Working alongside the local group Asamblea de Mujeres Insulares por el Agua, Evelyn focuses on women's trajectories of environmental activism in Chiloé - an archipelago in southern Chile. Illustrating how women's water activism transforms gender identities, political processes, and connections with water (and nature more generally), Evelyn's work will also produce a participatory, digital, and interactive map to highlight community-driven local solutions to these problems and further enhance efforts to co-develop future grassroots projects on water management. 

Research Description

Women are at the frontline of water struggles worldwide, understanding the importance of this vital element for humans, ecosystems, and other living beings. Although the academic literature has described their main concerns and claims, other aspects of these women's experiences and knowledge remain unknown. My research will focus on women's trajectories of environmental activism in southern Chile. I aim to understand the process of becoming an activist in the changing waterscapes of Chiloé - an archipelago threatened by water scarcity and pollution (among other environmental hazards). Particularly, I am interested in knowing how women's water activism reproduces or transforms gender identities, political processes, and connections with water (and nature more generally) Under this umbrella, my PSI project highlights women's capacity and involvement in identifying water needs and proposing innovative solutions to the Chiloé water crisis. This project will support a local organization called Asamblea de Mujeres Insulares por el Agua to elaborate a participatory, digital, and interactive cartography to georeference and characterize: 1) Water problems/conflicts across the Chiloé archipelago; 2) Community-driven local solutions to those (or similar) problems and; 3) Efforts to co-develop future grassroots projects on water management. Methodologically, the map will be based on critical approaches, such as Participatory Action Research (PAR) and feminist/decolonial methods. These perspectives contribute to broader social transformations by acknowledging the community's capacity to identify their problems (and solutions) and strengthening a critical dialogue between grassroots organizations and decision-makers. The project will take inspiration from diverse maps of environmental and water justice, highlighting previous experiences from the assembly's members – in topics such as energy transitions, food sovereignty, and participatory water projects.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

From the moment I started my Ph.D., I wanted to become a Public Scholar. I knew this initiative would give me the support and tools to transform the doctoral experience into something more meaningful and rewarding. So, being a Public Scholar is an acknowledgment that non-traditional trajectories in academia can be highly valued and encouraged. Additionally, it involves being part of a network of inspiring scholars who want to change how to conduct research and lead transformations in the real world. I feel very proud and privileged to be part of such an amazing group. I hope to learn from all the scholars and collaborators participating in this initiative.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

I want to be a public scholar and an academic-activist who envisions a future in which environmental sustainability will be coherent with gender equality and social justice. I also want to contribute to building an academic environment that is not self-centered but always challenging itself to be open and learn from others. The Public Scholar Initiative supports doctoral students who want to imagine (and experience) other ways to produce and disseminate knowledge beyond specific disciplines and reaching other audiences and collaborators. Under this program, the Ph.D. experience becomes more complex and fascinating than purely intellectual work. It implies, for instance, commitment to broader issues or helping to solve particular problems. In my case, it is also an opportunity to be engaged in co-constructing knowledge with communities, social movements, and people usually excluded from decision-making processes.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

My work critically considers the UN 2030 agenda and the sustainable development goals, particularly the intersection between ‘gender equity’ (SDG 5) and ‘water and sanitation’ (SDG 6). Progress on both matters remains slow and could regress due to the overlapping effects of the climate crisis and COVID-19. Several scholars have warned that an uncritical and top-down application of “gender mainstreaming” on environmental programs can intensify previous inequalities and jeopardize the situation of women and other vulnerable populations. In this scenario, we need more critical research de-constructing concepts and perspectives often used in policies and programs at different scales. Additionally, researchers need to take more action, strengthen their contributions to non-academic partners, and use their academic platforms to open space to other voices. These broader alliances will allow us to imagine other ways to address the problems we face today. In the long term, I would like my work to help propose bottom-up and gender-inclusive innovations for water governance initiatives in Chile, Canada, and – why not – across the globe. As a starting point, I hope this PSI project helps me advance applied skills crucial to broadening my future job prospects, beyond academia. I have some previous experience working with communities and NGOs on environmental issues. Nevertheless, I had never been involved in a project entirely constructed with grassroots organizations from the outset, as I will do with my PSI proposal. With this support, I would like to gain experience and train my abilities to combine academic excellence (and critical thinking) with solution-oriented tasks.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

Although several scholars have investigated women's agency in environmental and resource management, few studies have established long-term collaborative work with local organizations to support their own goals. By contrast, my PSI proposal aims to strengthen a partnership with a Chilean organization called Asamblea de Mujeres Insulares por las Aguas (hereinafter, the assembly) through co-constructing a participatory, digital, and interactive story-map. This map will locate and describe various water-related problems (and local solutions to address them) while highlighting communities' and women's narratives to understand gendered water relations. With this project, I will fulfill what PSI, UBC, and IRES expect in terms of academic excellence while also extending the public benefits of doctoral research by positively impacting particular communities and organizations. When I started the Ph.D., my research questions were mainly theoretically driven. Now, in conversation with my community partners, I have realized the direct relevance of these questions to real-world concerns and the ongoing work of these activists. While thinking together about the PSI application, I visualized a way to transform my doctoral process (and related products) to produce meaningful research both in academic and practical terms. Hence, this collaborative process of co-constructing the story-map will generate a synergetic process with several benefits. First, it will allow the assembly to strengthen its strategic objectives. Second, it will reinforce my commitment to this organization as the primary community partner of my doctoral research. Third, it will serve as a platform to disseminate some of the main results of my research to broader audiences. Finally, this project will be a vital reference for academics and grassroots organizations trying to build broader alliances on water-related issues.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

I hope my work can help to propose institutional and gender-inclusive innovations for water governance initiatives. My contribution will start by framing women's connection with water beyond typical pictures that portray them as 'vulnerable victims' of environmental hazards. Instead, I want to make visible how female activists (considering activism in a conventional and non-conventional form) are producing changes in different areas. A further aim is to amplify their voices and take their example to trigger similar processes in other women and girls, supporting variegated action-research initiatives. In this context, my PSI project will show the social benefits of an engaged and grounded doctoral process, such as 1) Decentering and democratizing water knowledge, by co-producing meaningful and helpful information on local water-related problems and solutions, and making it readily available to broader audiences and; 2) Amplifying women's voices and experiences, by highlighting their ability to identify and describe water-related problems and propose innovative solutions to address them. Finally, I hope to enrich critical research perspectives, building bridges between academia and communities while promoting gender equity in water policies at different scales.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I was born and raised on an archipelago called Chiloé, a remote area of southern Chile well known for its natural beauty and cultural uniqueness. Growing up with this reality, I developed a strong commitment to fairness and fostering belonging that continues to inspire my research and work towards gender, social, and environmental justice. I went on to study Anthropology at the University of Chile. Academically, my agenda started by understanding the peculiarities of grassroots leadership, and the power dynamics in different forms and contexts. In Chile, these were not mainstream subjects of study from an anthropological point of view. To face this, I sought out intellectual alliances in other departments and disciplines. I also acquired interdisciplinary tools to address and expand those topics during my two master’s degrees (more related to Sociology and Political Science). After finishing my second master´s degree, I started teaching at the Sociology School of the Diego Portales University, in Chile, where I worked as a lecturer and Academic Coordinator for seven years. In this role, I continued to develop my theoretical and methodological skills, while simultaneously teaching and managing research activities to foster institutional improvement and innovation. Even with these experiences, something was missing in my academic path. I started to recognize that I needed to do more with my research and the tools and platform provided by my place in academia. I wanted to become a public/engaged intellectual – someone who ethically builds knowledge, and also disseminates this information to varied audiences, intervening in public discussions, and collaborating with communities. I think that a Ph.D. is an entry point to make that shift in my trajectory.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

I was looking for a place to broaden my scope in an interdisciplinary way, especially to learn theoretical and methodological tools to collaborate with communities affected by environmental hazards. Additionally, I wanted to be involved in solutions-oriented research, to help them face both ongoing and future challenges, especially related to water issues and intersectional inequalities. Since I am interested in gender and water relationships, alternative epistemologies, and community-based research to develop my doctoral project, I was also looking for a university in which all these approaches were developed by top researchers in diverse disciplines. Undoubtedly, UBC was the right place to achieve all those aims.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

The Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC combines academic excellence (and an interdisciplinary formation) with a solid engagement with communities affected by environmental hazards. Besides, I like the approach to the Ph.D. topics and process, which I think is more flexible than other programs. Finally, I wanted to work with Leila Harris, my supervisor, because of her particular contributions to understand the relationships between gender and water.

For you, what was the best surprise about graduate life, about UBC or life in Vancouver?

I love how the campus is integrated into the natural landscape, which is very similar to those in my hometown. The colours (and the smell) of the forest, the rain, and the sea make me feel something familiar and reinforce my engagement to contribute to environmental issues. I live at the UBC campus, with my husband and my little daughter. Even with COVID restrictions, this is an amazing place to study in the company of your family. Being here in this context, with the possibility of connecting with nature and the people from the UBC community has been a blessing for us.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

I think that having a non-linear academic trajectory has been key to understand how the academic field works. Additionally, my previous professional experience has served to think about my doctoral research not only in intellectual terms, and also to imagine future job opportunities beyond academia. Finally, keeping a long-term commitment with particular communities and organizations allow me to build a doctoral process that is deeply grounded - where social processes are continually informing my theoretically-driven questions.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

I listen to music all day long. I have different lists for different purposes. I also like walking with my family, surrounded by trees, or going to the beach. I also started to write poetry here, in Vancouver, in the middle of the pandemic, which has been an amazing way to express myself.

Do you have any tips for students from your home country coming to Canada / to UBC Grad School?

These are uncertain times. It is difficult to be engaged in academic activities when outside, in the 'real world', everything seems to be changing. However, I am convinced that academic work can serve as a platform to develop and enrich both, intellectual and public agendas, while also contributing to help and accompany particular communities. Keeping that in mind is important when you feel lost or not making any 'progress'. Another important issue is giving yourself permission to make mistakes, to hesitate, to feel lost, or even fail. Pursuing a Ph.D. is more difficult when you come from another country, when English is your second language, and when you are a woman (and a mother) in academia. However, it is important to remember that everyone learns differently and has their own rhythm and path. Academia needs all this diversity to grow, transform itself and make positive impacts in the real world.