The research chooses the researcher


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Fidgeting with the audio recorder on my laptop and reading over my notes, I sat in the front room of my sorority house, restless in anticipation. Although talking with people about sustainability and the environment was well within my comfort zone, I had never conducted formal interviews in a research setting before. Waiting for my first-ever interviewee to arrive, I felt like the ghost of Galileo himself was observing my quest for logic and reason.

Sitting and waiting, my mind wandered to the start of this scientific research journey that began not within the walls of my sorority house, but instead in my adviser’s office on the second floor of Mulford Hall, which houses the Student Resource Center for the College of Natural Resources, or CNR.

As an environmental sciences major in CNR, I was required to write a senior thesis. Brainstorming topics with my adviser, my mind was overwhelmed with research possibilities. I repeatedly saw issues that deserved the diligent time and attention that research provides, but I never thought that I would find myself having to finally choose a topic. Eventually I realized that the research picks the researcher, just as the wand chooses the wizard.

The research that chose me was on sorority sustainability programs at UC Berkeley. Instead of studying global population increase or rural electrification, I wanted to study the women living around me because they were my community — a community that I cared about and wanted to see do better. During my experience at UC Berkeley, I tried constantly to help my chapter make sustainability improvements, but more often than not, my efforts were met with resistance and hesitation.

For so long, I wondered if the challenges I was facing were specific to my chapter or if they were widespread in the community. Most importantly, I wanted to know what it would take to put the Panhellenic community on a path to sustainability and environmental awareness. Finally realizing this, it was clear that I needed to find some answers.

As the door to the front room of my house opened, I snapped out of my thesis-thinking fog and back into the present reality of interviewing. The woman before me was a friend and our interview started out smoothly. She was very open about her experiences trying to make changes in her chapter, and with each story she told me, my excitement for my research project grew.

During the interview it was difficult to contain my enthusiasm. Although we were friends, I still wanted to maintain some level of posh professionalism. But listening to her was the ultimate validation for my years of frustration and fighting the system. During the entire interview, I could not wipe the mile-wide smile off of my face.

For 45 minutes, she talked about the systemic sorority politics and priorities that held back her efforts. She discussed the endless entitlement to the easy, breezy, beautiful, CoverGirl life that the women in my chapter portrayed — a life that included lots of wasted cups. She even called out UC Berkeley for not doing more to help the community. She found it absurd that the university could boast about its sustainability advances, when, just off campus, the university endorsed a Greek community that existed without any regard for its sustainability goals or efforts.

It turns out that her experiences, and the experiences of the 21 other women who I spoke with, were not unlike mine. In my research, I found that the low prioritization of sustainability, the bureaucratic structure of sororities, and individuals’ unconscious behaviors were the top barriers to achieving sustainability in sororities at UC Berkeley.

Starting out my research project, I thought that I was just looking into an issue that would affect 13 sorority houses on one college campus, but in the end, my research meant much more. I realized that my research was relevant to sororities across the nation, especially chapters at large, liberal-leaning universities. I found that my work was relevant to UC Berkeley because it identified its failure to provide support for affiliated organizations to achieve environmental sustainability goals.

Conducting my first interview marked the start of the research path that would eventually lead to a 60-page creation — one that I will refer to as my brainchild for the rest of my life. My thesis was my most proud college achievement. And it was not easy — throughout the process I was faced with doubt, despair and probably dehydration.

But, as I concluded my first interview that day, I knew that the work I was doing was important. Truthfully, I don’t know if the next generation of sorority sustainability leaders will read or find my research useful. I don’t know if UC Berkeley will ever start providing sororities with the support they need to achieve sustainability. And although it would be my dream for my research to spark a sorority sustainability revolution, it is enough that my research gives a voice to me and other women in the community who are trying desperately to do good and make positive change.

Jessica Redden writes the Monday column on finding freedom from overconsumption. Contact her at [email protected].

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