Bringing the humanities into climate education

Senior Tsemone Ogbemi is sharing the important role of the arts in comprehending climate through her work at the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities and in an environmental conference she is presenting at this week.

Penn student Tsemone Ogbemi
Senior Tsemone Ogbemi, an English major, has been working with the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities on projects that highlight the importance of stories and art in grappling with the climate crisis. (Image: Courtesy of Tsemone Ogbemi)

A year ago, Penn senior Tsemone Ogbemi had what she describes as a “pretty average” way of thinking about climate change.

“In my personal life I try to recycle, reduce the waste I produce, eat a mostly plant-based diet, and things like that,” she says. “As an English major I’d always felt my contribution to anything related to climate would be minor.”

Times have changed. This week she is presenting at the Our Environmental Future Conference on the role of arts and imagination in teaching about climate and the environment. Convened by Pennsylvania state Rep. Napoleon Nelson, a Wharton alum who represents a district outside Philadelphia, the online event on Feb. 5 aims to raise awareness of environmental issues by bringing together communities, particularly communities of color.

Ogbemi, originally from Lagos, Nigeria, was tapped for the conference by Bethany Wiggin, the founding faculty director of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH), with whom Ogbemi had been working since the summer.

“Tsemone is the perfect person to speak to the importance of arts education in science,” Wiggin says. “She understands the power of words, the power of poetry, both intellectually and emotionally, and she also just gets it that engaging with climate change is not just an academic endeavor but requires a way to make sense of how this big global story of a hot planet has diverse impacts on individuals’ lives.”

Experiences in the classroom and with PPEH have helped Ogbemi hone that sense over the last year. While taking Pearl Brilmyer’s Literature and Science course in the spring of 2020, she came across the announcement about applying for the PPEH public research internship.

“The internship description put a huge emphasis on interdisciplinarity, and the course also began with a lot of readings on interdisciplinarity,” Ogbemi says. “I felt like a lot of what I had been learning about in theory in my Literature and Science class was being put into practice with what PPEH was doing: environmental humanities.”

Wiggin organizes PPEH’s internships to give students the opportunity to shape and “own” their own projects while also collaborating and supporting their peers. Ogbemi elected to start a newsletter, “Imagination Machine,” to share news about interdisciplinary science, arts, and activism projects related to climate change and climate action.

“I wanted to feature projects that frame the conversation around climate as hopeful,” she says, “something that is not just bleak or necessarily inspires helplessness.”

Ogbemi also assisted her fellow interns with projects, helped with the PPEH podcast, Data Remediations, and recorded interviews with experts such as Adam Sobol, a climate scientist at Columbia University, for the Program’s new podcast, “The Canopy,” launching in March.

Through the summer, Wiggin appreciated Ogbemi’s insights and collaborative nature, and asked her to continue working with PPEH through the academic year. “She is innately a good collaborator, an excellent listener,” Wiggin says.

In a meeting early in the summer when each intern presented their research proposal to the group, and, after everyone had finished, Ogbemi noted a unifying theme. “After people had just made all of these exciting research proposals, Tsemone said, ‘I think what we’re really talking about is doing research that moves the research and us beyond the lab,’” Wiggin recalls. “And that word ‘beyond’ became a kind of tool for us to imagine what we wanted our work to do, move beyond disciplinary limits or boundaries, and also move beyond academic concerns and careers to engage with a wider audience. Tsemone named our summer research group Beyond the Lab.”

Since the fall, Ogbemi has worked on PPEH’s public climate storytelling and story-sharing project, My Climate Story. The initiative began by inviting the Penn community to share personal experiences of how they were affected by climate change. Taking the time to consider these individual impacts not only helps make climate change seem like crisis that is playing out now and not in some vague future time period, but also, Ogbemi says, to “make it small—not in the sense that it’s not a big deal, but that it’s something that, as an individual, you can look at and understand.”

This year, PPEH has been expanding the climate storytelling project to reach broader audiences, offering live, remote workshops for new storytellers ranging from elementary school children to high school teachers to Penn’s Students for Environmental Equity and in college and university classrooms across coal country, including Philadelphia.

The power that storytelling and other creative processes can play in addressing the climate crisis is one that Ogbemi hopes to convey in her presentation for the upcoming conference. “How are different cultures dealing with climate grief?” she asks. “Why do different people experiencing the same climate change phenomena act in different ways? These are questions pertaining to the climate crisis that cannot always be answered from a scientific perspective.”

Pennsylvania is in the process of revisiting its science-education standards, including climate change education. But Ogbemi argues that climate education should also be part of arts and humanities curricula as well, and that they truly should be standardized across the state so all teachers are equipped to use it to engage their students.

Adrienne Redd, an environmental advisor to Nelson, took a lead role in organizing the conference, reaching out to various communities, including PPEH, to identify potential speakers. “Very few participants are coming from an academic environment,” says Redd. “Representative Nelson wants the event to be extraordinarily accessible to people in his district, especially people of African American ancestry. The thing that I think Tsemone is going to know and be able to share better than anybody else is how important it is to tell a story or make a human connection in order to create and keep the energy needed to make a change.”

Indeed, the power of the arts is one Ogbemi knows well. She is currently writing a work of science fiction set in the near future, about a group of people escaping to get “off the grid.” This spring she’s also applying to MFA programs.

“My goal is to be a novelist, and an MFA program will be my first opportunity to not just do it in the way you would do a hobby: on the side,” she says. “And I’m applying to be a writing instructor, so it will also be a chance to see what it’s like to be a teacher, which is something else I’m considering as a possibility in the future as well.”

More information about the Our Environmental Future Conference and a link to register is available on Napoleon Nelson’s website.