Faculty Spotlight: Miriam Gay-Antaki
March 22, 2022
Miriam Gay-Antaki is an Assistant Professor in Geography & Environmental Studies, the Associate Director, at the R.H. Mallory Center for Community Geography, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences Engineering and Medicine Committee to Advise the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Her work focuses on human-environment relations in the era of anthropogenic global climate change. She draws from political ecology and decolonial feminist geography to amplify voices that are not regularly part of the debate on climate change - from formal political spaces, such as the UN Conference of the Parties, to scientific spaces such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - to make research on the topic more effective for vulnerable and underrepresented communities.
Tell us about your research interest in connection with Latin American geographies.
Very broadly, I'm interested in the human dimensions of climate change, looking at spaces where knowledge around climate science is created. I look at spaces such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is a space where science around climate change is created, the Conference of the Parties of the UN, where policy is created, as well as the households and communities where climate policies are implemented. By investigating these different sites, I try to attend to those voices that are not automatically invited to the table, or if they are invited to the table, they are not given the appropriate platform to speak and are therefore not heard. I often draw from decolonial Latin American perspectives from scholars like Maria Lugones, Walter Mignolo, Anibal Quijano, and company, but also from the critiques by Silvia Rivera Cuisicanqui, an indigenous Aymara scholar, who speaks to the lack of representation of different voices even within decolonial scholarship, not just because they haven't been invited to the table, but because they have actively been oppressed and silenced for hundreds of years. My work is very much about trying to understand the structures that exclude different people but also different worldviews and epistemological frameworks. This is important when we're trying to resolve something as complex as climate change because we're pretending that we've already established an epistemological canon to resolve the climate crisis when, we are using the white western, masculine canon of thinking about human-environment relations. I work to think outside of this colonial epistemological canon and to ask, what is the potential of thinking outside of that, to better address climate change?
A recent concept I’ve been exploring is how if we think about environmental justice geographically, and also through an embodied perspective, or an embodied geography, how this forces us to think about environmental injustice beyond single acts of case-by-case instances. This forces us to think about the structural components of environmental injustices globally and challenges those who still ask whether environmental injustices are racially motivated or sexist. If you think about environmental injustice through these more embodied and geographical perspectives it becomes apparent that such disparities are structural, structures created and maintain by colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and modernization narratives. Thinking about how Latin American perspectives can shed light on environmental injustice highlights the necessity to understand gendered violence, in again, a more structural manner as globally required and state-sanctioned, rather than this individualized explanation of gendered violence. I’m trying to stress that the gendered violence that occurs in the Global South is very much a product of the historical processes of colonization, capitalism, and modernization. In colonized spaces, gendered violence doesn't just present through isolated matters between men and women. For instance, in a colonized location, everyone is feminized. So both men and women, and everyone in between in a colonized space are feminized and that which is feminized has also been violated throughout history by colonial systems. So you can also think about how nature has been feminized and how that has very much influenced or justified its treatment as controlled or dominated to profit for the benefit of very few.
Tell us about a recent research project you have been working on.
In the most recent project that I worked on, I historicize environmental injustice, to place attention to environmental reproductive justice, by looking at who is reproducing, and who is allowed to reproduce. What I argue is that even though people of color are reproducing, they're often reproducing to serve the ascendance of whiteness. So, for instance, we're now saying that there's gender equality, or that women have advanced so much in our society, but the reality is that it's Western white women, mostly, who are allowed to ‘go up’ the capitalist ladder because there is someone else taking care of the reproductive work. So women can enter the workforce, and they can also have a family, but this is only going to be at the expense of other women or other feminized bodies, taking care of the white woman's children and the nuclear family. What I’m trying to say here is that the idea of gender equality, in this context, is not a global reality.
One example that I cite in my work is Sayak Valencia, who argues that there's no such thing as globalization as we don’t see this sort of grounded impact. There’s this term “glocalization“ which understands that everything global is found in a locality, so a lot of the violence that she talks about in a place like Mexico, is most often brushed off as being the work of Narcos or the mafia, and when in reality there’s actually a dominant connection to global forces that, for example, make a lot of the machinery in Mexico through violent practices so that capital can continue to accumulate. Again, it's this kind of individualization and simplification of what is happening in places like Latin America. Another explanation would be that the Mexican state is sanctioning this violence so that global capitalist interests are realized.
Do you have any advice for students who are embarking on research with Latin American communities, maybe similar to some of the work that you've done?
I always try to take as many field notes as possible and keep a regular journal. There is just so much that goes unsaid, non-verbally, and there is so much that even when someone tells you something, something else is happening in the background. If you can audio record interviews, it is also good because paying attention to how things are said rather than what is being said will be useful in terms of understanding complex layers of communication. I have recently found out that email, in many ways, is no longer going to be that helpful. Everyone is using WhatsApp. You need to get everyone's information via WhatsApp, and people are usually more responsive there. I think a lot of the ways that we were trying to do research are going through technological changes. Also, if you are looking to find different perspectives, you are going to have to find multiple “ins.” If you managed to find a community member that is speaking to you, there might be another perspective that you are not talking to, so do pay attention to that, and if you cannot find that other perspective, just be honest about that, when you are reporting your results. Also, I know a lot of us are very wary of the exploitative aspect of fieldwork and it certainly can be, but I have also found that a lot of people you talk to are talking to you because they want to, otherwise they will just not talk to you. Also, during your interviews, it is good to have your questions as a guiding frame but make sure you allow the space for a conversation, you might find that there were things to note that we're not going to come from your set of questions and would be missing important information.