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Featured Alumna: Sarah Jaquette Ray

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“I feel that teaching is the activist arm of my work. I am not an activist in the sense of social movement protest, but my research is always focused on the question of social justice.” A 2009 graduate of the University of Oregon’s doctoral program in Environmental Sciences, Studies and Policy, Sarah Jaquette Ray is enacting such activism this fall as she joins Humboldt State University’s faculty as Program Leader of their new Environmental Studies program.

Ray’s interests include environmental justice, cultural studies, critical human geography, disability studies, and issues of power, identity, and discourses ofnature. As she engages with each, she is passionate about putting the topics in conversation with each other: “I think it’s valuable to have a variety of activisms dealing with environmental issues,” she explains. “Some people may wonder why we need to be thinking about issues of identity, discourse, and social justice when the planet is at stake, and I hear that critique often.  But I think this rhetoric of urgency is problematic, and I genuinely believe that we’re not going to save that planet unless we do so in ways that incorporate—as central to, not just as a byproduct of—concerns of social justice.”

9780816511884_p0_v1_s260x420Such concerns were central to her recent book The Ecological Other: Environmental Exclusion in American Culture, which examines modern American environmentalism for ways in which certain discourses of the body within activist culture can create social injustice. Furthermore, even in the classroom Ray is adamant that “issues of power, identity, and environmental rhetoric are central to whether or not students’ ideals will manifest and spread.”

For Ray, this is a key consideration. Her position with Humboldt’s Environmental Studies program requires heavy investment in advising, and she values the responsibility: “I see myself as a bridge between students and their careers in environmental fields, and that feels very gratifying. There is ample evidence that suggests if students follow their passions and get good advising about how to articulate their environmental studies skills, they will find work in a field that they are passionate about.” She believes that her role, even as an advisor, helps spread activism by fostering its growth and expression within her students.

Her role as bridge-builder extends to work within academia as well, particularly given her new position, in that she believes Environmental Studies depends on robust communication between departments. “There is a strong tradition of environmental science and resource management at HSU, but very little has been done to bridge that work with the work in the humanities and arts.” In this sense, she believes that her time at the University of Oregon prepared her well. “The [UO] program did a good job at promoting co-teaching and administering interdisciplinary structures despite being at a large institution.  The sense of community among staff, faculty, and students was very strong,”

Read about other Environmental Studies Program students and faculty members here.