What I learned about policymaking from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe

By Jailene Castillo

During Notre Dame’s spring break I traveled to an area of the southwestern U.S. known as the Four Corners, the place where the borders of four states meet: New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. Along with six other students, I participated in this trip as part of a policy module on resource extraction within the GLOBES Certificate program in Environment and Society. We were guests of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. 

We learned about environmental and health hazards endangering the residents of the White Mesa Community in White Mesa, Utah in relation to the White Mesa Mill, the only fully licensed and operating uranium mill in the United States.

Members of the White Mesa Community, part of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, live on a town in the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe reservation in San Juan County, Utah. The White Mesa Mill sits about three miles from the community. The mill’s 10-year license was issued in 1980 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency that regulates commercial nuclear power plants. NRC guidelines define the rules that the mill must follow to prevent contamination of groundwater and air with toxic chemicals. 

However, Utah transitioned to an agreement state in 2004 marking a significant shift in its regulatory authority over nuclear activities. Utah gained the ability to establish its regulations and enforce compliance with federal standards set forth by the NRC and delegated these tasks to the Utah Department of Environmental Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control and the Division of Air Quality. While the mill submitted its license renewal application to the state in 2007, it was not renewed until 2017; the old license was under timely review, meaning that it remained in effect, allowing the mill to operate on a 20-year license.

This development meant that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was no longer responsible for overseeing the lawful operation of the mill. The state of Utah was now an autonomous body who was responsible for ensuring that the White Mesa Mill fulfilled its obligations to operate in accordance with the guidelines and to protect residents of the White Mesa Community. The community could now make direct demands from the state, especially in cases where it did not meet its duties. 

Due to a decline in domestic uranium mining, the mill now serves as a waste disposal facility for radioactive waste from the U.S. as well as Japan, Canada, and Estonia. Waste is processed to extract remaining uranium for commercialization, and leftovers are deposited in tailing impoundments—large below-grade ponds lined with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that house the waste permanently. The PVC linings have deteriorated over time and fail to prevent leakage. 

Uranium and vanadium, a hard gray metal used to make steel, have been found in surface watersheds near the mill and sagebrushes by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Geological Survey. Additionally, radon emissions from the tailing impoundments have exceeded regulatory emissions limits. The mill has not been covering the impoundments with compacted dirt to prevent the radon gas from escaping into the air, as is mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Limits on groundwater allowed to leave the mill have been raised by the EPA above the pre-established limits, making it easier for violations to occur. 

The White Mesa Community worries that toxic waste may leak from the tailing cells and contaminate the Burro Canyon Formation, where water trickles into the community’s springs and streams, and the Navajo Aquifer, their main source of drinking water. The Safe Drinking Water Act regulates groundwater, but the Burro Canyon aquifer is not classified as a drinking water aquifer by Utah, even though some people and animals drink from it.

Another concern is that the radon gas emitted from the mill is brought by the wind to the community. Increased exposure to uranium, vanadium, and radon pollutants may pose significant health threats to the community including cancer, renal failure, and pulmonary damage. Moreover, although the mill has a robust plan for the mill reclamation — the process of restoring the land to a usable state — there is no consensus about the effectiveness of that plan.  

The White Mesa Community has explored many avenues to ensure the mill’s safety compliance. In partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust, members filed a lawsuit against the state of Utah for violation of the Atomic Energy Act and filed a complaint against the state administrative body, which has not required the mill to comply with safety policies. The community has also partnered with Green Action for Health and Environmental Justice and Uranium Watch, nongovernmental organizations that advocate for the protection of public health and the environment. And each year, the community holds a spiritual walk from the mill to the community to protest the mill’s actions, raise awareness, and garner public support and visibility.  

As I continue to reflect on this experience and potential solutions, I share two key takeaways from the conversations: 

1. Policy making matters, but policy enforcement and compliance matters even more. As a future policymaker and practitioner, I realize that the biggest problem is not the absence of policies. When a problem arises in any field, we tend to put the blame on the right policies not existing. But they may have always been in place. However, merely having policies established does not guarantee their successful implementation or enforcement. What happens after they have been created? What would it look like if policies are seen not as the end goal, but as a step in a lengthy journey? What if policies are seen as living agents capable and in need of evolving? Would it change anything?

2. Evidence-based policymaking is only as good as those who enforce it. The White Mesa Community has presented evidence of water contamination to the state, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other relevant bodies. They have faced roadblocks at every turn, which leads to questions like these: If I can produce evidence in the hopes that it can inform modifications to current policies or the creation of new, better ones, will respective authorities care? Will they consider and act upon the evidence? What happens to the evidence after it is presented? 

The White Mesa Community deserves better. For so long, they have been marginalized. For so long they have not been heard. For so long, they have fought alone. But no longer. The Grand Canyon Trust, Uranium Watch, and Green Action are allies of the community. The Grand Canyon Trust has been the main actor aiding the community with litigation procedures; together they filed a lawsuit against Energy Fuels Resources, the owner of the mill for violation of the Clean Air Act given that the state concluded that radon emissions from mill wastes were violating federal law. Although the Utah District Court ruled in favor of Energy Fuels, the trust continues to explore alternatives to hold those responsible accountable. Uranium watch has been educating the public about the environmental and health implications that the mill has on residents of the community.

Additionally, Green Action has an ongoing campaign to shut down Energy Fuels and prevent the operation of new mines near the community. They also conduct annual leadership academy programs for White Mesa youth and adults to equip them with the knowledge, skills and opportunities to advocate and organize for their community’s well-being. They have, along with other allies, participated in the White Mesa Community’s annual spiritual walk meant to protest the operation of the mill and to raise awareness and educate the public about the ongoing situation. 

I invite you to join me in becoming an ally of the White Mesa Community. You can support them by becoming a storyteller, an advocate, and a voice for them. Learn about their culture, their heritage, their ways. Have open conversations with your family, friends, and colleagues about them and the injustices they keep suffering. Participate in the campaigns and in the events organized by the community Join them in their spiritual walk happening in October 2024 . If you are able to, write about them to trustworthy news outlets and elected officials or share their story on your social media channels. Amplify their voices. But most importantly, listen to them. They have a story worth telling. 

Jailene Castillo ’25 is a Notre Dame master of global affairs student from Belize.

3 doors my global affairs major has opened for me

By Ashwin Raghuraman

My choice to come to northern Indiana to study global affairs came as quite a shock to both me and my friends back home; however, my first year in the Keough School has been beyond anything I could’ve dreamed. The opportunities I’ve been presented with, the experiences I’ve had, and the friends I’ve made have shaped my world in surprising ways.

The day I arrived at Notre Dame, I was a poorly dressed bundle of excitement. I thought every first experience — seeing the Grotto and the Basilica, watching the fat squirrels, meeting an uncountable number of people — was magical. I thoroughly enjoyed all my first experiences on campus and entered the Keough School with wide eyes. 

After greeting my fellow first years, my boundless enthusiasm suddenly and unexpectedly gave way to overwhelm, followed by a breakdown into tears in my RA’s room. Moving into college by myself, while not fitting the stereotypical Notre Dame archetype of a white conservative Catholic American, was by far the scariest thing I’d done so far. However, I have found a home in the Keough School that has welcomed me with open arms, gifting me with friendship, mentorship, and a sense of belonging. 

First-year global affairs student Ashwin Raghuraman shares ice cream with global affairs classmates at the South Dining Hall.

The first door that my global affairs education has opened is learning beyond the classroom. We are encouraged by our professors and by each other to dive into complex global issues and apply them, whether through conversations in the dining hall or other campus restaurants, research, or in other classes. This idea that our education doesn’t end when we turn in an essay or exam, but rather just begins – that is what differentiates the Keough School. My first class was Introduction to Global Affairs with Iris Ma (which remains one of my favorite classes that I’ve taken). That class served as a model for how my other courses would go: readings that occasionally went over my head, thought-provoking discussions during class, and debriefing with my friends after class to connect themes to the “real world.” I made some of my first friends in Dr. Ma’s class, and was guided into a new way of thinking, where the application of concepts is as important as learning those concepts.

Ashwin Raghuraman with global affairs classmates and Professor Iris Ma, who taught Introduction to Global Affairs for first-year students.

This model of learning soon became the norm for me in the Keough School, where I’m faced with complex global issues ranging from ethical and political challeges to development to human rights, engaging in meaningful dialogue both inside and outside the classroom. My learning doesn’t end when the class ends — instead, I share dinners with global affairs friends to pore over concepts, and having late-night conversations about upcoming readings is the norm. 

The second door that the Keough School has opened for me, more abstractly speaking, is passion. What’s unique about a Keough School education is that my learning is rooted in both theory and practice. One of my favorite classes last semester, a course on refugee rights, sparked my research interest in refugee education policy. My professor, William Tobin, guided my initial exploration of this topic. Through programs in the Keough School’s Kellogg Institute such as the Developing Researchers Program and under Dr. Tobin’s guidance, I was able to begin applying what I learned to tangible research. When I was exploring discussions last semester in my Intro to Peace Studies class, taught by Gwendolyn Purifoye, about the Rwandan genocide, and I saw this semester that there was a Hesburgh lecture on the topic, I jumped on the chance to attend it. 

I am also studying Russian, and feeling that my study wouldn’t be complete without cultural immersion, I applied for, and received, a Nanovic Institute Pushkin Grant through the Summer Language Abroad Scholarship to go to Kyrgyzstan this summer not only to improve my language skills, but also learn more about a distinct culture. This holistic approach to education, where the Keough School will help me to develop my passions and go beyond the theory, makes a global affairs degree that much more valuable. It’s not just a string of readings and tests and papers; rather, it is a way of thinking, and a means to enact change with that thought. 

Quite unexpectedly, the third door that the Keough School opened for me is a direct line of communication with faculty members who serve as my role models. I can knock on a professor’s door and have a conversation about a recent political development, or ask a professor to dinner. I can also have complex discussions of ethics and development and religion with faculty members outside the classroom. Professors welcome students almost as if they were family. Not only does this mentality foster a deep sense of community, but it also enables mentorship opportunities that are valuable for future growth. 

Ashwin with Keough School professor Frank Taylor following the US National Security Policy Lab class.

The Keough School has become my new home away from home, a place where I can engage in education beyond reading, writing, and taking tests; a place where I can truly engage in my passions. A global affairs education is not just a degree: it’s a community with a shared commitment to curiosity, exploration, and action. It’s where I’ve made some of my closest friends so far, and where I’ve defined myself both academically and professionally. Late-night study sessions, shared laughter and tears, deep ethical discussions, and a common desire for a more just world: that is, at heart, what studying global affairs has unlocked for me.

Ashwin Raghuraman is a first-year student from Fremont, California and Perth, Australia studying global affairs and Russian.

My deep dive into defending democracy

By Tia Mittle

As I pulled open the heavy glass doors, a rush of air met my face, carrying with it the faint scent of freshly brewed coffee and the subtle hum of movement. The grand lobby expanded before me with soaring ceilings that stretched upward, echoing the ambition and scale of the work being done within. I felt an immediate sense of purpose. In this building was the National Endowment for Democracy, my office for the semester, and as I would soon learn, my inspiration for the future.

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is a private, bipartisan, nonprofit, grant-making foundation that is funded by Congress and dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world. Annually, NED makes more than 2,000 grants to support projects proposed by non-governmental groups abroad who are working for democratic goals in more than 100 countries. This semester, I had the privilege of interning for the government relations team at the NED.

Standing by the Freedom Wall at the National Endowment for Democracy next to word “freedom” written in Hindi as “आज़ादी”. Hindi, is India’s national language and Tia’s second language.

Coming from India, the largest democracy in the world, the values and importance of a democratic government were embedded in my worldview at a very young age. Questioning the unequal access to rights not just in India, but around the world, I was motivated to use my platform to advance human dignity and the ideals of democracy. When I decided I would attend the University of Notre Dame, I was certain I would participate in the Washington Program, live in Washington, D.C., and spend my time interning for an organization that promoted democracy worldwide.

As the government relations intern, I spent my time attending meetings on Capitol Hill with congressional staff and grantees from abroad, researching and writing weekly government relations updates featuring current events from the executive and legislative branch, conducting background research for Hill meetings, and engaging with the success stories that clearly indicated the impact NED has in championing human rights and defending democracy. Undoubtedly, the Keough School’s diverse classes rooted in the ideals of integral human development, opportunities for cultural immersions, and open-minded professors had prepared me for the work I embarked on this semester.

Every five-months, NED hosts democracy activists and journalists from all over the globe through its Reagan-Fascell fellowship. I was lucky to attend some of their presentations! Listening to the rap music produced by one such fellow, Martial Pa’nucci from the Republic of Congo, reinvigorated my passion and commitment to advocate for democracy. I had never imagined that rap could be such a powerful form of expression in advocating for democracy, but Martial’s performance of his “Lettre ouverte aux présidents d’Afrique” (Open letter to the presidents of Africa) reminded me of how personal this struggle for democracy is to so many individuals. When I was younger, I always questioned how I could make an impact at the individual level to support democratic ideals. I have now learned that the fight for democracy manifests differently across various contexts, and the gaps in accomplishing it are unique to each nation. Regardless, an art form that is often viewed as simply a “passion” can convey an incredibly strong message about needed reform.

Lying on my D.C. apartment’s coffee table are books such as “Mapping the Killings under Kim Jong-un,” given to me by grantees who are supported by the NED. My internship has enabled me to delve deeper into the realistic state of democracy worldwide. In my first two weeks at the NED, I had already attended meetings on the Hill that gave a voice to grantees from the Sahel, Serbia, and North Korea – stories from all different continents – to make Congress members aware of the devastating impacts that authoritarian regimes have in their countries, harming not only their own citizens, but the rest of the world. As I sat and took notes at these meetings, I was captivated by the voice of grantees, some who spoke in their own language, passionately representing the hardships their nation faces because of malign authoritarian influence, and sharing the courageous and groundbreaking efforts they undertake, often at great risk to themselves and their communities, to work toward a democratic future.

As I reflect back on my semester, I find it crucial to mention the fundamental role that classes at the Keough School’s Washington Office played in broadening my perspective of American politics and foreign policy. During the semester, I had the opportunity to dive into the complexities of democracy by listening to and engaging with peers holding diverse opinions about democracy.

My semester working for the NED has forced me to reflect on the state of democracy across the globe, which didn’t feel as blatantly horrifying until I observed the dauntless expressions and heard the first-hand experiences of grantees who were actively and bravely fighting authoritarian influence. This experience will shape my capstone project and future career path, as I outline my personal mission to uphold democratic values, even in the face of adversity. I’m grateful to the NED and the Keough School for supporting me.

Tia Mittle ’26 is a global affairs and political science major from Mumbai. Photos by Matt Cashore

5 things I learned about nuclear policy from Indigenous people in the American Southwest

Since my enrollment in the Keough School’s master of global affairs program with a concentration in sustainable development, I have been learning a lot about the tensions between environmental conservation and economic growth. This knowledge has shaped my growing interest in the complex interplay between environmental issues, Indigenous rights, and corporate interests. 

My first encounter with Indigenous peoples in the United States was in 2022, when I visited the Winnebago community in Nebraska through my participation in the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program, a program of the U.S. Department of State. This experience was a great learning opportunity, though short-lived due to the time constraints of a one-day visit. So when I had the chance to spend my spring break in the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States to learn about another Indigenous group, I jumped at the chance. through a policy course in Notre Dame’s GLOBES certificate program in environment and society,

The Ute Mountain Ute tribe has been engaged in an ongoing struggle with the environmental impacts of a local uranium mill, the White Mesa Uranium Mill. What we gathered from interacting with tribal members and leaders of nonprofits over five days of listening sessions is that the White Mesa Uranium Mill, located in Utah, has been a source of controversy since its establishment in the 1970s. The mill processes uranium ore and has been said to be the source of severe environmental damage and health problems in the surrounding communities, particularly those who live on the White Mesa Reservation. Upon arriving, I was struck by the stark beauty of the landscape: the towering mesas, the vast expanses of desert land, and the inviting blue sky. However, as we met and engaged in conversations with tribal members and environmental advocates, the picture became more complex. This experience opened my eyes to the complicated world of nuclear policy and the challenges faced by Indigenous communities. Here are five important things I learned:

  1. The impact of uranium milling extends far beyond the facility itself. 

Before visiting the White Mesa Uranium Mill, I had a limited understanding of uranium milling, not to mention its far-reaching effects. However, as I spoke with tribal members in neighboring communities, it became clear that the mill’s impact extends far beyond its physical boundaries. From contaminated water sources to air pollution, the consequences of uranium milling are felt throughout the region as they affect the health and well-being of people, wildlife, and the environment.

  1. Regulatory loopholes can allow mills to operate despite environmental concerns

One of the most surprising things I learned was the existence of regulatory loopholes that allow uranium mills like White Mesa to continue operating despite evidence of noncompliance with nuclear regulations like groundwater policies and the Clean Air Act. The lack of proper regulation and oversight of the mill was a recurring theme throughout our conversations. As a lawyer of the Grand Canyon Trust explained to us, the state’s lax enforcement of environmental standards and the mill’s ability to continually raise its compliance limits have allowed it to avoid accountability for its actions.

  1. Indigenous communities are often at the forefront of the fight for environmental justice. 

Throughout my visit I was continually impressed by the resilience and determination of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in their fight against the White Mesa Uranium Mill. Despite facing numerous challenges of getting their voices heard, the tribe has remained committed to protecting their land, people, and cultural heritage. For example, tribal members have been vocal in their expression of discontent following the destruction of ancestral sites to construct the mill. My conversations with tribal members highlighted the crucial role that Indigenous communities play in the fight for environmental justice and the importance of amplifying their voices in discussions about nuclear policy.

  1. Addressing the challenges posed by uranium milling requires a multi-faceted approach. 

As I learned more about the complex issues surrounding the White Mesa Uranium Mill, it became clear that there is no simple solution to complex environmental challenges. This complexity echoes some of the discussions in Prof. Dan Miller’s International Conservation and Development Politics class I am taking this semester regarding the dilemmas involved in engaging key actors on conservation issues. Addressing these dilemmas requires a multifaceted approach that includes closing regulatory loopholes, strengthening environmental monitoring, exploring alternative waste treatment methods, and holding mills accountable for their impact on surrounding communities. It also requires collaboration between tribal members, environmental advocates, and policymakers at all levels of government.

  1. The fight for environmental justice is a fight for the fundamental rights of all people. 

Perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned from my visit to the Four Corners region is that the fight for environmental justice is not just about protecting the environment—it’s about protecting the fundamental rights of all people to live in a healthy and safe environment. The importance of putting people and communities at the center of our discussions about nuclear policy and environmental justice issues in general should remain a top priority.

I left the Four Corners region with a renewed sense of purpose and a deeper understanding of the complexities of environmental advocacy. The resilience and determination of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is an inspiration to me to continue to work toward a more just, sustainable world. 

Top photo: Master of global affairs student Beverly Ndifoin in front of a sign for Energy Fuels, the uranium mining company that operates the White Mesa Mill.

Editor’s note: Ute Mountain Ute Tribe members are not pictured due to members’ request.

Dispatch from COP28: Learning from those on the frontlines of climate change

Glittering lights and high-rise buildings rushed past my view as I looked out the window at Dubai, my home for the next ten days. I was here to attend the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, known more broadly as the Conference of the Parties (COP), as part of the Christian Climate Observers Program. 

COP is a unique experience in that it brings together some of the most prominent diplomats and political figures worldwide to intermingle with registered representatives from civil society groups, universities, and other advocacy organizations. 

Each year, diplomats from most countries come together to discuss current international policy and research on climate change. This is the place where dreams can become reality; where ideas can coalesce into concrete policy. Just as easily, though, these calls can be blunted by long hours of consensus-based, painstaking negotiations that fill them with loopholes and vague promises. 

The grand entrance of Expo City at night, lit by a myriad of multicolored LED lights.

Climate and reparations

COP28 this year was, in many ways, the culmination of my undergraduate work. I began to focus on climate change at Notre Dame when I realized the great extent to which it was destroying lives and livelihoods around the world in the present-day. For much of my life, climate change was a far-off issue with its real and devastating effects obscured by technocratic discussions of emissions targets, parts-per-million of CO2, and energy efficiency. My work in the Notre Dame Reparations Design and Compliance Lab taught me otherwise. I learned that the rising sea levels and more frequent and severe storms caused by climate change were already driving ever-increasing numbers of people away from their homes. I became deeply passionate about hearing these stories and bringing them back to my communities through my research in the Philippines, where civil society advocates, Indigenous peoples, and local leaders graciously shared their experiences of climate change and thoughts on climate reparations with me.

Small island states

I brought this passion with me to COP28. Going in, I was hoping to learn more about the human impacts of climate change that were rarely discussed in my home communities. Of particular interest to me were the small island states. These places face an imminent, existential threat to their people and culture in the form of sea level rise—as global warming worsens, the average planetary sea level increases, threatening to permanently bury these low-lying islands. I was generally familiar with this issue but, despite my effort, found little opportunity as a Notre Dame undergraduate to hear the firsthand stories of those impacted from across the world. 

As I had hoped, I met a number of incredible individuals from these diverse areas, who shared with me the complex wealth of experiences that brought them to COP. I learned more about the valuable contributions of Indigenous knowledge in the fight against climate change. I was introduced to the efforts spearheaded by Vanuatu and other small island states to have the International Court of Justice clarify states’ legal obligations on climate change. 

Garrett at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, following an interfaith discussion panel hosted by the Abu Dhabi Peace Forum.

What inspired me the most, though, was the resilience and tenacity they all showed in the fight for climate justice. The small island states were consistently at the forefront of international efforts to combat climate change, the strongest voices pushing the most comprehensive solutions to the problems they faced here and now. They were not powerless victims of an unfair fate forced upon them by environmental sins mainly perpetrated by the highest-emitting countries. They were, as the Pacific Islanders called themselves, warriors.

This spirit of determination ran through so many others I met, as well. I came to know many of the youth delegates representing Australia, who showed me the many different ways young people can approach the climate crisis: wildfire monitoring, advocacy through art, powerful speeches, and so much more. I met with civil society actors from the Philippines whose empowering stories gave me a more complete picture of the adversities they faced in their work. Intense conviction in the wake of countless policy setbacks united countless people from across the world at COP28, a unified spirit that gave me hope that we truly can fight effectively against the climate crisis. 

On a desert tour with other members of the Christian Climate Observers Program.

From hope to action

This hope, though, is only the first step. We need concrete action—not just promises—to protect our lives, our livelihoods, and our common home, not only for ourselves but for future generations. We need to recognize that climate change is not something to be avoided in the future, but something that is already upon us. Now more than ever, I am aware that climate change is not merely a scientific issue but is, importantly, a deeply human one, as well. 

At Notre Dame, we are fortunate to be relatively sheltered from severe climate change impacts now. This does not mean, however, that it will always be this way, nor should we ignore how these impacts harm millions of people around the world in the present day. We need to create spaces on our campus where these voices can flourish and be heard, because caring for our common home means engaging with and learning from those who are at the forefront of fighting the threats against it. 

Garrett Pacholl is a Notre Dame senior studying history and global affairs.

Top photo: The author under the main dome of Dubai Expo City, where COP28 was being held.

What I learned in Nairobi about protecting forests and livelihoods

By Lizzie Stifel

Exploring the interconnectedness of nature is one facet of classroom learning, but the reality of this importance emerges when you find yourself surrounded by experts dedicated to unraveling and rekindling the profound relationship between our environment and humanity, which has been strained by extensive degradation. 

Last week I traveled to Nairobi to attend the Forests and Livelihoods: Assessment, Research, and Engagement (FLARE) conference. This experience allowed me to showcase my research on the impact of trees in farmlands and forests on the well-being of households in Ethiopia. As someone relatively new to research, this event helped me discover a new perspective: the need to embrace holistic and naturalistic approaches that can rejuvenate both our forests and livelihoods—two realms that should complement one another.

Lizzie Stifel (left) with new friends at the annual FLARE conference in Nairobi.

In talking with others, attending presentations, and engaging in deep introspection during the conference, I realized that many existing solutions often address only single issues and are unable to withstand the intricacies of our interconnected environment. Holistic solutions, conversely, call for a loving embrace of all living entities and a pragmatic outlook.

What do holistic solutions look like? 
Holistic solutions, first and foremost, require the interconnectedness associated with love. During the conference’s opening ceremonies, I had a great conversation with Andrea Vasquez Fernandez, a PhD student and a descendant of the Quechua Indigenous people from the Andes. She was among the first friends I made, and our conversation set the tone for my conference experience, compelling me to reevaluate my background in political science. Andrea, having transitioned from a career in forest engineering to focus on the social dynamics within Indigenous groups, encouraged me to reconsider the human aspect of holistic solutions. She asserted that love and respect formed the foundation for fruitful cooperation within the Indigenous communities she worked with, even when differing viewpoints emerged. Often, our policies prioritize economic and social ramifications, while neglecting love for one another and the environment.

Notre Dame master of global affairs student Beverly Ndifoin presents a session on environmental storytelling at the FLARE conference in Nairobi.

Biodiversity offsetting
Holistic solutions extend their consideration to all creatures. Despite my passion for forestry and environmental policy solutions, the FLARE conference introduced to me the concept of biodiversity offsetting. Carbon offsetting is a familiar term: when individuals or companies invest in environmental projects to counterbalance the carbon emissions they produce or the deforestation they cause. While this practice does capture carbon, it inadvertently disrupts the existing ecosystem, rendering the land barren of the diverse plant and animal life essential for a thriving environment. Consequently, our approach must encompass not just the human-environment relationship but also the creation and preservation of complete ecosystems, rather than merely administering quick fixes to mitigate our destructive actions.

From left: Author Lizzie Stiefel, FLARE program manager Brian Wanbaugh, master of global affairs student Beverly Ndifoin, and Dan Miller, associate professor of environmental policy in the Keough School of Global Affairs, at the annual FLARE (Forests & Livelihoods: Assessment, Research and Engagement) conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

Ultimately, holistic solutions must be practical. The primary theme of the conference centered on the nexus between forests and livelihoods, with a special focus this year on the practical implementation of solutions on the ground. I acquired insights into innovative tools like CommFor, a community-based data collection system, and community networks aimed at strengthening grassroots organizations. I also discovered the Indian “gram sabhas,” wherein communities autonomously determine the most effective approaches to environmental issues. Witnessing these grassroots contributions and hearing from experts as they contemplated how to integrate their work into tangible solutions was enlightening. In my conversation with a fellow attendee, I learned that research, although crucial, is the simpler part, while community work demands the most effort and yields the most significant and enduring changes.

In conclusion, my time at the FLARE conference has fundamentally reshaped my perspective on research. As I continue to advance my work, I intend to remain committed to considering the interconnectedness of nature and humans, as well as the critical importance of offering holistic policy recommendations and initiatives that foster the well-being of forests and household livelihoods.

Lizzie Stifel is a senior political science and global affairs major in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. She is a student leader in the Kellogg Developing Researchers Program, which funded her travel to the Nairobi conference.

Top photo: Author Lizzie Stifel (left) with master of global affairs student Beverly Ndifoin at the annual FLARE conference on forests and livelihoods in Nairobi, Kenya.

What does it mean to be resilient?

By Colleen Maher

Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, swelters in the afternoon sun. It is the rainy season, and yesterday’s morning rains brought gray skies but milder temperatures. Today, however, the air is close and heavy. I feel as though I am inside an elementary school terrarium. The streets are littered with spent bougainvillea petals and a day’s detritus; brilliant Ankara fabrics drape a shop’s windows; neon-scaled lizards dart across the sidewalks. Everything seems oversaturated—I am awed by the color.

Abuja, Nigeria is pink in the setting sun.

I am spending my summer working here with Catholic Relief Services to conduct an evaluation of the Feed the Future Nigeria Livelihoods project, which lasted from 2013 to 2018. The project implemented more than a dozen different activities across six states and impacted upwards of 50,000 people. We have the somewhat rare opportunity to return after completion of the project to ascertain long-term effects as well as the durability of project activities and structures. To that end, we have trained 50 enumerators (data collectors), conducted more than a thousand household surveys, and facilitated more than 70 focus groups and key informant interviews.

Our work is concerned with gauging resilience levels of households in the zone of influence. Resilience-based programming has become in vogue in international development spaces in recent years, especially as climate change spurs incidence of extreme weather, violence, and food insecurity. Although the project did not have a resilience lens when it was implemented, we are looking at it retrospectively with just such a lens, asking beneficiaries if they feel they are better able to weather shocks since the advent of the program. In order to ascertain a household’s true resilience it must be tested under stress, making it tricky to measure, as shocks are just that: unpredictable. Northern Nigeria therefore seems a perfect place to study resilience, as it has experienced livelihood-building interventions, and we know they have faced serious shocks since the project began in 2013, from loss of harvests to the threat of Boko Haram.

A farmer walks to his fields in the shadow of Zuma Rock, a national symbol of Nigeria.

Initially, I was excited to work on a resilience project, as agricultural resilience under climate change is the field I hope to go into. However, as time passes and the project becomes more developed, I find my sentiment changing. The Keough School of Global Affairs is founded on the principles of integral human development (IHD), which emphasize the innate dignity of all human beings and urges policies and decisions that consider the most vulnerable. It strikes me that, if we were truly to live the principles of IHD, what we think of as resilience would begin to look very different.

Common institutional definitions of resilience include elements of “mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks and stressors.” The common thread of these strategies is change—people must change their agricultural practices, their food systems, and even their lifestyles in order to cope with events outside their control. In contrast, early findings from focus groups have participants characterizing their conception of resilience as patience. These two definitions are at odds, with one suggesting dynamic change and the other awaiting return to normalcy. How can resilience interventions be successful when people define it differently?

Furthermore, many of the shocks and stressors faced by these rural and vulnerable communities are symptoms of climate change, which is disproportionately perpetrated by the West. I admit that I too am complicit in this system—just this summer, I will have made 10 trips by plane when it’s all said and done, but my livelihood will not be impacted by any harm done to the environment by such a use of fossil fuels. Resilience-building strategies address a symptom of the problem, but they do not address the underlying problem itself. It strikes me that under a closer adherence to IHD, we would not place the impetus of action on those who are least prepared to endure. Instead, the burden of responding to climate change would fall to those who bear the most blame. It seems particularly unjust given that many of the villages we surveyed had only tenuous access to electricity.

Paintings festoon trees and makeshift racks at a local arts and crafts market in Abuja.

At the same time, one of the greatest lessons I have learned during my fieldwork here in Nigeria is that there are miles between the plan and the execution. When we were planning this project from South Bend, we knew that much would change once we began the work. However, here in the field I truly appreciate the limitations and logistics of a project of this scale. A common refrain in criticism of IHD is the fact that people view IHD as idealistic and not practicable. It is certainly one thing to plan or theorize in the proverbial ivory tower, and fully another to implement a project in the field. While in an ideal world, we would be able to fully realize IHD in our work, given the realities of implementation, it just isn’t practical or even possible.

Although my whole team was excited for the opportunity to travel to Nigeria and work with an organization as prestigious as CRS, I was doubly excited to spend time in Nigeria. As an undergraduate, I spent many hours exploring the landscape and psyche of pre-independence Nigeria while writing my thesis on a Nigerian novel: The Famished Road by Ben Okri. Now, as a graduate student, I have come full circle, studying Nigeria in person. Okri’s novel describes the life of Azaro, an Abiku child, a Yoruba concept of the spirit of a child stuck in a cycle of death and rebirth. This hints at the sobering reality of life in rural areas, where so many children died before reaching puberty. Azaro exists in both the spirit world and the real world, teetering on the brink of independence–to borrow from Gabriel García Márquez, an “outsized reality.” Western epistemologies espouse an either/or, binarized reality, one that perpetuates such divisions as Western or white and the “Other”. The work of myriad postcolonial authors around the world reject this notion, and Okri’s work is no exception. The setting that Okri constructs is at once fully Nigerian, but does not ignore the realities of colonization.

The present practice of resilience-building doesn’t seem to truly conform to the principles of IHD. Still, regardless of what steps should be taken, communities are facing shock this very hour. It would be the height of impracticality to ignore the call of the poor in service of some future good. Perhaps in the same way that the literature of Okri and other postcolonial writers exists in this boundary-less both/and space, there is potential for a dialogue around resilience that at once recognizes the necessity and injustice of resilience. In so doing, it would be possible to work to create a reciprocal system, where adaptation efforts on the part of the most vulnerable communities are matched by mitigation practices by the least vulnerable. While it may not be practical to philosophize from afar, removed from the reality of the communities facing these traumas, action divorced from forethought is destined for disaster. It is therefore our work as students and practitioners to marry theory and practice, breaking down harmful binaries, looking at things holistically. In this way, we can ensure that resilience-building initiatives fulfill their intended purpose of granting communities the agency to recover on their own, while recognizing the steps that still must be taken to create a system where they no longer need to.

Top photo: Integration Lab team members congratulate enumerators for completing training in Federal Capital Territory (FCT). From left to right, MGA student Nancy Obonyo, Catholic Relief Services staff member Otor Ikonwye Friday, MGA students Colleen Maher and Emma Hokoda.

Surprises, security plans, and sweat: our fieldwork in Nigeria

By: Emma Hokoda

Dripping in sweat and damp from the rain, I slid into my seat on the small Nigerian plane and took some deep breaths to let my racing heart slow down. A few short hours ago, I was shaken awake by my teammates and informed that our plans had changed, yet again. We rushed to the airport, bought our tickets, and narrowly made it to the plane on time.

My teammates Nancy Obonyo, Colleen Maher, and I have handled our fair share of logistical challenges over the course of our Integration Lab (i-Lab) project thus far. Our project is an ex-post analysis of the $17.6 million USAID-funded Feed the Future Nigeria initiative implemented by Catholic Relief Services across six states (Sokoto, Kebbi, the Federal Capital Territory, Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa) from 2013 to 2018. 

Our project will collect data from more than 1,000 households as well as community leaders, implementing partners, and project staff through surveys, focus group discussions, and interviews. We seek to explore both the long-term impact and sustainability of Feed the Future interventions and better understand the factors that influence household resilience in northern Nigeria.

We are lucky to have been able to carry this project out in person at all due to security concerns and visa delays. Because one of our three training locations in the northeast was classified as a “high-risk level 4”, it required a security plan, extra precautionary measures, and an additional review process—we did not receive official approval until after arriving in Abuja. In addition, one teammate’s visa was so delayed she had to reschedule her flight, leaving just the two of us to kick off the project and conduct our first enumerator training.

A Catholic Relief Services focus group training with enumerators (data collectors) from Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states in Yola Town, Nigeria. Photo by Emma Hokoda.

A new day, a new challenge
Our wahalas (“challenges” in Nigerian Pidgin—the lingua franca in a country of more than 200 million people and 500 languages) have continued and even multiplied. The first three weeks in Nigeria have been a critical training period for our team, and I can’t remember a day when we haven’t run into an unexpected problem. Each training had its own suite of wahalas, from missing team members to unexpected relocations, canceled flights, and delayed training. 

The funny thing is, once you run into enough unexpected problems, they aren’t unexpected anymore. The daily power outages, unstable and sometimes nonexistent Wi-Fi, and the occasional government-led mobile phone blackouts have become a normal part of life. Each morning I wake up without expectation for how the day will go—I have learned to let go of my plans and am nimbly adapting to the wahala of the day. 

While my teammates and I fought hard to get to Nigeria and have endured the daily wahalas of fieldwork, we won’t meet a single Feed the Future beneficiary. The only data collection we will do ourselves consists of a handful of key informant interviews, some of which will be done virtually. The fifty enumerators we have trained over the past three weeks will be collecting the bulk of our project data. Now that training is over, our role is shifting to a managerial one: tracking data collection progress across the six states, cleaning survey data as it is uploaded, catching and correcting errors, and forming focus groups. As the data collection winds down in two more weeks, our roles will shift again, this time to coding interviews and focus groups and running quantitative analysis on our surveys. 

Master of global affairs student Nancy Obonyo takes notes during a training exercise defining resilience. Photo by Emma Hokoda.

While a younger version of myself would have been disappointed to feel so removed from the data collection itself, I am quite confident that this method is the right one. My teammates and I are outsiders here, and our positionality would only bias and hinder data collection. Our enumerators are Nigerians from these communities who speak the local language, and a handful were even involved with the original Feed the Future project. Their insight into the local context has further informed and improved our methodologies and the data collection instruments we built based on standardized resilience measurement frameworks. Our role as trainers is to ensure that our instruments are well-understood, used correctly, and that there are standardized practices across the board to ensure the most accurate data collection possible.

The difficult dance of data collection
I have also learned to be grateful for the unique opportunity to develop and test our data collection instruments. Implementing a project like this one is no small task, and the ideal instrument developed in your head while in the United States differs wildly from the reality that exists across the ocean. However, we aren’t dropping our instruments without looking to see where they land; we’ve carried them with us and hand-delivered them to those who will actually use them. This handoff has revealed just how much we don’t know about the challenges of deployment. Our enumerators informed us of certain survey questions that can be perceived as insensitive; that cultural dynamics prohibit men and women from being in the same focus group discussion; that beneficiaries may hold certain expectations which could bias their responses, and more. 

The project also demonstrated the difficult dance it took to develop instruments that could simultaneously speak to USAID’s definition and measurement of resilience, meet our partners’ needs, be taught to our data collectors in a two-day training and adapted/translated to fit the local context, not overburden the participants, and can be analyzed by our team of three.

Are we the weak links?
As graduate students, my teammates and I have often felt like the weak link in the partnership, questioning “Why us?” Surprisingly though, CRS has demonstrated both trust and high expectations for our work. Mobilizing fifty enumerators on our project’s behalf was an incredible investment into our team and has enabled us to pursue the most ambitious project the i-Lab has ever seen. I am incredibly grateful we have such a committed team behind us, from our partners at CRS headquarters who helped guide our project proposal and data collection instruments, to the staff across CRS Nigeria who have been instrumental in hiring our enumerators and coordinating training logistics to aid our research. 

Master of global affairs student Emma Hokoda (standing) facilitates a training session on reporting procedures for household surveys at a Catholic Relief Services office in Abuja, Nigeria.

While our project has been riddled with uncertainty even before we arrived in the country, this support has made this complex project feasible. The way our colleagues roll with the punches inspires me to let go of my controlling tendencies and loosen my tight grip enough to adapt to the ever changing conditions on the ground. Embracing ambiguity is a process, but I’ve never felt the idiom “Where there is a will, there is a way.” to be more true than in this project in which my team has found a way through every problem in our path. 

Moving forward
We have just finished our third and final training in Sokoto and data collection has officially begun in all three states. As the initial surveys begin to roll in and we head back to Abuja for the rest of our fieldwork, I feel justified in releasing a cautious sigh of relief. I know the wahalas won’t end here, and I’m sure there will be more bumps in the road. Nevertheless, it feels good to close this training chapter, celebrate our accomplishments thus far, and officially move into the next stage of the project. 

Top photo: Author and master of global affairs student Emma Hokoda (bottom right) and classmates Colleen Maher and Nancy Obonyo with Nigerian enumerators (data collectors) at a training session for Kebbi and Sokoto states in Sokoto, Nigeria.

Bridging peacebuilding and tech in San Francisco

By Fatima Faisal Khan and Nicolas Chehade

In February, we traveled to San Francisco to attend the conference “Designing Tech for Social Cohesion.” This three-day event was the first of its kind as it created a space for the peacebuilding community to interact with the tech sector and find ways where the two sectors can work together. Organized by Prof. Lisa Schirch, the Center for Humane Technology, and Search for Common Ground, the event brought together an eclectic group of leaders, innovators, and concerned stakeholders with the vision to create a space for collaboration, and to find a shared language by which these two otherwise disparate sectors can converse with one another.

The conference focused on addressing the increasing polarization, algorithmic bias, misinformation, and disinformation that pose a threat to social cohesion today. Exceptional panelists offered insightful ideas, drawing on their experiences in dealing with issues that pose a challenge to peacebuilding in the ever-evolving technological landscape. In particular, the opening event on Thursday generated a discussion on the ways that peacebuilding organizations such as Search for Common Ground, the Center for Humane Technology, and the UN Office of Peacebuilding and Political Affairs can collaborate with tech companies such as Pol.is, Remesh, and the Integrity Institute.

The presence of key stakeholders from both tech and peacebuilding allowed for fruitful discussions not only in the event halls, but in the breakout sessions and during networking breaks, where we saw people get together based on shared interests and find ways to collaborate. Given that this is exactly what Prof. Schirch had envisioned with this conference, we were happy to see this space be constituted successfully.

One of the key challenges discussed on Day 2 was the lack of standardized indicators and metrics for measuring social cohesion, both online and offline. While some international organizations like the Council of Europe and OECD have made public commitments to social cohesion, there is still a need for more comprehensive frameworks that can effectively measure individual attitudes, emotions, and perceptions towards other groups. Several existing tools and indices, such as the UN Development Program’s SCORE, and the Ipsos Social Cohesion Index, measure social cohesion through surveys on life satisfaction, trust between groups, and civic engagement.

To address the challenge of measuring social cohesion, the conference discussions proposed a framework that focuses on user behaviors rather than perceptions or assertions. The framework identifies individual agency as a critical metric for measuring social cohesion online. This metric measures the willingness of individuals to participate in digital discussions and considers the ratio of engaged vs observing individuals.

Participation inequality is a common phenomenon in digital platforms, where a small percentage of users create content while the majority only consumes it. Another important suggestion from the conference is measuring individual agency, which could be refined by conducting more research on digital lurkers, participation inequality, and the link between digital use and political participation.

For us, what set this conference apart was its very practical aim to devise a strategic plan of action on the last day of proceedings. As students from Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Keough School of Global Affairs, we continue to learn about the importance of conflict and stakeholder mapping, assessment and planning in setting realistic and tangible goals. To see a room full of experienced leaders come together and make a well-thought out and insightful plan on how to keep this movement alive was a great learning experience for us. The conference highlighted the need for ongoing collaboration and research to design technology that promotes social cohesion and builds bridges across diverse groups. 

As much as we enjoyed listening to all the wonderful speakers share their important insights, this opportunity also allowed us to have hands-on experience with planning and executing a large-scale event successfully. We are indebted to Prof. Schirch and the team at Search for Common Ground for trusting us with this important work, and would like to thank our peers Emma Jackson, Eunhye Lee, Saadat Musabaeva, Nik Swift, Grace Connors and Miriam Bethencourt, Prithvi Iyer, and Wesley Hedden for their relentless hard work throughout the conference.

We are so glad we got to share this experience with a brilliant group of future changemakers! We believe that the discussions and ideas generated during the conference will lead us towards a more peaceful and cohesive society. The challenges we face today are daunting, but the conference gave us hope that we can work together to overcome them. It is imperative that we continue these conversations and collaborations beyond the conference room; and to make all concerned individuals a part of this movement. You can become a part of this very important conversation by joining the Council of the Technology and Social Cohesion’s mailing list for updates.

Photos by Saadat Musabaeva.

Frontline protesters aren’t the only ones making a difference on climate change

By: Audrey Thill

It takes four types of people to change the world–rebels, organizers, helpers, and advocates–at least according to scholar activists George Lakey and Bill Moyer. When applied to the climate movement, you might readily think of the rebels and organizers. These are people marching or  blocking bulldozers, children boycotting school to demand more action, and frontline communities mobilizing to defend their land, forests, water, and lives.

When I tell people I’m studying global affairs at the Keough School of Global Affairs, they think I’m training to be a mediator who brokers major peace deals. While there may be some among my inspiring classmates who do just that, I identify more as an analyst-advocate hybrid. I prefer to work behind the scenes, analyzing issues and identifying points of connection between parties. I tend also to focus on conflicts that involve Earth, climate change, and environmental justice. Thanks to the flexibility of the Master of Global Affairs program, I’ve been able to tailor my classes, projects, and now my internship to focus on my interests.

Currently, I’m based in Washington, DC, working as a climate intern for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). EIA is a nonprofit organization that engages in strategic, alliance-based campaigning to protect forests, wildlife, and the climate. They conduct undercover investigations, support local environmental groups, and advocate for greater transparency from governments and corporate actors. I love the diversity of approaches they use to tackle these complex issues. For example, sometimes they release hard-hitting reports, while other times they collaborate with partners behind the scenes to advance their climate campaign goals.

EIA’s climate team focuses on hydrochlorofluorocarbons, chlorofluorocarbons, and  hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Say that ten times fast. In simpler terms, these are chemicals used in HVAC, refrigeration, and manufacturing of goods, for example, non-stick frying pans. Many of them are also super-potent greenhouse gases. Currently, the climate team is monitoring US implementation of its commitments to phase down ozone-depleting substances and other fluorinated gases that contribute to climate change. 

So far in my role at EIA, I’ve conducted research to inform undercover investigations, edited and fact-checked policy reports, and drafted a blog on the intersections of climate change, chemical emissions, and environmental justice. I’ve also enjoyed observing how this small team contributes to state and national climate policy issues, from curbing the illegal trade of refrigerants to raising the alarm about the global uptick in uncontrolled chemical emissions that are driving climate change and contaminating water and soil. Most exciting of all was to see more than ten years of their work pay off in a bi-partisan congressional vote to ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement that aims to rid the world of climate-polluting HFCs. It was a promising summer for US climate policy, but there is much more to be done.

If you’ve never thought about fluorinated chemicals, you’re not alone. This is an obscure topic for the average person despite the fact that our supermarkets and industries are leaking gases that are hundreds to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. With effects this serious, use and regulation of fluorinated chemicals really should be everyone’s business. 

Which brings me back to my point about the four types of people to change the world–it is undeniable that protests are an effective tool to build collective power and demand change from power holders. After street protests wane, however, we need actors like EIA who dive into the details and work in the background, ensuring that those same power holders stick to their promises. I’m thankful for this opportunity to learn from EIA and their long-term commitment to translate technical topics into policy solutions and engage the public in the process.

As extreme climate events become increasingly common and impactful, those of us who have added the most carbon to the atmosphere have an even greater imperative to take action. This reality has motivated me to pursue my interests at the intersection of peacebuilding and environmental studies. As I anticipate graduating in the spring, I am confident that my experience at the Keough School will serve me well in building my policy-relevant environmental justice career.