Skip to content

Community Engagement Spotlight: Erin O'Farrell

Erin was born and raised in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where values of localism informed her identity and instilled in her a strong sense of place. After high school, Erin attended Bates College and graduated in 2020 with a BA in Environmental Studies and a minor in Gender Studies. During her time in Maine, Erin sought to build community within their college town through food justice work, volunteerism, and community-engaged research. Coursework in the interdisciplinary field of environmental studies led to Erin’s undergraduate thesis, which focused on photojournalistic coverage of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico through a lens of slow violence.

In Erin’s graduate studies, they have explored the interconnections among placemaking, climate resilience, and environmental justice through a communication lens. Outside of school, Erin enjoys being outdoors, listening to live music, building community, and spending quality time with her partner and their pets.

As Erin prepares for her presentation in community engaged communication strategies at the Aspen Engaged Conference, I asked her some questions about her work. Below are Erin’s written responses about her Mellon fellowship research and engagement, the importance of Indigenous place names, and advice for students looking to do scholarly engaged research.

Erin O'Farrell with her mom at Nature Center of Pia Okwai.

Can you tell us about your role as a Mellon Fellow and how you have come to work with the Nature Center at Pia Okwai? What has shaped your approach to this work?

Through my Mellon Fellowship, I have been working with staff and community members at Tracy Aviary’s Nature Center at Pia Okwai campus. I first learned about the Nature Center from meeting with Daniel Hernandez, last semester’s EH Practitioner-in-Residence

Last fall, I visited Daniel at the Nature Center to learn more about what he and other staff are engaged in on their growing campus. I was looking for a community partner for my Mellon work and shared this, along with my desire to work within an environmental communication lens, with Daniel. He invited me to do my fellowship with the Nature Center and after hearing some more about potential ways I could be involved in ongoing projects, we mutually decided that a partnership would be a good fit.

My approach to this work has been shaped a lot by the ways in which my community partners at the Nature Center work toward environmental and social justice. The Nature Center works under the vision statement of creating a community-based nature center, or nature-based community center. This means that voices, perspectives, and needs from local communities fundamentally shape what the organization’s physical space looks like, what programming they offer, and what events they host. It also means that many of the folks working at the organization have lived experiences within the surrounding communities. These approaches to building a community space, paired with the Nature Center’s values of ecojustice, place-based learning, and Indigenous ecological knowledges, have inspired the way I think about how to create meaningful and inclusive spaces around environmental work; I aim to lead with these same values and goals in my approaches to this Mellon work.

 My work has also been shaped by theoretical frameworks within the fields of community based research, Indigenous research methodologies, and critical public relations. All these fields share similar tenets in their approaches to community-engaged work that center on building trusting relationships and recognizing the importance of knowledge that is held within the communities with whom you’re working. I have tried to keep these tenets at the forefront of my work with my community partners.


What specific initiatives or projects have you been involved in at the Nature Center, and how do they contribute to fostering community engagement and environmental justice?

I started my fellowship by spending some time getting to know the organization and staff and learning more about potential projects I could be involved in. One of those projects that I started to familiarize myself with was ongoing communication efforts surrounding the Nature Center’s shift in their name from “the Jordan River Nature Center” to “the Nature Center at Pia Okwai”. “Pia Okwai” which means “big water” or “big flow” in Newe Taikwa (the Shoshone people’s language), is one of the Indigenous names for what many people know as the Jordan River. The use of this name to acknowledge the river upon which the Nature Center is situated represents a rejection of its colonial name and the harms attached to it. This work around the name change, and the processes that have preceded it, are part of the organization’s larger efforts to amplify Indigenous ecological knowledge and collective memory of this landscape. Naming is just one part of this work.

 I saw this project as a way to engage in my interests within the fields of communication and rhetoric while supporting the Nature Center’s efforts toward amplifying Indigenous ecological knowledge and environmental justice. After talking with my community partners, we decided that my work would be primarily focused on this project. Following this decision, with guidance from my community partners and the research they’ve done to better understand this place, I grounded myself in local Indigenous histories and research from the field of place name studies. Simultaneously, my community partners and I started to think about what we wanted a communication plan around the Nature Center’s name change to look like. We’re now currently in the process of executing the tactics in that plan, which will culminate in a big community celebration of the Nature Center’s (re)naming in June. We are also working on developing some ways to better understand the internal organizational culture around this name change in order to better communicate the underlying values and bigger picture implications of the use of this Indigenous name.

From a rhetorical perspective, the names we use to refer to places are an important aspect to how we understand, relate to, and imbue meaning onto them. In a colonial context, the names that white settlers have given to places in our landscapes, like rivers, represent an erasure of the ways that Indigenous peoples have made meaning and related to these places. In other words, colonial naming practices are one of myriad ways that settlers have aimed to assert their values and meanings onto the environment over those held by Indigenous and other marginalized groups. Returning to the use of Indigenous names for places has important implications for who we see occupying these places, how they form relationships with them, and the collective memories many Indigenous folks hold in relation to them.

In the Nature Center’s efforts toward decolonizing conservation work, the use of the “Pia Okwai” name is an example of their commitment to learn with and from the first peoples of this place in order to build good relations with our human and more-than-human communities. Choosing to use this name as an organization also signals to the ways in which the Nature Center seeks to expand the ideas of what a nature center is and who it is for. If people can see themselves and their relations to this place in the organization’s name, it opens up doors for deeper engagement with the organization which, in turn, builds a culture of inclusivity and meaningful representation in their nature-based work.

  It feels important to me that the Nature Center has been doing this work in ways that amplify Indigenous sovereignty and allow Native voices to be at the center of this work. Indigenous studies recognize that Native groups hold invaluable knowledge about their homelands that we can all look to in our efforts to be good stewards of our environments. It’s important that applying this knowledge to conservation work does so in a way that does not co-opt Indigenous knowings and lifeways, but puts Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty at the forefront of these efforts. The Nature Center has led sustained efforts to do this through amplifying Indigenous voices and perspectives in their ecojustice work, and I hope to carry this on through my collaborative communication work with them.

Communicating about this work, and why it matters, is an essential part of making sure it is meaningful for the Nature Center and its communities. Communicating through various channels and platforms also allows for dialogue and the exchange of feedback from both internal and external audiences about what they understand the name change to mean and what it means to them personally. I see the communication and public relations focus at the center of my work with the Nature Center as an important part of building an organizational culture and understandings around topics like Indigenous knowledge and placemaking. I hope that my work, in collaboration with my community partners, helps to amplify the work the Nature Center is already doing to re-center Indigenous place names and relations to place.

Erin with folks from the Nature Center at Pia Okwai.

In what ways do you incorporate principles of environmental humanities into your community engagement work, and how do these principles shape your approach to addressing environmental issues?

I aim to center environmental humanities principles of storytelling, interdisciplinarity, and the expansion of knowledge production in my work with the Nature Center. I do all of this with the understanding that EH seeks to expand ideas of what the humanities itself is by challenging the boundaries that exist between human and more-than-human worlds. This thinking asks us to reject Eurocentric, colonial ways of understanding human interactions with our environments and focus instead on how humans and their landscapes co-construct and inform each other. I see my Mellon work with the Nature Center at Pia Okwai as a way to support local Indigenous perspectives of the natural world that have understood what one might call a “post-human” perspective for time immemorial. Recentering these Indigenous relationalities to place through the Nature Center’s (re)naming is part of recognizing that folks who are non-native or not Indigenous to this place ought to look to the first peoples of this place in order to learn about how our places and ourselves shape each other.

In addition to expanding what counts as “humanities”, EH also works to expand what counts as knowledge in the academy. In the context of my work, I apply this principle by centering the knowledge from my community partners as expert knowledge. I use secondary literature and academic frameworks in my work, but this thinking ultimately supports the information and knowledge my community partners share with me.

Storytelling is also a principle that has informed how I approach my Mellon project. Within EH, storytelling is often used as a device to make room for individual interpretations of how we approach our environments and our histories with them. In the context of public relations, using storytelling recognizes the multiplicity of perspectives that exist around a subject. With this in mind, my community partners and I have tried to incorporate a storytelling element into tactics related to the communication of the Nature Center’s name change. Doing this has allowed us to make space for the different ways folks see themselves in relation to Pia Okwai and the varied histories they have toward this place instead of prescribing a singular narrative in our communication.

Lastly, interdisciplinarity is a fundamental principle within EH by nature of the field and its expansion of boundaries. By working against siloed thinking across disciplines, I am able to keep the larger implications of my work at the front of mind. While my Mellon work is centered around the communication of the Nature Center’s name change, the larger implications of this work extend past just public relations. Adopting this interdisicplinary approach has allowed me to participate in events and programming outside of the Nature Center’s name change efforts, which has made me feel more connected to the people at the organization and invested in the work they are doing.


Can you share any challenges or successes you've encountered while working on community engagement initiatives at the Nature Center, and how have these experiences influenced your perspective on environmental advocacy and outreach?

I have a background in nonprofit communication work, which I hoped to build upon in my Mellon work. When I came into this project, the experiences I had in the field of strategic communication followed a traditional model of PR where the communication practitioner is viewed as a manager and expert. As I began to do my Mellon Fellowship work with the Nature Center, I quickly found that the community-based research values that I wanted to guide my project – such as collaboration and trust – were at odds with the top-down approach with which I was taught to do communication work. This prompted me to take a step back and re-evaluate the traditional PR model and the values attached to it.

After reading and unlearning about the things I took for granted in past experiences, I adopted a critical PR lens to guide my work and began to build my own framework for approaching the communication aspects of my Mellon fellowship. Critical PR interrogates questions of power, agency, and knowledge production that traditional PR frameworks take for granted. I found that this was a good fit for thinking about how to approach my role as practitioner as one that decenters myself as an expert and instead sees me as a facilitator and amplifier of knowledge.

This learning process has been emergent and nonlinear. It has also been challenging at times, to develop this framework while actively doing communication work with my community partners. I am grateful that my advisors and mentors in the EH program have encouraged me to focus on developing and learning about these processes, rather than solely focusing on the product of my Mellon work. It takes time and dedication to do this work well; my mentors know this and have experienced the challenges that often exist in trying to do meaningful community engaged work within academic timelines. Having the space and support to think deeply about how to approach this PR work in ethical ways that center my community partners has been extremely helpful to me in facing these challenges within my work.


Is there any advice you have to students looking to do scholarly community engagement?

I think there are a number of considerations and questions that students should ask themselves before engaging in community-based research work. First, it is important to ask yourself why you want to do this work. This is something that Indigenous scholar Margaret Kovach focuses on in her writing, but I feel is applicable to all community-engaged work both within and outside of Indigenous research. Deep down, what is motivating you to want to engage in community-based work? Being clear about why you seek to do this work and the values you bring to it is essential to shaping your work in ways that are mutually beneficial to both you and your community partners.

Do your research, too. Read up on tenets of community-based research and learn about different epistemological approaches that may make sense for your work before diving into it. Understanding best practices in the field and why they exist is critical to shaping how you reach out to potential community partners and what your initial conversations with them should look like. You should also make sure you understand your positionality and how it relates to this work you’re seeking to do. Are you an insider to the community already, or are you an outsider seeking to be in relation with a group? How will this impact the relationships and trust you form with your community partners? How might different aspects of your identity and experiences shape biases that you bring to this work?

I also think that it is key to understand that positionality is dynamic; different aspects of your identity will impact your work at different times and in different contexts. Doing community engaged work requires one to practice constant self-reflexivity. A piece of advice I received from my advisor, Dr. Danielle Endres, was to dedicate a journal toward reflecting on your work throughout your process of doing it. I have found this journaling to be a beneficial way to help me reflect on my processes and positionality in my work. This being said, it is important to stay humble throughout the process of community-engaged work. While it is important to keep yourself at the center of how you’re thinking about approaches to work, ultimately this work is not about you.

You will learn a lot and you will make mistakes. Nobody is asking you to be perfect in your approaches to community-engaged learning, but grounding yourself in best practices and practicing self-reflexivity will help you navigate the nuances of your work.

Share this article:


Last Updated: 5/10/24