Seeing the World

Undergraduate Leah Davidson uses the visual arts to energize environmentalism.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

By Blake Cole

Leah Davidson is no stranger to charting new territory. In her senior year of high school she embarked on a journey to Antarctica with Students on Ice, an organization which seeks to provide students, educators, and scientists from around the world with inspiring educational opportunities in a natural setting. The trip proved to be a transformational experience, and now Davidson, W’16, is working closely with Associate Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures Bethany Wiggin to help change the way people think about environmentalism.

“I saw through my own experience in Antarctica that visual arts and imagery and plain natural beauty have the ability to make people take action. And it seemed to me that this wasn’t a message being delivered,” says Davidson, who juggles her environmental work with business classes at Wharton.

When she attended Wiggin’s Benjamin Franklin Scholar seminar in sustainability and utopianism freshman year, Davidson found a kindred spirit, particularly in Wiggin’s examinations of the psychology behind environmentalism. For her final project in the class, Davidson created a Pinterest board featuring profiles of people who were taking action in unique ways to meet environmental challenges. Eager to explore new methods of encouraging outreach, she pursued independent study with Wiggin, during which time they focused on environmental writing and how authors connect literature and the environment. 

“What started as a final project intended to showcase different environmental work evolved into a proposal for an institutionalized program here at Penn designed to engage students,” says Davidson.

The result, the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, is focused on four specific initiatives: a web-based platform, funding for student fellows, the curation of a physical exhibit that would be open to the Penn community, and collaboration with other art and culture institutions in the area. The proposal received funding from the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF) and the Green Campus Partnership. The students accepted for fellowships are approaching environmental issues from a variety of different angles, including one student who is investigating toxic waste in Mexico and another doing a comparative study about conservation in Germany.

In addition to her work on the program, Davidson is the 2014-15 Undergraduate Humanities Forum Chair. Her presentation “The Colors of Environmental Art” will investigate the symbolism of color in environmental art and photography.

"Building on my marketing coursework and my previous marketing internships, I am very interested in environmental psychology and interdisciplinary approaches to communicating about climate change,” says Davidson. “Visual art has a unique power to touch people on an emotional level, change thought patterns, and offer new perspectives on our relationship with the Earth. I want to share these discoveries with the Penn community."

Davidson continues to educate others on Antarctica. She raised money to publish a book titled Antarctica: To Be Inspired, which brings together the various perspectives of students, photographers, and writers who made the trip. ”Everyone can see the same iceberg and interpret it in different ways,” says Davidson, who, through a campaign called Act for Antarctica, sends the book to schools in an effort to encourage teaching on the subject.

As far as Davidson’s dream job is concerned, “I want to start my own business eventually,” she says. “I’d like to gain experience in consulting for a couple years to gain exposure to industries, but in the end it’s about making some sort of lasting contribution that improves society.”