By Elaine Smith
Since she’s planning a career in environmental law, undergraduate student Kaitlin Pal was thrilled that the Dean’s Changemaker Placements at York University’s Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change (EUC) funded her to undertake a summer project related to her interests.
The placements program offers students the opportunity to apply scholarly knowledge through paid positions with EUC’s living labs: Ecological Footprint Initiative, Zig Zag Gallery, Maloca Garden, Waste Wiki and Las Nubes EcoCampus. The guiding principle behind the placements is that the students must design projects that have the potential to create change.
“I was looking for a summer job that was related to my research interests and came across the Dean’s Changemaker Placements,” said Pal, a second-year environmental arts and justice (BES) student. “There was an open call to apply, so I applied to all of the labs and got assigned to the one that interested me most.”
Pal spent the summer working with the Ecological Footprint Initiative, a group of researchers and organizations who work together to advance the measurement of ecological footprint and biocapacity, which includes cropland, grazing land, built-up land, fishing grounds, forest products
, and forest carbon uptake, providing measurements by country, as well as worldwide. Her task was to run the lab’s social media accounts, which required featuring the data in meaningful ways. She also developed a strategy report for the team so they could keep the accounts active.
In addition, she pursued her own change project: a research paper that applied environmental metrics to the land claim case being put forward by Saugeen Ojibway Nation. She estimated the biocapacity – or number of biologically productive global hectares – for the area being claimed. The goal of this project is to apply these metrics to this land claim to determine the value of the land that has been dispossessed.
Pal, who has continued working with the team part-time during the academic year, has already presented her work at an Ecological Footprint event and will do so again in May at the Dean’s Changemaker Exhibit. She also hopes to be accepted to present her research at the Canadian Society of Ecological Economics conference.
“I’m trying to get it out there,” Pal said. “Initially, I was pretty nervous about presenting, but they’ve given me a lot of opportunities that have allowed me to improve. I’ve grown in terms of confidence in a professional setting.”
One of her professors encouraged fourth-year environmental studies student Thereza Eric to apply for a Changemaker’s Placement in eco arts, and she took up the challenge this past fall, continuing through the academic year.
“I like and practise art myself,” Eric says. “I had to create a project to implement change in the Faculty, and I wanted to build community through art. This has been a very transitional time as people return to campus from the COVID-19 lockdown and I thought about rebuilding community and how art could help do that.”
Reviving and programming EUC’s Eco Arts and Media Festival post-pandemic was a major focus of Eric’s work. The February festival brought faculty, staff and students together through events such as workshops and art exhibitions. The theme of the festival was “Mending,” and Eric was eager to repair the damage to the sense of community lost during the months of remote learning.
A collaborative mural was one of her favourite events, because it brought students together in an informal way. Everyone who dropped by the student space where the canvas was laid out was invited to paint a part of the mural. Ultimately, it provided what Eric calls, “a mosaic of the students and cultures involved in our Faculty.”
Eric says that the Changemaker’s Placement allowed her to “realize my skills in a professional setting.” Initially, she fell victim to imposter syndrome, wondering “Who am I to host workshops and be an event promoter?” Soon, she became comfortable in her role and tasks became second nature as her skills came to the fore.
As she finishes her placement, she is creating a handbook that contains a record of her work and tips for navigating the position in future.
“I had to start from scratch, so I want to pass on any strategies that worked,” she said.
Samantha Navalta, who is in the third year of her undergraduate degree in sustainable environmental management, also had a Changemaker Placement. She worked with the Las Nubes EcoCampus, focusing on expanding the communications and marketing program for the Casita Azul library there. It was the perfect way to mix her interest in the environment with her advanced diploma in public relations.
“When I first joined the library team, I did an online search and couldn’t find much information about their place in the EcoCampus,” Navalta said. “I wanted to make it clear that the library was a part of York and that it served both the campus and the surrounding community.”
Navalta is also updating and refreshing the library’s branding to fit with York’s brand, which means revising the website, communications materials and handbook.
“While working in public relations, I knew I needed a deeper connection to my own interests,” she says. “York is so big in environmental studies that I really feel at home and in the right place for my career. This placement feels like a good fit, because I’m doing what I want to do and can see that it’s something I want to do in the medium- and long-term.
“It has given me real-life skills and has helped me be excited about potential career prospects.”
Dana Craig, director of Student Learning and Access Services for York University Libraries, was thrilled to have a student with marketing expertise to assist her in promoting the Las Nubes library.
“Casita Azul is the connector between York and the community, but it’s hard to explain what it is because it has so many audiences,” Craig said. “We needed a student voice to help make it more visible in the Las Nubes universe and Samantha has that magical communications experience in environmental education, so we hit the jackpot.
“Changemakers is definitely a successful program.”