Written by Andy McGlashen, Environmental Science and Policy Program
As a doctoral student at Iowa State, Stephen Gasteyer wondered what moves communities from thinking about natural resource protection to getting things done.
He began looking at how social relationships, networks and coalitions form, and how they bring about action on environmental issues. Communication through participatory process, he found, was an important piece of the puzzle.
"Pummeling people with information doesn't create change," he said. "You can make a lot of progress just by getting people to move from positions to discussion."
Gasteyer is an assistant professor of Sociology at Michigan State, where he teaches a course on the subject of communities and conservation. The course's structure is unusually dynamic; students choose research projects, and, after the first four weeks of key seminal books on social science on communities and conservation research, class readings are selected to accommodate their interests.
"I designed the course that way because I wanted the opportunity to learn with students about conservation in Michigan," Gasteyer said.
His current research focuses on water issues, with a special interest in the community-level effects of the Great Lakes Compact.
Gasteyer has served on the faculty of the University of Illinois, was Research and Policy Director at the Rural Community Assistance Partnership in Washington, D.C. and worked as a researcher in the Palestinian territories. He also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali in the late 1980s.
While there, Gasteyer said, he learned how even poor people have knowledge and skills that need to be recognized and respected.
"In a place like Mali, the poverty and very real issues of life and death are in your face," he said. "At the same time, people in Mali have pride, intact culture, and knowledge that too often is disregarded by development specialists."
Gasteyer said the sense of urgency and purpose he brings to his work on water resources comes largely from his time in Mali. While he worked with families with children suffering from malnutrition and diarrhea—a result of poor water quality and sanitation that kills millions of children, he also saw the incredible ingenuity and skill of Malians in making machines and equipment run.
"The question is how the development effort might assist in developing systems that support improved access to food, clean water, improved public health, and well-being through building on those skills."