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A Mission-Aligned Life’s Work Educating Environmental Leaders Results in Award

The 2021 William R. Freudenberg Lifetime Achievement Award has been awarded to Dr. Abigail Abrash Walton, the director of several programs at Antioch New England. This prestigious award recognizes significant contributions made to the field of environmental studies, and Abrash Walton is deeply deserving of it. 

In its citation for the award, the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences points to two leadership roles held by Abrash Walton: she serves as an advisory board member of the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment and was the program director for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. They also point to her present work in Antioch New England’s Department of Environmental Studies, where among other duties she serves as Director of the Center for Climate Preparedness and Community Resilience. And perhaps most importantly, she is a devoted teacher and mentor to new voices in the field. The Lifetime Achievement award was recognized at a virtual ceremony during the AESS annual conference, June 28 – July 1, 2021. 

“I’m proud of Dr. Abrash Walton for receiving this well-deserved award, and I appreciate all of the work she is doing in the important space of environmental studies and sustainability education,” says William R. Groves,  Antioch University’s Chancellor. “She provides invaluable leadership both within Antioch and beyond its walls.

Abrash Walton’s work is indeed characterized by a combined interest in leadership and advocacy. She says that Environmental Studies needs to embrace the intersection of these two fields. “That’s been one of my biggest lessons,” she says. “We’re not socialized to become advocates, we’re not socialized to become activists.” Combining an emphasis on activism with deep scientific engagement is both a moral and a practical necessity, she explains. “It’s just something that I really wanted the field of environmental studies and sciences to become comfortable with.” 

This is how Abrash Walton thinks about education: it should be a call to action. Theory can connect to practice. Scientists, artists, and academics can and should participate in systems of political power and decision-making.

Foreign Policy Leads to Passion for Human Rights

Abrash Walton’s intellectual journey began with a passion for U.S. foreign policy. She earned her undergraduate degree in International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. While there, she took top honors in Penn’s American Foreign Policy course. (The teaching assistant was the Pulitzer-winning historian David Eisenhower—after whom Camp David is named.) And she continued pursuing this passion during summers in college when she worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

But Abrash Walton also loved music, and she found a way to express that love by working on the campus newspaper. She began as a music critic and eventually rose to become the arts and entertainment editor of Penn’s Daily Pennsylvanian

After graduating in 1987, Abrash Walton took a job writing, fact-checking, and copy editing at Philadelphia Magazine. But soon she found herself wanting to find work that combined her different passions, and she especially wanted to return to Washington, DC. That was when she saw that Amnesty International was doing a concert tour with musicians like Sting, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou N’Dour. While initially, she didn’t know that much about what Amnesty International did, she found herself intrigued. “For me the door was music,” says Abrash Walton. Soon she was learning more and more about this organization’s campaign to end human rights abuses—and learning more about the concept of human rights in general.

At that time the Cold War was ongoing and took up most of the attention in foreign relations. Throughout college, Abrash Walton’s professors did not discuss the UN’s International Human Rights Framework. But when she learned about it, she found that human rights put a name to something she cared deeply about. As she explains, “That terminology and that whole dimension of U.S. foreign policy wasn’t even visible in the discourse, [but] that concert tour caught my attention.” 

Abrash Walton ended up moving to Washington D.C., where she found work as a program coordinator with the International Human Rights Law Group. She worked there for five years, during which she also was able to study at the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg and to earn a Master of Science degree in Political Theory from the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Championing the Nexus of Human Rights and the Environment at the RFK Center

In 1993, she took on a bigger role in the field of human rights by becoming program director for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Abrash Walton is especially proud of this period in her life. “It was living out of a suitcase half the time,” she says, but it was worth it. She worked with and learned from human rights and environmental defenders from all over the world. Along the way, she won numerous human rights victories. 

Kerry Kennedy, President of the RFK Center, remembers Abrash Walton as a brilliant and righteous fighter for justice. Says Kennedy, “As a young professional working at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, [Abi] quickly became the go-to expert in Washington, D.C. on the deadly combination of human rights abuses, corrupt government, and the extractive industries in West Papua/Indonesia.” 

Abrash Walton ended up working in the international human rights field for more than a decade. While at the RFK Center, she focused especially on Indigenous rights issues in Indonesia. A primary focus of her research, advocacy, and allyship became a U.S.-owned copper and gold mine based in New Guinea that at the time was the world’s largest. The mine is still in use, and Abrash Walton explains that it “has a massive environmental and human rights impact.” She spent a year as a Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program, continuing her research, publishing, and engaging in public speaking about the nexus of human/indigenous rights and the environment.  This led to an invited guest essay in The New York Times and U.S. Senate testimony.

Although she had entered the field focused more on foreign policy and human rights, this work brought Abrash Walton further into contact with the emerging discipline of Environmental Studies. She found a passion for exploring the abuses of human rights caused by extractive industries. And she spent years fighting for greater justice for those who often have the least power. As Kennedy says, “Abi is who you would want on your side when facing the unimaginable or seemingly impossible.”

In 1996, she became a founding board member of Project Underground, a nonprofit that supported frontline communities facing oil and gas extraction and hard rock mining. Helping found this organization was a transformative experience. Says Abrash Walton, “It was through that organization that I heard the term ‘climate change’ for the first time, and also that was where I first deepened my understanding of intersectional issues of race, gender identity, and class in the context of white supremacy culture.”

Bulgarian Science Activism Leads to a Pit in Nevada

Human rights work showed Abrash Walton how Environmental Studies could be an entry point for political organizing. After the Berlin Wall fell, she was working as an election observer in Bulgaria, which was emerging as a newly democratizing country. While working there, she noticed that the main post-communist coalition party was being led by academics, including those from the fields of biology, geology, and geography. She learned that these people had become leaders in part because, under the old communist regime, environmental scientists had experienced more freedom than other citizens—freedom to go on hikes, to congregate, and to investigate cross-border pollution. This had led them to become early organizers, finding greater freedom to rally citizens around environmental issues. And it had prepared them to take greater leadership roles within the new democratic system. Says Abrash Walton, “It taught me a lot about how important environmentalism is as a door, as a portal, to be able to do effective democratic social change work.”

This fascination with the intersection of environmental studies and leadership brought Abrash Walton to her career of the last twenty years: as an educator and leader at Antioch. She first began working at Antioch New England in 2001, as an adjunct, and then in 2003, she became an associate faculty member. At Antioch, Abrash Walton has brought the lessons of her work around the world into her teaching.  “From the beginning of my time as an educator at Antioch,” she explains, “it was always really important to me that students actually have an impact in real-time, in terms of the work they did.” 

One way she brought real-world experience to her students was as founding director of the Advocacy Clinic within the Environmental Studies Department. For eight years in this role, she helped students find and lead projects for external clients, under her oversight and guidance. One ongoing project that came out of this work was a close partnership with the Western Shoshone Defense Project, based out of Nevada. In this project, students engaged in shareholder initiatives aimed at improving human rights and environmental outcomes for the Western Shoshone people, whose unceded lands have been impacted by the actions of Barrick Gold Corporation, which had a vast pit mining operation in northeastern Nevada. 

Julie Ann Fishel, Director of the Western Shoshone Defense Project’s Land Recognition Program, lauded the Antioch team’s engagement: “We have worked with University programs before, but have never experienced such a well-rounded team of high caliber student work and professionalism, with direct and active supervision. The work produced by the students, including international legal and environmental filings, shareholder letters, financial research, and communications with experts, organizations, and others was essential to the success we achieved in maintaining Western Shoshone and indigenous rights issues at the forefront of social responsibility in the extractive industries sector. …What began as our ‘wish list’ for corporate engagement and international advocacy strategies for the semester was not only completed but in some areas surpassed, leaving us with a strong foundation for moving forward over the summer and into the next year.”

Abrash Walton eventually built on this work to create a field study course looking at the relationship between extractive industries, human rights, Indigenous rights, and environmental concerns. When students traveled to Nevada and got to see the mine itself, the experience of its physical presence was informative and valuable. “To feel what a hole in the ground like that looks like, big enough to hold the World Trade Center” was profound, she says. And once on-site it became clear that this was “also a site that’s going to require perpetual management because of the toxicology.” She brought students “to meet the Indigenous elders whose customary lands have been ravaged [but] who staunchly and persistently defended the health of those lands.” All of it, she explains, “was a powerful learning opportunity.”

Activist Interventions at Home on the AUNE Campus

This talent for using a physical space as an opportunity for an educational experience hasn’t always required long-distance physical travel, though. Abrash Walton has also used the AUNE campus as a canvas for teaching projects. Under her guidance, students have led a variety of sustainability projects—from constructing a bike shelter to setting up a rideshare program, and from creating a community composting system to inventing and providing a “Green Guru” service to help anyone who has an office on the AUNE campus to access both the supplies and the knowledge that would allow them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. 

These projects provide learning opportunities as well as the chance to develop key items on their resumes. Many graduates of the field study course have gone on to work as sustainability coordinators in other institutions. 

Perhaps the most fulfilling and important outcome of this work was a 2006 social justice audit, in which Abrash Walton and her students worked to connect environmental sustainability with considerations of social responsibility and justice. “We looked at our business relationships,” says Abrash Walton. “We looked at where we were sourcing coffee from; what kind of credit card company we were working with; how safe faculty, staff, and students felt in expressing their views; to what degree our campus was a place of belonging across race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other aspects of diversity. All of those different dimensions of social justice.” The project was in many ways unprecedented, and it forced Abrash Walton and her students to act as social justice innovators. “We had to create that methodology,” she says. “At the time we were doing it, it didn’t exist anywhere. It was really cutting edge.” 

Collective Action Beyond—and Within—the University

This year, after more than thirty years of leadership in the field of environmental studies, Abrash Walton was awarded the William R. Freudenberg Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS). This awarding organization, of which she is a member, grew out of a 2006 summit in Santa Barbara. Today, it is a cross-campus organization that supports interdisciplinary research. AESS’s Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes the spirit of the Association’s late co-founder William R. Freudenburg, who helped shape the discipline of environmental studies and also mentored a generation of interdisciplinary researchers and academics. This legacy is fully reflected in the practice of Abrash Walton, who teaches her students to collaborate both within and beyond their disciplines to accomplish real change in society.  

This can be difficult. Dominant narratives often pitch the sciences as antithetical to politics. At the same time, the public policy apparatus can seem impenetrable to the uninitiated. Says Abrash Walton, “We’re socialized to think politics are dirty. Who would want to get involved? But it’s so much more than that.” As Abrash Walton teaches her students about political participation, one of the main obstructions she has to break down is the alienating force of exceptionalism—the paralyzing anxiety that many feel around the perceived expectation that they fulfill a superhero ideal. That’s not how true change happens, though, says Abrash Walton. “Collective action is very important. You don’t have to go it alone. You can make common cause with other people, and the best kind of advocacy does.” 

Throughout her teaching, Abrash Walton’s goal is to share the importance of engagement—and to provide a path for students to practice engaging in vital issues, themselves. Because, as she points out if you’re not involved in making decisions for yourself, then by definition someone else is making decisions for you. She likes the saying that, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu.” 

Abrash Walton received the Freudenberg Award in large part because of the success she has had in empowering students to become engaged in the most important issues of today. Her former students are often powerful forces for change, deeply involved in collective action. Her PhD in Environmental Studies student Clara Fang was recently awarded the Switzer Fellowship, the most prestigious environmental studies award a student can receive. Another recent alum is doing international sustainable development work, creating a new theory of change. Says Abrash Walton, “I am privileged to get to work with these students because they are a sort of multiplier force. They’re out there in the world winning victories.” 

Abrash has also organized staff at Antioch to have a bigger impact on the world. Kayla Cranston, a former student of Abrash Walton’s who now serves as Director of Conservation Psychology Strategy & Integration at Antioch, is emphatic about the life-changing experience of studying under her former teacher. “Dr. Abrash Walton is a mentor who leads with integrity, confidence, and vision,” says Cranston. “In many ways, our exponential growth in recent years is the direct result of her leadership.”

And Abrash Walton recently played a key role in helping Antioch University achieve one of its biggest environmental goals: the complete decarbonization of Antioch’s investments and cash reserves. Explains Chancellor Groves, “She provided key assistance as we recently achieved the goal of divesting our endowment and long-term cash assets from fossil fuel companies.

When Abrash Walton reflects on her life’s work so far, she sees reasons for optimism—alongside frustration with the gradual nature of change. The fact that much of her early work in human rights and environmentalism has become broadly accepted in the culture gives her hope for the future. She continues to enjoy her work at Antioch, where research, innovation, and community service are held as equally necessary. It gives her joy to see these values borne out in the curricula she creates. 

“At the end of the day,” says Abrash Walton, “what I always feel most proud about is closing that gap between mission and vision and values on one hand, and practice on the other. That’s always where I feel best when that gap closes. I’m walking my talk. The organizations I’m working with are walking their talk. My country is walking its talk. That’s a moment to feel proud of, for sure.”

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Hunter Gagnon

Hunter Gagnon

Hunter Gagnon is a freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of Slouching Beast Journal. He lives in Kennebunk, Maine with his partner and two dogs.

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