Two Yale Divinity School students garner prestigious environmental fellowships

Two Yale Divinity School students are among 21 graduate and professional students from across New England and California selected for prestigious Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation environmental fellowships.

LewisChosen for the 2010 class of fellows are Stephen Blackmer ’12 M.Div. and Michelle Lewis ’13 M.Div.  Blackmer hopes to do ecology ministry as a priest in the Episcopal Church, and Lewis is pursuing a dream to combine her interests in the environment, media and pop culture to create her own non-profit that would engage church groups in environmental issues.

“In the 21st century, environmental leaders must become healers who take their knowledge and passion far afield, into every realm of human interest and endeavor and spiritual leader must become fluent in the languages of ecosystems,” said Blackmer, a second-career student who participated in the Environmental (Dis)Locations conference held last spring at YDS.  “Only through such a strategy can an ecological-spiritual understanding of world health become the new foundation of civilization. This is why I have enrolled in Yale Divinity School.”

Lewis said, “I am dedicated to understanding the best ways to educate people in urban environments about natural systems and religion, and will work strategically to engage people living in these areas by creating programs and positive experiences with nature.  Lack of true opportunity to engagement with the natural environment among urban populations is a form of injustice as it lessens people's ability to understand the value of and need to protect their environment.”

Every year, at least 20 promising environmental leaders are awarded $15,000 each from the Belfast, Me.-based Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation to complete masters and doctoral degrees to advance their skills and develop their expertise to address critical environmental challenges.

Blackmer“The Switzer Foundation makes strategic investments in individual leadership to improve environmental quality,” said Lissa Widoff, executive director of the Foundation, in announcing the 2010 class of fellows.  “The 2010 Switzer Environmental Fellows are pursuing degrees in diverse disciplines and preparing to address the most complex scientific, policy and conservation issues of our time with integrated approaches. These individuals are united in their focus to actively apply their problem-solving abilities to implement positive change in the environmental realm.”

Switzer Fellowship Network activities include regional networking opportunities, issue-based meetings, webinars and conferences, and professional skills training.  The Annual Fellows' retreats in California and New England, which are open to all Fellows, are the keystone networking events sponsored by the Foundation each year. Numerous gatherings are scheduled throughout the year, and fellows are invited to plan events and programs.

Blackmer spent the first part of his career working as an organizer and advocate for forest conservation and forest-based community development in New Hampshire and the Northern Forests of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. Over a span of 25 years, he has held leadership positions with the Northern Forest Center, Northern Forest Alliance, Appalachian Mountain Club and Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and served on the board of numerous conservation organizations at the local, state and national levels. He holds an A.B. from Dartmouth College in Anthropology and a Master of Forestry degree from Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Blackmer describes a “leap of faith” that led him to enroll at YDS:  “A couple of years ago, during a period of study and reflection as a Bullard Fellow at the Harvard Forest, I considered what I could do, given my interests and abilities, to help re-orient the ethical/spiritual foundations of global civilization.

“I concluded that expanding my knowledge in religion and spirituality – educating and training myself to take up a different kind of leadership role – was the right next step. Yale, because of the growing connections between the Divinity School and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, including the Forum on Religion and Ecology, was the obvious place to do this.”

Lewis is enrolled in the joint degree program YDS sponsors with the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.  She hopes to introduce at-risk youth and juvenile offenders to the environment through their religions using popular culture.

Prior to coming to Yale, she spent 12 years as a United States Park Ranger in various locations, including Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Fort Sumter National Monument, Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, the Grand Canyon, and the Arch in St. Louis. She has produced two award-winning documentaries, "Stairway to the Top of Hatteras" and a video about Law Enforcement in the National Park Service that won the NPS Intake Program award for innovation and creativity. She holds a B.A. from Elizabeth City State University and an M.A. from Regent University.

The Switzer Foundation identifies, supports and nurtures emerging environmental leaders. Fellowships are merit-based and rigorously competitive.  Candidates must be recognized for their leadership capacity by their academic institution or by environmental experts. Applications are evaluated based on demonstration of environmental problem-solving, critical analysis and communication skills, relevant work and volunteer experience, necessary scientific or technical background for their field of study, the applicant’s career goals and the potential of the candidate to initiate and effect positive environmental change.

Yale Divinity School has been in the forefront of the burgeoning religion/ecology synthesis—demonstrated in recent years with creation of the nation’s first joint degree program in religion and the environment and by the appointment to the faculty of Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, who gained international respect as eco-religionists through their stewardship of the Forum on Religion and Ecology.  Additionally, the first scholar appointed as the Margaret Farley Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at YDS, Willis Jenkins, is a specialist in environmental ethics.

Several conferences on religion and the environment have been hosted or co-hosted by YDS in the past five years, one in April 2006, another in February-March 2008, and the Environmental (Dis)Locations gathering in April 2010.

Yale Divinity alumni have been, and continue to be, active in the field, from nationally prominent figures like theologian Sallie McFague ’59 B.D., ’64 Ph.D. and environmental lawyer Christopher Sawyer ’75 M.Div., former chair of the Board of Directors of the Trust for Public Land, to grassroots activists such as Carla Pryne ’79 M.Div., first executive director of Earth Ministry in Seattle, to practitioners like Leslie G. Woods, the representative for domestic poverty and environmental Issues for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Washington Office.