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Honours Interview: Sarah Law
Sarah Law graduated from Simon Fraser University in June of 2022 with a BA in sociology and a Certificate in Social Justice.
Under the supervision of Dr. Amanda Watson, Sarah’s honours research looks at the feelings of ecological grief faced by climate justice activists. We spoke to Sarah about how she became interested in the topic and how her experience in the honours program led her to apply to SFU’s sociology MA program, which she will be starting in the fall of 2022.
Tell us about the topic of your honours project.
My honours thesis offers a model of understanding ecological grief as a continuous and embodied cycle of practicing grief that occurs in six stages: (1) fear and urgency; (2) denial and overwhelm; (3) frustration and bargaining; (4) despair and depression; (5) anger and rage; and (6) acceptance and mourning. I frame these emotions as being more than prescriptive and individually held by using theories of affect to show how emotions are social, cultural, and political. I argue that these emotions are more than reactive responses to anticipated and witnessed environmental losses. The emotions that come with experiencing ecological grief help inform how we understand the climate crisis as a systemic problem. This expands the definition of ecological grief to one that mourns ideas and hopes for the future and deeply held beliefs about our socio-political realities.
I use a desire-based framework and the radical imagination to emphasize how systems of oppression that have created and sustained the climate crisis are not the end of the story. My intention is to show how our emotions are a method of understanding how socio-political systems are interconnected and how we can resist them while having hope for our futures. I emphasize mobilizing for social change and collective action as active resistance. I highlight dreams, hopes, and visions of the future from the climate justice activists that I interviewed to emphasize how the imagination is a form of political protest and tool of resilience.
Why did you decide to study ecological grief? Was there anything in particular that sparked your interest in the subject?
I spent a long time trying to decide on a topic. I’ve always been interested in how political economy is attached to the climate crisis through capitalism, colonialism, and paternalistic corporate governance, and neoliberalism, but each draft of a proposal I wrote didn’t feel quite right. I was lucky to have the support of Dr. Suzanna Crage, who helped me to fit both my need to have a project that had a systemic, equitable, and just lens while being narrow enough to have research questions and a direction.
The topic of ecological grief came to me as I was experiencing a lot of despair with my topic development and also in my personal and work life. I work in advocacy and research outside of school and have been a community organizer for a little over six years. It is difficult to constantly be navigating and working against systems of oppression in every facet of my life, while also being acutely aware of the constant looming threat of the climate crisis. I had no idea there was a term for the emotions, anxiety, dread, and fear that I was feeling until I found the term ecological grief. Even then, the majority of the literature on ecological grief was focused on mental health and eco-psychology and anxiety. I think those things are important, but don’t address what can be done on a systemic level, or how to cope in a way that doesn’t reinforce individual responsibility or medicalization.
My academic interests are how theory materializes and how praxis can lay the material conditions for liberation. I think that the discipline of sociology and social research provides an opportunity to bring the worlds of theory and community organizing together. I believe that social research can be a tool of mobilizing for better futures that can be used in practical, engaging, and emancipatory ways. I didn’t want my project to just be about contributing to literature and academic capital; I want people to see how they fit into theory and how they can exercise it in their personal lives to create better worlds and relationships. I want every person to understand that there is space for them in the climate justice movement and the pursuit for a just future.
Are there any skills you've developed or strengthened through being in the honours program?
I think the most obvious answers are self-discipline, organization, and time management. Writing an honours thesis is a lot of self-directed reading, writing, and coding data. You learn to make deadlines, set a schedule, anticipate for setbacks, and hold yourself accountable to your work. It’s a lot of sitting alone and doing work that you set up for yourself. Balancing my thesis, work, volunteering, and my personal life was difficult during the program; but it’s completely doable. Learning how to prioritize tasks and be intentional with your time is a huge transferable skill.
Something I wasn’t expecting to gain was confidence and trust in myself. Being an undergrad, you’re not really taught how to learn in a self-directed way. This makes trusting yourself very difficult, because it’s not something that I’ve ever had to do in an academic setting before. This experience was academically challenging, but it was also personally challenging as an undergraduate to have a taste of having academic freedom, self-directed and selected readings, and writing a paper that didn’t have a guideline or prompt set for you. It was really me diving headfirst into things that I was curious about but didn’t have anyone directing me with a syllabus. It was exciting, but also very scary, as it always is to do something for the first time. Coming out of the experience has shown me that I should have a little more confidence in my position of blending research and advocacy together. It taught me how to communicate my stance, passions, hopes, and visions for my project in a way that offers my ideas as a contribution to the world, rather than in a constant state of defending and justifying why my work is important.
Did you face any challenges while in the program? Were there any obstacles that were particularly difficult to overcome?
I think writing was the most difficult obstacle to overcome. It’s fun and much easier to do the research itself – it’s a lot of reading, talking to people, coding, revising data. My mind can outrun my hands when it comes to putting ideas on paper (or a screen) and I end up spending too much time in my own head. Having to put the ideas in my head on paper was extremely challenging for me. I tend to stop myself from writing what I’m thinking because I’m afraid that it won’t be perfect the first time that I type it out – which is silly. I also like to incorporate prose, stories, and poetry into my writing, which can be challenging to balance in an academic setting. I think it makes for more engaging and accessible reading when you write in a way that flows. Finding affect theory was a great way to incorporate both mediums of writing because it helped me navigate that tension. It’s difficult to balance the expectations of academic rigour and my desire to make social theory accessible and engaging to people who don’t have a sociology degree. I had friends from different departments (ranging from psychology to media studies to business) read over sections of my work to ensure that I was using language that felt approachable and using footnote formatting to dive deeper into jargon that made it feel more engaging.
What was it like working with your faculty supervisor, Dr. Amanda Watson, on your project?
I’ve been in a few of Dr. Watson’s classes throughout my undergraduate degree at SFU. Her course SA 302W: Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism was foundational to my appreciation for how to apply social theory. That course and her teachings drastically changed the ways that I approached my education and ignited a burning curiosity to dig deeper into systems of political economy through a critical feminist lens. Amanda is of course a brilliant educator, but she is also a caring mentor who is passionate about her work and mine and it shows. It was constantly encouraging to have a supervisor who provided guidance and direction when I asked for it, but ultimately let me be creative with my thesis. She was very supportive of the vision and militant values that I wanted to incorporate into this thesis that aren’t always encouraged in academic settings. I feel very grateful and lucky to be mentored by her. It’s invigorating and inspiring to work with Amanda and it feels like a full circle moment for me that she was the primary supervisor for my thesis.
How does your project relate to your future career and educational goals?
I wrote and defended my honours thesis during the last semester of my undergraduate degree, which is a stressful time for any undergrad. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do post degree and felt very lost. I often feel like climate spaces don’t have room for me, because I don’t have a science background and am so focused on systems change and aspects of political economy. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do – I just knew that I wanted to do work that felt purposeful and was contributing to creating equitable and just futures.
If I’m being completely honest, before this thesis, I never thought that academia or research would be in the cards for me. I didn’t grow up in an academically-driven environment, so I didn’t know what being an academic or a professor really meant or what that looked like. The honours project was more of an exercise that I thought would be fun and challenging because I had friends who had done their honours theses and they really enjoyed it. I didn’t think about doing a thesis because I thought it would be beneficial to an academic career or goals. I just knew that I love to read and write and never grew out of the phase incessantly asking “why?”
Dr. Kyle Willmott, my second reader, is the one who convinced me to apply for a Master's and has been continuously supporting, guiding, and encouraging me. I took his SA 442 Indigenous-Settler Relations and SA 340: Social Issues and Social Policy Analysis classes in my last year of my undergrad and he showed me an entirely new side of what academic work could be. I don’t think I’ve ever read or participated in classes so intently before, and his way of engaging a classroom and selecting readings that you actually want to read is inspiring. It was incredible to see him teach with such passion, purpose, and dedication. Kyle is another brilliant professor in the department who I am incredibly grateful to be mentored by.
I can’t say for certain what I will be doing in the future, but for the time being, I am very happy being a facilitator, community organizer, and the Research and Advocacy Officer at ReImagine17. I am also very excited about starting a Master's in sociology this fall 2022 at SFU and continuing to do public-facing work relating to my thesis, social change, and civic engagement. Since defending my thesis in spring 2022, I’ve been asked by OceanWise to record a podcast on ecological grief, create a learning module on the social components of climate change, and speak on a panel to 140 youth across so-called Canada about my research.
Additionally, I’ve been asked to publish my thesis into a toolkit on ecological grief by the Intersectional Environmentalist (on Instagram), and have been featured on CBC radio on “The House” to talk about inflation and political economy. I am also a co-founder and program coordinator for a summer program called Rerooting Relationships that serves as an entry level program for youth to learn about social justice and relationship building. I am also in the process of planning a Climate Emotions and Taking Action Conference with two other climate justice activists for this summer. This thesis has brought me many opportunities that have given me the ability to speak about and share my research and passions with the public that I am very grateful for. I am fortunate to know many brilliant people in academic, non-profit, and grassroots settings that have been excited about my work and I would not have been able to do any of it without the support of my communities.
If you'd like to connect with Sarah you can find her on Instagram, LinkedIn, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.