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environmental justice

LISTEN: Annie Belcourt on Indigenous health and healing

"Why on Earth would we not want to invest in ways to help people live hopeful, and longer lives?"

Dr. Annie Belcourt joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss using psychology to address the unique mental health challenges and issues in U.S. Indigenous communities.


Belcourt is an American Indian Professor in the College of Health at the University of Montana’s Pharmacy Practice and School of Public and Community Health Sciences Departments (enrolled tribal member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, Mandan, Hidatsa, Blackfeet, and Chippewa descent). She also discusses cultural contamination, and how to foster meaningful, respectful partnerships between Indigenous communities and researchers.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Belcourt, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

Today's guest is Dr. Anie Belcourt, American Indian Assistant Professor in the College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Montana's Pharmacy Practice and School of Public and Community Health Sciences Department –Man, what a mouthful some of these departments' names are! She is an enrolled tribal member of the three Affiliated Tribes Blackfeet, Chippewa, Mandan-Hidatsa. Belcourt talks about growing up on the Blackfeet reservation, cultural contamination and using psychology to address the unique mental health challenges and issues in US Indigenous communities. Enjoy. All right, I am very excited to be joined by Annie Belcourt. Annie, how are you doing today?

Annie Belcourt

I'm doing well. Excited to be here with you.

Brian Bienkowski

And where are you today?

Annie Belcourt

So I am in Montana, which is the traditional indigenous lands to the Salish and to many other tribal communities here in Montana. And I myself am Blackfeet, Chippewa, Mandan and Hidatsa. And so, and my Indian name I often share with people is Otter Woman in our Blackfeet language so.

Brian Bienkowski

So you, that's a good place to start. So you grew up on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. Tell me about that place and how you think it may have shaped you.

Annie Belcourt

Oh, yeah. So I, excuse me, I grew up on the Blackfeet reservation just outside of Glacier National Park. And so our closest neighbor was a mile away. So you can imagine it was incredible as a child to grow up, you know, surrounded by, you know, in, you know, an environment that was so beautiful. And also, such a part of our family. I grew up in between home Glenridge and Red Blanket, we call it Hill, but it was very, very large buttes.

So we, you know, we had wild animals, we had grizzly bears, elk, moose, you know, you name it, all throughout our land. And so growing up in that, in that environment, was very special to me, it's a very spiritual place, and so allowing me and my family, to be a part of that community, which is really how the Blackfeet view other plants and other animals, as our relatives, and so we call them as such, so it was a real privilege to have that. And then I went to school at a small combined classroom school. And, you know, it, you know, I will say all the health disparities that, you know, we learn about and we unfortunately, teach about in our classes, are very much true for where I grew up, and how all the lives of the people who I know, were touched by, in some way or another, some of the struggles that American Indian people face as well. So it's within that reality that I sort of had, you know, wanted to develop an education and a pathway in academia ultimately. But that foundation is always with me of being, you know, a Blackfeet person.

Brian Bienkowski

And that educational path, you've definitely done that. So, you know, a lot of people I talked to on here, they shift majors, they shift areas of focus, you know, it's a time in your life when you're figuring things out. For myself, I didn't even start journalism until my late 20s. So, but you have a bachelor's, a masters and a PhD in psychology. So it seems like something grabbed you pretty early on, and I'm wondering what that was about the field?

Annie Belcourt

Yeah. So I also had an undergraduate minor before they had a major available in Native American studies. So you know, and there was no degree offered at the Masters or PhD level in Native American Studies at our university. So I... psychology really was an area that I felt very passionately about being able to help my communities and and to, you know, be curious about, you know, how people function how people make the decisions that they do, when problems happen, what does that look like? And how can we help people, you know, cope with many different barriers, including mental health aspects of their lives. So, for me, it was a really, incredibly hopeful field, because it looked at really difficult problems and things that people are afraid of – such as mental illness, people have a lot of fear around that – and really provides ways based on empirical science to help people improve. And for me, you know, there was a such a quiet, if not silenced voice for Native people within the academic field of psychology. And so for me, it was really a great opportunity to learn about all of the wonderful ways that we can help people through psychotherapy and other intervention formats, but also be able to understand how American Indians and their reality is different in some ways, and how some of that is shaped by, you know, numerous factors, but one of those factors being the environment and our relationship with the natural world as well. So, so there's many things that have led to that, but I've been very happy about that.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, and I want to get into some of those unique aspects in dealing with Indigenous communities. But but I've been asking everybody this question, and it's a big, unwieldy one. And that is, what is the defining moment or event that shaped your identity? This could be professional, personal.

Annie Belcourt

Yeah. I mean, I read this, and I had to really think about it, because there's been so many. I've been really blessed with, you know, incredible children, a family that was loving, and sober and kind, and all of the things that you want to see in a family, and, you know, all of those things of course shaped who I am in the most important ways, you know – build me as a compassionate human being who values intelligence than thought and all sorts of good things. But I do have to say, you know, my first encounter with like severe close loss was also very important in terms of my formation as a person and my academic career. And part of that was the loss of my sister, she died in 2001. And she was, she and a friend were out, and randomly ran into people who one of them killed her and ended her life. And so, when that happened, I was a, I think, a second-year graduate student in clinical psychology. And so as you can imagine, it was really, very difficult for me to over, you know, for me just to exist, actually, it was very, very painful. But I was able to do that because of my family, and because of my children and unable to complete a doctorate degree, and continue to do psychotherapy with people. And a lot of it is just, you know, of course, I would want my sister back, but I, it has made me, as an individual, challenge fears I have, and to lean into things like compassion and kindness in the work that I do. And that, to me, is her legacy. And that's really important to me that she has a legacy that is hopeful, and that is showing that you know, people can overcome loss because of the people that they love.

Brian Bienkowski

Welch, thank you so much for sharing that. And I'm incredibly sorry for your loss. And I believe you're the first person on that question to talk about loss in that way. And I think it's a really beautiful way to look at a defining moment, we all deal with loss. I mean, it's a constant in our life, especially as we get older, so it's really powerful to turn that into something that's something beautiful and positive. So before we get into the nitty gritty of your work, I kind of wanted to set the foundation a little bit. Because we haven't had, you know, on this podcast, we haven't had a ton of Indigenous scientist on here. And I know Indigenous science and kind of traditional knowledge – I know at some point, it's called traditional ecological knowledge, I don't know if that's still a cool term or not – But these perspectives have historically been left out of western science or incorporated in ways that were haphazard, at best and disrespectful at worst. So I'm wondering, in your mind, in your research, you know, what does meaningful, respectful partnerships between indigenous communities and research look like to you and are you seeing progress on this front?

Annie Belcourt

Yeah. It's a great question. I mean, it's a complex question, because, you know, a lot of what we're seeing historically, is some of the things that you've talked about like that are more extractive science and people coming in, getting their information, writing their paper, getting their degree getting money, and it not really benefiting the community. So that is a process that has been gotten to be challenged by tribal communities. And I am happy to say that I've been a part of that journey. And I serve as a volunteer reviewer for a Blackfeet Nation IRB. And one of the first questions is how does this impact the community in positive ways? How does this benefit the community? And that doesn't seem like it should be a wild question. But, you know, a lot of applications that we see do struggle to answer that question in ways that are appropriate and adequate, frankly. A lot of times the old model has been this extractive –we come in, maybe tell you what's wrong, you know, and go away–, as opposed to having the community drive the research and have it be applied and having ways described that could help improve not only community health, but individuals health as well. So, you know, a lot of what we're seeing now is that, as we think about even the concept of human subjects research, that, you know, Native people have a more expansive definition of that that includes, you know, blood samples, it includes our relatives who have passed on, we have the National Graves Repatriation Act, you know, we, as reviewers of IRB proposals have to think about too, and this is also cultural knowledge that is protected. And it's protected for many reasons, including some of the past practices that have misapplied or misconstrued or misrepresented native culture and, and to have that be presented as something that we try to do. So, you know, as we think about traditional ecological knowledge, and how that applies to our behavior, it is also a nuanced discussion, because, you know, there's many wonderful examples of how native and Indigenous knowledge of knowledge has advanced science and, and continues to do so. And we have to think about how those advancements can be shared with Indigenous communities as well in effective ways. So, so those are some of the things I think that we're beginning to see be required. And it's taken a long time to have that happen. But people are more aware of the need to respect tribal sovereignty in these domains.

Brian Bienkowski

I think a lot of people when they think of psychology, they think of a person lying on the couch than another person writing on a pad and asking them about their mother or something. There's a trope that's in all the movies. So, you know, when I looked at your work, it looks like it's obviously much, much more than that. So just what does it look like to work in a clinical psychology setting with a with a community? I assume there's still probably some one on one interaction, but as a community, clinical psychologist, what does that look like?

Annie Belcourt

Yeah, thank you. I mean, I did actually just get a couch in fairness this week. Because I did actually just recently renew my office, but it's a small one, it's not... So I was trained as a scientist practitioner, and in clinical psychology. And so you know, always kind of doing clinical work or experience to help really inform the work that I do scientifically, and the research that I do. The work that I've done has been diverse in many ways. Because I had done a postdoc where we did a lot of psychiatric epidemiology, where we looked at things, we sliced up what problems are and how they're associated with things. And it was a wonderful opportunity. And I, you know, really cherish my time in Colorado. However, I also was like, had a growing impatience on how do we actually help communities and a lot of that was because I was a clinician, so I was trained to help people and communities. And so I shifted quickly into things that were not just dissemination, that were truly bringing the community in and hearing their voices and having that be documented and shared. So some of the things that we've done has been digital storytelling workshops, where we teach people the basics of video making, we've just started to do looking at creating podcasts and ways to increase our, as a native people, access to information and especially Indigenous kind of centered information as well. So those are some things that have kind of gone on over the time. There's a ton of things though. I mean, I've been involved with like RO1, which is like kind of like high, multi-level, year science projects, but I've incorporated video within that. I've incorporated traditional knowledge within that. We created an environmental exposure measure, specifically for Indigenous communities. And looking at traditional practices, and how that basically interacts with things like climate change, and for tribal communities, how people are coping with extreme weather events. And so that's a paper that's coming out and that we're very excited about, you know, being able to share information. And this was like, you know, gathered before the pandemic, right before. And so to be able to kind of have a snapshot of how things were there. And then, you know, future research, we can take a look at how things are going now. But a lot of my work is also mentorship, and I mentor, I have a doctoral student who's finishing and will be graduating next week. And he is looking at substance use and traditional cultural knowledge, attitudes and beliefs. And so D'Shane Barnett is you know, the next generation, you know, of people who are going to move this work forward, and he's also our county health director here in Missoula. So a lot of us are very proud of him as a native man, to be able to enter these spaces and to provide an Indigenous voice to, you know, spaces that often were not. So, you know, my research has really evolved over time, I am now I am a Hollywood producer, believe it or not

Brian Bienkowski

Wow!

Annie Belcourt

I know, it's wild! So my daughter is a filmmaker and a writer. And so we produced a short film, have a poster over here, called Dog with the summer. And it was completely shot on the Blackfeet reservation, with a Blackfeet crew, with Native cast. And it was looking at, you know, difficult topics around... We hear a lot about missing and murdered Indigenous women. And, in fact, tomorrow [May 5th] is the National Day of Remembrance for MMIW. And, you know, this film kind of looked at, what are some of the upstream variables? How was domestic violence, you know, within our homes and our communities impacting Native women? and how our Native women, you know, responded to, or more importantly, not responded to, by criminal justice systems? And so those are hard questions. And they're questions I didn't necessarily think I'd be doing when I was learning how to do psychotherapy or what have you. But all of those things have really converged into a place of inquiry, that I feel as a scholar is exciting. And as we move into, you know, hopefully beyond this past pandemic, that we can start to have post traumatic growth happen, and that there's ways that we can heal not only as individuals, but as communities. And psychology, and native scholars have real place within that.

Brian Bienkowski

So you mentioned earlier, some of the unique aspects of working with tribes. And part of this I remember as a reporter, when I wrote about environmental pollution on tribal land and how it not only contaminates bodies, but contaminates culture, you know. So, for example, I remember being in upstate New York with the Mohawk. And if you can't eat fish out of the St. Lawrence River, not only are you losing a fish, you're losing the opportunity for language to be passed on for the teaching how to get that fish, a whole, a whole cascade of effects. I recall visiting out your way visiting the Crow Reservation and chief Plenty Coups spring which was a sacred spring use for Sundance's and for drinking after fast and they couldn't do that because it was contaminated. So it put these traditions on hold. So I'm wondering, can you talk about some of these cultural impacts of pollution and environmental insults that you've seen in your work and why that's such a kind of a unique aspect and working with tribal communities?

Annie Belcourt

Yeah, you know, it is, in fact, a very significant topic for all Indigenous communities in one way or another. Here in Montana, we see, like you said, water pollution being an issue; climate change is increasing temperatures quite rapidly and we're seeing things like, you know, more zooonotical you know, like Giardia in the water. And so, in fact, even though we're I grew up is seen as a very pristine, it's actually not safe to drink water from the river, you have to boil it or treat it in some way. And also, the droughts have really impacted our traditional foods. And we've had, you know, times where we haven't been able to gather the foods that we need for ceremony, let alone sustenance on a sustained basis. And, as we know, many Native people live in poverty. And some of the foods that are, you know, best for us to eat our traditional foods, yet are very expensive. And not only if you're able to gather, then you have to pay for transportation to get there and get, you know, permits and things at some places. And so those are just examples of here in Montana. I have a friend who is, her name is Stephanie Moore. She's a researcher for NOAA on the Pacific Coast near Seattle. And she's done a number of different really important pieces of science, but some of them have been with our tribal communities partners. And one of the stories that really stood out to me was, you know, the – well, there's many – but they have a high level of domoic acid and some of the shellfish. And so it'll cause widespread closures of beaches, because it's toxic to humans, it's a neuro-toxin. And it can cause acute amnesia. And so there's studies looking at the low-level exposures within our Native communities and how it may or may not impact people. So, but a story was shared by an elder from the community – and his name is Larry Campbell – And he, he shared with us that you know, the importance of spiritual foods and how, you know, he saw a woman, you know, taking a Benadryl, which is like an allergy medication, right. And they were in a communal fishing kind of feast and, and he asked her, "Well, why are you taking this Benadryl? Are you okay?" And she said, "Well, I'm allergic to shellfish." And, you know, and we don't know if, again, if that's because of how shellfish are treated, once they're out of the water, or what have you. But the point is, is he was like, "Well, why would you eat it, you can't eat," she said, "My Spirit needs to eat the food, it's not that I need to eat the food. And, and so I'll take this, because I need this to kind of have spiritual nourishment, and to continue on." And not everybody understands that about Native people. You know, where I grew up, we've literally, you know, the landscape was named for our ancestors, because that's where we have always been, and that's our belief system. And, you know, and so the relationships we have with our environment is so critical. So those are some of the things that we have to think about, as we we, you know, think about the environmental impact of climate change, of pollution, of inequality, of planned eco-toxic areas that are exposed to all of these different challenges and having it not be always, you know, more likely that people of color experience the after-effects of that. And unfortunately, that's too often true across the country, with tribal communities I have worked with, you know, throughout the nation that there has been consistently discussions of how the environmental changes that we're seeing are impacting them very directly. You know, that not as some thought, it's like, you know, every day

Brian Bienkowski

so one of your papers that stuck out to me when I was doing some research is, you pointed out the very health health disparities in Indigenous communities that you just mentioned, and how I believe you said, it was a moral imperative that the U.S. makes up for this lack of research and find strategies to address this. And this is, of course, against the backdrop of historical backdrop of genocide, forced removal, environmental contamination, a lot of the really ugly history of that relationship. So what do you see as a path forward, to do better in researching and reaching out to these communities and improving and eliminating these health disparities?

Annie Belcourt

Well, it's a wonderful question, because I don't know that I have the entirety of the answers. But I do know, a lot of it really relies upon, you know, including communities at the center of any work and having and that sounds so simple, and, like obvious. But frequently, it's not the case. Usually, what happens is, a researcher comes in, has a particular expertise, and then wants to do research to confirm that expertise, essentially – I mean, that's a little crass, I apologize – but still, like, you know, basically, like it's a very sort of linear process, right, or a plus b, and then let's find out if a plus b works again, in this community, or what have you. And, you know, and there's a growing impatience for that sort of slow incremental science. There's a place for that, of course, right? But there's also a place for dynamic ways of engaging communities in discussions. And those are some things that are really hopeful. How do we find people who are within the community to be agents of change, to really look at advocating within many different spheres, including policy, legislation, funding, research, healthcare? all those different kinds of ways that we can help to improve health of a given community. And unfortunately, we've had too few leaders We have stepped up to that. And that's, you know, it's challenging. You know, here, in Montana, we've had a really challenging few years, of course, like everybody, but also politically, we've had laws passed here to actually decrease gun restrictions on our campus, and to increase, open carry on our, our campuses, which is really, you know, just profound to me that that would, and, you know, when we know, suicide is the biggest killer of our Native people in our state, and we have the highest rates of suicide. And you know, you know, why on earth would we not want to invest in ways to help people live hopeful lives, and longer lives, right? Why, you know, what are the things that we can do to unpack that inequality in ways that is empowering to communities, and that's what's really needed, we need to have people, you know, at the helm, deciding what is helpful, and telling their stories, and that's why I've kind of really gotten into storytelling and film and applied public health. It's, it's not, I was just told the other day, it was just dissemination way too. And I really bristled at that, because, you know, I have done the classic like churn-and-burn paper market, you know, like writing and writing, and getting grants and different things like that. But some of the most meaningful things I've ever done in my life has been to listen to tribal people, and, and to learn about ways that they try to bring healing and peace to others in a very selfless way. And it's a beautiful thing to know that we have communities who have ways of healing, you know, not only each other, but communities and a lot of our ceremonies are about healing our relationship with the planet and other other worlds that we have. And I think that that's a really powerful thing, I think that we can, we can learn from that. And those are ways that we can teach others about some of these things, so that there's less fear, that there's less hatred that is directed towards American Indian people. Showing that when, when our people go missing, it matters, and that we find them, and we hold those who hurt them accountable. Those are all examples of ways that we can kind of show that Native American lives do in fact, matter. And that we, as a people, and as communities are important in this world. And, and that, you know, it's a really, it could be a win-win, right? To learn about the richness of our cultures is not, you know, an onerous thing. And we've from day one had to learn about other cultures, right? And, and, you know, yet we're trying to, you know, play catch up when we think about, you know, Native communities. And so, that time is here, you know, I don't think we need to wait anymore. I think the time is right for us to invest in ways to promote even arts, our language, our culture, our stories, our scholars in in ways that will be, you know, ultimately helpful to everyone, including science.

Brian Bienkowski

And that's there's such a breadth and richness to this nation's tribes. I mean, there's all there's not a monolith when it comes to Native people here. And it seems as if you've gotten to work with a lot of different communities, both your own and outside outside of that. So I kind of two questions, one, if you could talk about some of the rewarding and positive aspects of your work, and also, how much goes into understanding of community maybe you're not familiar with, because I know tribes, even if they are near in geography can have very different history and culture.

Annie Belcourt

Oh, yeah, completely. I mean, I myself am in four different tribal nations, right. So I grew up on the Blackfeet. So I know more about Blackfeet culture and history. But I'm also Chippewa on my dad's side, my grandfather was, that's where the Belcourt name comes from – he was Chippewa and but he lost his parents in the Spanish flu, and so ended up in an orphanage. And so you know, and then on my mom's side, there Mandan Hidatsa. And so just for me as an individual, learning our personal history or family tree, looking at even things like the Garrison dam was built, you know, when it was built, it flooded the best agricultural area for an agrarian or farming tribe, multiple, and the place where my mother was born is underwater, because she was born in that valley in a place called elbow woods that's now underwater. And these these systematic decisions to marginalize us and to commit that genocide, really, upon native people has really required that we really be strong and not just in some sort of stoic trope – like a really dynamic way of thinking About our communities and how we share our culture in ways that are responsible, as well as hopeful, because that's at the heart of it is hope, you know, we want our children to have a better place than what we were born into. And so that's the reason why so many of us are passionate about, you know, telling our stories as well as like the hard parts as well as the joyful parts. And I have such admiration for storytellers, who are out there, creating in a time of chaos in some ways, and that there is reasons to have difficulties hoping and, and that that's, you know, I'm reminded in our work with Blackfeet, this, they were doing culture classes, and one of the elders is from Canada – because we have tribes that are in Canada that are part of our Blackfeet Confederacy –, and he was talking about this story about a ceremony and some of the songs and he described the different animals. So the different animals have different songs, and one of them was the dog. And, and it was a story of this dog that was by the lodge, and he was, this dog was a mom dog, Mother dog, and was singing the song. And she was encouraging her baby puppies to like live hopeful lives, so that they could continue to live with the Blackfeet, their relatives. And it was just like, the beauty of that connection, and the power and how amazing is that to be from a community that has always loved each other. And, and that's, that's the thing that I've learned, the, you know, come, you know, time again, is that, you know, for for my own tribal communities, the strength of our love, and our compassion for each other, is stronger than the things that tear us apart. And that is a lesson that I've also seen in other tribal communities that I have worked with facing very similar challenges, having very different ways –you know, culture, language, everything, you know, very, very different. But some of the commonalities are what bring us together as people, and allow us to think about how do we solve some of these problems in ways that are more effective, that provide true solutions? And how is that something that we can share with other tribal communities? and that generosity, like you mentioned, is so apparent, with Native people, we want truly everyone to win. And there's times where people get kind of jealous or whatever, things like that, but at the end of the day, I just want people to do better and to feel better, and to do a life that feels good and whole and livable to them. And to share that with her children in hopeful and happy ways. You know, so not radical thing is in many ways, but, but yeah, working with with different tribes is just I've been struck by how incredibly rich our communities and cultures are, and how much more we can share.

Brian Bienkowski

So you spend a lot of time thinking about other people's mental health. How do you perform your work and still maintain your own?

Annie Belcourt

Yeah, yeah, that's a great question. Um, so I do, you know, I am a psychologist, so thank God for that, right, because I know what to do. But doesn't mean I always do it completely. But you know, with me, I love spending time with my family, I love,I've done many of the pandemic, things of like learning how to make sourdough bread, I just grew mushrooms. But getting into like, my culture has been really a joyful part of the last few years, and, you know, learning our language a little more, I'm really bad at it. But it doesn't keep me from trying, you know, because it just like I mentioned, with a story with the shellfish, like, you know, it feeds my spirit to learn more about, you know, the language of my ancestors, the practices that keep us whole, and how, how beautiful, you know, our culture and communities are truly and that that is really, those are things that really feed, you know, and nourish my spirit and, and help me wanting to keep writing and doing things that will help others and, and it's hard. There are days I will say that, you know, it becomes really discouraging, you know, especially here in Montana, we see, you know, you're in I live in Missoula and native people can't afford to live here. They can't afford to move here. We don't have housing, we have people who are moving and forcing up all the prices and we're not paying people enough to live here. And, and we're followed in stores and we have all of these realities on a daily basis. So you have to find ways to take care of yourself and your family. For some that ceremony and culture for others. It's just a daily you know, I'm smudging, like many ceremonies and things of that nature, but, but the big picture is, is that you're building towards something better. And that always gives me a lot of hope. But yeah, there's smaller things to, you know, but, you know, we're learning more about radical acceptance, you know, in our family and how some of the suffering that we experience, part of our culture is that you offer it to creator when you have experienced suffering, and you do so on behalf of others, so that you can heal for them, and you can be strong for them. And that's a lot of what we, as a family tried to do is we try to help each other, and we try to help other people live more hopeful lives. And, and that's, that's something for me, that's really, you know, an honor to be a part of, as part of my family and my friends and things. And, and then, you know, like you said, I just laugh, sometimes inappropriately.

Brian Bienkowski

Awesome. Well, Amy, this has been so much fun learning about you, learning about your work. Thank you so much for doing this.

Annie Belcourt

Thank you. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Brian Bienkowski

All right. That's all for this week, folks. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Annie.

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