Penn Student in Peru Engages Local Communities on Climate Change

High in the mountains of Peru, in the ancient city of Cusco, University of Pennsylvania graduate student Julia Slater worked to discover creative ways to make workshops on climate change responsive to the needs of indigenous farming communities.

The summer internship was a perfect fit before starting her master’s degree in Education, Culture and Society in Penn’s Graduation School of Education, with a concentration in community action in social change. Slater earned her undergraduate degree from Penn in May, with a major in English and a minor in Urban Education: Policy, Research and Practice in the School of Arts & Sciences.

“I'm learning more about working with indigenous communities and the organizational dynamics of non-governmental organizations, both of which fascinate me,” says Slater, who is from Burbank, Calif. “It's also such a pleasure to immerse myself in Peruvian culture in and outside of work. Cusco is city that truly radiates magic once you know how to align yourself with it.”

​​​​​​​Slater’s summer research internship was made possible by a Student Field Funds grant, through the Penn Museum, which offsets the cost of travel and living expenses.

Slater is one of 32 graduate students and nine undergraduates from 14 Penn departments and programs to receive the Field grants this year.

“Julia is the first English major that I can remember giving field funds to, hopefully her fieldwork in Peru will cement her growing commitment to ethnographic work in Latin America and to climate change as an important political and environmental cause,” says Anne Tiballi, the Museum’s Director of Academic Engagement.

In Peru, Slater worked with the Association for the Environmental and Sustainable Development. The group works with the indigenous Quechuan communities throughout the Sacred Valley of the Incas, in the Andes mountains north of Cusco, capital of the 15th-century Inca empire.

The indigenous association, known by its Spanish acronym, ANDES, works to protect biodiversity, traditional indigenous knowledge and land rights under the framework of “Sumaq Kausay,” a Quechua phrase that translates to well-being or harmonious living.

Slater helped review research for “scenario development” workshops, with an emphasis on climate change. She also helped with communications, including updating the website for the Indigenous People’s Biocultural Climate Assessment network, which includes ANDES. She conducted literature reviews, speaking with community members and international experts. In the final weeks of her internship, Slater worked on a policy brief about how national laws affect the agriculture of native communities.

Experienced in global travel, Slater worked during the summer of 2016 in Nicaragua with the Seeds for Progress Foundation, an educational nonprofit that partners Penn GSE and several entities in the country. As a research and marketing intern through Penn Global’s International Internship Program, she conducted research projects in the rural Nicaraguan schools where the foundation works. Among many projects, she created student profiles and reports on conditions in the communities and redesigned the newsletter.

During her four undergraduate years at Penn, Slater was involved in gender justice on campus and served as co-chair and education chair of the Penn Association for Gender Equity. She also volunteered with the Community School Student Partnerships, a student organization that provides academic and cultural enrichment to children and families in West Philadelphia neighborhoods.

“My personal and intellectual interests are incredibly diverse, and the structure of Penn’s undergraduate degrees truly allowed me to pursue them,” she says. “As my master’s concentration implies, I am deeply committed to social justice.”

Slater said she was inspired to work with indigenous communities on environmental issues as a result of watching community efforts to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux’s land in South Dakota.

“Despite their rich spiritual relationships to nature and wealth of traditional ecological knowledge, indigenous folks are often the most marginalized in climate issues,” she says. “I wanted to work with an organization that centered on their perspectives.”  

Slater says she will carry her Cusco experience with her.

“I always walk away from my international experiences feeling enriched and transformed -- like I received more than I gave. ANDES and Cusco taught me so much about the interconnectedness of the natural world, about the value of Indigenous worldviews,” she says. “No matter where I ultimately end up professionally, this experience will inform my work.

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