March 3, 2023 | NEWS
Saigopal Rangaraj, a Colorado College student, discusses his work with the State of the Rockies project, relocation, his transient childhood, elephants, and third-culture identity.
Could you tell me about the paper you co-wrote in 2022?
I was part of the State of the Rockies project during my freshman and sophomore summers. The paper basically looked at how narratives impact policy outcomes. We looked at Colorado Senate Bill 19-181, which aimed to regulate oil and gas extraction in Colorado. It did two things: One, it changed the mandate of the Colorado Oil and Gas [Conservation] Commission from ‘promote oil and gas’ to ‘regulate oil and gas.’ And the second big thing it did was give power to local councils or local municipalities to regulate oil and gas. Which, in every other industry, is the norm. But with oil and gas, it’s typically been done at the state level. This gives communities the opportunity to have a bigger say.
We had to look over hours and hours of Senate and House testimonies and basically see whether there were any themes around what people were saying, the kinds of narratives they chose to portray, the facts they used, so we could figure out what strategies worked and what didn’t. Because Colorado was the first state to pass such legislation and it could be a pivotal finding to be able to replicate the strategies used by campaigners and non-profit groups and people who advocated against the current oil and gas policies in Colorado.
You said that you went through the transcripts for the Senate Bill. Did you find a different understanding of the legislation compared to reading the news?
When it comes to listening and reading 50+ hours of Senate hearings, it’s a lot less filtered. I guess you really get to see the very personal narratives that sometimes get hidden when you just read a news article. The most impactful part of it is just seeing what individuals had to say about this big issue.
You mentioned personal narratives. Are there any stories that you remember sticking in your mind?
There was a pipeline explosion in Keystone, Colorado. This family member talked about how they thought their house was safe. They were excited about having a family here. And then one day, they lost three members of their family because of this explosion. And I think it’s one thing to read about this stuff in the news. And then another thing to listen to someone narrate that harrowing experience where part of their house just blew up and three of their loved ones just cease to exist in an instant.
The name of the paper is “How Anger and Fear Influence Policy Narratives: Advocacy and Regulation of Oil and Gas Drilling in Colorado”. Do you think that having these personal stories can dilute or mislead policy? Is it worthwhile to put that kind of narrative and emotion into policy debates?
I think it is a valid fear to say that the person with the strongest narrative can sway a debate either way and move the discourse away from what should be the focus. But time and time again, we’ve seen the role that personal narratives have had in mobilizing action. When we think about international aid and development funding, there’s this stereotype of a poor child from a developing country, who is underfed and dizzy and diseased. And that’s a very tired stereotype. But it worked because a lot of aid organizations realized that statistics weren’t getting them the donations that they needed but selling personal stories of tragedy and suffering and adding a name to that pain. And I think whether it’s manipulation or not, is debatable, but at the end of the day, when there is something that is so pivotal is oil and gas policy. I think it is so important to listen to what people have to say.
Yeah, I think data and individual and narrative don’t necessarily have to be against one another, but they also are important checks and balances on one another.
It’s one thing to say, “Oil and gas generates X billion dollars of revenue for the state of Colorado.” But then it’s another to hear personal stories about how certain communities or certain groups or certain individuals are impacted by oil and gas. Because there are specific people who and there is a clear causality of like, oh, this person was wronged by oil and gas, either by their water being unsafe to consume or by literally their house exploding,
With policymaking, it’s all about compromise. And it’s all about ensuring that no one gets left behind to the best of the policymaker’s ability.
I understand that you’ve traveled around a fair amount in your education. You went to UWC Mahindra near Pune [India], then to CC. And you also spent six months at the London School of Economics. To start, what was on your mind when you left UWC Mahindra to come to CC?
At that point, I was just excited because I got into this program called Semester at Sea and got to travel quite a bit. Semester at Sea is a study-abroad program that’s partnered with Colorado State University. And it’s typically done by college juniors in the U.S. who wanted a typical study abroad experience. On my voyage, we went to 11 countries and 13 different ports in the span of a semester, and still took a full semester worth of academic coursework as well.
I had a lot of apprehension because I was one of the few gap year students on that program, which is primarily U.S. college kids, mostly juniors. I never interacted with too many Americans. So that gap experience was a good steppingstone of sorts to my acclimatization to Colorado and American life.
I think as with most international students, our view of the U.S. is very much shaped by media. So even before Semester at Sea, I had this idea of what the U.S. was. But then during Semester at Sea, it allowed me to interact with people from the U.S. in a neutral space. So, I think that was probably the biggest takeaway from semesters was being able to interact with people when they feel uncomfortable and are learning something new or being challenged in a new setting. That allows you to be more vulnerable.
Most of my peers at CC would be acclimatizing to something fairly familiar to what they’d done in high school. So, I think I would have understood and vibed or gelled less well with Americans that come straight to CC and that perspective of how people engage with discomfort.
Given that you’ve traveled around so much, do you feel like you’ve become accustomed to relocating or is there still some unease in that?
This is a tough question. I’ve always struggled with what home means. Just because I grew up as a third culture kid and went on to be surrounded by people who are dissimilar to myself in appearance in the languages they spoke in their backgrounds. For me, at least, it helped me develop a healthy skepticism of my thoughts and my worldview, which allowed me to more readily adapt and empathize with people from different backgrounds by trying to identify the root cause of why people act the way they act. And so, I guess even from right from the start growing up in Botswana, as a third culture kid gave me that perspective. And then first moving to India, and then with Semester at Sea, the U.S., and the U.K., I’ve lived on four different continents. And that allowed me to, I guess, really understand how different people think and what drives different people.
When it comes to a question about needs, I think it gets easier every time you do it. But every place has its own local nuances and challenges that you need to overcome. While the mentality of moving is less stressful, the thought of “Oh, what if I can’t fit in that stuff” might not be as big of a factor. The thought about logistics never goes away. Especially with having an Indian passport and applying for visas. For Semester at Sea, I needed to apply for six visas in the summer.
So the unease in some ways goes away, but in other ways, it’s always present. But I think you lean into that because if you do feel at ease wherever you travel, then you’re not challenging yourself. If you’re someone who travels a lot, you can be in your comfort zone. But I think with travel, there are so many nuances in the way you travel, the type of travel you do, the people you interact with. That changes up the comfort levels with travel. And I think as long as you’re even with travel as long as there’s a healthy amount of discomfort, that’s probably when travel is going to be the most impactful.
Two questions, one likely more complicated than the other. First, you mentioned the quirks and peculiarities of each place you’ve lived. What are Colorado and CC’s quirks?
When I first came here, I really appreciated how nice people were. And I think this is something I’ve kind of I don’t want to generalize but I think the western U.S. typically has people who are very nice upfront and you’re it’s very easy to at least have surface level conversations. Whereas I found that people from places in the developing world, from India or China, but also in places like London when I live there, or NY when I visited, people are less nice upfront. But when you invest time into getting to know them, they will go the extra mile for you.
Whereas I think, in Colorado, not to say that people aren’t genuine and aren’t helpful, but I think because of how nice people are at face value, it’s a lot harder to know who is going to go the extra mile. And I think that was the biggest thing that I had to make peace with.
I will say, people in Colorado, just because of where Colorado is geographically, tend to feel very at ease. They are very comfortable in their spaces. And I don’t want to generalize. But I think the more at-ease you feel and the more comfortable you feel with your way of life, the less curious you are about the rest of the world. And I think it’s this stereotype about Americans as being unaware of what’s happening the world around them.
This is not an insult. I think being able to really call someplace home and appreciate it. Having a deep love for it is, I think, a really meaningful trait. That’s something which unfortunately I’ll never have, and I think that’s just one of the inherent challenges of being someone who has lived such a transitory life like myself, where no place is fully home and no places where I can feel at ease. But that also drives me to learn more and engage more with different spaces.
Now, the more complicated question. Having been a second culture kid and having traveled around a fair amount, do you think that makes you more likely to see people in different cultures as similar?
So there’s that expression, that when you travel, the world becomes smaller. Similarities become more evident and differences too. But I think it’s important to not simplify differences that exist between different cultures and rather appreciate why those differences exist.
When I think about my own political positionality, I fall on the left of the spectrum in U.S. politics. But then if you asked me to talk about the same policies, and whether they work in different contexts such as in Botswana, I’m a lot more hesitant. And I find myself less left leaning in those settings. And I think that really does sum up this idea, when you think about people across cultures, I think their positionality changes based on their location and based on the people they’re interacting with. So, I think as much as the experiences I’ve had in India and Botswana in the U.S. and the U.K. have shaped my perspective on life. I think it would do a disservice to reduce or to have one opinion across all the four disparate places. I think when it comes to culture as well. Having one opinion about a specific practice or about a specific culture that transcends these different ethnic, regional national boundaries, does each of them a disservice. Because as much as they are related, they are also independent.
To loop back a little, you’ve mentioned a story about elephants in Botswana.
When I was a kid, I lived in a small mining town in Botswana. And there was this unfortunate incident where an elephant’s parents were both killed by poachers. So, this elephant was orphaned and ended up on one of our friends’ farms. And then they called us and said “Yo, we had this elephant” It’s a really tiny elephant. I was a few years old at the time, so I was the same height then. But it drank a lot of milk, probably more milk than what Bon Appetit has for the entire campus. And this family couldn’t provide enough milk.
They told their friends and a lot of us got together and for a few months, we raised this elephant. We all donated milk and helped it grow. The elephant’s name was Ollie. And coming back to this whole interview’s direction, this personal narrative for me of raising an elephant that was killed by poachers, really really made me appreciate the power of those stories. Because this elephant would have lived a full life and would have continued living in Botswana with its family if not for those poachers.
Long story short, Ollie grew, and we couldn’t take care of Ollie anymore. So then, the call was made that we couldn’t release Ollie into the wild. So, we had to translocate Ollie to an elephant sanctuary for orphaned or injured elephants in Kenya. And I lost touch unfortunately.
Have you had a chance to visit at any point?
Unfortunately not. There was a lot of paperwork for an elephant to travel. I know for a human to travel; there’s a lot of paperwork and Kenya is not a cheap place to visit. But hopefully at some point, he’s gotten a little bit bigger and maybe he’ll remember me.
When it comes to personal narratives, what’s that story you tell about yourself? And I feel like I’m too scatterbrained to create that personal narrative, but maybe at some point, I’ll have one.Typically, a lot of events accumulate and that kind of derives purpose. Because of how transitory my upbringing has been, when it comes to issues like policing the U.S. for example, it’s something I’m really passionate about.
Millions of people are super important. And whether it’s universal health care in the U.S. or any other policy discussion in the U.S., I’ll share stories, I’ll advocate, I’ll show up when needed. But I can’t do that in every different place that I’m from because I’m just one person. Even though it’s a huge issue. I think focusing my energies in life on just that would be doing a disservice in many ways to all the other places that have shaped who I am.
It becomes challenging to figure out where to set my roots or focus my energies. Because as much as I’m writing my thesis about India and child welfare in India, I’m also incredibly passionate about urban planning or how Denver can make better public transit access. And, so, my energy is a split between so many different places. I always envy those children that grew up with one hobby and one passion like they played piano for 25 years growing up,
That’s one of the challenges that a lot of migrants have. And I know, I think second generation migrants have really high rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses because of the fact that they struggle with identity. In my case, I don’t know what I am, because I would have been a second-generation immigrant to Botswana. But I’m not, because I was born in India.
It’s been a privilege that so many different things have influenced me to be who I am today. But then again, it’s also a double-edged sword. Not being able to give back to all the things that have shaped me is something that I will regret.