On two days in November (2022), members of the working group came together–some online and some in person–to meet all together for the first time. The IEC working group is made up of ten teams (with several additional affiliated projects which do not receive funding from the working group); each team is composed of university- and community-based partners. Since participation in this workshop could not be subvented by the working group, only academic partners were asked to attend. We were delighted that several teams’ community partners also shared their time and insights. 

Hosted by the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, with support from the PPEH and the Penn Libraries, the gathering set clear goals:

  • enable each team to offer a specific sense of their project site in all their beautiful particularities–from coal-country in Ohio to oil-producing Igbo region in Nigeria, from a windpark in La Guajira, Columbia to an advanced nuclear plant site in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and on across the ten project locations. 
  • develop a shared vocabulary across these diverse sites of energy injustices–past, present, and possibly future
  • articulate a shared toolkit of methods and research practices with and across the  community-based projects that each team had outlined in their applications to become members of the working group

Leading up to the gathering, IEC co-conveners, Rebecca Macklin and I, Bethany Wiggin, had met with each of the ten teams individually, and we had espied thematic groupings that bridged distant locations. These became the basis for the three sessions featuring each team. Rich senses of place were conveyed by long, meditative shots in and around St. Fittick’s Park in Aberdeen captured by team member and artist, Rachel Grant, one of the community partners who gave so generously of their time and expertise. Academic and community partners Anne Cornell, Tom Dugdale, and Jeffrey Jacquet brought postcard reproductions of both monumental and intimate images of the Ohio coal landscapes, part of their project eulogizing the lives and losses of the industry in “Calling Hours.” Affiliated participants, Katie Ritson and Abigail Harrison Moore showed us their own wonderfully witty video tour of one science’s museum’s exhibit on the heroes of energy history and demonstrated the need for inclusive counter-histories that illuminated the role of women and the domestic sphere as an innovative and propulsive site of energy transitions. Yandong Li guided us to the rural village of Leibei (China) and a speculative tour of thermal-energy-conserving greenhouses that he will build with villagers as “a laboratory to fail and to learn to fail.” 

To support our goal of creating a shared conceptual language across these distinct places, Rebecca and I had engaged graphic recording artist, Terry LaBan, to live illustrate each of the team’s presentations, as well as the opening session to which many members of the IEC’s advisory board generously contributed. Please check out his subtle real-time renderings of the proceedings below. We were especially happy to have Siobhan Angus and Rahul Mukerhee with us in person–and for the delish dinner on the first night.  

Our final session offered a workshop within the workshop and was designed to launch the working group’s slow co-articulation of research methods across our various sites. Ahead of time, Rebecca and I asked participants to read José Medina’s “Resistant Imaginations and Radical Solidarity” and/or watch the related online lecture and Miranda Flicker’s “Hermeneutical Injustice.” Some teams had also begun compiling a shared annotated bibliography of resources that were important for their own research methods. 

The workshop within a workshop began with a story and, since storytelling emerged as one of the shared methods that traverses the various sites explored by this working group, we’ll let this story about environmental and energy justice and shared work for harm reductions have the last word. It is also a story of community-academic relationships–and friendships.

Here is the story:

Sitting outside the Audenried High School on an overcast October afternoon, Grays Ferry community organizer Charles Reeves told me he waited there most afternoons to make sure these Philadelphia kids, his “babies,” would get home safely. Mr. Reeves is an alumnus of this high school and lives now one block away. He has known many of these students since they were in middle school when they played on one of the youth sports teams, for basketball and for football, that he coaches, winning league championships. He was worried about “my babies dying.” Gun violence is an epidemic of staggering proportions in Philadelphia. Why, he wanted to know, “are so many of my babies dying,” and, he continued to ask, “why these kids so crazy?” and then pondered whether the explosion of gun violence might have anything to do with “the air we breathe.” The high school sits next to the now-shuttered and largely dismantled Philadelphia refinery. And so does the Alcorn middle school where his babies had gone to school in earlier grades. 

I continued our conversation by sharing my sympathy and my similar state of not-knowing. I explained that my expertise lies far from air monitoring and public health. But, as I continued, I regularly consulted with experts in both of these fields and would be happy to connect him with them. Thus the Futures Beyond Refining project crystallized in a moment of shared non-understanding between Mr. Reeves, an older Black man whose family has lived in Grays Ferry for three generations, and me, a middle-aged White woman who moved to Philadelphia when I was hired by the University of Pennsylvania. The university is simultaneously one mile and worlds apart from Grays Ferry.

The story surfaces multiple epistemic differences and even incommensurabilities. We could have gotten stuck at a seeming impasse, but it was our shared non-knowledge about the air–and perhaps our mutual curiosity about one another perhaps–that carried us forward. To make sense of this impasse and its potentiality, I turned to work by my Philadelphia colleague, Gwen Ottinger, and was led from Gwen’s excellent work on to Miranda Fricker, who authored one of the two readings we asked participants to prepare for this workshop on method. Fricker defines hermeneutical injustice to be “wherein someone has a significant area of their social expertise obscured from understanding owing to prejudicial flaws in shared resources for social interpretation”  and further explores systemic hermeneutical inequality as “the prejudicial flaws in shared interpretive resources [which] prevent the subjet from making sense of an experience which it is strongly in her interests to render intelligible” (Fricker 148).

What then were the methodological implications we drew from this situation of hermeneutic injustice?

  • We mutually agreed that this work together would be one of deep listening–and we paired students with community partners to do the deep listening and oral history telling, sharing, and taking that might open those shared stories to other listeners.
  • We consciously and conscientiously understood our work to be that of allies and that had to be mutually beneficial. My students got to make work they needed to complete my seminar; RAC2 got to create and lead community tours, produced by PPEH, and amplify their voices and concerns 
  • We committed to relationship work: showing up for one another, baking, bringing dessert, coming to campus, getting off campus
  • We asked, at regular intervals, what do the political horizons of this work look like from various participants’ perspectives and desires. 
  • Outcomes had to be flexible.
  • It is hard to say when the work is “done.” While that can feel daunting, I also feel immensely rewarded by the lasting friendships the work has generated. 

Two months past our inaugural convening, our next gathering is coming right up: an online workshop about how to make policy-relevant work. It will be 18 months until we all come together again–next time in Aberdeen, where Rebecca will soon begin a new post. In the interval, we will meet six times online. Watch this space for updates from each time after each session, documenting the local work that shares meaningful methodological and political concerns.

By Bethany Wiggin