Blog Post

Five questions with Rachel Myslivy

Rachel Myslivy will speak at the Anvil Rural Journalism Conference on April 8 in Lincoln. We took a moment to get to know each other a little better. Register to attend the conference (in person or online) here. And here’s our five questions for Rachel.

FLY OVER MEDIA: What’s your current position? Or, what’s your particular area of focus these days?

Rachel Myslivy: I am the Assistant Director of the Climate + Energy Project, a Kansas-based nonprofit that seeks to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in America’s Heartland through the ambitious deployment of energy efficiency and renewable energy, in policy and practice.  

FOM: What’s your personal background? How did you come into your field of work and study?

RM: After many years working in education and research at the University of Kansas, while volunteering for environmental causes on nights and weekends, I sought to bring my career into better alignment with my passion for the environment.  I obtained a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies with a Graduate Certificate in Environmental Studies. My research focused on faith-based environmental activism, as seen in communities of Catholic Sisters in Kansas, using an oral history approach.  Halfway through my course of study, I accepted a position as Program Director with the Climate + Energy Project.  I developed and directed the Water + Energy Progress initiative for four years prior to accepting the Assistant Director position.  Water + Energy Progress identifies and celebrates successful innovations that save water and energy on Kansas farms and ranches.  

FOM: Can you talk about the intersection of sustainability & conservation with folks in rural, agricultural areas? I think many people who aren’t familiar with rural communities wouldn’t think of agriculturalists as on the front lines of environmentalism. What role do you think these communities have and why do you think they are poised to play that role?

RM: I think that some of the biggest problems we face in America stem from the perceived differences and lack of understanding between rural and urban dwellers.

Farmers and ranchers experience environmental realities in a very different way than urbanites, to be sure. People whose livelihoods are determined by the weather and the health of the soil really are on the front lines of environmentalism in a much different way than folks who are going to the Climate March in DC, for instance, although that may not be the prevailing story. The two groups may not use the same language or engage in the same activities, but the larger goals and hopes for our earth are pretty similar.

The thing is, most people just don’t take the time to visit with their neighbors about these issues in a respectful dialogue.  We spend more time talking at each other than listening to our neighbors.  One of the things I really appreciate about the Climate + Energy Project is our common ground approach. We bring diverse groups together for solutions-based dialogues.  We look for the threads that connect and the pragmatic actions that will help us accomplish shared goals.

I believe that the important work we need to do must be done in collaboration.  We all need to spend a little bit more time listening to other.  

FOM: With that in mind, do you see a difference in communicating with those people and about those people? Does your approach differ based on your intended audience?

RM: As an oral historian, I believe that personal stories can be incredibly powerful.

In my work, I try to align my perspective, language, and style with the people I am engaging.  Whenever possible, I try to let “those people” speak for themselves in my work.

For instance, when we started the Water + Energy Progress initiative, I knew that we needed a different approach.  There is plenty of technical information on best management practices that save water and energy in agriculture, but there wasn’t a lot out there on why individual farmers engage in those practices, let alone innovate to find new solutions.  So, we set out to find those innovators to let them speak for themselves.  I tried to capture not just what the individual was doing, but also when they first started thinking about doing something different, how it felt to step outside of the norm, and what problems they faced along the way.

Farmers love to talk about the challenges they face, and – in so doing – offer others a chance to relate.  That place of relation encourages a shift in perception and opens up the potential for increased collaboration and innovation.  Each producer had a unique story, and those stories are what made the information accessible to broader audiences.

FOM: You’ve done a lot of video work, why have you chosen that medium?

RM: I started experimenting with video as a means of storytelling several years ago, when I was looking for ways to expand the reach of my oral history projects.  I have gathered incredibly compelling stories of close to a hundred Catholic sisters, but very few people will sit down to read my thesis or explore oral history archives for fun.  I took a few videos during some of the interviews and showed them during presentations.  Video – even poorly executed video – is much easier for most people to access.

When we started the Water + Energy Progress initiative, I recognized video as a great opportunity to amplify the messaging and, ultimately, to let the producers tell their own stories, in their own words, in their own environment.  In the Water + Energy Progress videos, I worked to present a completely unique moment in time and space, while also conveying a neighborly conversation, whenever possible.  I think that video provides the most compelling and clear articulation of an individual’s story, even if the language is not perfect or the picture is a little shaky.

For similar reasons, I have documented conferences, workshops, and interviews that I feel offer unique information on critical topics that may not be accessible to everyone.  I have produced videos for incredibly innovative agricultural field schools and conferences for the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology.  I had a constitution teacher years ago who would say, “You’ve got to put the hay down where the goats can get it.”  Especially for working class folks, the cost in time and money to attend conferences or workshops can limit access to information, which ultimately discounts their engagement in the larger issues of our time.

Often incredible content is presented in limited, hard to access situations.  Video documentation not only opens these experiences up to those who can’t otherwise attend, it also offers an archive to re-create the experience for those that did.  Video documentation of individual stories, workshops, and conferences levels the playing field, in my opinion, and increases the potential for all to learn and work toward solutions.  

Hear more from Rachel at The Anvil on April 8 and register here.