Convening for cultural change

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Whether working with fellow students in the Netherlands to design floating cities or interning for a local community-led environmental justice organization, Cindy Xie wants to help connect people grappling with the implications of linked social and environmental crises.

The MIT senior’s belief that climate action is a collective endeavor grounded in systems change has led her to work at a variety of community organizations, and to travel as far as Malaysia and Cabo Verde to learn about the social and cultural aspects of global environmental change.

“With climate action, there is such a need for collective change. We all need to be a part of creating the solutions,” she says.

Xie recently returned from Kuala Lumpur, where she attended the Planetary Health Annual Meeting hosted by Sunway University, and met researchers, practitioners, and students from around the world who are working to address challenges facing human and planetary health.

Since January 2023, Xie has been involved with the Planetary Health Alliance, a consortium of organizations working at the intersection of human health and global environmental change. As a campus ambassador, she organized events at MIT that built on students’ interests in climate change and health while exploring themes of community and well-being.

“I think doing these events on campus and bringing people together has been my way of trying to understand how to put conceptual ideas into action,” she says.

Grassroots community-building

An urban studies and planning major with minors in anthropology and biology, Xie is also earning her master’s degree in city planning in a dual degree program, which she will finish next year.

Through her studies and numerous community activities, she has developed a multidimensional view of public health and the environment that includes spirituality and the arts as well as science and technology. “What I appreciate about being here at MIT is the opportunities to try to connect the sciences back to other disciplines,” she says.

As a campus ambassador for the Planetary Health Alliance, Xie hosted a club mixer event during Earth Month last year, that brought together climate, health, and social justice groups from across the Institute. She also created a year-long series that concluded its final event last month, called Cultural Transformation for Planetary Health. Organized with the Radius Forum and other partners, the series explored social and cultural implications of the climate crisis, with a focus on how environmental change affects health and well-being.

Xie has also worked with the Planetary Health Alliance’s Constellation Project through a Public Service Fellowship from the PKG Center, which she describes as “an effort to convene people from across different areas of the world to talk about the intersections of spirituality, the climate, and environmental change and planetary health.”

She has also interned at the Comunidades Enraizadas Community Land Trust, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Wildlife Fund U.S. Markets Institute. And, she has taken her studies abroad through MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). In 2023 she spent her Independent Activities Period in a pilot MISTI Global Classroom program in Amsterdam, and in the summer of 2023, she spent two months in Cabo Verde helping to start a new research collaboration tracking the impacts of climate change on human health.

The power of storytelling

Growing up, Xie was drawn to storytelling as a means of understanding the intersections of culture and health within diverse communities. This has largely driven her interest in medical anthropology and medical humanities, and impacts her work as a member of the Asian American Initiative.

The AAI is a student-led organization that provides a space for pan-Asian advocacy and community building on campus. Xie joined the group in 2022 and currently serves as a member of the executive board as well as co-leader of the Mental Health Project Team. She credits this team with inspiring discussions on holistic framings of mental health.

“Conversations on mental health stigma can sometimes frame it as a fault within certain communities,” she says. “It’s also important to highlight alternate paradigms for conceptualizing mental health beyond the highly individualized models often presented in U.S. higher education settings.”

Last spring, the AAI Mental Health team led a listening tour with Asian American clinicians, academic experts, and community organizations in Greater Boston, expanding the group’s connections. That led the group to volunteer last November at the Asian Mental Health Careers Day, hosted by the Let’s Talk! Conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In March, the club also traveled to Yale University to participate in the East Coast Asian American Student Union Conference alongside hundreds of attendees from different college campuses.

On campus, the team hosts dialogue events where students convene in an informal setting to discuss topics such as family ties and burnout and overachievement. Recently, AAI also hosted a storytelling night in partnership with MIT Taara and the newly formed South Asian Initiative. “There’s been something really powerful about being in those kinds of settings and building collective stories among peers,” Xie says.

Community connections

Writing, both creative and non-fiction, is another of Xie’s longstanding interests. From 2022 to 2023, she wrote for The Yappie, a youth-led news publication covering Asian American and Pacific Islander policy and politics. She has also written articles for The Tech, MIT Science Policy Review, MISTI Blogs, and more. Last year, she was a spread writer for MIT’s fashion publication, Infinite Magazine, for which she interviewed the founder of a local streetwear company that aims to support victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This year, she performed a spoken word piece in the “MIT Monologues,” an annual production at MIT that features stories of gender, relationships, race, and more. Her poetry was recently published in Sine Theta and included in MassPoetry’s 2024 Intercollegiate Showcase. Xie has previously been involved in the a capella group MIT Muses and enjoys live music and concerts as well. Tapping into her 2023 MISTI experience, Xie recently went to the concert of a Cabo Verdean artist at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester. “The crowd was packed,” she says. “It was just like being back in Cabo Verde. I feel very grateful to have seen these local connections.”

After graduating, Xie hopes to continue building interdisciplinary connections. “I’m interested in working in policy or academia or somewhere in between the two, sort of around this idea of partnership and alliance building. My experiences abroad during my time at MIT have also made me more interested in working in an international context in the future.”

Source: Environment -


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