Applied Research Institute Jerusalem – A Convergence Between Environmental Justice, Writing, and Research

By: Kaitlin Wheeler, MTS ’21

Editor’s Note: Kaitlin Wheeler graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 2021 with a Master of Theological Studies. She is currently working in San Diego installing public art in her hometown community while searching for an environmental writing and activism job. In this blog post, she reflects on her internship with Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem which she pursued following her J-term course, Learning in Context: Narratives of Displacement in Israel and the West Bank. She describes how her coursework at HDS gave her the theoretical frameworks  – and research skills – to excel at ARIJ.  

Kaitlin previously shared about her time in the course on the blog in “J-term Course: The Right to Land in Israel and the Occupied Territories.”

In January of 2020, I traveled with fellow Harvard colleagues and faculty for fourteen days throughout Israel, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. As a student in the J-Term course Learning in Context: Narratives of Displacement in Israel and the West Bank, I had the privilege to meet with activists and organizations working on a variety of topics related to religion, peace, justice, human rights, and the environment in the area. After returning from my J-term course, where I saw firsthand the environmental degradation that threatens the lives and survival of Palestinians, I devoted the rest of my coursework at HDS to learning more about the foundations of environmental justice through classes both at the Divinity School and through cross registration at the Kennedy and Design Schools.  By the time I graduated, I had a hunger to use my knowledge and passion to work in the field of environmentalism.  

Given my experiences in my J-term course and preparation in writing, research, and critical thinking from my time at HDS, I felt qualified to apply for a research and writing internship at the Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative’s Summer Internship Program at the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem (ARIJ). ARIJ is an organization that dedicates its intellectual expertise to producing transparent research about human rights needs and environmental degradation in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt).  

Now that I have finished my internship at ARIJ, I have come to a more comprehensive understanding of the challenges involved in solving environmental problems and injustices in the oPt, along with the potential for research, transparent writing, and creative thinking to lead to real world solutions. This applied work has built on my learning at HDS to give me a deeper understanding of the interactions between human actions and the environment.  

Photo Courtesy of Kaitlin Wheeler

At ARIJ, I dedicated my time to working on a research paper where I explored the intersectionality between the environment and topics related to human rights, gender, and conflict. It was difficult at times to spend hours reading through reports exposing the countless acts of environmental violence against Palestinians. Each paper revealed a deeper layer of oppression existing within the mistreatment and mismanagement of the land, the water, the air, all aspects of the Earth. At times, it seemed that the situation was so dire that any example of resistance only acted as a tiny glimpse of hope.  

In times like those, I found it helpful to apply some of what I had learned in my courses at HDS. In particular, the course “Coloniality, Race, and Catastrophe” taught by Professor Mayra Rivera immersed me into the ways in which colonial language is heavily embedded in our understanding of how humans relate to the environment. In the course I had also learned about theologies that resisted this historical baggage by taking an embodied turn towards nature and empowering religious practitioners to find a balanced relationship with the environment, and I saw this reflected in my work in the oPt where the environment supports indigenous knowledge, community collaboration, and sustainable actions. I found that in Palestine, biodiversity and ecosystem health serve as strategies for resilience against Israel’s occupying power since the environment holds key resources for human survival.  

To find supporting literature for my research into indigenous resilience I thought back to my final project for my J-term course. Then, I had chosen to delve deeper into my experience learning from various Bedouin communities in the Negev who had showed us their sustainable techniques to survive in an ever-changing environment. Remembering the wisdom I had gained through hearing their stories and seeing their ways of survival guided how I approached my research for ARIJ. 

I saw a direct illustration of the kinds of empowered resistance and turn towards the environment that I had learned about in Professor Rivera’s course in the continued practice of indigenous Baladi farming that supports Palestinian agricultural development in the oPt. Where the current Israeli industrialized food system, similar to that of the United States, uses harmful agricultural practices, Baladi farming avoids all of these techniques with an understanding that quantity is not necessarily better than quality. 

Instead, Baladi farming practices strengthen sustainable ties to the land. Palestinian women spend each season collecting the strongest seeds from the harvest and housing them in seed banks stored for future plantings. The seeds are even sought after by seed corporations around the world because of their resiliency. I found it interesting that a seed could hold so much power in a world that is willing to destroy any aspect of the environment without hesitation. But at the same time, it made perfect sense that in a world facing the consequences of climate change, a seed that could endure the coldest winter or the hottest summer, is invaluable.  

Without the courses I took at HDS, that gave me a wide array of perspectives on the role the environment plays in each person’s life and the tools to dig deeper into injustice, find the roots, and examine its entangled interconnectedness with everyday life, I would not have been able to recognize the importance of practices like these or succeed in my internship.

All in all, as an intern, I learned that writing and research require vulnerability in knowing that you will never know enough, passion for a greater cause, and diligence to never give up when exposed to seemingly insurmountable negative facts, stories, and truths. The environment is inextricably attached to the way humans act and choose to treat one another. Just as easily as the environment can be a site of political warfare, it too can hold the potential for human longevity and justice

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