October 30, 2023

Inaugural Lecture with Dr. Roslynn McCann

Maple Tree
Image credit: John Richer, Century Sugar Maple Tree.

Advancing nationwide climate change programming while facilitating community-led solutions: A life and career impacts tale

What is it, exactly, that makes us who we are? All of us have amassed countless threads – conversations, extreme weather events, development altering the structure of our hometowns, relationships - that braid together to weave a tapestry of our passion, our life drive.

This is a life tale of the many threads weaving together to form my tapestry displaying an image of a healthy natural environment and uplifted social systems. Thinking back, the first weave of many threads creating the image of my life goal emerged from the small slice of Oak Ridges Moraine surrounding my childhood home in Sheffield, Ontario, and the forest within.

Experiencing trauma at a young age can alter and erase large chunks of our memories. I was never sure if it was losing my mom at four to cancer or partying too hard in high school that wiped so many childhood memories away, but either one or both resulted in a burned black hole in the center of my tapestry. Yet one thing remains so clear in the darkness - growing tall from the ashes of that burn – and that’s the forest surrounding my childhood home. I spent countless hours roaming through and scaling up the sugar maples, red maples, eastern white pines, black ashes, and more. I wondered who planted the two giant black walnuts in front of the old barn, which was built in the mid 1800s. Beginning to lean – as we all do – with the sag of time.

I sought answers and solace in that forest. I never found answers. Who does to those deep fundamental questions? But I found solace and myself. I can hear the plunk, plunk, plunk of maple sap into tin buckets placed year after year on the largest maples I have ever seen. I can smell that sweet wood smoke from the sugar shack and taste the warm fresh syrup at the end of an astounding multi day reduction process. I can feel the burrs in my hair and the pain of my sister pulling them out. I can hear the agitation in my dad's voice as he called me in for dinner, but I was often too deep in that forest to return in any decent time.

I imagined large glacial rivers flowing from ridge to ridge. I marveled at how much life sprung from such a small layer of moss and soil over solid bedrock. I once dug a hole from a depression in the forest to see why it was shaped like that. I spent months on this project to discover it was a point where a crack in the bedrock let water through into an inaccessible underground cave. I could hear the water drip down but couldn't follow. That forest and its bedrock, water, moss, soil, berries, ponds, and those trees bearing my body weight as I climbed them became a part of me and I a part of them. I drank their sap and syrup, and they absorbed my tears.

In her famous “life paths into effective environmental action” research, Dr. Louise Chawla found in addition to experiences in natural areas, education was also a key influencer precursing environmentally focused careers. Education is also a large part of the threads and weaves making up my tapestry. In sixth grade, we learned about the rainforest and its destruction as a class project. Something sparked in me when I researched and felt my heart break from the loss of such a biodiverse ecosystem because of human greed. That same year, our music class performed “one world” to the community. The lyrics centralize around our one precious earth and the need to take care of our planet to let it thrive, shine, and grow. I sang that song to the community, the forest, and now I sing it to my children. I didn't know in sixth grade that I could pursue a career in environmentalism, but my heart was awake and that song formed a lot of the foundation addressing Mary Oliver’s famous question in “The Summer Day” of “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Moving forward into high school and my undergraduate years, a few major life events happened that lit a fire under my desire to improve our environment. One of my jobs in high school involved working on a dairy farm and during that time, the farm family made a time-saving decision to stop letting the cows roam outside in the pasture every day between milkings. These cows, that only produced milk because they had given birth and their babies had been taken away, now were confined all day long in a stall. Their health quickly deteriorated. Around the same time, I worked on a broiler farm, which produced fertilized eggs for incubation – hatching into chicks to be raised at nearby multinational corporate poultry giants. I wore an ammonia mask and was encouraged to carry a broken piece of garden hose in case any of the roosters spurred at me in their confined, stressed environment. I never took the garden hose, but I did wonder what the hell we did to wind up with this as the way to produce food. That wonder grew when, during my undergraduate and graduate studies, I worked as an agronomist assistant for a farmers’ cooperative where I walked farmers’ fields looking for weed pressure, and identified which weeds were not killed by the most recent chemical spray. I received Bayer Crop Science duffle bags, Monsanto binders, and Syngenta swag. And I observed firsthand that the farmers no longer owned their farms. They were in contract with these companies – many leasing their land. They couldn’t save their seeds and they were contractually tied to agri-business.

As with my discovery of rainforest destruction in sixth grade, my heart broke for our food system. I started looking into alternative ways of growing food that were smaller in scale, more diversified, and also researching the many barriers farmers experience in maintaining independence in farming. I discovered links between the types of food I ate and my energy levels, and started to wonder what the public understood about the differences between organic and conventional agriculture. This became the central topic of my master's research, where I surveyed customers in grocery stores in the top agricultural county of Ontario. I discovered what thoughts came to mind with common agricultural terms like biotechnology, organic, genetically modified, and more. That research revealed the public at large has lost its understanding of the food system, how it impacts their bodies, and how their purchasing decisions matter.

Following an agricultural exchange to Florida, I moved down on an assistantship to Gainesville for my PhD. Go Gators! Circling back to my hometown and concerns I had growing up about development encroaching nearer, I worked with cattle ranchers in Florida to better tease out the key influencers predicting their engagement in permanent conservation easements.

My assistantship required me to teach public speaking to over 200 undergraduate students at a time. I was terrified of public speaking. Thankfully, my University of Guelph advisor worked extensively with me in controlling my public speaking fear during my Master’s. I learned about muscle tensing to reduce shaking. About wearing dark or multi-colored shirts to hide my sweat. About the power of positive thinking. I researched other ways to mitigate public speaking fears and experimented with them. I then had my undergraduates experiment with them as well. I exposed them to nonformal teaching and even brought an educator from the Tampa Zoo into my classroom each semester. He released a large porcupine to stroll through the aisles and flew an eagle owl to me at the back of the large room. It landed last minute on a chair beside me when realizing I wasn’t whoever it thought I was. I worked hard to provide experiences my students never had before and that would also build their life skills.

In an astounding progression from the girl who used to violently shake and avoid speaking up in class as much as possible, I won departmental, university-wide and national awards for that public speaking class. I've kept in touch with a handful of students and have loved watching them apply their public speaking skills to their careers. Teaching is something I will always pour my soul into, and I’ve seen the rewards of that hard work, as have many of you.

Upon graduating and realizing I had been in education for 22 straight years of my life. I needed a break. In a short-lived experiment with life as a suburban housewife in Georgia, I got married and divorced. During that time, I worked as an environmental educator for the largest 4-H Center in the US, Rock Eagle, for less than eight dollars an hour. Teaching canoeing, herpetology, ornithology, stream micro and macroinvertebrates and night hikes kept my bank account empty, but my heart full. Directly following that, I worked a season as a naturalist in the smoky mountains. The day I drove into the smokies I parked at an overlook pullout and cried, and I realized I could never go back to the housewife life I so briefly tried in Georgia. Upon returning from a summer leading kids backpacking for the first time where they ate berries, swam in backcountry streams, and saw salamanders and bears, I packed the remnants of my life in Georgia into a small U-Haul trailer. I then drove alone across the country in an F150 that I bought from my brother for a dollar with a measly amount of funds in my savings account.

I arrived in Denver nearly out of money, going through a divorce, and shocked to discover high rise buildings in what I had imagined in my naive Canadian mind as a small mountain town. I landed a job at Whole Foods as a cashier, dumpster dove out of necessity, deepened the heartbreak of my quarterlife crisis with an abusive relationship, and landed two best friends who took me in, in a state of desperation.

During that time, I saw a posting online for an Assistant Professor in Sustainable Communities at Utah State. There were many things about higher academia that I had come to question in my experience, but this job and its dominant focus on public outreach seemed too strong a match to pass up. I saw an opportunity to engage the public – helping to inspire and motivate them to engage in environmental behavior. And to circle back to teaching, which I missed despite having landed a parttime job by then as an instructor for “Space Time” – an organization that visited schools in and around Denver and taught elementary school-aged children about our solar system and beyond.

The USU position seemed a long shot for this dumpster diving, space-timing cashier, but I threw my name in the hat. Thinking my odds were low, I also interviewed for, was offered, and accepted a naturalist position with the Yellowstone Institute, a nonprofit in Yellowstone National Park. In an unbelievable twist of fate, as you all know, I was offered the position at USU and the only thing I negotiated was a late start, pushing back to August so I could still work the summer in Yellowstone among the grizzlies, wolves, marmots, pikas, and geothermal features. I taught about nurse rocks, wolf-raven relationships, cyanobacteria and backpacked on most of my days off.  

I was about to elevate from $10 an hour to a faculty salary. A bonus was that my expiring student visa from Canada would be secured into permanent residence through the university. And the beauty of Logan and Utah had me captivated.

12 years, two children, and one move across the state later, and here I am. In that time, I have built a public outreach program in Extension Sustainability with the five themes of land (conservation and landfill issues), air (quality and climate change), food (waste and local food systems) water (quantity and integrated green infrastructure), and energy (efficiency and renewable). Under those topic areas, I spend my time in national, state and local programming.

Some of the major accomplishments I’m most proud of during my career include conducting national research on climate change programming in Extension and interviewing Extension educators leading climate change programming on barriers and opportunities for advancing climate change work. After that, with the help of Betsy Newman and the Western Rural Development Center, we held a national forum in 2021 called Climate Change in Extension: Elevating and Amplifying Action. Over 350 Federal representatives, Extension deans and directors, and educators participated in that forum which felt like a game changer in drawing attention to the need of elevating and amplifying Extension’s climate change work.

From there, we developed a set of action items to move forward and our national Extension climate Initiative network has grown to over 800 members. We were a team of five in 2020. Our core team has been asked to advise on President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Beyond, and drafted a national vision and objectives for climate change work in Extension in 2022, which is now posted on national Extension’s website. We were also invited to provide input to the White House on development of its recently released (September, 2023) National Climate Resilience Framework.

Our National Extension Climate Initiative (NECI) hosts monthly professional development, member engagement, and executive committee meetings. Given my work with NECI, National Extension’s Operating Body – the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy’s Climate Priority Action Team – asked me to serve as a liaison between them and NECI, where I’m now helping to plan a National Extension Climate Convening for January. At this convening with 1994, 1890, and 1862 Extension representatives, we plan to map out a path forward to advancing climate change programming in Extension across the country. We have the ears of the federal government and now is the time to act (pending shutdown!).

When I look back on my career, I want to see that I have helped develop a safe space for colleagues to talk about barriers they experience in offering climate change programming, and have helped change the system as a whole to mitigate those barriers.

Girl with colorful flowers in her mouth

Image credit: Ingrid Payne, 2023 Utah High School Clean Air Marketing Contest state winner.

To balance the hard work in shifting the system nationally for better funding and moral support in climate change programming, I offer statewide programs centralized around some of the solutions. One of those programs is a collaboration with my colleague and friend Dr. Ed Stafford, who formed the Utah high school clean air marketing contest with me back in 2015. From an initial engagement with just one high school in Cache Valley, the contest has grown to reach nearly a thousand high schoolers from southern Idaho down to southeastern Utah. We visit their classrooms and teach about Utah’s inversions, PM 2.5, major sources of particulate matter pollution in our state, and solutions to help mitigate particulate matter concentrations. They then apply their knowledge of pop culture and artistic talent to create impactful public service announcements for clean air. In surveying past students engaged in the contest, we've discovered that for many it is the only formal education they receive about Utah’s air pollution problems. We've also found the contest is empowering youth not only to change their behavior, but to discuss air pollution and alternative modes of transit with their families and friends as well. My hope in this contest for the long term is to have helped build an empowered force of youth working to improve our state's air quality by bridging artistic talent with science and effective communication strategies. The arts are too often left out and play a critical role in reaching our core values.

Circling back to my food system roots, a large part of my passion and time at USU is spent in helping to strengthen our state’s food systems. I formed a team to help form the Utah Farmers Market Network, and we worked with the state legislature to keep farmers markets open during the pandemic. We offered an in-depth six-week training with farmers market managers around diversity equity and inclusion, and created inclusive signage for the markets that engaged in that community of practice. We've also helped most farmers markets across the state to accept SNAP and double up food bucks.

In Moab, I partnered with a past intern and now close friend Shiree Duncan to create the Moab Grown initiative. We visit restaurants and if they pledge to source ingredients on their menu from within a 100-mile radius, they receive a free Moab grown window decal and a small menu logo to highlight which of their menu items feature local food. We also give out a free local food guide for restaurants, our food coop, growers, and engaged citizens to use.

The more I’ve worked in food systems, the more I’ve been drawn to permaculture or ecological design. Permaculture provides a path to resilience braiding Indigenous knowledges and Western science with three ultimate goals of earth care, people care, and fair share. I brought a team together to implement Utah’s first campus permaculture gardens by planting two-thirds of USU Moab’s previous campus in perennial food producing plants through permaculture design, and implementing a permaculture garden on Logan’s main campus (behind Aggie Ice Cream, between NDFS and Facilities). We diverted around 4500 bricks (10,000 pounds), and 65 pieces of urbanite from the landfill and planted 27 trees and additional perennial shrubs and plants on both campuses, sequestering over 1,000 pounds of carbon each year. Jake Powell in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning has since come on to lead the permaculture initiative with me and through an Extension grant, we designed and launched Utah’s first Intermountain West Permaculture Design Certificate last spring with 18 participants. A few participant impact quotes include:

  • “…what feels the most significant that I'm taking with me is about connection with others, change happens at speed of relationships which happen at speed of trust. And our interconnectedness. So beautiful.”
  • “This course was life changing. A gateway to seeing our natural world and landscapes differently. The content is an invitation to understand and experience ourselves as a part of something much larger - a pointing to a trail that can bring us closer to the Earth, each other, and ourselves.”

A large part of climate resilience will come in stabilizing our food systems and I hope my work with the Utah farmers market network, Moab Grown, and the USU permaculture initiative are pathways to building that resilience.

Regarding climate resilience, the last few years have been spent in a deep dive with Indigenous communities with my graduate student and now collaborator, Bayli Hanson. We conducted tribal talking circles teasing out perceptions of climate, community, and preferred means of sharing information. We then formed a diverse team to co-create a climate change module by and for Indigenous people that is now being taught with the Native American Tribes Upholding Restoration and Education program with the Nature Conservancy in Bears Ears. I researched cultural humility, questioned who I was (settler? Legal alien? Indigenous at heart, mostly colonial by decent? It’s complicated), and whether I belonged on this land. I walked and continue to walk a delicate balance between climate and existential hope and despair.

With teaching, I harnessed my background in environmental education to co-author a Sustainable You! 4-H curriculum that has been downloaded and taught across the country and I also teach Communicating Sustainability each spring. I pour a lot of energy into that course and last year engaged 50 students in 17 different community engaged learning projects with real world partners.

So here I am, 12 years in and counting. My tapestry feels relatively whole, displaying an image of a life dedicated to improving environmental systems and the social systems imbedded within. Yet I still have the accent details to add, like a border and fringe around the edges. For this, I am assembling the threads to weave a complete answer to Mary Oliver’s question “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Maybe I’ll just be remembered as a loving mother and wife. Or as someone who built a 100% electric, grid-feeding solar PV, passive solar, earthen plaster, earthen and bamboo floor, FSC-certified wood, rainwater harvesting, greywater using, permaculture landscaped, strawbale home in a walking-biking only community. As an active neighbor securing hundreds of plants and trees through grants for our neighborhood. As someone who rides their e-bike all over town, and their mountain bike on the trails beyond. As a woman whose husband is a much better cook, but who cooked sometimes and at least helped with the dishes. Or as a friend to construction workers, welders, herbalists, professors, artists, teachers, and farmers. And that would be good.

Yet with my role as a full professor, I feel a responsibility to continue pushing for systems-level change when it comes to elevating and amplifying climate change programming in Extension nationwide. I also need to continue influencing who we bring into those conversations, those knowledge holders who are too often left out. I hope to continue uplifting students, allowing them to see their potential just as my master’s advisor did with me. And I plan to spend continued energy on engaging in climate resilience projects on the ground that are co-created with and for communities.

This feels right in my heart as a way I can give thanks to that forest where I found solace as a child. Our lives are short, but they are also long and who knows what will come next. Every day is a chance to deepen our sense of place and uplift those around us. I hope to be seen as someone who was relatable, loving, and who inspired many to take positive action for our earth. Thank you!

antendees to lecture

Image credit: Todd Newman