Interview: Suzanne Pierre from Critical Ecology Lab

The second edition of our Science Sandbox Spotlight series features Dr. Suzanne Pierre, founder and principal investigator of Critical Ecology Lab.

What can our environments — and their interactions with not only the natural but also the social, economic and political world — teach us about our past? What can it teach us about our future?

This is part of what Suzanne Pierre, and her organization, Critical Ecology Lab (CEL), are investigating. Founded by Pierre in 2020, Critical Ecology Lab is a San Francisco–based organization researching global ecological change questions at the intersection of colonial history and social justice. Pierre leads this research through the facilitation of collaborations between diverse justice-oriented environmental scientists and historically subjugated communities to understand how the ongoing ecological crisis and centuries of social inequality relate. The findings of these collaborations are shared with the public in artful, engaging ways.

Science Sandbox recently spoke with Pierre about her work. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Sue! Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Of course! My name is Sue Pierre, and my pronouns are she/her. I am by training an ecosystems ecologist and biogeochemist and I study forests and soils that are experiencing present and future climate change. My technical background is mostly looking at how plants and microbes interact to exchange resources like elements that are used for growth and survival, and how their access to and exchange of those elements may be threatened or altered due to climate change.

Since I was very young, I’ve been really interested in the ways that social factors can shape the environment in ways that we might not expect, and ways that we might actually be able to change. So I’ve been focusing on the ways that equality or inequality, historically and in the present, have this way of influencing how human beings interact with the environment.

Tell us a bit about the origin story of CEL and your role there.

Critical Ecology Lab started as an idea that was really in response to something that I thought the world lacks. And the way I explain that is that science in general is interested in describing what is happening around us, and in some cases in looking for solutions to problems. However, science is not as objective and unaffected by social factors as I think a lot of people like to think. And what I learned was that who gets to do science and who gets to ask questions in science influences fundamentally what we know in society about the natural world. All of that has led to the filtering out of other types of perspectives that could really help us in identifying the root causes of huge problems like climate change. And so a lack of diversity and a history of exclusion harms everyone.

Perspectives about the history of how human beings have interacted, both with nature and with one another, are necessary from all groups of people, especially those who’ve been most marginalized historically. And so I started Critical Ecology Lab to say, first of all, environmental science and ecology can deal with social questions in ways that we haven’t done before. And we can do that by including more voices, not just people with Ph.D.s and master’s degrees, but also people who are just part of the general public who’ve never seen themselves included or represented in science.

What about Critical Ecology Lab gets you particularly excited in the short term?

I’m very excited about this series of science and public convenings based here in the California Bay Area that would invite specific groups of community members from marginalized backgrounds, who are not typically represented in science, to come out and learn about — as well as teach — scientists and organizers about perspectives on the environment and how the environment is changing, through their cultural lens. Our convening series will focus on partnering with Bay Area organizations that are led by and are working in service of the Black and African diaspora in the Bay Area. We’re having about six events over the course of 2023 where we will essentially facilitate never-before-structured dialogues that bring environmental scientists of color into conversation with community members from across neighborhoods in San Francisco, Oakland and the surrounding East Bay. It will also produce new directions for justice-oriented environmental research that help scientists have deeper connections and more service-oriented research programs going forward.

It sounds like effective science communication is central to your work. Can you talk more about that?

If my ultimate goal is to merge science and justice in a way that supports both, then I can’t do that work without inclusion. And inclusion requires communication. And in fact the separation or exclusion of mostly Black, brown, Indigenous people and female-identified people historically from science has been a form of control that prevents science from advancing these kinds of social and intellectual goals. And so I want to dismantle that barrier, and I want people to be served by science. And the only way we can do that is to kind of remove science from the ivory tower, which has really served no one, including science itself.

I wasn’t always a great science communicator, but I realized through my undergraduate and graduate work that if I wasn’t able to talk about my work, and the importance and relevance of my research, with my family and my extended family — all of whom are immigrants to the U.S; who are Black and brown themselves — then my work remained meaningless to the people I cared about most. From there I’ve just tried to improve.

What keeps you motivated to improve, and more generally, to continue your work?

At the core of my work is the imagination that a better future possible — a fundamentally different type of future that I hope for our society, in which people are treated justly and fairly and are protected from future oppression and harm, and as a result for our ecosystems to reflect that. I hope for reciprocity between a just society and functioning healthy ecosystems. So I feel super-motivated by any forward momentum towards that dream.

What are you proud of in your journey so far?

Our work is pretty young, and I think there are lots of small moments of success or growth that I’ve been proud of, including being recognized by Science Sandbox as a project that you all want to support. That was a huge moment for me — to see that there is support and interest for this work outside of the traditional kind of perimeter of academia, and that we can reach more people than I thought. That was a big turning point for me.

I’m also proud of the Ecological Scars of Slave Plantations project, which is looking at the impact the plantation system in the Americas and the Caribbean has had on the functioning of plants, soil and microbes where there were formerly plantations. Throughout the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people from Africa were brought to transform landscapes. Entire forests were cut down, fields were constructed and people were forced to violently work that landscape in order to produce goods. And we know this as a historical fact, but it’s never been considered as an ecological reality that might have biological implications to this day, as we are dealing with climate change, sea level rise and other ecological issues. No one in major universities right now is thinking about how the sites that were once plantations might be vulnerable to climate change in different ways than other types of landscapes. And moreover, people who are actually descendants of those enslaved populations are known to be the front-line communities of climate-change impacts today. So there’s this connection we want to address in the Critical Ecology Lab that describes how the environment has been shaped by the legacy of slavery, and how we might anticipate and mitigate future negative environmental change where there were once plantations.

That research sounds incredible. What are you looking forward to over the next few months?

Oh my gosh, there are so many things I’m excited about! I think I’m most excited about this idea that Critical Ecology Lab is now being supported in a way that allows us to test processes — not just create deliverables, but really to design experiences and see how those experiences affect people, from general community members to environmental learners. And I’m excited to see, really, how people feel affected when we get to do these evaluations of our project with the community convenings, as well as through an environmental education course that we’re creating. I’m also excited to see how just building a template can actually have this ripple effect, not just within Critical Ecology Lab, but in society more broadly. I think people are so inspired by what we’re doing, and I’m very grateful and appreciative of that support, but I want that inspiration to go from an emotional experience to a practical experience of taking what we’re able to model this year and trying it and applying it in new places. And so I’m really looking forward to seeing where that happens, and how it happens.

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