Cultivating a Climate of Empathy with Kiana Ziadkhanpour and Charles Hua, Harvard Juniors/Sustainability Advocates

Charles Hua, Kiana Ziadkhanpour, Jennifer Berglund

Jennifer Berglund  00:04
Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. For this year's Earth Day episode, I'm speaking with Kiana Ziadkhanpour, and Charles Hua, Juniors at Harvard and passionate advocates for sustainability initiatives on an off campus. They're starting a new podcast called "Climate of Empathy" to tell the human stories behind our collective experience of global climate change. They're here to tell us about it today. Here they are. Kiana Ziadkhanpour and Charles Hua, welcome to the show.

Kiana Ziadkhanpour  01:12
Thanks so much for having us.

Charles Hua  01:14
Thanks for having us.

Jennifer Berglund  01:19
You both have obviously been interested in climate related issues for a long time. When did climate issues first come onto your radar, and how?

Kiana Ziadkhanpour  01:31
I think it really started on a base scientific kind of level, you know, watching nature documentaries, and Nova, PBS, all those shows with my dad, and really just exploring the outdoors. I was always encouraged to go on walks around the neighborhood, and I think that really sparked my interest. And the more I learned about nature, the more I realized that something was happening to nature, and that really motivated me to learn more about these issues. And whatever lessons we had at school, I tried to always connect it back to climate change, and I think I kind of still do that now on papers that we have to write and assignments that we have to do. So, I think it really started from that interest in the world around me, and it morphed into something that I've really been pursuing more in college, you know, taking further classes that not only explore the science side of things, but also the policy side, and really learning more about people and laws that shape climate policy and climate change.

Charles Hua  02:30
For me, it's been honestly, in some ways, a little bit of a circuitous journey, I guess. But it kind of started in second grade. Our second grade teacher really emphasized two things to his students. One was the importance of climate change. This was back in 2008, where it wasn't necessarily a topic that was super salient compared to now. And then the second thing was just the importance of taking initiative, and really making a positive impact in our local communities. And, I sort of took those lessons to heart. I didn't realize that at the time throughout middle and, I would say, freshman or sophomore year of high school when I was involved with our school's environmental club at the time, and we were raising money for solar panels. And that was a really great chance to explore those interests further, and I think through that experience, and just learning more about, like Kiana mentioned, the science of climate change, but also a lot of the ways in which society and culture and policy sort of affects climate and sustainability. I think that was really interesting to me, just seeing all the different ways that climate change affects our lives, and how our lives affect climate change. I think one thing that Harvard does a really great job of is through sort of that liberal arts education, just being exposed to a wide range of different classes and other opportunities, extracurriculars, internships, on sustainability and climate and energy issues. And just seeing the intersectionality of all these issues and how it affects so many other social and technological issues is really interesting to me, and I think really helps cultivate that passion even further for understanding just how complex of a challenge this is. And that, to me excites me as the complexity of the challenges and how many different approaches we're going to need to take to address the issue.

Jennifer Berglund  04:17
Kiana, you were born in Iran, and a large portion of your family still there, right?

Kiana Ziadkhanpour  04:24
Yeah, I was born there. And I moved to New York when I was about three.

Jennifer Berglund  04:29
Your family that remains there, they've experienced some environmental challenges. Can you talk about that a little bit and how that's influenced you?

Kiana Ziadkhanpour  04:42
Initially, my interest in climate brought me back to learning about energy. And I realized that really, the history of Iran has been shaped by energy since its very beginning and a lot of global environmental and economic decisions really do come down to energy, so that's been motivating factor for me to learn about renewables, but also fossil fuels, so I've taken lots of classes exploring that such as geopolitics of energy and it's helped shed light on a lot of different issues for me. But having a more personal connection to Iran and learning about, you know, the health effects of my family experience, because of the pollution in Iran is something that really emphasizes the importance of climate change. And hearing about my little cousin suffering from asthma really just makes me want to do something more about these issues.

Jennifer Berglund  05:29
When was the last time you visited?

Kiana Ziadkhanpour  05:32
I think I was about nine. There are a lot of hiking trails and mountains in Iran. And I remember I was going up the trails, and I was like, "Oh, I don't know if this is because elevation or pollution, that it's kind of hard to breathe here." And it wasn't too high up. And I remember one of my uncles saying, "Oh, no, that's probably the pollution that you're breathing in." And I know that obviously, even before the pandemic was a thing, people would be wearing masks around the country to protect themselves from breathing in, you know, toxic chemicals. And, some days school will be canceled for my cousins because of unsafe air in the country and the capital, especially since it's also landlocked by mountains. But it's a very real issue. And I know other countries in the world face that as well.

Jennifer Berglund  06:16
Charles, you grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. And, as you mentioned a little bit earlier, you became interested in climate related issues in your second grade class. Tell me a little bit more about that, and what did that experience teach you about the importance of educating children about climate issues?

Charles Hua  06:35
I think that educational experience came in a bunch of different forms. I think one thing that's really special about Wisconsin is just how important the outdoors are to everyone. So, you know, as a child, I had a chance to go to state parks or hikes, or walks and trails throughout Wisconsin, and just take in the natural beauty of Wisconsin's water resources, as well as just its parks and trees. So that was definitely a very important part of my upbringing. But sort of inside the classroom, I think our second grade teacher talked a lot about, I can't remember if we actually watched An Inconvenient Truth, but I remember hearing the name Al Gore coming up many times and being like, "Who is this guy?" And it was just really fascinating experience at that time, at such an impressionable age, to learn about this big challenge. And you know, why aren't people talking about it more? Or why aren't people doing more about it? Or what is the US government doing? Or what are other governments doing about this issue of climate change? And, to me, I think just at that young age, and then having our teacher reinforcee the message of taking initiative several times, he would actively encourage that in his students. When students did that he would reinforce that behavior, and then tell them good job essentially for doing that. And I think that stuck with me, this idea that, here's the challenge, but you have the agency to take initiative and do something about it. And obviously, the problem that he talked about it was through the lens of climate change, but that applies to so many other problems or social issues that we currently face. In high school, I joined our schools environmental club in that framework of, here's the challenge, here's how you can take initiative to address it was something that I really pursued further and definitely fostered and reinforced that passion in mind. And I think that just goes to speak to, sort of, the power of education, especially from a very young age, that second grade teacher remains one of only a couple teachers throughout my K-12 educational experience that have talked about climate change or sustainability in the classroom. One thing that's really interesting is that I've kept in touch with a couple of classmates from that class and they're even involved in sustainability and climate work. From a very young age, having that message reinforced by a teacher and having a teacher actively challenge students to embrace that mindset was so valuable because it just taught how important it is to care about things. Care about the world. And that's such a simple statement or thought. But at the same time, having that message from a very young age, just about what it means to care about your classmates, your community, the planet, I think was so powerful. For me, what really drives me is just this underlying nature of just caring deeply about people, and about society and social issues. But also seeing the lack of it or the lack of empathy sometimes.

Kiana Ziadkhanpour  09:30
I think it was my fourth grade teacher who really brought into clear focus that it's not just reduce, reuse, recycle. You know, it's not just about planting more trees or using less plastic or using your car less. It's also about the smaller chemicals that really get into our water system. And, it's more about the way you choose to live your life, and I remember our fourth grade teacher reading us a book. I don't even fully remember what it's about, but I remember one of the pages we talked about chemicals in shampoo, they get into the water system and affect the fish living in the ocean. And honestly, that kind of scared me and I went home and I talked to my parents about that. And since then I've tried to use, you know, chemical free, or like paraben and sulfate free shampoos and products. And I think that was a very like, visceral reaction I had to that. But, other than directly talking about climate change, I think just generally, like Charles mentioned, growing up with an agency of knowing that your voice matters is really something that was emphasized in our generation. I worked on some other advocacy issues in high school surrounding gun control laws and other sort of policy things, but I never had this voice in my head of "I can't do this, because it doesn't really matter." You know, my parents really always encouraged me to, if I saw a problem that I could really go out there and work to change it or work to make the world a better place.

Jennifer Berglund  10:54
I think it's just really powerful to hear about how both of you from that very young age grew up with this knowledge and feeling of urgency and of agency.  So tell me about how you two connected at Harvard.

Kiana Ziadkhanpour  11:11
Charles and I met to through a club on campus surrounding business and sustainability. And Charles was the Director of Sustainability. I was Director of Operations. So we had to work a lot together on certain issues, and we realized that we both had this passion regarding sustainability, both environmental and otherwise, but we really got to know each other there and work together on projects, and that led to us kind of working on a research project together. And we really just started taking some classes together on climate change and policy, and we realized that we both really enjoyed just storytelling in general. And one of the first questions that I think really helped us bond was Charles asked me, you know, like, what motivates you? And I hadn't necessarily thought about it, I hadn't thought about putting words to really what motivates me. But, I think what the general understanding that we both came to was apathy, and the lack of empathy towards other human beings and towards the climate, and generally towards everything. And we really were talking about, you know, how can we work together to change some sort of cultural aspect and really motivate people to care more about each other, care more about the world around them. And, with the pandemic, I think we had a lot of time to reflect and listen to podcasts, and really leave both like "Humans of New York", and that storytelling aspect of really putting a face to an issue. I think we really connected on that and realize that, you know, there's a gap in the podcast world, or the storytelling world, that I think we could really work together to fill

Jennifer Berglund  12:44
This idea of apathy and a lack of empathy; can you provide a specific example of what you're talking about?

Charles Hua  12:52
A lot of people, and I would say, especially for our younger generation, recognizes that climate change is obviously an issue. But, in terms of translating that theoretical knowledge into actual action, that's a different story. And there's obviously, you know, an incredible amount of people, especially younger people, that take action in some form, whether that's through grassroots advocacy or protests. I think that question of "my individual actions don't matter because the 100 top polluting companies are responsible for the disproportionate share of emissions." I don't think that absolves you necessarily of your personal responsibility. And, it doesn't have to just look like your own personal actions and your personal carbon footprint in terms of, let's say, not using plastic water bottles, or eating less meat, those obviously matter a ton. But at the end of the day, I think that one really valuable aspect of that is that it just changes your mind about what you think is possible. So, for example, during this quarantine pandemic, I started this 100 Days Challenge. It was honestly really fun. But I think for me, it was incredibly valuable, because one of the goals that I had was just to try being vegetarian for a month. I'm from Wisconsin, I like meat, so I never thought that it would be possible for me to do that. But I did. And I came out of it just feeling refreshed because it changed my perspective about what I thought was possible for me to do and translating that to sort of a more macroscopic level, in terms of what society can do, a lot of the things and assumptions that we have about what society should look like or how things should be, I think can be unpacked. And if we at least give ourselves the opportunity or the challenge to try to reenvision a different way of doing things, I think it's incredible to see what we can accomplish. One aspect of the pandemic is that it's really fostered a strong sense of one, understanding just how connected we are to each other and how reliant and dependent on each other ultimately we are for the survival of humanity. But also in addition to that the systemic nature of a lot of these challenges. I think the George Floyd protests really revealed the systemic nature of racism and racial descrimination in a way that maybe people didn't understand to the same extent as they do now. And, in addition to that, weaving in sort of environmental justice and how discrimination is so deeply intertwined, in terms of other social issues and environmental issues, I think is really valuable. But, that point that Kiana was making about apathy and translating that into empathy. We really want to do that through this podcast, through storytelling, because I think that too often a lot of these stories go untold, or they're told in reductionist ways or ways that kind of dehumanize people or the communities that they're talking about. So, it's one thing to read a newspaper article saying that Cancer Alley in the South is disproportionately communities of color or low income communities, and they suffer the brunt of environmental pollution consequences. It's another thing to actually talk to somebody who lives there and understand their emotional stories and how these issues affected them personally. And that's one thing that we're trying to do is just really elevate the humanity of people through this podcast.

Jennifer Berglund  16:06
How are you planning on reaching these communities,

Kiana Ziadkhanpour  16:09
A lot of care really has to be taken, and it's an understanding that we are going to hear stories that people have to tell that are often very personal. This past summer, I worked with a sustainability company and I had to reach out to a lot of BIPOC farmers. BIPOC really encompasses black and indigenous people of color. I don't know if the term is maybe reductionist, but what I was doing this past summer was reaching out to a lot of different farmers who were people of color. And in America, only about 2% of farmers are actually black or indigenous. But what was super interesting was learning about their stories and hearing about their families and the challenges that they have faced in their communities and trying to really reestablish themselves as kind of going back to earlier times. I learned, I think, a lot of important nuances and being respectful of people that you don't really know much about; this is your first or second conversation with them, and you're really getting at really important issues. So, I think in reaching out to a lot of marginalized communities or communities that have been impacted by climate change, there's this understanding that this is a very important topic to all people. So there's this common respect that we all will have. And in reaching out to communities, I think it's important to just listen more than this to talk and be open to different perspectives.

Jennifer Berglund  17:32
How are you going to keep your own perceptions and emotions out of your interviews with them and your discussions with them?

Charles Hua  17:46
That's such an important question. I think one that doesn't get asked enough. And one that we're going to continue to ask ourselves as we sort of embark on this project is, how do we just really center those stories and listening and empathy and learning. And I think that a lot of it comes from a sense of humility, and just understanding that, you know, first off, we're 20 years old, we have so much more to learn about the world, and so little that we know right now. And just learning from these stories, and just really hearing their perspectives. Just reflecting on this question just now, you know, when I think about which sustainability articles that I read in the New York Times, or media or whatever this notion of "we can just retrain fossil fuel workers to code and become computer scientists" as sort of a very dramatic, but one that has been mentioned in terms of an example. That's obviously not as easy as it sounds. But I guess it makes you wonder, how often are those individuals being quoted in those articles? How often are their stories actually being told? And, you know, upon reflection, I realized not very often. So this is actually one of the first chances, at least for me, and probably for a lot of people, to actually listen in and really get a deep sense of what is driving these people. And it comes with that question of what motivates you? That might be a question that we're going to ask a lot of these people because answers will certainly vary, but really understanding what are the anxieties and fears? But also opportunities and hopes that these people and these communities on these issues sort of bring about, I think, is something that we want to do through listening. And by listening, hopefully, we can capture a story that doesn't get told in that way.

Jennifer Berglund  19:30
Do you have a title for your podcast? And when is the first episode coming out? And where do we find it?

Kiana Ziadkhanpour  19:36
Our podcast is "Climate of Empathy". Our trailer and first episodes will be out on Earth Day on Spotify, Apple Music, wherever, you know, you get your podcasts. So we're very excited to listen, learn, and share these wonderful stories.

Jennifer Berglund  20:01
Kiana and Charles, thank you so much for doing this. This has been great.

Kiana Ziadkhanpour  20:04
Thanks so much for having us. It's been wonderful to talk about climate change.

Charles Hua  20:09
Yeah. Thanks so much for having us. We hope you all are able to join us along for this podcast journey and wish everyone a happy Earth Day and yeah, thanks so much again for having us.

Jennifer Berglund  20:25
Today's HMSC Connects! podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and edited by Emma Knudsen. Special thanks to Kiana Ziadkhanpour and Charles Hua for their wisdom and expertise. Thanks so much for listening! If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks!