Despair, Kindness, and Connection: An Interview with Dr. Leslie Lewis
BY ALLISON GABLE
Dr. Leslie Lewis is a Continuing Lecturer in the Urban Studies and Planning Department at UC San Diego. She runs several practicum-style courses at the university, such as the Life Course Scholars program, and recently launched the Climate Justice/Action/Resilience Scholars (CJARS) program in 2022. In this program, students connect with each other and with the broader San Diego community to understand the systemic roots of the climate crisis, its intersections and effects, and the diverse solutions that people are working to create. As a current CJARS student, I wanted to interview Dr. Lewis to learn more about her life and what she has to teach the rest of us, particularly about remaining active and passionate in the fight for a better future throughout the rest of our lives.
Dr. Lewis and the 2023 CJARS cohort at Anza-Borrego Desert in Jan. 2023. You can learn more about the CJARS program here. (Photo credit: Leslie Lewis)
Can you give us an overview of all the work you currently do at UCSD and outside of the university?
Let’s see… so I guess I’m in my fifteenth year here, and mostly I teach, although I also have other roles on campus, and a side gig running a small nonprofit. I teach a bunch of classes that are linked to health, equity, place, climate, environmental justice, systems, aging—but I’m also the Director of Education and Community Engagement for Homelessness Hub, and I’m the Director of Urban Health and Equity Initiatives for the Bioregional Center for Sustainability Science, Planning, and Design. Those are my formal roles, but if I think about a throughline across teaching, research and community engagement/action, I try to create spaces and conditions which foster the kind of world we want to see: one characterized by justice, peace, inclusion, sustainability, compassion and love.
Beyond campus, I’ve directed a small nonprofit organization for about 13 years, a small one co-created with some of my students. It’s called the Community Hope Project—the website is woefully out of date!—and its mission is similar to what I mentioned above: to create conditions which foster peace, justice, health, connection, opportunity, hope, and human flourishing, both locally and internationally. We have a partner organization and community in Sierra Leone. That connection arose out of a pen pal relationship between my oldest daughter and a girl in this community when they were both eight—they’re now twenty-one. Through it, I came to know a wonderful young man who was facilitating the pen pals in the Hill Cut community, and through him, I met others. I got to know them, learned their strengths and challenges, their stories, and their hopes. Relationships hook you—once you care, you can’t stop caring. I invited students to help me raise money which helped to build a community center, which became a primary school that now has over 250 students, adult literacy classes, a community garden, and a microfinance project, among other things. I was able to take students there a couple of summers in a row to continue to build connections, grow, and learn together.
What was your journey like to get to where you are today?
Circuitous. I like to share that with students because people often think, “Oh, I have to know exactly what I’m going to do, and I have to do everything right,” to get to some imagined perfect endpoint, but that happens for exactly no one, and it is certainly not what I did. As an undergraduate, I changed majors three times, and I also attended three institutions! I changed my mind in graduate school as well, jumping from one topic to another to a third, because life kept interrupting my plans—or new and better options arose. My work life has been similarly varied: I’ve worked in dozens of industries and locations, from fast food, childcare, housecleaning, coaching, and meal delivery to medical assisting, waitressing, accounting, machine work in a small factory, grocery “picking” at a huge refrigerated warehouse (hated that), telemarketing (lasted 1.5 days), advocacy, grant writing, program management, teaching, research, and writing (whew!). I learned something from every single one of these experiences, whether from a co-worker, or the context, the training, or perhaps the ways the work challenged me. I think the lesson I take and I try to extend to others is that there is something you can gain from every experience you have, something you can learn from every person you meet, no matter their background. Asking this question is important: what lessons can I take from this? How can it help me reflect and grow?
What drives your passion to do climate work?
The climate crisis is an existential threat; humanity itself is endangered, not to mention millions of other life forms that we threaten with our bad behavior. So, I care about this issue because it’s so consequential. But I also care about it because it is related to other issues that I have thought, cared, and taught about for years: health inequities, environmental injustice, economic inequality, homelessness, ableism, all kinds of societal and ecological concerns. They all have roots in our extractive, exploitative systems, intersecting systems of inequity and domination which harm so many, while benefiting a small fraction of the world population. Our climate crisis is both a symptom of this, and an amplifier of these harms. I care about all of these issues because I care about people, the planet, and all of the other forms of life with whom we share this world—they are our relations; see Enrique Salmon’s kincentric ecology. I want our world to be a place of balance, fairness, and kindness, where everyone can flourish. Climate is at the top of the list because if we don’t have a habitable planet, we cannot build the just, vibrant, sustainable, and compassionate world we seek.
I think it’s interesting how you say you care about climate because it’s a symptom of all the other things you already cared about. My own personal journey is that I was never really an environmentalist but I started caring about social issues and then I learned about the climate crisis, and because I already cared about social issues…
Yeah, I think it’s often seen as separate: you have the people who care about the environment over here, and the people who care about social issues over there, and, like you, I came in more from that social side. But you quickly see how closely connected they actually are. For example, I care deeply about combating racism, and I came into that urgency through seeing the ways it manifests in health and illness—the way it gets written on the body—and across housing, education, employment, and the criminal (in)justice system. But I also know how much our social, physical, and built environment is implicated in our physical and mental health and wellbeing—and racism, along with other expressions of “othering” and domination, shows up all over the place in our environment. Foremost, we see it in terms of which communities face greater exposure to toxins due to polluting industries in their neighborhoods. We see it in terms of which communities are hit hardest by extreme heat, and other climate change impacts.
How did you come up with the Climate Justice/Action/Resilience Scholars program and all of the different activities that students in the program participate in?
Practicum-style courses are my favorite way to teach. They offer opportunities for place-based, experiential learning, and for learning from people who may not have formal degrees behind their names, but who nonetheless have tremendous wisdom and a critical perspective to share. I’ve created and/or co-created several similar community-based courses. I teach a course on healthy, equitable, and biophilic placemaking, and another called Life Course Scholars, which looks at the diversity of the aging experience and how it’s shaped by different sociocultural, economic, political, identity, and experiential factors. With my USP colleague Dr. Mirle Rabinowitz-Bussell, I co-created a course called Urban Challenges: Homelessness in San Diego, which trains students to be trauma-informed co-researchers and undertake oral history interviews with people experiencing houselessness across our city. We didn’t have anything like these courses related to climate, so I co-conceived the idea with a mentor and colleague of mine from the Anthropology Department, Dr. Steve Parish. We sought and received funding from the Dean’s Office of the Social Sciences Division, and I developed the curriculum during the COVID pandemic.
When developing it, I knew I wanted to create experiences that would inspire and transform students, and give them opportunities to learn from people across the region doing important work around climate justice, action, and resilience-building. I wanted to co-create a rich and supportive learning community. I think of myself as a kind of gardener; I’m helping to grow healthy humans who feel cherished and capable of making change. I think about how to nourish and scaffold students, and then help them work together and spread goodness in the world. We don’t have enough opportunities to cultivate joy and connection—we need to be integrating that into so many more aspects of our lives.
I also knew that I wanted to bring students out into the broader community to learn and to see where they might contribute. I drew on some connections I already had, for example, bringing them to the Ocean View Growing Grounds, which is run by a longtime community partner, the Global Action Research Center. But I also researched who else was doing good work in the community. Who could I meet and introduce students to? I’m sort of learning as I go and getting feedback from students along the way, because it is impossible to create the perfect program in the first run, if there even is such a thing. You learn as you go, and grow from it. I’ve learned a lot from the students in my first two cohorts.
CJARS students helping weed strawberries at Solidarity Farm, a co-op farm that practices regenerative, carbon-sequestering agriculture. (Photo credit: Allison Gable)
What’s one achievement you’re really proud of?
I don’t think it’s an achievement so much as a way of being in the world, you know? I’m proud of my classes and my research and other work, but I’m most proud of how I show up in my relationships, whether with students, colleagues, community members, neighbors, or even new people I encounter out in the world. I try to engage with openness, humility, kindness, and love. So, I feel good about the trust and genuine connections that have arisen out of that. I find that not everyone is ready to engage in authentic ways, but for the most part, people will respond in kind if you’re open, honest, and show genuine curiosity and humility. When you show some vulnerability, it opens up space for others to do the same. This can be really refreshing because ours can be such a harsh, judgemental culture. When we create conditions in which people feel like it’s safe to share their whole selves, deep connections become possible. I think that is so powerful, because it is those deep, authentic relationships, particularly when they’re networked—thinking about biomimicry, like fungi—that’s the relational rootwork of real social change.
What challenges have you faced in your climate related work?
Off the top of my head I think about time—I’m always stretched thin because I’m engaged in so many ventures and initiatives, all of which are worthwhile and feel urgent. I do also sometimes grapple with an overwhelming sense of despair. But the feeling is fleeting—one of the benefits of getting older and having done this work for a long time is that I know these feelings will come, but then they will go. We will cycle in and out of the down times and then get back up and feel inspired again. A third challenge is shame, self-pressure, and perfectionism, which I think we all internalize to some extent. I have this feeling—a sort of imposed pressure that I’m supposed to know how to do all this perfectly, and that if I don’t know everything, then I’m failing my students. If I’m not out there doing every single thing just right, then I’m failing my community. I know intellectually that this is ridiculous, and it doesn’t stop me, but it makes it hard because I have to do a lot of self-talk to remind myself that, like every other human being in the world, I cannot know everything—far from it! I have to remember that we are all doing the best we can, and we have each other to lean on, and to learn from and with. I just have to take a deep breath and have faith that people aren’t going to reject me just because I didn’t do everything perfectly right—but it’s quite amazing how persuasive those negative thoughts can be.
I think it’s hard, when you want to do so much good in the world, to not beat yourself up about making mistakes.
Yeah. We are so brutal to ourselves.
You talked about the sense of despair that can be a challenge in your work. How do you try to cultivate hope for a positive future, in yourself and in others?
I try to bring laughter and joy, art, music, dance, and play into different spaces, and into my relationships; that keeps me going. But I would say that I am largely fueled by seeing the impact of this work. Every time I create a course, or program, or event that inspires, nourishes, or positively transforms people, or that opens up new questions, possibilities, and relationships—that absolutely feeds me. It spurs me on to do more.
UCSD students engaging with collaborative art and clothing swap stations at the 2023 Climate Justice & Resilience Fest. The art prompts read, “What gifts do you bring to the world?”/“Where does your authentic self feel most empowered in the ecosystem of change?” (Photo credit: Leslie Lewis)
What advice do you have for university students and other people who are invested in the climate change struggle and want to make a difference in the world around them?
I would say be bold and strategic, but also be kind to yourself and others. I think that’s the part we often do not pay enough attention to. It’s always go go go, fight fight fight, work work work! And it is absolutely important that we work hard, but we need to build in space for joy and rest as well, because we’re in this for the long haul. These are not issues that are going to be all wrapped up in a couple of years; they are lifetime challenges. But also, remember that we have just one precious life, thinking of a wonderful poem by Mary Oliver. We run through our days, and often don’t look up—or down!—to notice the beauty around us, or even inside us—we are very hard on ourselves. We put off the walks in nature, the calls to friends, the moments of reflection, the opportunities to spend time with loved ones—we think, “Tomorrow I’ll do that,” but the next day we say it again. Annie Dillard wrote, “How we live our days is how we live our lives.” I think that is an important lesson: integrate joy, attention, reflection, music, play, simple acts of kindness into every day. Be open to awe, to surprises, to the wisdom of the world and the many teachers around you. These are the kinds of experiences that build perspective, and resilience, and the relational bonds we need to keep us all fortified and going for the long haul.
Another thing I’d say is that sometimes things are hard. You will go through periods of despair, but you will bounce back. It may not feel like it when you’re in the thick of grief: you lose someone you love, or you face a significant disappointment. Grief can feel bottomless, unsurvivable. But a lesson of living is that you will come through to the other side and feel joy and peace again. Rumi has a beautiful poem called The Guest House which speaks to the transiency of emotions. We have to respect and make space for them, as we would guests—but they, like all guests, will eventually depart, perhaps leaving lessons in their wake. I find that metaphor so helpful.
Is there anything else you want to share with the readers of the Climate Change Review?
I guess I’d just like to express my gratitude to you, Allison, and to the creators and readers of the Climate Change Review. Anyone who is reading this is very likely the kind of person who is already “out there” working in some way to make the world a better place, and I appreciate that commitment.
I also wanted to say that writing and stories are critically important. There is a quote on our CJARS website that reads, “In order to restore the world, we have to re-story the world.” We need new narratives about what is possible, about why we do this work, about who is on the frontlines—stories of resistance, resilience, repair, transformation, love. Publications like CCR and others are foundational to this re-story-ation/restoration and to laying the groundwork for change.
Dr. Lewis at the recent CJARS Ocean View Growing Grounds Block Party. (Photo source)
If you are interested in joining the next cohort of CJARS, you can learn more about applying here. For more information about any of Dr. Lewis’s classes or programs, you can contact her at email@example.com.