"These 'fenceline communities' are places where people cough. Where they carry asthma inhalers. Where every resident has a handful of neighbors who have died of cancer … where refinery and government officials insist that chemicals in the air don't harm them, and residents are sure that they know better. ” Excerpt from "Drowning in Data," 2010
“Policy needs to be evidence –based, that’s what we’re after,” states Marilyn Bardet, an activist whose California community is fighting to understand the health effects of living near a large oil refinery.
The story of Bardet and her community is told by Gwen Ottinger, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences and Rachel Zurer, then an Oakland-based writer and radio producer, in a genre that many academics avoid: Creative nonfiction.
As an academic, Ottinger studies the intersection between industrial sites like oil refineries and petrochemical plants and social justice. In other words, “how do we site things like this and do it fairly?” In presenting her findings and their implications, she faces the challenge of distilling nuanced social scientific analyses to help students, community leaders, and policy makers understand.
Writing Technical Information to Engage the Reader
Selected as a Next Generation Science Policy Scholar in 2010 as part of a workshop sponsored by the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, Ottinger was paired with a professional writer—Zurer, who had recently completed her MFA in creative nonfiction—to produce a policy article with a narrative structure in order to make academic research more accessible to a wide audience. Their challenge, as she puts it: “How can you turn technical topics into a story that can engage people, and possibly end up as a policy recommendation that makes sense to people?”
Together, Ottinger and Zurer wrote “Drowning in Data,” a nonfictional story about Ottinger’s struggle with “The Question” she is often asked: “Do emissions from oil refineries make people sick?” The article was published in the spring 2010 issue of the journal Issues in Science and Technology, as part of their “New Voices, New Approaches” series.
“I had never done creative nonfiction before,” she says. “I was a long way into the process before I understood what I had to do. It’s a new genre with different rules.”
A New Tool to Communcicate Policy
She just co-authored an article about the process of creating and publishing creative nonfiction in an article titled “To Think, to Write, to Publish,” which was published in the May 2012 Cairo Review of Global Affairs.
This academic year, she will mentor two scholar-writer pairs through the process of producing a narrative piece about science policy research and will follow that experience with an article of her own about the mentoring process.
For Ottinger, the foray into the world of creative nonfiction has given her a new tool for her toolbox. “We talk a lot about public scholarship at UW Bothell,” she says. “I don’t know if this is the best way to communicate policy,” Ottinger muses, “but it’s an experiment worth trying.”