student story, climate change, civic engagement, young people

Tara Mahoney on inter-generational civic engagement, climate change, and importance of hope

December 13, 2018
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"We, human beings, have overcome a lot of obstacles in the past and have done incredible things. We’ve stopped the depletion of the ozone. We’ve created national parks to preserve our wildlife and spaces. We’ve actually figured out how to create renewable energy. Human beings can do amazing and inspiring things."

 

By Anh PhanVu 

Tara Mahoney is passionate about civic engagement and young people. She is hopeful and optimistic about our ability to create positive change and takes an active role in contributing to it herself. Ever since completing her internship at Greenpeace in Washington, she became aware of the power of media to influence the minds and spark collaborative actions. After completing her Masters degree in media production from Ryerson University, Tara went on to co-found a non-profit creative engagement agency Gen Why Media, which specializes in producing public art, media, and events for social issues.

As a PhD student at SFU School of Communication, Tara focuses on addressing one of the most urgent problems we face today - climate change. Her research explores new forms of participatory political culture and the way they can inform communication practices to empower renewable energy champions across Canada. Tara has been recently chosen as a 2018-2019 research fellow at David Suzuki Foundation to continue with and develop her research on climate change communications. In the interview we talked with Tara about her current research, actions we as a younger generation can take to mitigate climate change, and things that inspire her everyday.

 

Tell us a bit more about your academic and professional path. How did it lead you to the doctoral degree in Communication?

"ForGive follows National Chief Phil Fontaine to the Vatican to seek an apology from Pope Benedict XVI for the cultural damaged caused by Indian Residential Schools"

I started exploring my interest in media when I was doing my Masters at Ryerson University. As a part of my thesis, I wrote, produced, and directed a documentary film ForGive. The film follows National Chief Phil Fontaine to the Vatican to seek an apology from Pope Benedict XVI for the cultural damaged caused by Indian Residential Schools. 

The program at Ryerson was however only year long and mostly focused on media production. I wanted to go more in depth with learning theories and exploring the intersections between power and political movements and how they connect with communication practices. I previously had a professional background in public engagement, so that was another reason I was interested in positioning myself academically in this intersection.

How did you start working in the area of public engagement?

The internship at the Greenpeace headquarters marked my first forte into public engagement and political organizing. Greenpeace is able to create powerful messages for its campaigns and working there made me more aware about the profound role of media in influencing civic participation. In 2010, I co-founded Gen Why Media with my colleague Fiona Rayher. Our organization focuses on facilitating meaningful civic interactions across generations and utilizes new media approaches to achieve this goal. There is a common perception that today’s young people are the most politically disengaged generation, but the truth is they just engage in different ways.

What are the projects by Gen Why Media that you are most proud of?

In 2012 we organized Reimagine CBC campaign, inviting Canadians to envision the future of public media during the time when funding was drastically cut. This national event mobilized thousands in a public brainstorming and encouraged participants to share their thoughts both online and offline. Bring Your Boomers was another project we organized in the form of “living room” style conversations and cultural performances. We were looking for a form of engagement that would be entertaining, but at the same time encourage meaningful conversations across generations about our society’s values, views and urgent problems that we need to address together. The event was a huge success and we went on to organize several more events of the same format, each focusing on a separate cross-generational issue.

YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN AS ONE OF THE 2018-2019 RESEARCH FELLOWS FOR DAVID SUZUKI FOUNDATION.CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT WHAT YOUR RESEARCH INVOLVES?

As a David Suzuki Foundation fellow, I’m researching on climate change communication and looking into new media tools and cultural practices from other fields and campaigns, such as Black Lives Matters and Me Too Movement, and the way they can be applied to raise awareness about climate change. I’m specifically focusing on the advocacy for renewable energy. Everybody knows that we need to move to renewable energy and millenials are the key demographic in making this switch. So we are looking at the best ways to communicate to young people to get them not only care about renewable energy, but also advocate those issues in their daily lives and their consumption practices.

Have you observed if there are specific media platforms that are more effective than others in addressing this goal?

Although I think traditional mainstream media are critical for our democracy, I don’t feel like they have enough of the motivating narrative, especially when it concerns climate change stories. Very rarely do media talk about what is already being done and what can be done, but I think that should be part of every single story about climate change. Social media and other forms of peer to peer media provide much more engaging and interactive avenues for people to empower themselves and to be a part of the whole conversation. We need more motivating and empowering narrative to remind people they have a role to play in climate change, but also in any political and social issues.

How can we as communicators be more successful in raising awareness about climate change?

I think it starts very local and very close, and it should work on multiple levels. By close, I mean it starts with your family and your friends  – learning about the issue and talking with your family and friends and see what you can do as a group to address some of the issues. And there are multiple ways to do that. Voting is probably the most powerful way to directly influence the course of action on this issue. Secondly, you can engage in more sustainable practices in your everyday life and encourage others to do that. With the younger generation having such a powerful access to new technologies and online social channels, you can now share with your social networks what you are doing to address the problem or that you are going to vote in the upcoming election. The younger generation has a very powerful opportunity to start very locally and using the skills they already know well to contribute to the momentum that is already well underway. There is a common perception that politicians don’t listen to young people, because they think that young people don’t vote. So the more young people can show that they are paying attention and they care, the more the politicians will pay attention to them and deliver what they want. In this case, it would be a stronger climate change legislation, which stops fossil fuel development and focuses on investing in the renewable energy and indigenous sovereignty.

"When you are a parent, you cannot be pessimistic. You have to believe that things can change and that they can get better."

What keeps you inspired?

I love our planet. Earth is beautiful and it is worth saving. I also believe in people and I know they care about our planet too. This is an incredibly motivating reminder for me.

I also have a newborn baby. When you are a parent, you cannot be pessimistic. You have to believe that things can change and that they can get better. You need to have this kind of strength for your child. We, human beings, have overcome a lot of obstacles in the past and have done incredible things. We’ve stopped the depletion of the ozone. We’ve created national parks to preserve our wildlife and spaces. We’ve actually figured out how to create renewable energy. Human beings can do amazing and inspiring things. So i think both looking into the future with the next generation and looking into the past at what people have already done is inspiring, equally as understanding how beautiful the planet is at the present moment.

What would be your advice to the current Communication students?

Be confident in your ability to create a social change. We grew up with the internet and communication technologies and are more than anyone else are in the position to utilize those tools to create positive impact. The important thing for us is to find a sustainable way to do it and figure out how the underlying political and social systems can be changed for the world to be a better place.