Using creative expression to convey sustainability solutions

Meet Doctor of Philosophy in Sustainability alumna Neda Mohaved. Her work is centered around international development as human development, and most recently “how we wear water.”

“Throughout the project, I worked with water metaphorically to equate the process of learning with embracing change. Paradigm shifts needed for sustainability require transformative learning where one is open to being shaped by new knowledge and experience,” Movahed said. Read more in her Q&A.

Question: What are your passions in sustainability and international development?

Answer: I feel most passionate about the social dimensions of sustainability and international development. Us humans are quite complex. It can seem overwhelming to work with the diversity of our belief systems, cultural norms, and multi-layered wellness needs. These layers of subjectivity and intersubjectivity are complex and challenging — and they are exactly what excite me the most! I know that the Earth will be fine and life will continue on. So in the field of sustainability, I recognize that it is primarily our own species we are caring for. We cannot achieve sustainable solutions without deep appreciation and integration of these complex social dimensions.

Q: Tell us about your “How We Wear Water” showcase and PhD defense. Why was an arts-based methodology useful for this experience?

A: The public showcase of “How We Wear Water” was an interactive experience held on March 17, 2020 at Daley Park in Tempe, Arizona. Myself and a team of collaborators put together interactive exhibits and performances that explored lessons humans can learn from water’s adaptability. The showcase was the fourth “chapter” of my multi-media dissertation focused on creative learning for sustainability.

Throughout the project, I worked with water metaphorically to equate the process of learning with embracing change. Paradigm shifts needed for sustainability require transformative learning where one is open to being shaped by new knowledge and experience.

The field of sustainability welcomes transdisciplinarity and I saw this project as an opportunity to draw on the strengths of artistic ways of knowing. Arts-based methods harness aesthetic power, welcome subjective complexity, and allow multiple meanings to be interpreted from research results.

Q: How can we use creative expression to develop and convey sustainability solutions and human development?

A: First and foremost, creative expression is recognized as an innate human need central to our sense of purpose and wholeness. Creative expression supports us in understanding our own and others’ perspectives. Artistic ways of knowing assist us in expanding our worldviews. Creativity is like any other muscle that needs to be stretched and worked with to offer greater flexibility. Engaging in activities like theatrical performance and poetic writing can help us access untapped knowledge that can support sustainable development. Bringing the arts into sustainability can remind us of our creative power and capacity to co-create the type of world in which we wish to live in.

Q: Tell us about your International Development class and how you have used your experience in transformative learning to positively influence your students?

A: I have helped facilitate SOS 322: International Development & Sustainability both in-person and online for the last five years. David Manuel-Navarrete and I quickly realized the need to draw on the transformative potential of experiential learning. We know that each student who enters the class with diverse experiences and wisdom. Creative learning activities help us tap into the wisdom of each person in the space.

We depart from traditional hierarchical methods of lecturing and examinations since we recognize that each student has unique learning needs. Teaching methods should evolve alongside society’s rapid changes. Our participatory methods offer students opportunities to reinvigorate a personal commitment to their own learning process rather than just doing coursework to get an A. Our goal is to support “sustainable classrooms” where curiosity fuels participation and commitment to personal & collective learning.

Q: How can we face sustainability challenges with more than one normative standard?

A: In sustainability, we recognize the reality of “wicked problems.” Every challenge can be viewed from a plethora of angles and we do our best to take a systems perspective. There will never be a single solution – no single correct answer – no right perspective. Life is too complex for singular thinking! And this complexity is what makes life interesting!

Rather than run away from the complexity of sustainability challenges, we need to welcome the messiness. In my experience, it is only when I’ve dug my hands into the dirt that I can discover what is needed to support growth. So to help us face sustainability challenges, I invite us to welcome complexity by appreciating diversity.

Rather than run away from perspectives/cultures/belief systems/worldviews that conflict with our own — let’s listen and understand what wisdom they can offer.