Welcoming Postdoctoral Scholar Hadeel Assali

May 10, 2022
Hadeel Assali

Over the spring semester, our newsletter explored environmental justice events, research, and outreach. For our final feature of the semester (read our past environmental justice articles via our news section), we are welcoming our newest postdoctoral scholar and lecturer, Dr. Hadeel Assali. 

She will be teaching an interdisciplinary graduate course, Seminar in Race, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice, in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and will start a new research project tentatively focused on the scientific and social aspects of waterways.

As a chemical engineer at ExxonMobil and then a graduate student in anthropology, Assali witnessed the environmental effects corporations can have on the climate as well as societies and cultures living in impacted areas. Her identity as a Palestinian refugee has helped shaped her work. She is acutely aware of the need to include those whose land is threatened by climate change in the conversation and consequential fight to diminish its effects. 

We asked Assali a few questions about her background and plans for the upcoming academic year.

I don’t know if I would call it a “career shift”– meaning my original intention was not a career in academia, but an honest, even if naïve, interest in the pursuit of a deeper knowledge and understanding of the world around me – especially after feeling like I was not learning in my corporate job, which had become increasingly bureaucratic. My life experiences led me to questions of social justice and how we have created this world we live in. Despite having been in the United States since I was two years old, I was technically stateless (with Palestinian refugee status but forbidden from returning and living there). Through no fault of my own, my right to travel was limited. This shaped much of how I see the world; it gave me an inclination to question things, and it led me to an intense curiosity about different “cultures” (a tricky word for anthropologists). However, what initially led me to engineering was a need for stability and ultimately citizenship (and hence, a passport). I happened to be good at math and science, and chemical engineering was one of the most employable degrees at the time.

I tried for several years to maintain my career while organizing community-based educational events around arts and social justice and while taking classes outside of work hours, but I had only a superficial understanding of history, politics, and social issues. Although I was working for a major oil corporation, I transferred to the environmental side of the company thinking it would enable me to do good things for the communities impacted by oil operations – and I did manage to do some things – but eventually it became evident that there was a limit to working ‘within the system,’ so to speak. I wanted to better understand ‘the system’ – so as soon as I was able, I decided to go back to school full time and study anthropology, which seemed to be very open to interdisciplinary approaches to social questions, and, at least in the places I trained, was very interested in understanding how power operates.

Anyone doing environmental justice work will agree that the best way to be effective is through an interdisciplinary approach. I listened in on talks given during earlier semesters of this Seminar [in Race, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice], and interdisciplinarity was a theme that came up regularly. Individually, we can only have so much expertise, and there will be many blind spots. After all, what single discipline considers both the soil chemistry and the history of dispossession in the same site? Or hydrogeology alongside local Indigenous knowledge and relations with the land? Environmental justice work requires interdisciplinarity, and especially could benefit greatly from the addition of more Earth scientists alongside social scientists, activists, and community-based justice groups.

Unfortunately, our modern academic system has divided knowledge-making into separate silos (disciplines) that aim to preserve themselves rather than working collaboratively for the mutual benefit of all involved (and the places where the research takes place). We need to move away from the idea of one single person as an expert or one single discipline as the lens for understanding environmental justice issues. This risks and often results in career-driven work by individuals who are not held accountable by the communities most impacted. This means we need to continue creating new spaces and systems that reward interdisciplinary work. We all have so much to learn from each other that can help all of us think “outside the box,” so to speak. I have learned from historians, for example, that the world has been organized in many different ways than the way we are now – modern nation-states (and their borders) have a surprisingly short history, yet they wreaked immense environmental havoc. These lessons open the imagination for the possibilities of a different, better, more kind world, but we must learn and work together to build it. 

The course will have three main tracks: the first will focus on the history of geology – how it came to be as a discipline and how it has shaped and been shaped by colonial exploits (and what this might mean for Earth scientists today). The second will consist of different environmental “case studies” by anthropologists and other science studies scholars while contemplating the question of interdisciplinarity. Meaning, what might Earth scientists contribute to these studies? And what might these studies contribute to the thought and practice of Earth scientists? The third track will be a collaborative project for developing a ‘prototype’ approach for a community-based, interdisciplinary study of a place, and our test site will be Columbia University. Then in the spring semester, this ‘prototype’ approach will be applied in collaboration with community organizations working on environmental justice issues.

I am currently working on my book manuscript, which is based on my recent dissertation looking at the colonial legacies of geology and its relation to local, intimate forms of knowledge of (and relations with) the Earth. I also plan to do coursework in the Earth sciences, which I am very thrilled about. My future research project is still in development, but I plan to look at the intersections of scientific and social aspects of waterways, and I will better define this project with what I learn through my Earth sciences coursework. 

Our features will be back next semester, but make sure to catch up on all CSS news this summer by reading our past stories and following us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.