By Robin Saha
Dr. Saha is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana, and 2016 Ehrlich Award Recipient
Receiving the Thomas Ehrlich Civically Engaged Faculty Award has been tremendously gratifying on many levels. At the deepest level, it has provided me with a unique opportunity to reflect on core values that drive my work. It has also given me a chance to appreciate how my career has contributed to the environmental justice movement, which empowers people and communities to make the places where they live healthier and stronger.
In the grind of the academic year, there usually isn’t much time to reflect on one’s efforts. Like most other faculty, I generally keep my head down and plug away … with constant class prep, grading, advising, research, committees, community work, and professional service. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy all of these activities!
However, the Ehrlich Award afforded me a special opportunity to slow down and reflect on those efforts – to think deeply about the trajectory of my career, what is important to me, and why.
As an academic, there’s no avoiding the faculty evaluation and advancement process. Our efforts are often measured over relatively short time periods in terms of the articles we’ve published, courses we’ve taught, graduate students we’ve advised, and grants we’ve received. Such tabulating occurs under the looming pressures, for example, of tenure deadlines, and typically excludes explicit consideration of one’s underlying motivations and values. The conventional acknowledgments in the tenure process are nevertheless important to having a sense of accomplishment and one’s work validated.
Measured in this light, my environmental justice research has been rewarding and widely acknowledged. For example, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty and articles in Demography, Social Problems, and Environmental Research Letters are important markers along my career path. In terms of academic accomplishment, this body of work has helped establish not just that environmental inequalities exist but also how and why, and what to do about them.
At a deeper and more gratifying level though, these works have provided tools and evidence used over sustained periods in struggles to make communities cleaner and healthier, including communities historically impacted by institutionalized forms of environmental discrimination.
Over the years, I’ve also conducted community-based participatory research with tribal and rural communities in Montana and integrally involved students in citizen science projects that have addressed problems such as toxic mold in housing and heavy-metal contaminated water and soils.
When I stop to reflect, I find I am most proud of contributing to accomplishments like lowering children’s asthma rates and training students who are now working with communities to impact these types of issues in Montana, across the United States, and beyond. They serve as executive directors and in other leadership positions in non-profits and agencies that help make peoples’ lives better.
I am fortunate that it is not only traditional markers of faculty advancement, but also these types of impactful accomplishments that are highly valued by my academic unit. I am also grateful to be part of an institution, The University of Montana, that actively encourages service learning and community engaged scholarship, i.e., to have the University’s support to creatively meld my teaching, research and service.
However, receiving the Ehrlich Award has validated the value of my work in a much deeper and more meaningful way. It is especially rewarding to have one’s work acknowledged by Campus Compact because it represents so many academic institutions throughout the country and embodies the values of democratic participation through civic engagement.
I feel so honored to be recognized by an organization that espouses and demonstrates the positive role that academic institutions play in society, not just in generating knowledge, but in fostering civic discourse and developing individual and collective capacities to tackle pressing societal issues
Moreover, applying for the award gave me the opportunity to reflect on not just my core values and motivations – but also where they came from – my family, my education and early mentors. I am grateful for the chance to reflect on how I developed my deep commitment to social and environmental justice. That opportunity has helped me appreciate how influential my upbringing has been and how my career choices have honored the values I was raised with.
Listen to Robin Saha discuss his career and reflect more on these commitments in his episode of the Compact Nation Podcast
I also really appreciate knowing that there are so many dedicated individuals and institutions that value my work, or rather – our shared work. I suspect this acknowledgment is in large part due to my commitment to tackling seemingly intractable problems – working to create a fair and just society by leveraging my privileges to fight with and for those less fortunate, and not shying away from political aspects of those struggles.
Receiving the Ehrlich Award has made me realize that my story, what my students and I do, can be of inspiration to others. That recognition serves as a reminder of the profound difference that the collective support and encouragement we give each other can make.
As a result, I feel I must “up my ante” now – give more back. I look forward to continuing to support and inspire civic engagement in its many forms, and I hope my career can inspire others to find paths that are as professionally and personally rewarding as mine has been to me.