The Boston College School of Social Work (BCSSW) and the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), formalizing a long-standing relationship and outlining new academic initiatives over the next five years. The nonprofit FES works with over 21,000 rural and peri-urban village communities in eight states across India on conservation and restoration of some 6.5 million acres of common and forest lands. Their work aims to preserve land and water resources in ecologically fragile or degraded regions and to assist the 11.6 million people living on the front lines of environment and climate risk whose livelihoods depend on these natural assets.
The MOU is a direct outcome of projects that FES and BCSSW are already working together on in India. These projects include modeling the dynamic complexity of social, ecological, and livelihood systems, examining clean energy options in rural households, and most recently, collaborating on the India Observatory, which brings together social, economic, and ecological data to inform and empower communities and decision makers. Moving forward, the MOU will accelerate new joint research projects, classes, conferences, symposia, and workshops. The agreement calls for BCSSW students and BC undergraduates to engage with FES staff for practical training through field placements, internships, and research projects. Likewise, FES staff will benefit from professional training from BCSSW faculty and staff.
BCSSW Dean Gautam N. Yadama views FES as a critically important partner whose work to solve complex social and environmental problems of the poor corresponds with the school’s mission and strategic directions. The partnership also advances BCSSW’s strategic goals to foster innovation in research and practice and to expand its global presence. “It is these types of partnerships that we need to foster and grow more if universities are going to be talking about local and global impact,” says Yadama.
FES teams, which include social and environmental scientists, as well as social workers, work in partnership with Indian village communities to understand their challenges as they relate to ecosystems and natural resources. For instance, why energy-impoverished communities might choose to power home cooking with local brush and timber over a cleaner fueling agent, like propane. FES also helps connect villages with their local governing authorities, known as panchayats, to build awareness of available government policies and resources.
“FES gives us deep embeddedness in the field so we can train our students to understand how environment and climate risk affect the poor and ways to design sustainable interventions,” says Yadama. “We can collaborate with them on applied research projects involving social, ecological, and livelihood systems—modeling projects we’re doing on clean energy transitions to improve people’s lives and to protect the environment.” Assistant Professor Praveen Kumar and Kelsey Werner, director of Social & Community Based Systems Modeling, are leading some of these projects with the involvement of graduate and undergraduate students from across BC.
One such project—an NIH-funded joint effort between BCSSW, FES, and Washington University in St. Louis known as Real Options/Strategies for Achieving Scale (ROSAS)—aims to advance environmentally cleaner cooking fuels in rural villages in four Indian states.
FES Executive Director Jagdeesh Rao says he looks forward to collaborating more with BCSSW. “We value this important partnership, which is focused on understanding how people and nature interface and is technologically driven,” says Rao. “BCSSW and FES are engaged in new initiatives, like community based system dynamics modeling, so that we can better understand community decision-making and behavior. Our collective goal is to underscore people and ecosystem dynamics and find viable alternatives that sustain people’s lives and livelihoods while conserving and preserving the Earth’s precious and finite natural resources.”
Yadama sees the MOU as a prototype for future interdisciplinary collaborations, like those fostered through the University’s Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society. “The learnings from this could also be very helpful for Schiller to foster other types of collaborations around complex problems that force us to transcend multiple sciences and disciplines so we can actually get to that social impact,” says Yadama.
Looking ahead, Yadama envisions a long reach for the BCSSW/FES partnership. “What we’re learning here can be iterated to another location elsewhere in the country or in the world. So it is that cycling of learning underneath these different projects, across projects,” he says. “It’s constant innovation.”