Activating the Living Village: A Q&A with Environmental Community Organizer Caity Stuart

By Joseph Becker

Caity Stuart ’23 M.Div. returned to YDS at the beginning of the academic year to take on an inaugural role. Her work will be instrumental in the Divinity School’s efforts to create regenerative living programming and pedagogy around the Living Village. She sat down with YDS Communications to elaborate.

Yours is a new position. How did it come into being?

This role has long been advocated for by many faculty, staff, and students. But it came to fruition this past year—anticipating and preparing for our new Living Village.

An environmental theology task force came up with a list of beautiful ideas. To start, they created a post-grad associate position titled “Environmental Community Organizer.” I have three faculty and staff mentors, along with space to explore. I’m not necessarily charged with creating a program but rather laying the foundation for a program. A lot of my work is designed to listen, to research, to ask questions, and to get input from a variety of stakeholders.

YDS is a leading institution, and I want to help it grow. I want to help nourish and open up a space for current and incoming students to live and thrive here, and to be prepared for their ministry, whatever that will be. Every student walking out of these doors will be a climate leader of some sort—whether they’re prepared or not—so it is our responsibility to prepare them.

You graduated from YDS last year. Tell us more about what kept you in our orbit?

I have dreamed about this kind of work for 15 years but never really knew it was possible. There aren’t many other schools, particularly religious institutions, that are doing this work. I was attracted to YDS as a student because it exhibited one of the most robust programs at the intersection of religion and ecology. It had a variety of classes, a student group, a student conference, the Divinity Farm, and it had the promise of the Living Village.

With a previous degree in environmental studies and a focus on education, I came here as a practitioner wanting to expand. YDS certainly prepared me with the language of theology and affirmed my calling to amplify conversation about the climate crisis. As a student, I quickly became active: I remember having some serious talks with the Dean about the Living Village and saying, “Great project and yet, Where’s the programming?”

The Living Village sets the tone of saying, We are very committed. So for me to be in a space where the table has now been set and the invitation has been given—it feels like a playground. I’m really honored that I have this chance to bring my skills into what I see as a new form of ministry. Why would I say no to that?

Please tell us a bit about how the Living Village moves the conversation forward?

Community building is that table-setting for many voices to be heard and to be advocated for. So that means bringing faculty trained in this area on board, expanding experiential and accessible education, and working with students to design new programming. Students who live there will be asked to engage with the building more directly and in different ways than they would in conventional residential halls.

I’m meeting with other leaders around Yale to start collaborating on bigger initiatives. For example, Yale has a couple different farms or agrarian spaces, so I’ll be meeting with them. And my supervisor and I are going to Hampshire College where there is another Living Building designed by the same architect. We’ll be getting a tour, of course, but one of the questions for me will be how is the space used as a learning laboratory?

So there are lots of opportunities to make meaning of our Living Village. It’s a matter of, What is our capacity? What is our desire? Our hope? And, ultimately, it’s about what is the deeper theological question the Living Village is inviting us into?

How does the climate crisis loom in the lives of YDS students?

I suspect the climate crisis is looming for students more than we know. Certainly, YDS is a hub of this conversation and there are a lot of students who are vocal about the climate crisis. But I would like to help broaden our conception of this work.

The architectural revelation on a New Haven hilltop: Read more about the architectural significance of the Living Village

For example, I think a lot about our senior sermons in Marquand Chapel. These talks oftentimes reflect what matters most to students. I’ll admit that my sermon last year was probably predictable! But recently, there have been so many sermons dedicated to climate change, regardless of if students dedicated their studies to it.

I’m passionate about finding ways to create the space to talk to about it. And to grieve and to process. And then to find ways to act. I think a regenerative living program will help us do that.

Are you working on anything beyond the confines of Yale?

Yes, absolutely, part of my work is asking the questions, What does it mean to work with our neighbors in New Haven? What kind of partnerships do we want to build? And how can we be supportive of what’s already happening in the community?

I’m also thinking about our alumni. Specifically, so many of them land in churches. How are we supporting congregations? The Living Village is making us think about how we must share what we learn with those beyond the borders of our campus.

Sounds as though you’re not going to get a lot of downtime.

Well, I fully recognize that a lot of my work is also about embodying what my job is. And so, in order to talk about sustainability, I will have to live a sustainable lifestyle!

YDS breaks ground on historic Living Village project: Read more at YaleNews.

November 20, 2023