Professor Puritty: Unfiltered Thoughts on Fighting Climate Change (and Gardening)
BY ELIANA BLACHMAN AND OLGA KURILINA
We interviewed UC San Diego’s Professor Chandler Puritty, our former Environmental Studies teacher, to hear more about her journey in becoming a scientist, her focus on diversity, and new and innovative approaches to fighting climate change. She addresses academia’s failure to fulfill its responsibility to provide accessible education on climate change issues and the new ways in which our generation makes tangible progress towards saving our environment. She also discusses her fight to bring attention to UCSD’s lack of diversity and her passion for gardening as a way to help the planet. We hope you enjoy her insights, advice for students, and sense of humor as much as we do.
Professor Puritty graduated from Howard University before getting her PhD in Biological Sciences at UCSD. She teaches Environmental Studies and Special Topics in African American Studies at UCSD and at Howard University.
Art by Jessica Kamman
Her story/Her focus
Question: How do you think studying at Howard University, a historically black college, influenced your path?
Answer: I saw a flyer on the wall that said, “Do you want to make $30,000?” I didn’t ask any more questions. Apparently, it had to do with environmental science research and becoming a research scientist. So through that program, I found out grad school was free and they would pay me to go. I was like, that feels aligned for me. I also found working with plants was really, really relaxing in terms of not having to chase anything, not having to get paperwork filed so you can cut things up. You’re not allowed to do that to people for research without permission. Definitely a good thing — good for them. But not for me. But up until that point, climate change and environmentalism wasn’t even on my radar, even though I grew up on a farm. For me, that had to do with a lack of representation more so than anything else because I never thought I could be a scientist until I went to Howard and I saw people like me. So, just lucky, I guess.
Pre-scientist, I didn't question that many things. I always thought the sky was blue. Sometimes it was red or pink, but I was never expecting it to be green (actually that means tornado in Kansas, so it can be green). But you just get used to what you see. So, I get to Howard, I’m following the money, and they take me and my friend who were the first years up to meet the second years in this greenhouse that I didn't know existed. There's two girls: one with afro hair and one with braids, and they were literally talking about their boy problems (because college) and taking data and working with the plants.
In that moment, science was demystified for me because until you know what it is, you think it's all pipettes. It’s hard to understand what it is until you see it; until it's broken down for you. [Scientists] have also done a really good job getting this elitist persona around science that makes it seem inaccessible, when in reality it’s pretty easy.
Question: How do you think teaching is part of your path, and what led you to teaching here at UCSD?
Answer: So it's one of those things where everyday you wake up and you're like, “what the….” And then you look back and you’re like, “wait, that was a straight line.” It’s taking you exactly where you’re supposed to be. I always knew that I never wanted to be a teacher, which is why I got more school because I thought teachers aren’t respected and people who have more school are respected. But something happened and I ended up back at teaching. I helped teach my pre-kindergarten classmates how to read; I helped teach my kindergarten and first grade classmates how to tie their shoes; I used to teach the troublemakers in class because [the teachers] would sit them next to me; I tutored from middle school all the way until college. None of those things ever occurred to me, at all. Then, I started teaching through grad school (required TAing). That was hard because I was doing someone else's vision and having to give quizzes and tests, and you know how I feel about that (authors note: negatively). After I graduated, I applied for regular jobs, like a 9-5. Hilarious. Luckily, I didn't get any of the jobs I applied for and I met my partner.
Then, [K. Wayne Yang, Provost of Muir College] approached me to teach ENVR 30. He told me that I could pretty much do whatever I wanted with it. That’s what changed everything for me, because in school everything is very compartmentalized. It's like these are your social studies, this is your art, this is your science, this is your math, and that’s very challenging for me. Now, I have my own classroom, where I can make the rules and we can talk about these things from all sides. I've always loved talking with people, and talking with young people, who have such amazing ideas. My friends ask me, all the time, “Why are you so optimistic?” Because the students that come through my classroom make me feel like I don't even have to do anything anymore. You guys have it covered from here and I feel that increasingly with the students that I’m exposed to.
I want you all to not be as limited in thinking as I was for as long as I was. I want you all to be effective at changing, because you’re pretty motivated. I want you to be able to do it effectively because I have tons of criticisms about how it's done, currently. Teaching also works with my lifestyle. I enjoy teaching. Tell your friends; it’s a good work-life balance.
Question: Who were your role models; who really helped shape you (besides yourself)?
Answer: I think it had to be my undergrad advisor — my science advisor — the one that had the program that was offering all the money. She was a white lady with curly hair, and she had been teaching at Howard since she graduated from grad school. Her name is Doctor Mary McKenna and she's so cute. At our conferences she’d say, “everybody, take off your badges when we leave, we don’t want the regular people in the city to know we’re with these losers.” She had a great work-life balance. I only saw her come in three times a week for a few hours at a time. And she still was really well respected. She was just really relatable, you know.
I'm grateful she actually picked me. She wanted me to pick a different advisor; one at Davis, because she was younger. And because in Mary’s words, “I want you to have an advisor you can smoke a joint with.” She would bake pies for us, and she applied for a lot of programs on our behalf because we heard bad racist things about the UCSD summer program. She would tell us the application deadline is coming up and there would be radio silence. So, the last night before it was due, she would just send us an email with questions and say that's all I needed. As someone who had a family, she was able to take care of her kids and work and not have that be an issue. She just seemed really happy. That’s the person who motivated me; that was my role model. She’s a crazy lady, dawg. She is my rock. She made me see science as something that I could be myself in and something that wasn't going to crush my spirit.
You know, professionally ecology is a hot mess – in a good way. When you go to a national conference, the man giving the keynote usually has a ponytail, is in a Hawaiian button down, cargo shirts, socks, and birks. There’s a lot of patagonia gear at the conference. That’s their most professional clothing. A lot of people who don't wear deodorant. A lot of hairy women. It's awesome.
Criticism of UCSD/Academia
Question: Where do you think UCSD and academia need to improve how they educate on and fight against climate change?
Answer: Opportunities for improvement are what we call “problem areas.” I feel that, with caveats, we need universal buy-in to make a swift, effective, and long lasting change. I think education is the most important thing because it is affecting people in every part of life. I think people feel more empowered when they're aware of what and why things are happening to them. We need to invite people to be creative.
We need all of those ideas, and then we need people who don't have degrees. Their ideas matter, their experiments matter, and their results matter. Education is my main thing. I'm seeing citizen scientists – people your age – with no degrees and massive social media followings, having way more effect when it comes to educating people about climate change issues. That’s amazing for them and it's amazing for the world and it's a really bad look for academia.
I went to college in 2011 and I didn’t even know about climate change at all. Science has been trying to spread the word since like who knows how long, even before Al Gore got involved. You’ve got the Doomsday countdown clocks; you get a lot of like fear based stuff or the only things that are accessible are the ones that are meant to scare you. Most of the things that we learn aren't accessible (that we learn and report) because we use jibber-jabber scientific speak to communicate these things. It's really unnecessary, and other fields maybe can get away with it more, but we have to save the planet if the other fields are still gonna exist. We all live here. This is all of our homes, so everybody's in it. We don't have the privilege to play into that elitism and we don't have the privilege of being selective and exclusive in terms of the buy-in that we’re trying to give. We're on a ticking clock, so everybody's welcome.
We need to be able to talk to everybody where they’re at. For example, we can teach people that they can save money by growing their own gardens to help reduce CO2 and clean the air. Just little things that we can talk to people about and we don't have to throw the book at them every time we walk in the door.
You treat people like adults, they act like adults. This is the future of teaching and learning. The old guard is dying out. Some people are going to cling to it. But if you look among women — especially among young women in the field — they are as interdisciplinary as ever. The future is looking up.
Question: How do you think UCSD does in helping undergraduates who want to get to know faculty and researchers find out about opportunities, get internships, references, etc.?
Answer: That's the beauty of going to a smaller school. UCSD doesn’t do a great job at that. I would say they do a terrible job at that, actually. You know, they're not built to serve undergraduates. UCs were originally founded just to be research institutions and they added students at the last minute to keep everything running and the doors open. But, the whole school isn't built for students; it's built for professors and for graduate students, and you all are the afterthought.
One of the reasons that I really like working at UCSD is because, with respect, you all are like naked little orphan boys. You all have academic PTSD, no doubt. You’re not used to humanity, because that’s not a big thing at UCSD. We are robots and our art looks like robots, too. I don’t even like the art installations. For me, as someone who likes to stand out, it makes more sense for me to go full into my thing in an environment where it's so needed. You go where things are most needed, right. If I wanted to support some sort of Black Lives Matter movement, I'm probably not going to start in Montana. I might go to Mississippi. For academic trauma, you guys are Mississippi. As a grad student, there were a lot of things that I changed or that I made better. Grad students don’t have any support, either. So, I'm hoping I’ll be at UCSD for a while.
If you ever have a TA that you like – or an IA, as they're called – reach out to them. Or if you're interested in joining a lab, you wanna start with the grad students, because the advisors are much less accessible. If you want to get those opportunities, start with grad students. Especially if it's a black one, even if you don't like the field or the class, they probably know somebody who knows somebody. There’s been a lot of times when I myself couldn’t be helpful for finding opportunities, but I know four people who can help you get you one. So, you have to really advocate for yourself and I think that's why I try to build you up so that you feel like you can advocate for yourself, because that is not a given. People feel like they can’t do that, especially women, women of color, and people of color. The faculty will say, “We can’t find students, no women apply!”
You even heard of recruiting, bruh?
Question: You said things are changing; do you think that you're seeing a lot of change? Or, do you see potential for other people to follow in your footsteps?
Answer: Where I see all the change is in the students and the grad students. There are some things changing with faculty, but with tenure things move a lot slower than we would like them to move.
The Politics of Climate Change
Question: As Poli Sci students, we’re very interested in how politics plays into climate change. In the past 4-5 years, have you seen change in your professional life, your field, or the people who hold power because of political change on a national level and at UCSD?
Professor Puritty: So, this is totally unfiltered. This is what you get. UCSD people are slow. Not
y’all, but those who have tenure. For instance, I was the first black graduate student in 15 years – the only one when I got there – in all of biology, not just ecology; and there’s 250 students in the biology grad program every year. My first year, I wrote a paper: “Y’all Don’t Know How to Act Right and If You Don’t Shape Up I’m Going to Leave.” It was actually titled “Diversity Initiatives Without Inclusion May Not Be Enough.” That’s my science speak for it. That got a lot of traction because it got published in Science, which is not too shabby. I was on the Diversity Committee and one of the committee members who had been on it with me for two years, after the paper came out, he said to me, “Chandler, did you know you’re our only black student?” *Laughs* You’re a scientist, dawg! Where did you think we were hiding? So, they’re slow.
Ultimately, on the East Coast, there are a lot of people in this vein, but especially on the West Coast and at UCSD, I am the way, the truth, and the light. When it comes to that intersection [of diversity inclusion in science], nobody else was talking about it. They asked me to shut up about it multiple times, and now, Biden’s transition team’s plan for the environment includes environmental justice for the first time ever in the history of our country. There’s a step by step plan around environmental justice and solutions and reparations. That’s beautiful. That’s positive.
This is a perfect case study, right, because we’re already back in the Paris Climate Agreement – which, as we’ve discussed, problematic but good – and he hired a ton of black and brown people and women to run the EPA and fill his cabinet positions. Crazy! A lot of companies make their own individual [environmental] plans. Under our previous “person at the White House,” we lowered EPA standards. I had a friend who worked at the EPA for a time, and there were companies they were going back and forth with, and then Trump was elected and it wasn’t an issue anymore because all of the standards were relaxed so much. So, having that top down control is so important, and I do think this administration is doing much better at that already.
And also, it shouldn’t be a political thing. The way we react to our climate should be stable no matter what party is in charge.
The Power of Young People
Question: You mentioned this is the first time environmental justice has been addressed. Was that something that was brought to your attention in school?
Professor Puritty: Oh, no, I learned about it on Instagram. That’s where I learn about all of my stuff because I don’t have the attention span and I too have academic PTSD. I’m not going to pick through writings and whatnot. You have to follow @intersectionalenvironmentalist on Instagram! Those kids are scary hip! Actually, the White House had an interview with this page last week on IG live, and they just started the page in 2020! It’s a pretty new thing, and it’s all student run. It’s really incredible. Look what they’ve done! How many scientists were on live with the White House?
Question: We wanted to highlight your specific work — things you’re doing to fight climate change, or the research you’re doing. So is there anything you wanted to highlight in particular?
Professor Puritty: Right now, I’m taking a break from the machine. Teaching is the research I’m doing right now because I want to learn about my audience. What I’m really into right now is the culture of climate change or the psychology of climate change because we think of ourselves as separate from the planet. When we talk about climate change, it’s so biological. Like it’s separate from us. Meanwhile, we’re the slugs who are leading our slime everywhere.
Why do people do what they do? That’s the only way you’re going to help them change if you can understand why. So, I’m really interested in understanding why right now. And I think I’m doing that most through my class environment and identity. Last class, we were exploring the intersection of different kinds of identity: your gender, your race, your religion, your socioeconomic status, all these different kinds of things. And we found that places that believe in reincarnation are inherently more environmentally friendly than countries or places that don’t because your sense of responsibility spans longer. Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that crazy? Because there’s a reason that different religions have different rules, and different countries have different cultures.
I hope these conversations are being had in other places, but I don’t think it’s happening very often. If I were interested in writing and publishing again, or if I were to hire someone to do that for me because I don’t wanna, I would be publishing on this. But I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe in the publication process. I have to start sharing it somehow, because otherwise, I’m not communicating as widely as I could be. So that’s where my focus is right now: is just on my teaching and absorbing things from you all and shifting my perspective because it’s also radically changed the way that I teach climate change. And I’m just running my mouth everywhere. Just talks mostly right now, because, like I said, I have to wait for things to come to me.
Question: What do you do on a daily or weekly basis to help out the planet?
Professor Puritty: It’s not that hard to get involved. You can find a community collective to help, but composting is one of the biggest things you can do. Just separating your living trash from your dead trash because whenever we bury trash, which we do often, that land becomes unusable because the organic matter starts to break down and break down and break down and sink and sink and sink and sink, and then you’re just left with the crap, and it’s unstable land and there’s sinkholes. You can’t live there. So, that’s one of the best things we can do – return nature’s nutrients back where they came from. Return it to the ground if you’re not using it; make sure it’s getting to the ground somehow. That’s a pretty low maintenance one. I think that one’s even better than recycling, to be honest. Especially plastic recycling, because that all takes a ton of energy.
And here’s a tip for composting! If you don’t want any smell, make your compost equal parts food scraps and equal parts organic dried dead plant material (like leaves from the yard, grass clippings, straw, house plant dead leaves, things like that). This is science, people!
I had one plant, then I had two plants, and now I have hundreds of plants in there! I love it. I really love it. It brings me a lot of joy, and it helps with my relationship with nature, right? Especially when you have a houseplant – I feel like that’s a good place to start — because you’re like, “you need water every day,” and it’s like “stop killing me!” and you’re like, “oh my god, woah.” And it can’t talk, so you need to learn its signals; and it takes patience, it takes understanding. It’s a give and take. I serve the environment when I do that. I’m taking time out of my day to serve nature. I feel like that helps with that whole ‘dominion over nature’ thing we’re born with here in the western world.
Ellie: Also for those of us who grew up in cities, that would be helpful.
Professor Puritty: Yeah, it really does! It really does! I’m a city gal myself. Farm adjacent, but a city gal. And don’t get it twisted, I killed many many many many many plants. I had to learn to listen to them!
Olga: I think we should have a course on how to take care of plants.
Professor Puritty: Yes! Let’s get a petition going! How to take care of plants. Listening. I could definitely teach a plant class.
Olga: And your assignment would be to take care of a plant.
Ellie: But if you kill it, do you fail the class?
Professor Puritty: No, you just try again. Or you try to propagate it at the end.
Question: Do you have any other advice for us or anyone that would be reading this article? For any undergrads who are considering ecology or studying climate change in any of its forms?
Professor Puritty: My advice is, no matter what you study, you should be invested in intersections of climate change and environmentalism at a very baseline.
It’s not hard: you can be an art student, you can be poli sci – poli sci and environmental justice, law and environmental justice – those are easy! They go together like peas in a pod. If you want to be a chef, you’re looking at foraging for local things or using local ingredients. If you want to have an auto shop, then you can be looking at ways to service cars that are electric or using more environmentally friendly oils because you want your baby to have grass when they grow up. Or maybe you don’t do anything differently in your autoshop but you have a greenhouse out back.
Whatever you want to do, this is an open call invitation. If anyone needs to be invited and they don’t feel like they have the credentials or they’re not needed or they’re not wanted – this is your invitation. Please join us. Please join us; we need you. Every little bit counts. Your ideas are better than ours because we’ve been going in circles for a long time now! We need you, you’re welcome, and if you come through me or any of my people, you will be valued and supported as well. And I think that’s that.