Research Chat

Episode 2: Leveraging the power of cultural signposts in response to our shared climate emergency. Kai Riemer-Watts, Community Psychology

Episode Summary

The second episode of Research Chat features Kai Reimer-Watts, a PhD student in Community Psychology program at Laurier and a doctoral fellow at the Viessman Centre for Engagement and Research in Sustainability (VERiS). He will speak about his research into the power of cultural signposts in response to our shared climate emergency.

Episode Notes

The second episode of Research Chat features:

Episode Transcription


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Shawna Reibling  00:04

Welcome to Research Chat, a podcast where students share their experiences at Wilfrid Laurier University and their current research findings. I'm your guide Shawna Reibling, a Knowledge Mobilization Officer at Laurier and in each episode, I will interview a Laurier student who is exploring a specific research passion through their graduate research work.



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Shawna Reibling  00:35

What is your name and the program you are studying?


Kai Reimer-Watts  00:37

My name is Kai Reimer-Watts, and I'm in the Community Psychology program at Laurier.


Shawna Reibling  00:43

Who is your supervisor?


Kai Reimer-Watts  00:45

So that would be Dr. Manuel Riemer.


Shawna Reibling  00:48

Why did you choose the Community Psychology Doctoral Program at Laurier?


Kai Reimer-Watts  00:53

Manuel and I met following my film launch of Beyond Crisis. And so that's a feature documentary on climate change. I know we're going to speak a bit more about it in a moment. So I had a film launch in Uptown Waterloo. We spoke after the screening, and I got to know a little bit more about his research and focus on the intersections of community psychology and sustainability and so I was intrigued. 

I was invited to do a short film to celebrate Community Psychology's, 40th anniversary and in that process, I interviewed a range of students in the program and realised, wow, this might actually be a very good fit for me. And some of the things that resonated especially strongly were the strong social justice principles that are at the core of the program, and the focus on community based research and action. This was something I was hoping to engage more with anyway, as a community activist to improve my own knowledge of social change and learn specific strategies for community organising and engagement, as well as how to target larger levels of systems change. So all of those can be addressed through community psych and so it seemed like a natural fit. I'm very happy to be here.


Shawna Reibling  02:20

Have you found that community psychology is a good fit for you?


Kai Reimer-Watts  02:24

Yeah, absolutely. I have really, really enjoyed the balance between academic work and direct applied knowledge. So actually seeing your work, play out and be applied in community contexts has been incredibly valuable to me. And of course, the community that I've built through this of friends and fellow activists, peers, who I really admire, I really can't imagine a better fit at this point. I think it's incredibly important at this turbulent time of history, that academia plays a role in in trying to advocate for a more just society and the community psych program, while not perfect, is certainly striving to do that and I think having a really positive impact overall.


Shawna Reibling  03:21

What practices have you developed that have been helpful so far on your educational journey?


Kai Reimer-Watts  03:26

I would say juggling is one. My brother is actually a circus artists and so we tease each other about who can kind of juggle more balls in the air at once. That's certainly a necessity in a PhD stream, I feel that I've often got at least half a dozen projects going on at the same time. And so being able to manage those effectively, time management has been a very important skill. Also, perseverance, I think any doctoral research work requires a commitment to the long haul, that it's going to take time for your research question and what you specifically want to explore in the context of your field. And the ways in which you can make a unique contribution, it's going to take time for that to come to fruition. 

Balance can be difficult. So, I've kind of found ways to set boundaries around my work life, to still allow for a healthy personal life as well and I think that's a really important practice. Relationship building, I think is huge. It can sometimes be forgotten when you're working in your own isolated bubble, but really, for all of the work that I'm engaged with, when we're talking about social change that requires people coming together. So that's been a really important practice for me is just to continue to come together with my peers and with community partners to advance change efforts forward and commitment. I think that's another another quality for any kind of graduate work. You have to feel, maybe I'll add to that passion, you have to feel some passion and enthusiasm for what you are doing to stay with it.


Shawna Reibling  05:32

That takes you back to your first point on being committed for the long haul. The passion helps.


Kai Reimer-Watts  05:38

Yeah, absolutely. Honestly, if I didn't care about the work that I'm doing, I think I would lose momentum fairly quickly. You do need to care and it really helps as you inevitably come up against challenges on your educational journey. In my view, it really should be something that you believe strongly in and are passionate about to keep you going.


Shawna Reibling  06:03

I want to talk about your research next, your research explores signposts which are directional symbols that aim to encourage individual and or collective action in a specific direction pointing to particular visions of the future. Could you tell me what led you to explore this research question?


Kai Reimer-Watts  06:21

I'm a visual artist, among other identities, and I create documentary films as well as a lot of imagery and signs for the local climate justice movement. So for instance, I was the student lead on the Climate is Life mural, which is on Laurier's Waterloo campus in partnership with a mural artist, Pamela Rojas. That's now a powerful symbol for the kind of action that Laurier needs to take, as well as our broader society at large linking climate action and justice. So I believe the arts is a very important but often undervalued part of catalyzing broader cultural and systems change. 

We know from decades of scientific research, along with really the lived experience of millions of people, that our current industrial society is hugely unsustainable, and it's harmful both to people and the planet. It's led directly to climate change among other harmful impacts. So I would argue our current signpost, or directional symbol in mainstream society is this idea of progress as continued economic growth, which is achieved through dominance and control over nature extracting resources as if there were no limits, and also extracting maximum value through labour from people. This signpost promotes a myth that nature and the economy are separate and whatever is happening out there is somehow disconnected from how we do business and our everyday lives. Really, if we stopped to think about it, that couldn't be further from the truth. Our economies and the natural world are deeply deeply interconnected. 

So I really just need underscore, my master's was in climate change and it became very clear to me that the reason we are living in an accelerating climate and ecological crises today is because of our current economic structure, and the impacts that that's having on the planet. We can dig into other reasons as well, colonialism would be another. However, the way that our economy is structured is a pretty big one. And so if we don't change course, and we continue to kind of undermine and damage the life supports that sustain us, ultimately, that's going to bring our economy down, and society with it. 

These things are interconnected, and we need to urgently change these structures. And that means, in large part, changing the goal, and that means developing new visions of what the goal should be, which eventually led me to signposts. 

I was interested to share one example of the power of signposts that relates to the times that we're currently living in. As I'm guessing many listening to this podcast will already be experiencing the COVID pandemic and the impacts of that on our lives, we can also see the power of signposts in response to COVID. There's been a huge amount of messaging and symbolism that's been created and placed in public spaces that reinforces "this is a crisis; we need to act." That symbolism has been reinforced with public health messaging and messaging from the media and governments and, when combined, it has very successfully changed the behaviour of an enormous number of people in a surprisingly short period of time. So all the signs for masking, for washing hands, for two metres of social distance, bending the curve, whether we like them or not, these are very powerful signposts that have effectively changed a lot of people's behaviour. 

We don't have anything close to this level of messaging for the climate and ecological crises that we are facing. These are arguably far, far more dangerous and are also already impacting people's lives here in Canada around the world. 

And I think a lot of climate activists would resonate with that society wide response to COVID demonstrates that such a response is possible. We're doing it for the pandemic. And now we need that same clear messaging and coordinated society wide response to address the climate crisis.


Shawna Reibling  11:05

Where did the term signposts come from?


Kai Reimer-Watts  11:08

Generally speaking, signposts are created by people with some message to share about our future direction. They're designed to influence beliefs, values, norms, practices, all linked to the future, and often linked to social action. It's important to emphasize signposts are never value neutral. They always represent particular perspectives and values that are relevant to particular social contexts. I am interested in signposts that propose alternative futures of what should happen in response to the climate crisis, and hence proposed futures that may be worth fighting for. 

From a theoretical perspective, just to quickly describe this: signposts can be understood as a subset of symbolism, one of three key attributes of a culture of sustainability. So the others would be values and norms, practices, and then the third symbolism. So they can function both as an idea or a series of connected ideas, but also as a real world manifestation of those ideas through symbolic representation. And so I think it's important to recognize that all human made systems require human interaction and engagement, so this includes our economies, they all contain signposts that indicate and reinforce how people should behave within the system. Another example, would be stop signs that tell the driver they should stop their car in the near future. 

On a larger level economic growth is a signpost and it is sometimes symbolized by governments visually to show the economy which is ultimately an abstraction growing. It indicates a goal for the entire system that we should presumably all collectively be working towards. So this does have links to systems theory in the sense that the highest leverage points in a system to target for change. So you can imagine by targeting key system goals, signposts do have the potential to be powerful leverage points to help influence and shift larger systems. So that's also part of my interest that we know we need to shift the goals, so let's think about how we can engage on alternative visions of what those goals should could be.


Shawna Reibling  13:42

I wanted to ask about your documentary Beyond Crisis. Perhaps it is a tool to change the system we're currently in. How did the documentary come to be?


Kai Reimer-Watts  13:52

Beyond Crisis as a film absolutely has been a tool I've used very frequently to try and invoke conversation and, in some ways, start to shift the systems that I'm embedded within. In terms of how it came to be. 

Going back to 2014, I was part of a local group for climate action and justice in Toronto called Toronto 350. And that's part of a larger international movement, an organization called We rallied to bring people together from Toronto to New York, for the people's Climate March. At the time, this was the largest Global Climate March in history. There were actions all around the world. Over 400,000 people came together in New York. As we were planning to go down and participate in this, a number of us thought, this is such a big event, we really should document it in some way and document our own participation and what this means to so many who are engaging and in some cases participating in a climate strike for the first time. So we did, but we really came together as activist filmmakers with just a general dream to document this. It was such a powerful experience when we came out, we really thought, wow, what are we going to do with this next, we could simply create a film that just celebrates the march but we realised that would be pretty short lived, it might only reach activists, and we wanted to kind of reach beyond the choir. 

So the project eventually morphed into something much bigger, which included a cross-Canada/US production tour. We interviewed dozens of people from all walks of life and, fast forward about three years, we pulled together a feature length film. That's the story and I'm incredibly proud of it. In some ways, I sometimes joke that doing this documentary was my first PhD. It was definitely a marathon effort, and has been used as a tool in communities ever since. 

The tagline for the film is a story of hope for a rapidly changing world. In the end it is, however, I'll preface that, that there's a lot in the film that is pretty heavy to begin with. It lays out the stakes and the kind of hopelessness that many feel in connection to the climate crisis, which is kind of an endless psychological burden. 

But to counteract this heaviness, we do need solutions that can give us hope and so that's kind of the narrative arc of the film. The beginning of it does really situate us in the heaviness of what we're faced with, including but also beyond some of the science, but it then moves towards hope that's at the scale of what we're facing. So importantly, in my mind, these solutions can't just be small, kind of change your lightbulbs or bike to work, recycle, common personal sustainability actions. Even if these are important, they don't come close to addressing the true scale of the crisis. So the hope we communicate through the film is what we can feel if we engage in transformative systems change. 

So as an analogy, this is similar to the kind of transformative society wide effort that was required during World War Two, for instance, or the race to the moon. When it comes to climate change, in my view, it can't just be this small, "I'll just take care of my own corner" type of hope, which can sometimes be driven by fear. We have to tackle it together through active mobilization and that's the real hope.


Shawna Reibling  18:04

You've mentioned the role of the arts to catalyze change. I'm wondering if the process of using your film to catalyze change has informed your research.


Kai Reimer-Watts  18:14

I think that one of the big ways that that process of creating Beyond Crisis informed my own research is to really underscore the importance of storytelling, the power of stories, to build an emotional connection, to communicate important lessons and information and to affect change in a way that facts alone, as a whole body of research has demonstrated, often fall short of. 

Simply communicating the science on climate change is generally not going to engage the broad audience that we need to engage to really get folks on board with the kind of change we're talking about, which is immense. stories can do that stories about the kind of future that we want to see as well as how we describe how we're situated right now and where we want to collectively go from here. Stories can be incredibly powerful for engaging in social change. 

The other point is around social engagement. So the documentary has been a very useful in point for conversation on climate change with audiences who might not normally talk about it in their daily lives, but who are curious and interested enough to come out to a public screening. My big use of the film now it's out in the world is as a conversation starter. And so my experience with that has reinforced how important in points are for people to have some fairly safe way to enter into a difficult conversation.


Shawna Reibling  19:58

What is "large scale systems change"?


Kai Reimer-Watts  20:02

A great example of large scale systems changes what we're seeing in response to the COVID pandemic. It's a global pandemic that has successfully changed in quite a radical way how people live and work (if you're lucky enough to be working right now), how people do business at a very large scale across dozens of countries around the world. 

So first, we need to when we're thinking about large scale systems change, we need to ask ourselves what systems we're actually talking about. Many social systems in terms of how we interact have been totally up ended or transformed. During the pandemic, other systems have been affected at a large scale as well. We can think of our national economic system here in Canada. However, to address the climate, emergency and other huge inequities, including racial and economic inequities, it's really our economy that needs to change. 

And to give some specifics to address the climate emergency would require reducing emissions roughly by 50%, globally over the next 10 years, by 2030, at a time when prior to COVID, at least, emissions continue to rise. We need major large scale systems change, we need to rapidly transition our economies off fossil fuels and carbon intensive infrastructure. That requires large scale change in our energy systems, our economic system, our transportation system, agricultural systems, to become low carbon, while centering justice to protect and empower those most vulnerable. 

These are enormous changes. They are also absolutely necessary to slow the acceleration of climate change. By taking action, we can at least have some influence on shaping the changes to come. So these kinds of systems changes, while they are daunting, can have tremendous benefits. So by engaging in systems change, we could build both a more environmentally sustainable society, but also a far more equitable society, addressing all kinds of harms, that are currently baked into the system. And so I'll give one tangible example of this. And some folks may be familiar with the Green New Deal, that's one proposed large scale system shift to address the climate crisis and inequities.


Shawna Reibling  22:42

What is the Green New Deal?


Kai Reimer-Watts  22:45

The Green New Deal is inspired by the New Deal, which was in response to the Great Depression back in the 30s and 40s. And that was a nationwide mobilization effort, in that case in the US, to rebuild out of the Great Depression. Just like during wartime, a Green New Deal would be a ten year mobilization effort to rapidly shift our economy to a low carbon sustainable economy, rebuilding society in a way that is far more equitable. 

An analogy for this, just like we've been striving to bend the curve on COVID to reduce the number of cases and not overwhelm our healthcare system, a mobilization of this nature, would aim to bend the curve on emissions and on the climate crisis. And we actually start to build towards something more sustainable and livable for our kids and all generations to come.


Shawna Reibling  23:52

You write in your article that accompanies this podcast that local voices are critical to implementing global scale systems change. Can you explain what you mean by this?


Kai Reimer-Watts  24:02

I think it's good to recognize that actions always take place at a local level somewhere, even if they are connected to and speaking out about global issues. People tend to care most about the places that they know, we call this "place attachment" in psychology. 

Climate change can feel abstract and distant to folks, that's especially true if you're not yet feeling personally impacted. We need to help make the links between a global issue and our everyday lives. There's kind of a ripple effect that can happen from the local level, outwards across the system impacting other levels of that system and it's good as much as possible to try to be intentional about that. 

One last thing to mention is that local communities know their context best and this is something that community psychology is very good at honouring and reminding us of, the wisdom that is inherent within local communities. So while we need coordinated response across society, it's not going to be a one size fits all solution. And so we need to honour that and find ways to empower community leadership while we are also trying to coordinate a nationwide response. That's an interesting challenge but it is one of the principles that something like a Green New Deal is meant to help achieve, empowering local community leaders that would know their context best to build a more sustainable society.


Shawna Reibling  25:46

Linking the system's change, you describe to our local context, are local climate emergency declarations helping the process?


Kai Reimer-Watts  25:53

Absolutely. And that's a great connection. So yeah, climate emergency declarations have been made by five municipalities in the region and they are examples of signposts. I should mention the other two municipalities declared a climate crisis so really all are on board with what this is. They are signposts and they have played a role in continuing to drive tangible action on climate change forwards. 

I would argue that these declarations are part of a broader arc of the region and municipalities continuing to up ambition for climate action. They were also tied to each municipality also passing a commitment to develop a carbon budget and that would begin measuring and then ratcheting down their emissions. So that was also part of these declarations. 

Our team has also since pushing for these declarations been working on a new campaign to build on this called 50 by 30, and this is to push for a 50% emissions reduction commitment by 2030 here in our region in line with what climate science says is necessary. And so we now have a foundation to build on with these emergency declarations to say, hey, you declared a climate emergency now, we need you to take these tangible, next steps. 

So I think often in effecting change within a system, you have to think about how your actions can build on each other. You have to kind of be strategic, and signposts again can be a very powerful endpoint that you can then build on to take other actions.


Shawna Reibling  27:45

You hypothesize that specific targeted signposts are very important to engage people in social action. How will you explore the qualities of signposts and their effectiveness?


Kai Reimer-Watts  27:56

One of the unique things I propose in my research is that a successful signpost is meant to be spread and shared among human actors to become collectively owned, often far beyond its initial origins. So, this is termed a "collective signpost" which can be understood, it can encourage social action in a unified direction. 

So part of the power of collective signposts lies in understanding that people are a lot more than rational autonomous actors acting only in our own self interest. Instead, people don't vote just in our self interest, we vote based on our identity and on our, on our values. So these signposts are a way of affirming identity and values. One of the things that drew me into signposts is how there's this complete lack of public messaging around the need for dramatic action on climate change. And so that's one of the reasons I've really been pushing these. And for instance, the Climate is Life mural at Laurier is a great example of that that symbol did not exist as a public facing message.


Shawna Reibling  29:15

Creating awareness of the possibilities of change is part of inviting community members to engage.


Kai Reimer-Watts  29:21

People often are drawn into engagement through a shared sense of identity. This can often be communicated by the symbols of a group. And if somebody really resonates with what that group stands for, and its core symbols and vision, then they're that much more likely to take next steps into meaningful participation. Signposts, importantly, are an in-point, not an endpoint. I have been creating some theoretical models that speak to this, that speak to the phases of systems transformation using a collective signpost.


Shawna Reibling  30:03

Is it necessary for everyone to engage with the process?


Kai Reimer-Watts  30:07

It's never necessary for everyone to engage, as much as we do need greater engagement around these serious issues. There's some interesting social movement theory research that I've read in this process that suggested that at any one given time, for social movements to have a significant impact on that on the culture, you needed roughly three and a half percent of the population to be engaged at any one particular time. So that is much smaller than many of us might imagine.


Shawna Reibling  30:47

Your research work and advocacy work has intersected through Climate Strike Waterloo Region and Climate Justice Laurier.


Kai Reimer-Watts  30:53

Yeah, absolutely. So signposts are a key part of my own community activism and that's only increasing. So some examples the, Climate is Life mural. Importantly, that mural also led to a number of us, Laurier students to jumpstart Climate Justice Laurier. So it is also an interesting example of how a symbol can lead directly into a specific advocacy group. This is a research and action group through LSPIRG that anyone interested in engaging with this work can join. And so there is a direct link between academics and advocacy there. 

The climate emergency declarations are another example. Tomorrow, a number of local activist groups are hosting a shoe strike for climate justice. So this is part of actually an international day of action on climate change through Friday's for Future. In line with COVID protocols, we can't hold a large rally so instead, we're doing a shoe strike, where people can drop off pairs of shoes that symbolically take their place and it's in partnership with Unsheltered Campaign. So those shoes that also warm winter boots will go to those in need to unsheltered people in the region. 

So that's another example. I'm a contributing artists to an online art show this fall through Laurier's Robert Langen Art Gallery, and that's called Reconnection. I'll be bringing in signposts created in collaboration with community activists into this art exhibition. I think there really is an ongoing relationship between my own advocacy work and research work. I think it's really a beautiful relationship. It's one I want to keep nurturing, and that I would love to encourage other academics towards to really encourage us to translate our academic work as much as possible into tangible positive impacts in the real world. And yeah, that's, that's my goal.


Shawna Reibling  33:07

The shoe strike is a great example of linking justice with the climate change movement.


Kai Reimer-Watts  33:12

I think it's an incredibly important link to make. In my mind, there is no climate action without justice.


Shawna Reibling  33:20

What advice do you have for those engaged in the process of creating a better climate future?


Kai Reimer-Watts  33:25

So I think one piece of advice would be to look at what's already being done. within the broader climate justice movement. There is incredible work happening and we should learn from each other. As I just emphasized, be sure to link climate action and justice. It's all about partnership and collaboration. So the vast majority of signposts I create are in partnership with others and that's how you shape shared symbols that resonate amongst a larger group. 

We do need leaders, but we need leaders who are collaborative and who work to also empower others. And I think that's why collective signposts are what ended up being so powerful and and then getting shared. The truly powerful ones can end up getting shared amongst millions of people who share a philosophy and commitment to action together.


Shawna Reibling  34:28

How has your research benefited you and those engaged in your research?


Kai Reimer-Watts  34:31

Yeah, this is a really important question. It's been incredibly helpful for me to be able to start to articulate, in theoretical terms and also in very pragmatic terms, what a signpost actually is, how it can be used, how it can affect change, how groups of people can come together to collaborate and engage on signpost creation. This is something that to some extent I was already doing in my community activism, but I didn't really know how to articulate exactly what I was doing and the impact that it was having. 

Also to be, then be more strategic about it, I think I being able to step back with my research work, and put this into a theoretical context and into the context of shaping culture, as part of the process of creating cultures of sustainability has been really beneficial to me. In terms of how it's benefited those engaged in my research, the process of creating signposts, has been in credibly beneficial to kind of movement cohesion, right here at a local level. 

So for instance, last fall in 2019, that was the largest strike for climate action in Waterloo region's history, we have over 5,000 people out. The imagery that was present in that crowd was incredibly important, it was picked on up on by the local media. It also, you know, was what folks remembered, a lot of that imagery was created through targeted art builds that I hosted and facilitated in Kitchener. 

And similarly, the documentation of these events I take very seriously because sharing the story of climate activism is so important and close to my heart and I know that if it's done poorly, it can really harm the movement. And so I collaborate quite closely in the creation of these videos. I do not put out content, that I have not checked with the core organizers to be sure that this resonates with their vision as well. And so all of that really bringing in community into that process is, I think, the way that we ensure that our work is benefiting those engaged with it.


Shawna Reibling  37:19

You've really articulated a compelling role for the arts in catalyzing change, especially in the climate change movement.


Kai Reimer-Watts  37:25

I think we can look back at social movement history and see that really any social movement has iconic imagery that is connected to it, that is remembered and passed down through generations and through culture. Vision is incredibly important and that is something that the arts is uniquely suited to contribute to, to articulate visions for an alternative society, in partnership with other disciplines. 

I think that the arts can partner more deeply with the natural sciences, for instance, or the political science, to articulate alternative visions. That's really important. I mean, we talk about knowledge translation. Right now, we know so much. We know so much about the climate crisis and the kinds of solutions that are necessary from an academic perspective, from a scientific perspective from a social science perspective. But that message isn't necessarily getting out there at the scale, and with the degree of nuance and urgency that it deserves. So I think the arts is, really can be, one of the missing pieces to start to push alternative visions of what our future could hold.


Shawna Reibling  38:59

Do you have any closing thoughts?


Kai Reimer-Watts  39:01

I think the last thing that I would share is really just a call to action. 

When I first started to get engaged with this, I knew nothing about climate change, and about the seriousness of what we are all collectively living through today. I was a visual artist who did an undergrad in the arts and through all that I knew I was just going to go on and have nothing to do with this. There were a number of kind of trigger points in my life that shifted my direction. And I think the big one was just realizing that I am also connected to this, that whatever my background, my education today, I'm living in this world. We are each living in a rapidly changing world. 

So I realized that I need to step up in a more meaningful way in my life, that doing so would also give me so much more optimism about my own future by engaging in the kind of change that I want to see in the world that we're living in. So I would really just encourage everyone who is listening in to consider ways that you can plug in to action, you do not need to be an expert on climate change, to have something to contribute. For me, my contribution is through the arts and storytelling. You likely have vital skill sets, in fact I know you do, for helping to shift us in a better direction. 

And so I would just say, find ways to plug in. Don't do it alone, reach out to groups and find symbols that link to your own core identity, and that are worth putting your effort behind. We really need more and more people to engage if we're going to move beyond crisis.


Shawna Reibling  41:06

Thank you for speaking with me Kai.


Kai Reimer-Watts  41:08

Thank you so much Shawna.



[jingle plays]


Shawna Reibling  41:18

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