UK oral history project documenting climate change, empowering Kentuckians

Photo of Horses Running on a Farm.
Mark Cornelison | UK Photo.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 9, 2023) How important is word of mouth when understanding climate change?

A new project, led by the Kentucky Climate Consortium (KYCC) research team at the University of Kentucky, is proving that oral histories can provide an intimate view of our shifting world.

KYCC acts as a catalyst for climate research and education across the Commonwealth by providing networking opportunities for Kentucky-based climate scholars.

Through her work with the consortium, Lauren Cagle, associate professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies and director of Environmental and Sustainability Studies in the UK College of Arts and Sciences, has received two grants from the Kentucky Oral History Commission (part of the Kentucky Historical Society). The funding supports the creation of an oral history collection titled, “Climate Research, Policy and Activism in Kentucky.”

“There are so many challenges that demand attention and energy from people, and climate is just one of them,” Cagle said. “I feel compelled to work on it in service of others and, frankly, of myself, since climate change impacts all of us.”

The team is partnering with the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History to arrange, conduct and archive interviews. The oral collection will be available online to members of the public, journalists, researchers and anyone who would like to learn about the diverse array of climate work that’s been happening in the Commonwealth for decades.

“Sharing these stories is so important, because they can — and do — inspire us to engage. I also believe so deeply in Kentuckians and how much we care about the environment,” Cagle explained. “These stories are a perfect rebuttal to false national stereotypes about Kentuckians not caring about the environment or not being scientifically, politically and socially engaged.”

Using funding from the first grant, faculty, staff and student researchers from UK, the University of Louisville and Northern Kentucky University collected more than 40 interviews, which included more than 100 hours of audio.

Interviewees included activists, farmers, geologists and lobbyists who vary in age and experience. “From these interviews, I think you get a good sense of the diverse range of issues that encompass climate change,” Ryan McCoy, a student at UK, said. “Being a part of this project, I’ve certainly learned there are a number of ways we can address climate change, and this requires a diverse range of interests and talents.”

“I did not realize how much work went on within Kentucky communities to raise awareness about climate change and to encourage small- and large-scale efforts to reduce the state’s carbon footprint,” Hayley Salo, a student at UofL, said. “That’s why the KYCC project is important to me. The stories our interviewees tell allow us to document strong community ties and a dedication to cleaner, greener cities.”

Using funding from the second grant, the team is currently transcribing and indexing 10 of the collected interviews. They are partnering with Academic Audio Transcription, which provides employment for freelancers who are disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent.

The interviews, which will be available online by spring, are an educational and artistic forum for sharing stories about personal and community responses to climate issues — bringing an immediacy to the often abstract nature of climate change communication.

“Interviewing a mother-daughter pair of activists helped me to see climate concerns in Kentucky as an issue with intergenerational resonance,” Flora Schildknecht, a student at UofL, recalled. “It was inspiring to see how care for the environment had become a point of connection for them both.”

Ultimately, Cagle, and her collaborators, believe oral histories hold the key to recording environmental change.

The goal is to empower all Kentuckians to be environmental stewards by providing access to relevant and reliable information about the climate.

“We’ve learned there is a deep history of climate work in Kentucky, and also that that work has really picked up steam in the last decade or so as climate change impacts have become undeniable,” Cagle said. “Many of our narrators talked about first getting involved in environmental work, which has evolved to include a focus on the climate as a vital piece of environmental and social justice movements. I hope communities across Kentucky can find inspiration, hope and energy in these narrators’ stories.”

“This collection shows the range of talents and interests needed to address climate change,” McCoy added. “My hope is these stories both inspire and energize others to take up this important work — now and in the future.”

You can learn more about the Kentucky Climate Consortium here.

Every October, communities and organizations across the country celebrate National Arts and Humanities Month.

Humanities majors encompass a broad range of studies at the University of Kentucky — providing students with a well-rounded education in core disciplines that prepare them for a variety of careers.

Humanities expand our knowledge of cultures and society — helping us understand what binds us together and what differentiates us from one another.

Humanities students gain expertise in creative thinking, communication, problem-solving, relationship building and more. No matter what you want to do, choosing a humanities major from UK will prepare you for a lifetime of possibilities.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.