Faculty Fellow Interview: Traci Brynne Voyles

Throughout the 2016-2017 year, the ACTI blog will feature a series of interviews with current and previous ACTI Faculty Fellows, in which they will elaborate upon their ACTI Fellowship research projects and what motivates their scholarly work.  Our interviewer, Rory O’Donnell, is an ACTI Rains Research Assistant and graduate student in the Philosophy MA program at LMU.  

Our first featured Fellow is Dr. Traci Brynne Voyles, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Interim Director of Environmental Studies.  Her project, “Bound for the Sky: The Salton Sea and the Impossibilities of American Environmentalism in the Borderlands,” explores the environmental history of the Salton Sea, with reference to Catholic teachings about environmentalism and social justice and the relationship between the Catholic Church and Native Nations in California history.


ACTI: Tell us about yourself! What animates or invigorates you?

TV: I have my PhD in ethnic studies from U.C. San Diego and did a post-doc in the history department at U.C. Davis. During that time, when I was getting my PhD, I came to graduate school to work on race and reproductive justice.  About halfway through my grad program, I realized that what I really wanted to be working on was the field of environmental justice, and I was really drawn to the intersections of environmental problems and social justice problems and how environmental degradation impacts human communities. So I came to my dissertation project, which was about uranium mining on Navajo land, in part because I’m originally from New Mexico and also it’s a really pressing case of environmental injustice in that state.  My first book kind of evolved out of that work.  So if you’re asking what motivates me, it really is the interdisciplinary connections between U.S. history, environmental studies, and ethnic and gender studies—bringing a feminist analysis to the study of environment and social justice issues.  That’s the framework that has organized all my research work and most of my teaching work.


ACTI: Did anything draw you in particular to ecology and study of the environment?

TV: The uranium mining case study did, because it was so urgent and also because of the global implications. It was a local case that wasn’t really being talked about much outside of Arizona and New Mexico, but had really important global implications.  The other part of what connects my work to ecology movements is that all critical-theory work I do is within the academy, but the topics that I write about (including this [Faculty Fellow] project for ACTI on the Salton Sea) are all directly connected to social movements. People are actually on the ground struggling with these issues in their communities on a day-to-day basis. I think that building bridges between the academic side of our work and the real life implications of the things we write about often is important. Environmentalism is treated as the tree-hugger politics, right? It’s not necessarily seen as something that’s an issue for everyday life and a struggle for human communities, and that’s the connection that I think is the most urgent.


ACTI: What brought you to LMU?

TV: The Women’s Studies department.  Being able to work in a Women’s Studies department at an undergraduate, education-focused university was a huge benefit. I was coming from an ethnic studies department and a history department, but I’ve always been first and foremost a feminist scholar.  So being able to work in a Women’s Studies department was an opportunity that I was unable to pass up.


ACTI: How do you see your research project as part of the ACTI’s mission to develop, critically examine, communicate, or otherwise engage the rich resources of Catholic thought an imagination?

TV: You know, this is a great question. I really appreciate ACTI and the mission. I’m so glad that they’re here on campus. So the connections that I saw with my project are that I write a lot about indigenous communities, and, of course, there’s a long and very complex relationship among Catholics and Jesuits, Catholic and Jesuit universities, and indigenous communities, particularly in Southern California.  This project I’m working on right now is about the Salton Sea, which is a Southern California site.  Struggles over environmentalism and the Salton Sea very much have to do with indigenous sovereignty and indigenous rights and indigenous life now, in the twenty-first century. All of those concerns are connected to the history of non-native presence and colonization in Southern California.  These topics are directly connected to the history of the Catholic presence in Southern California, and so I think that it’s a paramount responsibility of people at Catholic universities (including here at LMU) to engage with questions of native sovereignty and colonization.  Asking these kinds of critical questions: What does it mean to be Jesuit? What does it mean to be oriented towards social justice? Also, what does it mean to come from these histories of colonization and conquest?  How do we reconcile that in a way that fits with the Jesuit identity and the ACTI mission?


ACTI:  What is the most challenging aspect of your research project?

TV: The most challenging aspect of this particular project is the urgency of it.  The Salton Sea is in dire straits, and it will evaporate if major policy moves aren’t made to save it. In the context of the drought and California’s budget issues, it’s unlikely that the resources will be made available.  It is an emergency.  So writing a book, which is a very slow endeavor (an academic book takes forever to write) about something that’s a moving target is always difficult.  The most important part for me is the urgency. The most challenging part is the urgency of writing about an environmental catastrophe that’s unfolding as we speak.


ACTI: In your research, were there any findings that you did not expect or any anything that sparked your interest further?

TV: Everything about the Salton Sea is unexpected. What I like about the Salton Sea is that I often describe my book as a study of impossibility.  It’s an impossible place; it’s nothing but contradictions.  It’s a well and in the desert.  It’s extraordinarily polluted, and it’s a wildlife preserve. You can’t accurately say that it’s nature-made or human-made.  People often just shorthand and say that the Salton Sea is weird, but it’s that weirdness that makes it both intriguing and impossible. It doesn’t quite get up people’s ire in the same way that, say, Lake Tahoe would because it is seen as such a strange place, but it’s the strangeness, I think, that’s really fascinating.


ACTI: What methodology did you use? And could you explain ecofeminism?

TV: The method that I use is from environmental history, which involves looking at landscapes as an archive and at how the ways that landscapes and environments change over time can tell us something about human and natural history.

Ecofeminism is a body of feminist theory that argues that environmental degradation and patriarchy are related to each other. There’s some kind of relationship between the two. There are many different kinds of connections that are drawn between the destruction of the non-human world and the domination of women. Some are symbolic, and some of them are very, very real. One of the more tangible connections is that in the context of climate change, it’s often women who are least likely to have access to needed resources. Also, it’s women who are most responsible in families for acquiring food resources and water resources that are dwindling.  Environmental degradation often impacts women in very particular kinds of ways.

The Salton Sea is interesting because it shows the gamut of those connections or the different scales of those connections in different sorts of ways.  Ecofeminists often write about how landscapes themselves tend to be feminized, and that’s part of how the landscapes are treated as unimportant.  The landscapes’ being treated as Other or as exploitable is through feminization.  That’s happened in the desert in a number of ways. The other perspective I bring to looking at the Salton Sea in its history. It’s on sovereign, native land. It’s on land of the Cahuilla, who have a very particular gender epistemology and gender practices and traditions that have been in part impacted and obliterated because of the presence of the Salton Sea and the presence of settlers in the desert.  So there are gender systems that are altered specifically around it because of the Sea’s presence.  The other piece of it (the more contemporary piece), that is connected to those very material links between environmental degradation and women’s health, is that the Salton Sea leaves behind all this very polluted particulate matter which causes major problems for respiratory health in communities around the Sea.  And that has very specific impacts on women’s lives, as caretakers but also just as people who also have those respiratory health issues. So disproportionately high rates of childhood asthma impacts women’s lives in particular ways, because they’re primary caretakers in their families.


ACTI: What is one concrete thing that can be done to improve the situation the Salton Sea? 

TV: Listen to the communities who live there.  The communities that surround the Salton Sea that are most impacted with respiratory health issues are first of all going to be the ones who are most deeply invested in the sea’s ecological health, but they’re also disproportionately poor, non-white, and non-English speaking.  Those are the communities who are at the front lines of that struggle and are very familiar not only with what’s beautiful about the landscape and aesthetically pleasing (which is what generally motivates environmentalists), but also with the real human and animal stakes are. They’re the ones who live with it.  So letting those community members be well-informed leaders, as well as that kind of policy process, would be the number one way to move forward.


ACTI: Is there any way those interested could help with the cause?

TV: Yes! There’s a Salton Sea Save Our Sea initiative that’s really interesting.  On a direct action level, there’s a number of organizations and policy initiatives right now. Many coastal Southern Californians in LA and Orange County and San Diego will have their respiratory health impacted by the Salton Sea, and so they should care, even though they generally don’t know what the Salton Sea is or just think it’s a weird place.  So on an everyday level, you can identify those organizations that are working to save the Sea and weigh in on the local policy debates and statewide policy debates about it, because there are many going on right now.

On a larger level, I would suggest being aware of the ecological realities of Southern California life, and thinking about what our actual ecosystem can sustain and what sustainability means here. The Salton Sea is connected to both drought and climate change, and those are two issues that we should obviously all be paying attention to. They’re the most quintessential environmental issues that we’re going to have to grapple with, and California and the story of the Salton Sea is very much about both drought and climate change as well.



To learn more about current and previous ACTI Faculty Fellows or to apply to the program, visit our website.