2023 Environmental Futures Forum Focuses on Community-Engaged and Place-Based Research

The UVA Lawn at Dusk

At this annual event, UVA’s Environmental Institute facilitated conversations around the role, power, and challenges of community-engaged and place-based research.

On Friday, August 18, 2023, approximately 80 UVA faculty members and researchers were joined by Charlottesville community members to discuss the role of community-engaged and place-based research. In a lively event, full of dialogue and conversation, the 2023 Environmental Futures Forum focused on how communities, when thoughtfully engaged, can inform and shape major research projects from conception to implementation.

“Long-term solutions to the climate challenges are more likely to be impactful, sustainable, and equitable if community members have a voice in the process” said Karen McGlathery, Director of UVA’s Environmental Institute. “We have seen this very clearly with our climate equity project on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where our research has been improved by what we learn from our community leaders and the people they bring to the table.”

Panelists at the Environmental Futures Forum

A panel of experts on community-engaged and place-based research took to the stage in the morning, including Andre Elliott, Co-Chair of the Community Advisory Committee, Eastern Shore of Virginia Climate Equity Project; Moira O’Neill, Associate Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning & Associate Professor of Law; and Leena Cho, Associate Professor in Landscape Architecture and Co-Director, Arctic Cities Group.

The panelists, moderated by the Environmental Institute’s Director Karen McGlathery, shared many practical thoughts from their experiences. Topics ranged from how to build relationships within the community, to successful ways to create pathways that allow a diversity of voices to be heard, to what researchers can do to ensure that solutions implemented are sustained long-term, even as the research team may conclude their work in the area.

The Institute announced the inaugural Climate Collaboratives at the Forum, the large interdisciplinary placed-based projects on climate solutions that are the signature initiative of the Grand Challenges investment.

Climate Collaborative team gives thank you remarks

Two teams, receiving $1.5 million each over the course of three to four years, will work in two different locations with community members and organizations. The first, a team led by Christine Mahoney in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, will consider clean energy transitions and community resilience in Appalachia. The second, a team led by Sheetal Sekhri, an economist in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, will work in Bihar, India on empowering democratic institutions to address flood risks. The Institute looks forward to sharing the projects in more detail with the community as the work progresses.

The 2023 Environmental Futures Forum also provided the opportunity for UVA and those in the audience to meet the Institute’s first-ever Practitioner Fellow, Elizabeth Andrews, formerly the Director of the Virginia Coastal Policy Center at the College of William and Mary, as well as the first full cohort of post-doctoral Climate Fellows.

“It was exciting to announce our incredibly diverse and impressive cohort of nine postdoctoral researchers as Climate Fellows. We believe they will lead the charge in pursuing frontier discovery research in response to climate challenges,” said Henry Boachi, Program Manager at UVA’s Environmental Institute. “We are equally excited about our inaugural practitioner fellow, whose deep experience and track record engaging communities, state, local, and tribal peoples' governments will further advance UVA's ability to extend climate policy initiatives into new areas.” 

Faculty member asks a question from the audience at the Futures Forum

Through five-minute flash talks given by recently funded faculty members, the audience was provided a glimpse of the breadth of work at UVA on research related to sustainability and environmental resilience issues. For example, Kirsten Gelsdorf shared the Humanitarian Collaboratives’ work on the climate-based refugee crisis through their Read for Action program, and Negin Alemazkoor shared her team’s work in Puerto Rico researching ways to develop renewable and resilient energy systems in the face of intensifying storms.

The collaboration and the conversations continued throughout the afternoon at the Environmental Institute’s offices with working sessions on the future of the Morven Sustainability Lab, a grant brew for emerging federal investments, and insights from UVA’s Equity Center on how to create opportunities for more effective community-engaged research.

“Our Forum is a great way to bring faculty, students, and partners together to share ideas and build relationships that can flourish as we collaborate on climate solutions,” said McGlathery. “We all have a common goal that is both great and good – to make our research actionable in ways that lead to a better future.”