman” saw her biggest environmental challenge as potential violence. “Most people are nice, but trans women are often the targets of violence,” she wrote. “I am averse to being in badly lit, isolated areas or environments that seem full of conservative or possibly threatening people.”

Over a seven-month period, between 2019 and 2020 (the project ended just prior to the COVID-19 lock-downs), the Voices Unbound team gathered more than a thousand such postcards at locations around Pierce County ranging from the state fair, to cultural festivals to homeless shelters and senior centers.

“We chose places where we wouldn’t necessarily find the sorts of people who already had a voice,” says Evans-Agnew, who co-led the project.

The Voices Unbound podcast features discussions about viewpoints expressed in a series of survey postcards.

For the Voices Unbound team, finding people that are sometimes left out of the conversation is one of the first steps toward better Puget Sound policy. Knowing what people care about — whether they are experts or not — often explains why they make good or bad environmental decisions. It can also reveal injustices and areas of concern that might go overlooked.

“When we went into many of these communities to hear their voices and their stories,” project co-leader Schell says, “the environments that they were living in were fundamentally different from the environments that are often times part of the mainstream discourse.” Something as simple as a postcard can be a powerful indicator, he says: “This idea that America is not the land of the free for everybody. It’s not equal opportunity for everybody. There isn’t justice for everybody. And that creates differences in the environment.”

The group now plans to publish their data, and last year they began a podcast about the postcards that featured interviews with environmental and health experts. On Monday, March 22nd Robin Evans-Agnew will discuss findings from the project in a seminar sponsored by the Puget Sound institute.