Storytelling workshops give communities a voice amid global and local climate change

Bethany Wiggin, founder of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, helps run the My Climate Story project that allows people in Philadelphia and across the globe to document their personal experiences with climate change.

By: Eleana Kostakis, Shawna James, Oyewumi Oyeniyi and Nicole Cortes with Youthcast Media Group™

All photos credit to Oyewumi Oyeniyi, Youthcast Media Group™

When a woman gave birth in Philadelphia in April, she named her daughter Daffodil for the flowers that often bloomed during her birth month. As Daffodil grew, her namesake plant blossomed earlier and earlier — sometimes flowering well before April. It wasn’t long before the name no longer seemed to fit the timing of the girl’s birthday; her mother said five years from now, she might not associate daffodils with that month. 

The story is one of many Bethany Wiggin, founder of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH), has heard through the My Climate Story initiative, a project that allows people in Philadelphia and across the globe to document their experiences with climate change. Since the program launched in late 2019, it has collected stories that recount the personal tolls of climate change, as well as the nostalgia, grief and anxiety that accompany changing neighborhoods, landscapes and shorelines. 

“No resident of this planet goes unaffected by these changes,” Wiggin said. “We each have a climate story. Some of us have climate stories that are traumatic; some of us have climate stories where we might say, ‘Well, climate change doesn’t really affect me.’ And that’s maybe what I’ve come to think of as a form of climate privilege that intersects with all kinds of other social and historical privileges.” 

Bethany Wiggin at a Philadelphia neighborhood.

The My Climate Story project has hosted about 30 storytelling workshops since its inception. And in April PPEH named 10 Philadelphia high school teachers who will receive grant funding to incorporate climate lessons in their classrooms, where students will learn to gather stories of climate change from their communities and tell stories about how climate change is affecting other species. 

“The hope is that this regional collaboration to together research, document and share Philadelphians’ climate story can become a global model for what an engaged city can do,” Wiggin said. “These stories have work to do in the world, and it is our job also to bring them to policymakers and to really say, you know, ‘Philadelphians really demand climate solutions.’”

Stories from Philadelphians include accounts that range from snowless winters to blistering summers with heat that makes it difficult for older residents to spend time outdoors. In summers since 1970 the average temperature in Philadelphia has risen by 3 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Climate Central, and summer nighttime temperatures have climbed 3.8 degrees. 

“All of the concrete that warms up during the day — it’s harder to cool down a city at night than any other place as well. And so if the temperatures stay high, that exacerbates the problem,” said Clint Springer, director of the Institute for Environmental Stewardship at St. Joseph’s University. “All of these things have sort of positive feedback loops in them that make it worse than just it on its own. And so those are real public health concerns.” 

Temperature rise is most evident in heat islands like Cobb’s Creek, Hunting Park and other neighborhoods where temperatures average 3 to 8 degrees above Philadelphia’s average temperatures. As the Philadelphia Heat Vulnerability Index shows, residents of many of these neighborhoods are often minorities who are older, poorer and have chronic health conditions that a changing climate threatens to exacerbate.

“It disproportionately affects already vulnerable populations,” Wiggin said.

In addition to the effects of concentrated heat, extreme weather events can also have a more drastic effect on minority communities. Springer pointed to storms such as Hurricane Ida, which submerged parts of Philadelphia and New York City.

“The remnants of it came through Philadelphia and turned basically Center City into a bathtub between two rivers,” he said.

Wiggin said she hopes the My Climate Story project helps communities and individuals better understand how climate data is meaningful in their own lives — whether they experience climate from a point of privilege or marginalization. The project trains facilitators to host climate change storytelling workshops, where people can discuss the impact of climate change in their lives. 

Most of the storytelling workshops the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities has facilitated have been virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But even through Zoom rooms, Wiggin said she has witnessed people drawing connections between climate change and their lived experiences.

“The goal of the project is to actually forge those connections,” Wiggin said. “That moment when someone who thinks maybe climate change is happening in the Arctic, but not in Philadelphia; where that climate change might happen at 2100 or maybe 2050, but not today — when they are able to connect the dots and say, ‘Oh, that’s climate change. Right now. Like, it’s not coming — it’s here, it’s with us.’” 

Wiggin said she sees education and storytelling as one of the most cost-effective ways to combat climate change. Storytelling also allows marginalized groups — who are often the most affected by climate change and most often excluded from climate solutions — to reclaim the narrative around the climate emergency.

Bethany Wiggin poses for a photo with Oyewumi Oyeniyi, high school Philadelphia student and former YMG intern.

Academic-community partnerships, like My Climate Story, are one way to begin to invite marginalized communities back into the climate conversation and mend legacies of environmental racism, Wiggin said. 

“It’s all part of the same kind of systems of racial capitalism and other forms of systemic injustice that have been ongoing for too long,” Wiggin said. “I see amazing climate advocates across the city though, and really of all ages, races, genders, shapes, sizes. Just people who are really connecting the intersectionality of climate and really understanding how climate is as much a social justice issue.”

The My Climate Story Project is not the only project using the power of storytelling to connect people. The American Public Health Association (APHA) is also encouraging citizens across the country to share their experiences of climate change for a short story series. 

“This is just one to two paragraphs on how your family or your community has been impacted by climate change,” said Regina Davis Moss, associate executive director of the APHA. “What are some solutions or problems and how were they addressed?”

In the Philadelphia climate classrooms that were awarded grants this year, teachers will curate digital exhibits to share climate stories from their communities, and those exhibits will also be showcased as part of a climate storytelling festival in May 2023. 

Wiggin wants to make her project more global. The My Climate Story project offers storytelling prompts in 15 languages, and Wiggin is working with colleagues across the United States and in Europe to expand the program.

“It is really my hope and dream that with this pilot in Philadelphia, we can do just that — we can make and share this curriculum with other cities,” Wiggin said. “For the moment the majority of the stories we have collected so far in the story bank remain in English. But that is not our goal; far from it. It’s just a starting point.” 

Eleana Kostakis is a graduate of World Journalism Prep School in New York City, and started at Fordham University in the fall; Shawna James and Oyewume Oyeniyi are 11th grade students at Julia R. Masterman High School and Cristo Rey High School in Philadelphia; and Nicole Cortes is a freshman at the University of Georgia. They were participants in YMG’s reporting workshop on the impacts of climate change in spring of 2022.