ALLISON AGSTEN MC/MPA 2021 grew up in rural Descanso, California, a tiny, unincorporated town not far from the border with Mexico. Sparsely populated, full of wide-open spaces, and largely untouched by development, it was a place where she would stumble upon pottery shards, arrowheads, and other artifacts of the local Indigenous cultures just lying on the ground as she roamed the countryside as a kid. It was also a place that taught her the value of community. “You couldn’t get by there unless you supported your neighbors and your neighbors supported you,” she says. “People took care of each other where I grew up in a way that I have yet to experience in all these years in the city, and I will never take that for granted.” Agsten is now director of the new Center for Climate Journalism and Communication at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. It’s a job, she says, that blends her interests in serving community, visual storytelling, and driving positive policy solutions.
Agsten moved to Los Angeles for college, and while attending UCLA, she interned at CNN’s bureau there. After graduation, she landed a full-time job as a production assistant. She worked her way up to producer, which gave her a chance to do some arts coverage. “It was something I was really passionate about,” she says. “My father was very into visual art, and we always had art magazines and art books around the house. As I was an only child growing up in the middle of nowhere, it was those books and magazines that kept me company.”
That job launched Agsten on a nearly 20-year career in the arts, which included positions at several Southern California museums as a communications director and curator. Her last stop was at an organization called Arts for LA, where her community-minded spirit and love for the arts intertwined. As a policy research fellow, she surveyed 800 artists for a study of housing affordability. The results shocked her.
“I learned through that research that artists in Los Angeles were experiencing homelessness at a rate that was staggeringly higher than the general population,” she says. “And that was before COVID. So I proposed some responses, and within a couple of months legislation based on my paper was introduced and passed.”
The legislation passed by the Los Angeles City Council allowed public arts funding for the first time to be used for housing as well as other expenses. Agsten says she was hooked after her initial taste of policy success: “I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is where it’s at.’” A short time later she applied to the Kennedy School and was accepted into the Mid-Career master’s program.
But before the fall term even started, her career direction took another turn. During the summer, she attended a lecture about the climate crisis and the Arctic given by Halla Hrund Logadóttir MC/MPA 2017, a cofounder of the Arctic Initiative at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and adjunct lecturer, and now director-general of Iceland’s National Energy Authority.
“We cannot rely solely on scientists to communicate about climate change. We have to train journalists across a spectrum of beats and a spectrum of functions to not just tell the story but make it a priority at the highest level in the newsroom.”
“She began the talk by asking, ‘What comes to mind when you think of the Arctic?’” Agsten says. “Every single audience member said either polar bears or icebergs—not people. And I couldn’t help thinking that it was a visual issue, that the way we have visualized that region is so far off and so embedded in the way we communicate from a media perspective.”
She ended up taking Logadóttir’s class at HKS and making a study of the Arctic the focus of her time at the Kennedy School. She was selected to represent her class at the 2021 Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland, where she won the audience-favorite award for her presentation on recentering Indigenous people in Arctic climate-news stories. She was later awarded funding from the Belfer Center to write a research paper on the subject titled “Reforming the Arctic Narrative.” After graduation, she sent the paper to her former boss at CNN, Willow Bay, who had been named dean of the Annenberg School for Journalism a few years earlier.
Agsten says, “She emailed me back almost instantly and said, ‘You won’t believe this, but we’ve just received funding to start a climate journalism center. Would you like to talk?’ We did, and we both knew quickly that it was a fit.”
Agsten was hired as the first director of the new Center for Climate Journalism. She was also given a second appointment as the first curator of USC’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies and is responsible for organizing climate-related art initiatives at the school’s main campus and at its Catalina Island lab. A chief focus of the center, she says, is to support climate-crisis reporting that focuses on the impact on people and communities as much as on the underlying science. Another key aspect of the center’s work is training professionals and encouraging news organizations to integrate climate reporting into all aspects of their operations. The center is currently working with eight ABC-owned television stations around the United States to embrace climate coverage in a holistic way.
“We cannot rely solely on scientists to communicate about climate change,” Agsten says. “We have to train journalists across a spectrum of beats and a spectrum of functions to not just tell the story but make it a priority at the highest level in the newsroom.”
Photos Courtesy of Allison Agsten