By Hannah Prince (Jour’22)
As Emma Rabius (StratComm’22) walked across campus, she was deep in thought about a class assignment: create a climate-focused project that would change student attitudes. It had to be good, she knew. The winning idea would be submitted for grant funding.
Once in class, Rabius proposed a localized, campuswide “Meatless Mondays” campaign.
“I’ve always been on the trajectory of wanting to do some kind of good for the environment,” Rabius said. “I started making changes in my personal life, trying to eat more local foods.”
Within minutes, her idea was declared the class favorite. Weeks later, the class’s work became a reality—thanks to funding from Mission Zero, a Boulder-based climate action organization.
In spring 2022, the Meatless Mondays campaign was one of seven projects in the College of Media, Communication and Information to receive grant funding through Mission Zero. The organization, founded by Scott King (ElEngr’85), offers learning opportunities, funding and support for climate-focused academics at CU Boulder.
This year for the first time, Mission Zero partnered with CMCI, donating $25,000 to further climate-focused work in the college.
“This is the first time we’ve had money to execute a campaign, something students have always asked for when working on a strategic communication project,” said Associate Professor Erin Schauster, faculty lead for the Meatless Mondays project. “You can’t get more real-world than that.”
In Schauster’s strategic communication class, each student group developed a unique campaign strategy to explain to audiences the substantial climate impact of meat production and consumption.
One group encouraged non-meat proteins as part of an exercise-focused diet. Another advocated for using alternative milks in coffee, and a third group urged students to avoid eating meat on Mondays. The class used its $4,825 grant to advertise and buy materials, like non-meat protein samples, coffee tumblers, seed kits for herbs and tailored tote bags.
“Every group had to do research about climate change, meat consumption, best practices for climate change communication, and about what CU was already doing in this space,” Schauster said. “A lot of that research inspired their ideas.”
In other areas of CMCI, the six grantees used different methods to tackle climate action. Some emphasized storytelling by offering film awards, incorporating climate topics into student publications or using interactive platforms to communicate climate issues to the public. Others included community partners, like the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).
Emma Piper-Burket, a PhD student in the Emergent Technologies and Media Art Practices program, received $500 from Mission Zero to fund a film project visualizing ecosystem change over time.
The film will show the life cycle of mountain pine beetles, trees, petrified wood and humans. Mountain pine beetles are one of the most severe threats to the health of Western conifer forests, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Her film captures the beetles as they make patterns in the bark—a behavior that ultimately contributes to the death of the tree.
“I try to be really present with the environment,” said Piper-Burket, who uses media to investigate interactions among nature, society and the human spirit. “I’ve scaled back and now film the things that are coming to me—trying to be gentle with all those things that are happening and responsive.
Phaedra C. Pezzullo, associate professor of communication and media studies, received $2,175 from Mission Zero to focus on environmental justice storytelling in Colorado.
In the graduate-level Foundations of Environmental Justice course, her students partnered with CDPHE to pilot digital storytelling projects about the Lower Arkansas River Valley and Pueblo County using ArcGIS StoryMaps. The interactive stories are housed on the state’s new Environmental Justice website.
Students interviewed Colorado residents about their communities and integrated audio clips in the story maps, which also include photographs, reporting and resources for public engagement. Each story opens with what people love in their communities.
“Environmental harm, whether it’s climate change or toxic pollution, is not just about the numbers and the science, but it is also about human relationships,” Pezzullo said.
The project prioritized environmental and social issues, including how climate change affects marginalized communities, said Anthony Albidrez, who is pursuing a master’s degree in journalism.
“Environmental justice for me is amplifying the voices of the frontline communities that are facing continued environmental degradation and the continued impacts of climate change,” said Albidrez, who interviewed residents in Fowler, Colorado, part of the Lower Arkansas River Valley.
Through their Mission Zero projects, CMCI faculty and students connected climate issues to the daily lives of Coloradans and their neighbors—all through stories shared in innovative ways. They sought to reveal why it’s so vital that all stakeholders take climate action.
“No story is the last word,” Pezzullo said. “No conversation is the final conversation on environmental justice. There will always be challenges, and to find a way to make peace with ethical decisions is just one step.”