On a balmy 69-degree January day—the kind of increasingly common winter day that nullifies “unseasonable” as a meaningful weather descriptor—the poet, educator, and climate activist Sarah Rose Nordgren jokingly admits to being the “climate anxiety friend” in her social circle.
“People are feeling apathetic, or depressed, or terrified, and they’ll say, ‘Hey, what should I be thinking about?’ Or ‘What would help?’” Nordgren says, before debunking and reframing the anxiety of “expertise” in the face of climate crisis. “The skills, the knowledge, and the art that we need: some of it already exists; some of it is still in development. But it’s all actually learnable. It’s not like we failed and it’s over.”
This pedagogic impulse animates the School for Living Futures (SLF), a new creative interdisciplinary project organized by Nordgren in collaboration with her sister, Krista Anne Nordgren (one of the stewards of the Mothership, the unique coworking and event venue that closed during the early days of COVID-19).
The school’s first initiative is Living Futures Saturdays, a four-part sliding-scale-ticketed series bringing together a diverse set of climate-engaged artists, activists, and researchers to present material at Perfect Lovers, the coffee shop and art space on Roxboro Street in North Durham. The school aims to become a “hub for programming and projects” that “counteract climate despair, denial, and inaction.”
Calling the project a school is a gesture toward a platonic ideal of educational community as an equitable site for “creation and possibility,” as Sarah Rose puts it—a space that “supports activities that aren’t necessarily valued or supported by capitalist society.” Invoking the term is also a way to acknowledge that formal curricular models often leave timely sociopolitical issues at the seminar table. (SLF’s use of “school” mirrors that of accessible like-minded counter-institutional education projects like Western North Carolina’s School of the Alternative and Durham’s own Night School Bar.)
As a poet engaged with matters of ecology and the natural world, Sarah Rose—who has published three books of poetry, most recently 2022’s The Creation Museum—had long found the academy an amenable place to make work. But while finishing her doctorate in English and creative writing at the University of Cincinnati in the pre-pandemic years, she found her sense of urgency around climate issues shifting. After getting involved with the environmental activist group Stand, she realized that being “an actual body in the street” felt significant.
Returning to her hometown of Durham with her partner and son early in the pandemic, she began seeking the same embodied engagement in Durham. She began going to political actions (especially with the indigenous-led grassroots organization 7 Directions of Service) and meeting people in the local creative scene—also tapping into her sister Krista Anne’s extensive local networks—to get to know the climate-engaged work already happening here.
In doing so, Sarah Rose adopted a curatorial lens, beginning to dream up an interdisciplinary container—a sort of third space complementing on-the-ground climate activism and academic-institutional research—for “the people who are already here doing amazing [climate-responsive] work.”
One of the first people she reached out to was Bevelyn Afor Ukah, a justice educator, food systems worker, and cofounding consultant for the NC Climate Justice Collective’s Training Cooperative. Afor Ukah’s talk “Our Ecology: Shifting Our Gaze Inward,” which opens the Saturday talk series in a pairing with environmental artist Bryant Holsenbeck, draws upon her extensive work with the Climate Justice Collective, whose multiracial, intergenerational movement approach centers communities who are first and worst impacted by environmental destruction. For Living Futures Saturdays, Ukah will focus on the connection between creativity and self- and community healing.
“I have been reflecting a lot on art and access, and the ways public art, or shared storytelling processes, heal us,” Afor Ukah says. “My talk will explore the concept of ‘active hope’ by offering some tools and traditions of storytelling. It is necessary to take an honest look at who we are to envision a future that is regenerative.”
Afor Ukah’s gesture toward “active hope” emblematizes the series’s investment in platforming people whose work not only proposes “different ways of thinking about what can be and what should be,” Sarah Rose says. “They’re all actually trying to make [those ideas] happen.”
Among other future speakers, the series includes UNC geography professor and Black geographies researcher Danielle Purifoy, Radical Repair Workshop steward and artist Julia Gartrell, and environmental photojournalist Justin Cook.
“They’re also all really dedicated community members,” Sarah Rose says. “None of the people in this series are doing their work in any kind of cloistered capacity but are all really engaged with what’s going on, both locally and [in a broader sense].”
The speaker series’s physical home is fitting here. Perfect Lovers, which opened in 2022 and is run by artist and barista Carrie Elzey, has quickly filled a gap within the vast network of COVID-related closures of independent art spaces in Durham, with its prolific slate of creative programming. (Elzey describes their curatorial philosophy as wanting to host events that are “challenging or interesting or suitable for the times.” SLF perfectly fit the bill.)
The popularity of spaces like Perfect Lovers, Krista Anne ventures, speaks to this shifting moment in Durham’s cultural infrastructure when community members are looking for a “foothold”—a place to bring their “everyday creative energy and connect with people.”
“When I think of the creative projects that existed in Durham before the pandemic, I think it was more about ‘How do we create a social scene and a community in this place that’s still growing?’” Krista Anne says. “Now, I think that that [scene] exists and there’s so many young people in Durham who are politically conscious and motivated. But how do we actually get them connected and [building] community around those things?”
SLF offers one answer. Beyond the speaker series—which will likely return in the fall, if this run is successful—Sarah Rose envisions weekend workshops on visible mending, gardening, peer counseling, and dance across local sites. And while she aims for more future representation from the sciences, the series’s rooting in the work of creative makers feels significantly suited to the personal-political reckoning brought about by environmental shifts.
“Even if all of these, like, worst-case-scenario climate projections come true, this is how I’m spending my life,” Sarah Rose says. “I can look my child in the eye and say I was a part of things that are really beautiful and meaningful. And that’s not something that can be taken away from you.”
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