The week of November 15-19, 2021, Champlain College welcomed three acclaimed Vermont Indigenous leaders — Vera Sheehan (Elnu Abenaki), Chief Don Stevens (Nulhegan Abenaki), and Melody Walker Brook (Elnu Abenaki) — to campus. The public talks, films, activities, and workshops offered by our guests attracted both employees and students. But few knew that the whole series was conceived and managed by a student team from Dr. Val Esposito’s Environmental Justice course! The CLT’s Caroline Toy sat down with Dr. Esposito and her students (John Brooks, Simon Chirichiello, Megan Holbrook, and JuliaClaire Schumaker) to talk about what it was like to create Champlain’s Indigenous Peoples’ Week as a collaborative class project.
Where did this project come from?
Simon: It started with Val telling us that by the end of the semester, we’re going to have to have some larger project that entailed environmental justice in it. A couple of us had the idea of wanting to do something with Indigenous peoples. That’s what started the group.
JuliaClaire: It initially started as us just wanting to include the Indigenous people, like the Abenaki people, at Champlain. We wanted to do a sculpture, a little garden, something like that, and it kind of just evolved into this.
Val, when you designed the overall project, what were your goals for students’ learning and practice?
Val Esposito: I think environmental justice is a new-ish concept for most of the students. My thought is really that it’s one thing to learn about it. But it’s another thing to actually apply it, and conceive of and execute some sort of project that demonstrates environmental justice in action. It’s experiential learning, and the benefits of that.
I tried to, since the first class, position the environmental justice concept through the lens of the Abenaki in Vermont, and what the impact of that is on them.
Simon: I remember saying at one point, when we were suggesting projects to Val, that it was awesome to hear about these perspectives from Val. That’s a really great thing. But we’d rather learn about these things from Indigenous peoples themselves. That was one of the reasons that drove me towards this project.
What did you learn about Indigenous communities in Vermont that was most striking to you?
John: I think at least for me personally, I was especially shocked to hear from Don Stevens’s point of view. He’s really wrapped up in the government aspect of a lot of their movements. And he was talking about creating legislation that recognizes Indigenous populations and their existences through time. He was saying, looking back, he thought there was going to be some process where they gain recognition, and then from there, they’re going to be a real people [a recognized tribe], but some people don’t see it that way. Some people still think that there’s these made-up communities.
Megan: I think Don Stevens talked more about this when we had lunch with him, being the chief of the Abenaki, and there’s other chiefs in Vermont that represent other tribes. The media presents him as being the sole chief and whoa, he’s just the chief of the [Nulhegan] Abenaki. That obviously doesn’t help when you’re talking about Indigenous people and trying to push forward their rights.
JuliaClaire: Something that really stuck out to me was how much we do value Indigenous perspectives, but we often hear only one person’s perspective. We can’t treat Indigenous people as one monolith of a person, because everybody has different perspectives, and including those in all conversations is extremely important.
What did you learn about organizing a major event and collaborating on a big public-facing project?
Simon: I think teamwork was a big reason why it came out good, no matter how corny it is to say that. We really did divide and conquer on this project. I think that’s the only reason we could get it done in time. That and the help of Val, who really made things like getting the grants and money for this possible, and also helped communicating and making sure we all stuck to our goals and finished in time.
Caroline: I’m so impressed by the work that you did. Having worked in organizations where we had full-time people organizing events, I’d say you hit it out of the park.
John: A lot of the times, when we were organizing, it felt like the stars aligned in our way. To have everyone sending out emails and making calls and doing what they had to do, and we had set goals for each week — that’s what really came together.
Megan: I think a big thing too is making sure we all have access to all of our documents.
What kinds of challenges did you experience, and how did you resolve them?
Simon: One that I’m sure my teammates can related to was balancing this and the rest of my courses — just being a student at the same time as getting this done. I worked with teachers a lot. I’d go and talk to my teachers and let them know that I’m doing an event. Most of the time, they understood that a big event like this is a little more weighted than just a small assignment. Definitely communicating with instructors before trying to just go through and let it all fall apart.
JuliaClaire: One thing that was an obstacle for me was that I get really anxious about people seeing my work, so creating the posters and creating this event was kind of really out of my comfort zone. It gave me a space to really step out of my comfort zone and experience something in the real world.
John: I definitely had some personal challenges to overcome because I mean, same with all my classmates here, none of us are really event planners. We don’t do that type of thing normally. We did introductions for each speaker, and public speaking is not really a major thing for me either. So stepping out in that way and getting my feet wet and gaining the experience was a little bit overwhelming, but in a pleasant way.
Megan: I’m graduating next semester, so I’ve got a lot going on. That was an added layer for me, because this is definitely a much more long-term and hands-on class assignment than I think I’ve probably ever done before. So it’s just a whole new element to what I already have going. But I think it’s definitely good real-world practice since I’m going to be in the workforce soon.
Is there anything else you would like faculty to know about doing projects like this?
Simon: I think that having a professor who was very clearly genuinely interested in not just the content of the project, but seeing students do a project like this, was really important. Val still pushed us to take lead on a majority of the things and really wanted it to be student-oriented. I don’t know if the motivation would have been there if we didn’t get that initial little kick to get us really going and realizing that oh, this is something that us four students can actually do.
Megan: This project had such wide approval and excitement from the community here — the students loved it, the faculty loved it. Other projects along these kinds of lines that lead to big events are worth the doing. I mean, just the engagement of the Champlain community that it puts forth is a valuable experience.
JuliaClaire: I think fostering a place where students can be creative and have wide parameters, like this project did, really allowed for this event to become what it did. And I think that if other professors want to do a project like this, you’ve got to let students actually pick what they want to do. We were all very passionate about this, and I don’t think this would have happened if we weren’t.
John: Yeah, I agree. Students know what they want, they know what their passion is about, and they know what they’re going to be motivated towards.
Thanks to the organizers of Indigenous Peoples’ Week and the speakers for an amazing set of presentations!