Check out our earlier feature of Eco-Advisor Haley Bosse ’20 here!
Jane Tekin ‘19’s commitment to environmentalism has taken her from English classes to the Bahamas. As a 2016-17 Eco-Advisor, she approaches environmentalism from a humanities perspective, writing that she hopes to “change the [campus] aesthetic so that it better reflects the various personalities that thrive within it — and in some sense, make it what it is.” This description is indicative of Tekin’s intersectional interests, which range across academic disciplines, artistic genres, and geopolitical borders.
Questions about the relationship between environment and mental health form the foundation for her work at the Zilkha Center. At Williams, she says, the campus’s intentional architectural and artistic aesthetic can influence a student’s mood. Values and norms inform these aesthetic choices, which include the much-discussed marble blocks. When we walk around, Tekin asks, how does the exterior landscape affect our interior worlds?
After talking with fellow students, she decided to implement a public art project. “People don’t like that Williams doesn’t have any student-created public art that expresses the vibrancy of the community,” she said. “Current Williams students can and should add to our visible historical memory.”
Inspired by these conversations, Tekin erected a chalkboard on the steps of Paresky with the title “Before I die…” The participatory installation allowed passerby to fill in the blank. One student chalked “SLEEP” in block letters. “I hope to have loved someone,” wrote another.
“People have opinions and they want to share them,” Tekin said. “They have thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams that they will share if they have the opportunity.” And unlike student surveys, the chalkboard offers students a (literal) blank slate.
She sees the installation as pushing back against emotional isolation. “Camaraderie is not our strongest suit here,” she said. “It’s why we feel unhappy. We call this place the purple bubble, but the purple bubble is also each of us individually.”
Tekin’s environmental interests extend beyond her work with the Eco-Advisor program, however: she spent Winter Study 2017 in Eleuthera with CES Professor Sarah Gardner’s “Sustainable Eleuthera” course. Professor Gardner regularly takes Williams students to Eleuthera, a small island in the Bahamas, for this two-week travel course.
“I’m not an Environmental Studies major,” Tekin said (her prospective majors are Math and English), “but everyone has to care about the environment at this point. I keep thinking about something Van Jones said when he spoke at Williams: ‘It takes everyone to save everyone.’” Tekin sees her majors as opportunities for skill building, but she ultimately wants to work against climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. “That’s what I see as most urgent,” she said.
The Eleuthera course was like the Van Jones quotation put into effect, Tekin told me. Eight students from a range of majors spent two weeks on the island working on a climate change awareness project. They interviewed islanders about changes they’ve noticed in recent years, asking about temperature fluctuation, rising sea levels, and effects on fishing and agriculture. Most interviewees were eager to engage, she said, adding that people know there’s something wrong and want to know what they can do about it.
Eleuthera’s environmental woes are many. Though the Caribbean island is used to hurricanes, locals agree that storms have become more frequent and more severe in recent years. The economy has also struggled; climate change has taken its toll on agricultural productivity, as have slash-and-burn techniques and overuse of fertilizer. Outsiders frequently violate the island’s strict fishing regulations, which has led to decreased biodiversity. Some people even spray bleach on the coral reefs, Tekin told me: The bleach forces coral-dwellers out into the open and into a fisherman’s nets.
“People are really aware of their environment on Eleuthera,” she said, “much more so than the Williams student body. It affects their daily lives much more than it affects ours. We have the huge privilege to largely ignore climate change.” Tekin described the frustration behind her attempts to communicate the urgency of climate change to people who don’t experience its perils firsthand. “Why is this so pressing to me but not to some of my friends?” she asked. “Where’s the gap in our vision?”
Before Tekin went to Eleuthera, she told me, she often returned to hopeless, apocalyptic visions of the future. “I didn’t want to be an Environmental Studies major,” she confessed. “It’s so emotionally taxing.” The experience on Eleuthera, though, helped her understand the perspectives of people who live on the front lines of climate change: “People are thinking about how to feed their kids today, how to make ends meet now. They’re aware, but they can’t be sad about these issues all the time. People isolated from these direct effects are privileged to be able to extend their vision further into the future.” For many students like Tekin, she realized, this abstract outlook can be paralyzing.
Seeing environmental issues through a literary or artistic perspective helps Tekin find hope and push back against paralyzing sadness. “Guilt is not progressive,” she told me several times. “You need to recognize what you can do. Focus on your abilities, your voice.” Personally, she finds her voice through language and storytelling. Writing is her answer to the question, “how do I make these issues relevant to everyone?” Paraphrasing a remark that Terry Tempest Williams made during a campus visit last year, she told me that writers like Williams “never look away from a sadness but don’t embody it.” You can engage with guilt and tragedy without letting it consume you.
“I’m really glad that I started Eco-Advisors,” Tekin said. “I applied because of Ecocriticism [an English class we took together]. Eco-Advisors led to me to apply for Eleuthera and now I plan to do an environmental internship over the summer.” A year ago, she’d never considered any of these possibilities. “A year ago, I thought there was no hope,” she told me. “I thought, it is what it is.” Her experiences at Williams and beyond have helped her develop a more integrated and nuanced understanding of environmental issues, one that rejects guilt in favor of hope.
Abby Rampone ’17 is a communications intern at the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives