Student’s reflections that promote sustainability go prime time

Tuesday May 19, 2020Roger Coda
Abby Hart, with Clairee, one of the family chickens
Abby Hart, with Clairee, one of the family chickens. The chicken was named after a character in the movie “Steel Magnolias.”

“Loud Existence,” the activist portfolio that Abby Hart created to promote sustainability, has leaped from its assignment roots in an English course to major social media platforms.

In her original assignment, Ms. Hart, a sophomore English major from Saugerties, reflected on actions she took at home during the coronavirus pandemic to support sustainability habits. Like all Fredonia students, Hart had made the pivot to online learning following spring break and did her schoolwork at home.

Students enrolled in ENGL 374: Writing and Social Change use a variety of methods, materials or rhetorical approaches to explore and respond to contemporary social issues such as sustainability, democracy, social justice and community engagement and engage in real-world writing projects.

Two service-learning elements of the course, including the annual Earth Week beach cleanup, couldn’t be undertaken due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions. In prior years, students had leadership roles in the cleanup event, working with the Alliance for the Great Lakes and the state coordinator for the Adopt-A-Beach program, so alternate assignments were developed for students.

“We weren’t able to work with new community partners on an advocacy project, so again Abby took things into her own hands to promote sustainable, local food networks.” - Professor Christina Jarvis

“Abby built on our online discussions about water issues and took action on her own cleanup,” said Department of English Professor Christina Jarvis, the course instructor. “We weren’t able to work with new community partners on an advocacy project, so again Abby took things into her own hands to promote sustainable, local food networks.”

Hart, who has minors in Creative Writing and Environmental Studies, indicated the course is all about writing in different styles to capture the attention of various public audiences for the purpose of social change. The goal of the assignment, a mini activist portfolio, was for students to simply document social changes they made at home, Hart explained.

“I have come to understand this as a really powerful and necessary skill. Being that our class is centered around sustainability and I am also very passionate about the subject, I chose to document the work I had been doing in my garden, with my chickens and picking up garbage on my road,” Hart explained. Photographs were included.

Hart documented these practices – she calls them “quarantine projects” – she put into place in her rural Hudson Valley home to follow a more sustainable or eco-friendly lifestyle.

She described how four young chickens were acquired from a local farmer, so her family would have fresh eggs every day. The coop to house them was given by a family friend who no longer had a use for it. For another project, discarded wood planks were reused to build new raised garden beds and revitalize neglected ones. Seeds for zucchini, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers plants were planted in plastic milk containers.

For her third project, Hart picked up litter – enough to fill two garbage bags – along a half-mile stretch of road near her home.

“With all of the tragedy that has come with the COVID pandemic, the death, economic peril, the sadness, I have to think that some good things have to come from it,” Hart reflected. “Slowing us down is allowing the earth to heal partially, and slowly. Hopefully, people are taking this slowdown as an opportunity to focus on their sustainable habits or even that we are just more naturally sustainable when we live a slower life.”

After she submitted “Loud Existence,” Hart said Dr. Jarvis encouraged her to “take the assignment even further.”

The Department of English website was initially considered as a platform during a three-way Google meet between Hart, Jarvis and Department of English Chairperson Bruce Simon, but it wasn’t seen as a large or vibrant enough virtual state.

“I encouraged Abby to think of how best to make her project public and ways of making it interesting to a variety of audiences. We discussed potential social media platforms and types of posts she might do, and we all brainstormed together and considered possibilities,” said Dr. Simon. “Basically, a half-hour brainstorming session got the wheels turning in Abby's head and she ran with it from there!”

After talking to Simon, Hart said “ideas of something even bigger started to blossom.”

A streamlined version of Hart’s class project focusing on collecting roadside litter – easily the least fulfilling project – can now be found in her initial Facebook and Instagram posts.

Hart wrote that she was both inspired and terrified at the feeling of impossibility surrounding the issue, but motivated, nonetheless. “It was the day before Earth day, and I wanted to do something! I grabbed a garbage bag and some gloves and started walking down my street.”

She found everything – from beer cans to floor mats removed from cars. “I even found things that didn’t even make sense, like an empty jug of coffee creamer. There was plastic, glass and even Styrofoam,” she added.

“I cannot believe that littering is even an option for people anymore. How hard is it to leave the garbage in your car until you get home, or if you are not fortunate enough to have the ability to dispose of your garbage at home to wait to throw it out in any number of public garbage cans?” Hart wrote.

Collecting all this litter highlighted the vastness and impossibility of this issue, Hart wrote. “We really need to focus on not creating any more waste than we already have. It is clear to me that what we are currently doing is not working.”

Hart’s current and future social media posts are intended for all audiences. “I want everyone to feel welcome to read my stuff, but to also feel comfortable sharing their stuff either directly on the Facebook page, or direct messaging their ideas to me on Instagram,” Hart said. “I want this page to go beyond me because everybody has something important to say that deserves to be heard.”

So far, “Loud Existence” has almost 90 Instagram followers and another 75 followers on Facebook. Hart’s favorite comment so far is from a fellow classmate, who says “Loud Existence” is her new favorite Instagram page.

“I want to see more and more people taking action and understanding that there is activism and courage in pretty much every decision that we make.” - Abby Hart

“I want to see more and more people taking action and understanding that there is activism and courage in pretty much every decision that we make,” Hart wrote. “Activism doesn’t have to be storming the White House. There is activism in your backyard garden. There is courage in loving yourself and your neighbor not in spite of each other’s differences but because with these differences we are stronger.”

Hart is grateful to Jarvis and Simon for encouraging her to start the social media pages. “I don’t know that I would’ve done it if it weren’t for their support,” Hart said.

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