Lincoln, Neb. —Gwendŵr Meredith recognizes not only the importance of storytelling in science but story listening.
Since taking a position as a professor and social-ecological rangeland scientist at Nebraska two years ago, she has spoken and listened to ranchers in her research work with the Barta Brothers Ranch and Kansas Black Farmers Association and with students in the classes she teaches. She said these discussions have confirmed a realization she had before coming to Nebraska that when people hold conflicting opinions and are unable to hear each other out, the impact of related research is limited.
“There's not this magic world where you research something and you figure out the answer, and that means that everyone knows that answer,” she said. “Even if you disseminate that research broadly, there's actually convincing people and making up their mind about a topic and that has nothing to do necessarily with the science or the facts. There's a lot else feeding into people's behaviors, their values and their social norms, that are going to impact what their behavior is.”
She said she learned even in her postdoc years that some longstanding ideas about managing rangelands aren’t founded in science and prove hard to change. She clearly remembers attending a Society for Rangeland Management meeting in Colorado where a rancher stood up and challenged the scientists. The woman questioned who they thought they were to tell her what to do on her land, her livelihood.
“It was an interesting wake-up call and, like, not viewing yourself as different from your study subjects, from the people that you're researching,” Meredith said.
Having observed conflict between environmentalists and ranchers, Meredith said she has the goal to find areas where they agree and to work collaboratively to manage landscapes.
“Instead of labeling or identifying as something that's diametrically opposed to someone else, there's so much overlap and identification like on a spectrum that I think should be tapped into so that people don't come in a priori, ‘I don't want to listen to your opinion, because you're separate from me,’” she said.
Meredith grew up in Denton, Texas, with a father working for Housing and Urban Development and a homemaker mother who also taught elementary school as a substitute.
“I probably grew up more on the environmentalist side in terms of my perspective,” she said. “And then in talking to more ranchers and people that maybe had opinions different from my own, I saw that there were some more similarities and that most ranchers and farmers want to be good land stewards. No one says, ‘I want to be a bad land steward.’”
In a project with the Kansas Black Farmers Association, she, professor Carolina Córdova and Martha Mamo, head of the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, are assessing the farmers’ needs to cocreate useful resources with them.
Mamo said the main goal of the project is to support new and existing farmers in managing their fields while building resilient and healthy soils.
“We're really trying to take this grounded theory approach where we don't come in with an a priori research question,” Meredith said. “We let them define what that research question is and build from the ground up.”
The professors held a listening session with the farmers at the annual meeting of the association in Hill City, Kansas, in July. The farmers told how Nicodemus, Kansas, used to be a primarily black farming community and how they would like to get back to that and bring young people into farming.
Meredith said she found the storytelling meaningful to the research and to herself.
“Sharing stories is what makes people, people,” she said. “It's like the human side of that individual as opposed to seeing them as a research participant, per se.”
Similarly, in her work as part of an interdisciplinary team interviewing ranchers in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, she is collecting stories about the ranchers’ regenerative ranching practices and the related costs and benefits.
Regenerative ranching or farming typically uses more natural means to deter pests and nourish soil than pesticides and fertilizers. It also leans toward high-intensity, low-frequency grazing, among other practices.
The team hopes to better understand the ranchers’ connection to the land and motivations for adopting regenerative practices by listening to their stories, Meredith said.
She also helps the Barta Brothers Ranch manager and others use collaborative adaptive management to run the ranch. In this management approach, people try to make the best decisions they can based on the information available and then learn from the results of those decisions and adjust future decisions. The aim is to reduce uncertainty over time through system monitoring and to improve decisions and results.
Meredith said she sees collaborative adaptive management as a possible way to bring people together to hash out ideas and value others’ opinions. She said she tries to go into such discussions without “an ‘I’m-going-to-change your mind’ perspective” but an openness to discussion.
“A long-term research goal that I'd like to contribute toward is depolarizing our society and humanizing ‘the other,’ where people aren’t so siloed into different camps,” she said. “So, whether it’s a research discussion or a discussion in class, I think it's important to listen and value other people's opinions and perspectives.”
She said she teaches at the university on much broader topics than her own research and this has helped her gain perspective.
“I can teach about the facts of, say, an environmental issue, but I think having a classroom discussion about it is a lot richer because you get everybody's perspective and people are exposed to perspectives that aren't their own because we make little silos or echo chambers where we only are friends with people that have the same opinions as ourselves,” she said. “So, getting those other perspectives humanizes the other side, creates empathy and, hopefully, depolarizes what people view as ‘the other’ on some of these issues.”
Meredith said she is a visual learner and seeing landscapes that she wishes to conserve or increase their sustainability makes her passionate about her work.
“I'm not going to solve the world's problems all by myself,” she said, “but I like to see myself as a small part of that solution toward preserving or conserving or working with these landscapes so that generations to come still have that experience.”
— Ronica Stromberg, CRAWL Program Coordinator