Contributed by Staci Lewis, Stanford University
With one hand around the microphone and the other grasping the podium, I scanned the rows of stakeholders, decision-makers, resource managers, members of Palau’s tourism sector, and environmental groups filling the ballroom. It was Palau’s first National Environmental Symposium—a two-day event to provide an overview of the research underway in the Republic—broadcasting live over national radio. My field expedition overlapped with this event and I was grateful to present initial findings in front of people. Given the audience, I made two big changes to this presentation which I had delivered elsewhere—1) I moved my acknowledgements slide to the front and 2) I changed the slide from a list of funders to pictures of Palauans. Today was one of the several opportunities I have taken over the past month to talk with people about my results and to express my gratitude—my way of fostering change.
My research involves taking environmental samples—coral, water and sediment—as well as interviews and surveys of people. All of these components require access to natural resources and communities. Before I could start a comprehensive study I needed to build trust with stakeholders and decision-makers, including high chiefs like Samil Beouch. Part of creating trust was a promise I made to Palau and the people I worked with—to not be a “helicopter” scientist. Instead of dropping in, doing my work, and leaving, I made a commitment to the people of Palau to invest my time, and to communicate my work. I have kept this promise. Despite the personal sacrifices caused by long-term absence from home, I hold this promise to Palau as a top priority and I cherish the relationships I have made here.
During this trip, I am kick starting a study within three communities. The first step is meeting several village leaders to talk about my research and ideas for community learning exchanges. This study will organize events to encourage several villages to share ideas on ways to use traditional practices to control erosion and sediment loading on important coral reef habitats. Communicating with these important community members is both vital to ensuring my study is comprehensive and to keep my promise. As I continue to grow my work in Palau, I have had a few affirmations that my work is important for Palau. One of these moments came yesterday after the symposium.
With my symposium presentation behind me, I went to Pier 7 to talk story with the fishermen as a scoping exercise for my next research project. While my colleague and I listened to their concerns of increasing gas prices and stagnant fish prices, one of them interrupted the conversation, “Hey, wait! Were you on the radio today?” He pointed at me. Before I had a chance to answer, my colleague said, “YES! She presented on her other research project concerning sedimentation at the national symposium that was broadcasting on the radio.” I nodded my head as an acknowledgment. “Well, I was so excited to hear that someone is working on such an important project. I thought, ‘WOW! Who is person?’ And now you are here. Good job. And thank you for doing work that is so important for us.” I couldn’t believe it. This interaction affirmed my research is addressing important issues for Palau. It also can serve as a reminder to all field researchers—fostering change can happen when we conduct ourselves with respect, humility, and gratitude to the country where we operate and when we empower people through communicating our work.