Communications class combats climate change and social injustice

Next semester students will be tackling methods to approach environmental and social problems in professor Stephanie Smith’s media seminar in climate justice activism. 

The class is part of a continuing series of media seminar classes taught by Smith. In the classes, students are given real experience in using communication to make a difference. Students also work with clients to create informational awareness campaigns on an issue. 

Last year, the class focused on opioid addiction in northeast Ohio. Students worked with the mental health and recovery board of Trumbull county to create awareness and education campaigns within communities of Trumbull county. In spring of 2019, Trumbull county invited the seminar back to tackle the issue of childhood trauma in the region. 

“This semester we decided we wanted to do something completely different,” Smith said.  “We were very persuaded by what we saw happening in climate justice.”

Smith said the underprivileged are the most vulnerable to the climate crisis. They reside in unhealthy environments and ironically contribute the least amount of pollution. 

“It’s environmental justice. How is it affecting the social welfare of the people in our communities and what are the disproportionate impacts on the people who have less?” Smith said. “How can we help bring awareness to what climate justice is, why it matters and what actions we can take? That’s the point.”

Smith said the strength of the class relies on the merging of several facets of communication to bring awareness and change within communities. 

“We will use all the tools of communication,” Smith said. “The magic of this class is that we have every major in the (communications) college. Everyone brings a unique angle to the problem.”

Smith said in past classes photographers, public relations majors, nursing majors, journalism majors and criminal justice majors tackled challenges together to create the campaigns.

“You see kids work together in new ways and challenge each other,” Smith said. “It’s hard and messy but the product is beautiful.”

For this class, the key to tackling the intimidating climate crisis is taking the global issue and localizing it, Smith said.

Smith said worldwide climate issues can seem overwhelming and out of the control of an individual. But, by focusing on an issue close to home, such as environmental rehab of northeast Ohio’s industrial areas or urging a neighborhood community to be mindful of waste, these issues become a more manageable and eminent problem. 

Another issue facing climate change efforts is the complex and sometimes intimidating science behind it.  

“We have people who are so focused on the science that they have failed to compel other people to take action,” Smith said. “When the idea pivots on the science you’re going to lose the power of the story. The power of the story is about the human condition. It’s about the people who are devastated by the issue.”

The media seminar demonstrates that stories can have a great impact on people and be a catalyst for action towards issues. 

“I operate in the space of the story,” Smith said. “What’s the story, how do we advance the story, how do we compel people, how do we educate, what words should we use. That’s  the topic where we see the rich and exciting research.”

Rebecca Rowe, a senior public relations major, took Smith’s childhood trauma seminar last semester. 

“I was expecting it to be difficult especially given the issue,” Rowe said. “I tried to go into it with an open mind and learn as much as I possibly could, I was curious to see how we could help.” 

Rowe said she had never been challenged with a public relations problem that involved such a heavy issue. 

Rowe and classmates worked with the Family and Children First Council of Trumbull county to plan a campaign to address the issue of childhood trauma. 

“It was very intense in a PR aspect,” Rowe said. “It showed me I can do more with my degree. I can actually address issues that could change someone’s life.” 

Smith is very helpful in the process of constructing the campaigns and works closely with the students to design and perfect the campaigns, Rowe said 

“Professor Smith is hard on her students in a kind way,” Rowe said. “She expects more from you but she gives you the tools to get there.”

Rowe said the class forced her to branch out of her comfort zone in order to face the versatile challenges. She and her classmates relied on each other to create a dynamic campaign.  

 “It showed me the importance of integration when tackling larger issues,” Rowe said. “Having other people come in and look at different angles, you need that help. I have a belief in myself that I can do more than a brand awareness campaign. I can make a change. I think everyone should take a class like this at least once.”

Smith hopes the climate justice class can enact some measurement of change from within the communities.

“Part of the reason why people aren’t more active is that they think it’s so far in the future and it’s too big,” Smith said. “We are trying to make it smaller.”

Contact Colleen Carroll at [email protected]