Interview with Mez Baker-Médard

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Interview with Mez Baker-Médard

May 14, 2015

by Kristin Smith

We asked Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Merrill “Mez” Baker-Médard about her research and thoughts about the future of the Environmental Studies program.

Hired in 2014, Mez has a B.A. from Smith College and a Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley. This spring she taught courses in Conservation and Environmental Policy and Gender, Health, and the Environment.

What three words sum up your research and teaching interests? Why?

Socio-nature, situated knowledge, and intersectionality.

I’m interested in challenging the dichotomy between society and nature. I study protected areas, which are historically born from the idea that humans should be on one side and untouched nature on the other. Dichotomies help distill ideas, but they can be deeply problematic. There’s a lot of exciting and creative work that explores how humans and non-humans are entangled, how we are not just a threat to nature but have a synergistic relationship. For example, the space between agriculture lands and forests is often the most biologically diverse—something called the “edge effect.” Exploring our assumptions about how nature and society coexist—or fail to coexist—can help us think critically about our role in and as part of the environment.

My approach to both my teaching and my research is to honor the knowledge and experience that people show up with. All knowledge is situated in space and place, informed by our cultural context, our beliefs, our identities, and our histories. It’s important to de-hierarchize knowledge and honor what people bring to the table.

Your research is multidisciplinary, drawing from human geography, conservation science, environmental politics, and gender studies. What are you hoping to accomplish with your work and your teaching?

I hope to contribute to a field that is invested in the intersection of environmental justice and conservation, often referred to as “just” sustainability. I explore how issues of social justice are inextricably linked to environmental problems and vice versa. More specifically, I’m interested in understanding how different natural resource management strategies influence biodiversity conservation, as well as who gains access to and control over natural resources. I explore issues of access through a social justice lens to understand conservation goals and how they are achieved.

What has surprised you the most about coming to Middlebury?

The breadth and depth of the Environmental Studies program has floored me. It’s such an esteemed and celebrated program, and to see it in action is incredible. I am also amazed by the deep passion that Middlebury students have for environmental studies and other issues on campus and beyond. I expected it to an extent, but have been surprised by the ongoing dedication, ambition, and scholarship that students bring to the conversation. The level of analysis and reflection is on par with a lot of graduate work that I have seen, so that’s very exciting.

The 50th anniversary of the Environmental Studies program is next fall. What skills do you think Middlebury’s ES majors will need for the next 50 years?

Students will need to find a balance between breadth and depth, and this is a conversation we’re currently having in the Environmental Studies program. What kind of preparation do we need as scholars to take on the complexity of environmental issues? We need depth so people can really understand the intricacies of, for example, the policymaking process, atmospheric chemistry, geology, or animal life cycles. We also need people who can look at the broader picture, who can talk across multiple disciplines, and who can see how relationships throughout these interconnected systems are driving change. In the next 50 years, Middlebury College Environmental Studies majors will need a deeper understanding of more integrative frameworks. We need to better understand how different forces reinforce, negate, and/or intersect with each other.

What do you do in your free time?

Free time? I don’t remember what that means! In the winter, I go skiing and sledding. In the summer, I like to travel and visit with friends and colleagues who live in different parts of the world. We try to get back to Madagascar as much as possible to visit my partner Naunau’s family.