Editor’s note: This is part of a continuing series highlighting the research being carried out by undergraduates at UC Berkeley across a variety of disciplines. You can find all the stories in the series here.
For many students on campus who get involved with research, the process involves cold-emailing professors and waiting to get lucky, applying to the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program once a semester or knowing someone in a lab.
For students in UC Berkeley’s interdisciplinary studies field, or ISF, however, student-driven research is built into the program.
Yeshe Salz is a senior in ISF. She is now completing a thesis, incorporating studies in comparative literature, environmental studies and ethnic studies to evaluate the role of narrative in community mobilization against environmental injustice in Richmond, CA.
According to Salz, the ISF major introduces students to research methods via a class which culminates in a research proposal. Students then spend their final semesters at UC Berkeley working to carry out the research they proposed and, ultimately, present a thesis on it.
“As someone who originally came from a literature major, I thought I was going to be doing a textual-based thesis,” Salz explained. “But ISF does, in some ways, emphasize social science-based research. That shaped a lot of my thinking on how I was going to do my research.”
“A question that I had was ‘How are people talking about their experiences of a changing climate?’” — Yeshe Salz
Back when she wrote her proposal in her research methods class, Salz was on the cusp of a journey to Chiapas, Mexico, for an internship with a water sanitation organization. “I knew initially that I was really interested in the intersection of storytelling and the environment,” Salz said. “A question that I had was ‘How are people talking about their experiences of a changing climate?’ ”
To try to answer that question, she proposed a cross-sectional study of Richmond and Chiapas.
Unfortunately, Salz wasn’t able to conduct much research in Mexico. “Very few of the communities we were working with spoke Spanish,” she explained. (Though Salz did speak Spanish, she wasn’t fluent in the indigenous languages of the communities she was working in.)
Upon returning to Berkeley, she refocused her project onto Richmond — and on public, rather than private, narratives. “A big part of the change that happened in my thinking was when I learned that very few people are actually saying ‘Oh, I’m experiencing climate change today,’” Salz explained. “Nobody’s talking about it like that.”
So instead, she examined the way communities organize around environmental injustice. “I began looking at these organizational efforts to address environmental injustice and the narratives that exist therein,” Salz said, “which led me to examining coalition building and the various key players in Richmond and how all of their narratives are intersecting with one another.”
The ethical dilemma of examining a community you are not a part of is a major aspect of social science-based research fields, and its nuances were not lost on Salz.
“I started out my research by just getting involved in the community,” Salz said. “I started volunteering for an environmental justice organization up there. … I felt that that was really important, in practice, to have that sort of organic experience of a community before studying it as an external researcher.”
But the biggest takeaway from her research, she said, is knowing she can do it and learning how to locate herself within that sector without overstepping her place.
During that semester, she spent her time without her “researcher hat” on, as Salz puts it, volunteering and listening to the stories of her supervisor, Andrés Soto.
“He is kind of an elder in the community, who started the Richmond Progressive Alliance and is a master storyteller,” Salz explained. “I felt so lucky to have wound up right in his office, getting to learn from him. He was so generous with his time, explaining so much about Richmond’s history.”
Salz’s research involves the synthesis of interviews she has conducted with members of the community with content analysis of the public narratives put forth by actors including Chevron and the Air Quality Management District. “I examine the role of narrative within the internal space of grassroots community organizing … and how that plays out within coalition building,” Salz said.
Sitting outside Yali’s café on a sunny day, it’s easy to become enraptured in the narratives flying around — that of Richmond, of Salz’s own journey and of the passion with which both are told. Salz has both a knack for storytelling and a distinct grasp of the shortcomings of her position as an outside observer.
“How can I possibly put this complex, multifaceted issue, that I will never even fully understand as an external observer, into words in this concise 30-40 page thesis?” she asked. “It feels like it’s doing a disservice to the nuance and complexity of what it means to be doing this work in Richmond.”
Not to mention, she added, that her own experience has been limited to a tiny cross section of a huge community. “I try to state that I’m oversimplifying this, and I recognize that,” Salz explained, before pausing. “But it’s also an undergraduate thesis.”
She laughed, but that statement throws a lot of the conversation into a sort of stark relief. Salz is a student, and the amount of time she spends in Richmond for this project takes a toll not experienced by students doing research physically on campus. “I made the choice to only take three classes this semester, including my thesis seminar,” she explained. “There’s been times when I’ve felt pretty overwhelmed by the necessity to be not in Berkeley, but in Richmond.”
Salz wants to work with environmental justice organizations — a passion she discovered while exploring this project — and eventually pursue graduate school. But the biggest takeaway from her research, she said, is knowing she can do it and learning how to locate herself within that sector without overstepping her place. “I know what it’s like on so much deeper of a level,” she said. “And I know that I have the capability to continue doing it.”