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Imagining how to be better citizens of a better world

The Us in Flux series explores how humans deal with transformative change.
Author Kij Johnson says our own backyards can teach us about climate change.
April 23, 2020

ASU's Center for Science and the Imagination debuts latest series to explore community, collaboration and collective imagination in times of transformative change

Group jam sessions on balconies, banging pots and pans out open windows, drive-by parades, online gatherings on every platform imaginable — across the globe, people have found ways to show appreciation, make connections and keep spirits light, despite a frightening pandemic and the sometimes demoralizing social distancing it requires.

Arizona State University again is contributing to that effort with the launch of Us in Flux, a new series presented by the Center for Science and the Imagination that features stories and virtual discussions about community, collaboration and collective imagination in times of transformative change. Each Thursday, the center publishes an original piece of flash fictionFlash fiction is a type of fiction that is extremely short, generally less than 1,500 words but often just a few hundred words long., and the following Monday at 1 p.m., it hosts an online Zoom conversation between the author and an expert in a field related to the work. The stories are free to read and share, and the events are free and open to everyone.

“Our series, Us in Flux, is interested in the ways that people adapt to transformative events,” said Bob Beard, public engagement strategist for the center. “Whether it’s becoming more self-reliant, building novel solutions to challenges, or finding community in unexpected places, we hope these stories and events help people think about how they might emerge from this crisis as better citizens of a better world.”

In author Kij Johnson’s flash fiction piece for the series, “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck,” the main character, Linna, finds community in an unexpected place when she begins observing the animal life on the wooden deck of her apartment, where she lives alone. In the discussion that took place Monday, April 20, University of Arizona ecologist Jessie Rack praised the piece for how it demonstrates the foundations of observational science.

“I wasn’t sure when (I was first invited) to be part of this conversation how I fit in, and then I read Kij’s story and was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is what I do, this is science,’” said Rack, who works with UArizona’s Community and School Garden Program to teach environmental science to K-12 students.

Rack described a lesson she uses to teach kids the scientific method in which she takes them outside and asks them to first write a sentence that begins with “I notice,” in which they describe as many sights, sounds and smells around them as possible. Then they write a second sentence that begins with, “I wonder.”

“That’s it! That’s the scientific method,” Johnson said.

“Yeah, exactly!” Rack replied.

Discussion moderator Joey Eschrich, who is the program manager for the Center for Science and the Imagination, pointed out how one of the center’s goals with its myriad public outreach projects is to help people see their connection with scientific systems through the lens of sci-fi, and that Johnson’s story in particular has the power to “sensitize us to our embeddedness as a species with the natural world” in a time of climate crisis.

“I think backyard nature is about global climate,” Johnson said. “Every form of engagement with the natural world has an implication that’s so much broader.”

It’s the same with fiction writing, she added, explaining how a writer has one sentence to grab the reader’s attention and bring them into the story.

“And so this sort of access point, how we get into a story, is the same way as how we get into thinking about climate change or something else. … It can be anything, but it does require that you just look around. I mean, it could be milkweed pods, because I just noticed those. I’d never seen them in this neighborhood before, but of course we have milkweed pods, we have butterflies, so you have to have milkweed. And things just kind of expand outwards, and if every single one of us cared deeply enough about one part of this world, then that would be plenty.”

Eschrich and Rack both agreed they also saw a theme of community in Johnson’s piece, though she admitted it took her a moment to see it herself.

“When I first heard about this project, I thought, ‘But I don’t have anything to say about community,’” said Johnson, who, like her character Linna, lives alone. “My friends are all over the world, mostly not local, and I’m an introvert, so I like my solitude quite a lot.

But she soon realized that perhaps she felt that way because she was overlooking the less conventional connections she did have with the natural world — something Rack understands.

“As an ecologist, the first thing I think of when someone says community is not about people at all,” Rack said. “I think biological community. (Which) just means all the different interacting species in a particular place. … So to me it’s just so obvious, I’m like, ‘Yes, of course your community is your backyard. And I love that this practice of the character going out on her porch and becoming aware of the community that she’s already a part of is this kind of awakening into the biological definition of community.”

The first story to kick off the Us in Flux series was “The Parable of the Tares” by Christopher Rowe, about food, monoculture and communities that draw together the human and nonhuman. That story and the related discussion between Rowe and Michael Bell, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, are now available to read and view at any time on the Us in Flux website, as is Johnson’s “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck” and the related discussion with Rack. All future stories and videos of related discussions can be accessed for free on the website as well.

The latest piece to be published as part of the series is “When We Call a Place Home,” a utopian tale of historical memory, by Nigerian writer Chinelo Onwualu. Readers can register to participate in the virtual conversation between Onwualu and journalist Robert Evans, which will take place Monday, April 27, at 1 p.m. via Zoom.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

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Sun Devils keep sense of community alive online

Join a Devils 4 Devils Support Circle today!
Range of topics: bullet journals to belly dancing to building better habits.
April 23, 2020

Range of student-led support sessions available via Zoom, multiple times per day

When times get tough, sometimes the best place to look for support and guidance — or even to just take a break from it all — is among those who are going through the same kinds of struggles.

For the past two years, Devils 4 Devils at Arizona State University has been working to improve the social and emotional well-being of students through a unique model of peer-to-peer outreach and engagement.

Now, as we take measures to shelter in place and keep our distance from each other, the program has launched Devils 4 Devils Support Circles, a series of virtual, peer-led Zoom sessions covering a wide range of topics — from adjusting to being back at home, to building good habits, to belly dancing — that are available multiple times per day, Mondays through Saturdays, allowing students to continue making meaningful connections in spite of current physical boundaries.

As soon as classes at ASU went to remote learning in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Devils 4 Devils president Mason Ford said the group realized they needed a way to continue to be there for students.

“So we brainstormed and we came up with the solution of Support Circles, providing digital communities in a time when we have to practice social distancing and we’re away from the communities that we’re typically a part of,” he said.

While the Support Circles are not intended as a substitute for clinical therapy, the Devils 4 Devils program operates hand-in-hand with ASU Counseling Services, and the students leading the sessions have been trained in practical skills like active listening and how to direct students to further resources if needed.

“We have two goals,” said Ford, a second-year sports law and business graduate student. “One is to create a space that allows students to be part of a community. The second is to serve as a template for individual students or student organizations to create their own communities. It’s all about community and how we can provide a way for students to connect in this time.”

He and other Devils 4 Devils members, including vice president and global health sophomore Nithara Murthy, came together (virtually) to get the Support Circles up-and-running in just a matter of days. This is their fourth week online, and they’re finding the sessions to be just as helpful for themselves as for the students they serve.

“Transitioning to online classes has definitely been an adjustment,” said Murthy, who prefers in-person instruction. On Fridays, she leads a session titled “Bullet Journaling, Meditation and Positive Affirmations.”

“I had never done bullet journaling before, but I realized it helps to create structure for your day,” she said. “So every week, I’m learning how to do it along with people in the Support Circle, and we’re growing together.”

They’re also having fun together. Another session Murthy leads is called “Learn Belly Dancing With Me.”

“If you’re spending all your time online taking classes, you should be able to log on and do something fun, too,” she said, noting that sessions like the belly dancing one can be a good alternative for students who now find themselves without access to campus fitness complexes and facilities. “I just hope whoever leaves the support session leaves feeling a little bit better than they did before, and a little bit more connected to the ASU community.”

Nutrition sophomore Rachel Thomas participated in a Support Circle led by Murthy in which they discussed books, music and movie recommendations.

“Without really realizing it until after the session, I had been in a pretty down mood that day,” Thomas said. “When I decided to join the session, I wasn't really knowing what to expect. … For the next hour, we talked about those topics and even went on to discuss what we are at ASU for and what our goals are for the future. … Honestly, that session was the highlight of my day. It allowed me to converse ‘face-to-face’ with someone, which I haven't done in a while due to the quarantine. It was really nice and gave me a good mood boost.”

She and Murthy now follow each other on social media and plan to keep in touch in the future. Thomas also plans to continue participating in the Support Circle sessions.

“Peer-to-peer support is really unique and is something I believe to be necessary for personal well-being,” said Thomas, an online student who lives in Indiana. “Devils 4 Devils Support Circles allow me to interact with other ASU students in a way that I wouldn't have imagined before now. I know it's not the same as being together in person, but being able to see someone's face and talk to them via Zoom is such an awesome opportunity! It is allowing me to make friends with students who I may have never met otherwise.”