March 25, 2020

For the first time, Arizona State University’s Social Embeddedness Network Conference was hosted virtually, via Zoom on March 24, due to social distancing recommendations because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the conference looked different than in years past, the mission remained the same: to build connections and share strategies for advancing ASU as a socially embedded institution.

“This change lent itself to greater accessibility and inclusion for those who may have not been able to join us on the ASU Tempe campus initially,” said Christina Ngo, University Innovation Fellow with the Office of Applied Innovation. “We see this as an opportunity to adapt to the public health needs of our university and community.”

By hosting the conference virtually, Ngo said ASU was able to increase the number of attendees by more than 150 participants.

The Social Embeddedness Network Conference began in 2014 as a luncheon focused on connecting K-12 education and community partnerships across the university. Since then, it has expanded into a daylong conference.

“At ASU, we define social embeddedness as mutually beneficial partnerships between the university and communities,” Ngo said. “We have recognized the need for new ways of engaging with the community and for the development of infrastructure to support our students, staff and faculty in doing so.”

The 2020 conference’s keynote speaker was Maria Rosario Jackson, an institute professor at ASU with appointments in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. Jackson’s expertise is in comprehensive community revitalization, systems change, dynamics of race and ethnicity and arts and culture in communities.

In her opening remarks, Jackson said, “As we meet today, we must remember that this is a moment of crisis and hardship and it is also a moment of possibility and transformation.”

Although communities may temporarily suffer through the current public health crisis, Jackson explained three core functions are the pillars of social embeddedness and restoring communities.

• Reframing: The way a problem/challenge is framed and the response that is crafted.

• Retooling: Thinking differently about how we rely on current structures to implement solutions.

• Repairing: Recognizing harm was done and that healing must take place, especially to restore marginalized groups.

“I think these functions are also relevant to aspirations in the sustainability field. And at their best, they’re carried out in partnership with communities we aspire to serve,” Jackson said.

ASU graduate student uses social embeddedness as framework for research

Julia Colbert, a master’s degree student in the School of Sustainability, is working on her graduate research with Echo Canyon School in the Scottsdale Unified School District to explore how sustainability literacy can be supported through nature journaling in school gardens. Originally, ASU was partnering with the school to research its Chef in the Garden Program — a program where local chefs come to school and teach students how to cook healthy, nutritious foods. In January 2019, ASU took its research another step forward, developing the nature journaling project with four classes at Echo Canyon School to see how journaling might connect students more to their gardens at school.

Four teachers at the school helped pilot the program and the project eventually evolved into Colbert’s master’s thesis. Colbert said social embeddedness helped to take down the curtain that often seems to be between the researchers and the researched, inspired children and adults to connect more to the natural world and spurred a sustainability movement at the school.

“We quickly learned that this was a really collaborative learning process and there was no way that we could do research together without building a relationship over time.”

The four teachers, who joined the conference via Zoom, echoed those sentiments, saying constituency was key. The more students interacted with Colbert, the more they felt comfortable to share their experiences and further the research project.

“We learned a lot about our students because Julia came to our school,” said Lisa Espinosa, kindergarten teacher at Echo Canyon School. “Through that social embeddedness, everybody was learning something different. It was really incredible.”

In January 2020, Colbert said the four teachers who participated in the pilot program led a nature journal training for the rest of the school faculty, encouraging signs that the project may sustain itself over time.

Building sustainable futures through social embeddedness

Social embeddedness can have a positive community impact not only in schools, but other places of learning, like museums or cultural institutions.

During the 2020 Social Embeddedness Network Conference, Rae Ostman, an associate research professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and Nicholas Weller, a postdoctoral research associate in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, helped highlight the progress of a fellowship program at ASU meant to empower museum professionals to make sustainable changes.

Since 2016, about 200 museum professionals from around the world have participated in the fellowship program, which is made possible through ASU’s Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service and in partnership with the National Informal STEM Education Network.

Partners like the Arizona Science Center have been empowered to reduce waste and create educational programs focused on sustainability, while connecting with broader audiences and establishing new relationships with underserved communities.

“Museums want to help build better futures for the communities they serve, and the concept of sustainability aligns with these goals,” Weller said. “Museums are great at taking big topics and making them fun and accessible, meaning cultural institutions are great places to start conversations about sustainability.”

Weller believes social embeddedness is helping museums and cultural institutions understand their role as shifting from one-way communicators to places for community dialogue around societal challenges like climate change.

“This shift highlights how museums are prioritizing the communities they serve,” Weller said.

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASUNow 

Jimena Garrison

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