Teacher, Writer, Scholar: Emily Polk

Teacher, Writer, Scholar: Emily Polk

During our distant PWR year, one of the silver linings, for me, has been serving alongside Dr. Emily Polk as co-chair of NACC, where a tradition has emerged in our committee meetings. Each quarter, when we sit down each with the broader committee to brainstorm content for the newsletter, one topic inevitably emerges: who, among our gifted colleagues, should we feature for a Teacher/Writer/Scholar profile? Without fail someone recommends, or adamantly drops into the Zoom chat, “Kevin, WHAT ABOUT YOUR CO-CHAIR!?” All year long, Emily, with her characteristic generosity, has insisted on deferring the spotlight to foreground other PWR colleagues. But fortunately for all of us, this spring, Emily was unable to evade the exigence of her remarkable accomplishment as the recipient of the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for Distinctive Contributions to Undergraduate Education. It’s an honor, finally, to have the chance to profile Emily here, for you.

Emily’s journey to PWR began in a career as an environmental and human rights journalist, which led her across the globe. Working in West Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia, she worked with populations that have been made marginalized, including many refugee communities. She produced radio documentaries in a Burmese refugee camp, worked on a human rights-based newspaper in a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana, and wrote for Central America Weekly while traveling through Central America . In these experiences and communities, Emily discovered the perspective she now brings to her work at PWR.

After Emily returned to the US, she worked for Whole Earth Magazine, a descendent of the storied Whole Earth Catalogue. It was there that she got her first taste of environmental justice —most of the stories she edited did not prioritize EJ and she was inspired to leave after a few years and head to Columbia University, where she earned her master’s in Human Rights Communication in 2006. After Columbia, she moved to Ghana, to work with Journalists for Human Rights. Emily describes this period in her career as a “braided thing”: she would spend time in the field, then a period studying, and then return to the field. During these years, she worked for the Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire (CSR Wire), before earning her PhD in Communication with a focus on the environment from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 2013. She published a book that emerged from her dissertation research titled Communicating Global to Local Resiliency: A Case Study of the Transition Movement in 2015, shortly after she arrived at Stanford.

To those who know Emily and her dedication to education, it will come as no surprise that she earned the 2021 Dinkelspiel Award for her extraordinary contributions to our undergraduates. Citing Emily’s “unparalleled dedication and commitment to teaching and community building,” the award honors our colleague for her excellence in exactly those values most central to PWR’s mission. The award also recognizes the aspect of Emily’s work that is close to her heart, the development of Stanford’s Environmental Justice (EJ) movement. During her years at Stanford, Emily has participated in a number of cross-campus efforts and collaborations related to EJ. After developing and co-teaching an Advanced PWR course on Environmental Justice with Dr. Sibyl Diver (Lecturer, Earth Systems Program)—the first dedicated course on EJ at Stanford and the only EJ course focused on writing and rhetoric—Emily developed a final assignment that asked students to translate their research projects into blog posts that would benefit the communities centered in their research. All of those blog posts can be found here, https://www.ejstanford.com/blog.html, along with student writing from several other classes across campus who have started publishing their work on the blog site as well.

Community engaged writing is a core component of Emily’s pedagogy, not least because it is designed, as she says, “to participate in reimagining how we think about the creation of knowledge, and whose voice has been and should be centered in our writing.” This work foregrounds ethics, but it’s not only about ethics; in involves the translation of research and analysis for other fields and audiences. Emily’s work on EJ also led her to spearhead a major symposium in collaboration with other members of the Environmental Justice Coordinating Council in Fall 2019, on topics such as Critical EJ Frameworks: From Black Lives Matter to Global Toxics; Indigenous EJ; and Green Gentrification and Afrofuturism. This symposium honored the histories of trauma experienced by frontline communities in the EJ movement, but it also—and just as importantly—celebrated the leadership of these communities. Indeed, a goal Emily sees as central to EJ is communicating the expertise of “frontline communities,” i.e., those people directly experiencing disproportionate harms from environmental degradation. “How do we move beyond reiterating grief and trauma in our writing?” Emily asks her students, as well as all EJ activists and allies. “How can we integrate, acknowledge and celebrate the grassroots experts who are developing some of our most important solutions to the greatest problems of our time?” Through questions like these, it becomes possible to model what EJ actually looks like as a “horizontal” movement. Too many grassroots experts are missing in the scholarly conversations, Emily explains, even though they are often the voices with the best knowledge of how to combat environmental harms.

Researching this profile, I spent some time with some of Emily’s recent scholarship, which underwrites both her EJ work and teaching more broadly. Emily’s publications on communicating environmental justice and climate change frequently emphasize the same frontline communities centered in her Stanford courses and collaborations. Her recent article in Frontiers in Communication, co-authored with Stanford ES’s Sibyl Diver and titled “Situating the Scientist: Creating Inclusive Scientific Communication through Equity Framing and Environment Justice,” is a great place to start. There, Emily and her frequent collaborator report on the effectiveness of “equity framing” as a pedagogical method, and reflect in depth on their teaching. Many of Emily’s numerous publications also address communities in transition, and the transition movement in EJ more broadly.

Emily is a prolific researcher, and she makes it a goal to try to publish at least one item each summer. This year, she is working on a few collaborative book chapters on climate change literacy, as well as working on some essays on parenthood and living through the pandemic. Emily also has a passion for, and makes it a point to reserve the time to work on creative writing projects, mainly fiction, for which she has won or been nominated for several awards. In 2019, Emily won a prize from Owl Canyon Press, which published her story “How We Watch What Is Burning” in the collection Where the Ride Ends, and her story “Streetlight People” was a finalist for the 2021 Dogwood Literary Award in Fiction from the Dogwood Journal of Poetry and Prose. About her writing, Emily says, “One of my greatest joys is getting to send my writing to Marvin, whose own fiction writing I greatly admire.”

As we begin to cautiously move beyond our COVID moment, Emily looks forward to several other projects connecting her teaching and research, specifically an EJ education workshop in collaboration with members of the Northern California EJ network. This workshop will help teach other faculty how to teach environmental justice. With former PWR colleague Lauren Oakes, she is also partnering with the CREA Mont Blanc, an NGO in France, to organize an international workshop on climate change communication, to be held virtually this year —hopefully in 2022—in Chamonix.

Who inspires Emily and keeps her motivated as a writer, scholar, activist, and teacher? Emily frequently is asked to moderate panels because of her background as a journalist, which keeps her at the forefront of the climate justice movement. Through this work, she met two of her intellectual lodestars: Elizabeth Yeampierre, co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance, and Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. Emily is deeply inspired by poetry, especially in these uncertain recent pandemic days. Ross Gay’s Book of Delights is a recent favorite, as well as the work of Ada Límon. Emily also cites her two daughters, Maisie (10) and Lua (7), as her greatest inspirations.

In one of Emily’s acclaimed short stories, “Streetlight People,” the narrator describes a character named Esme who is—in a brilliantly original detail—the “creative director of a multinational greeting card company,” recently moved to Alameda to start the new job. In her profession, greeting cards, Esme finds, “It was a thrill to know she was saying the things that others couldn’t say or the things they needed to say but didn’t know how. Her words could be the buoys and the life rafts, the glass raised to honor and celebrate, or the shoulder for a long cry. She had always known, even when she was a young girl, that when people thought they wanted money or fame or success, what they really wanted was words. For this reason, Esme’s work made her life bigger than what she thought it would be. And she had always wanted a big life.” One suspects these same observations might apply to Esme’s author Emily, and to all the big accomplishments her Dinkelspiel Award recognizes. Congrats, Emily!