Thanks for listening

Thanksgiving dinner table

My grandmother didn’t give anyone Christmas presents when President Obama was in office. She was convinced that his "socialist" policies were going to drain her bank account and that if she didn’t save every penny, she would be left with nothing to live on. One Thanksgiving, she stood up from her place at the head of the table, as if prepared to say grace. As the room quieted down, she launched into an off-color joke about Obama and climate change. For her, it was worth destroying a solemn family moment to raise alarm at what she saw as government overreach. 

However, for someone who is entirely convinced that climate change is a liberal hoax, my grandmother actually lives a fairly green life. A child of the Great Depression, she grew up reusing everything from plastic bags to butter containers, buying well-made products that would last years, and saving energy whenever possible. While she might shut down during a discussion about lifestyle choices when framed as saving the environment, she would be happy to share how those exact same choices make her a better person than today’s spoiled youth. 

As I mentally prepare for the upcoming holidays in my home in North Carolina, these dinnertime family conversations weigh heavily on my mind. While I sometimes engage indirectly when it comes to climate change issues, using NCSE's no-conflict approach, mostly I plan to listen this time and hopefully understand my grandmother's perspective.

My dinner table, like others across the country, is home to an astonishing number of perspectives about climate change.

Maybe that sounds like I’m writing Hillbilly Elegy 2.0. I’m not. Romanticizing Appalachia in such a way not only normalizes problematic viewpoints, but takes a vibrant, diverse culture and renders it monolithic. My dinner table, like others across the country, is home to an astonishing number of perspectives about climate change. I have close family friends that run a thriving small business in recycling, while others operate in the supply side of organic beef. All of them have nuanced perspectives on how humans engage with climate change that cannot be collapsed into for or against. 

Being able to engage with these perspectives in a meaningful way is a crucial first step for science communicators wanting to work outside of areas where it's easy to do so. During the Graduate Student Outreach Fellowship, we use the Design Thinking process to scaffold informal science activity design. The first step is to empathize–that is, to gain a full understanding of your audience and what it wants and needs. Too often, this can be overlooked in favor of later steps with more tangible results. However, without a deep understanding of what your target audiences need, you run the risk of alienating and patronizing them, or finding no engagement at all. 

Of course, people respond differently when they know they are part of a research study. People want to give answers to impress the researcher or that highlight their own personal brand, rather than directly answer the question. That’s why holiday dinner tables present such a great opportunity for understanding and empathy. You can unlock another worldview simply by listening, and this has huge implications when designing activities. Some at the table would clearly respond to an activity that connects climate change to economic policy, others with personal responsibility. The next step in the design process is to figure out how to develop an activity that allows the flexibility for both. 

Listening to diverse viewpoints is a great way to understand people, especially when their perspectives feel different from your own. Climate change is an issue that resonates with people from all backgrounds, so our job as interpreters is to unlock that interest. Thanksgiving dinner can be a great first place to hone your listening and empathy skills, even if you don't like what's being said.

Kate Carter
Short Bio

Kate Carter is Director of Community Science Education at NCSE.

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