Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Blue Green Alliance Hosts the Good Jobs, Green Jobs National Conference

In early February, the Blue Green Alliance sponsored the Good Jobs Green Jobs national conference in Washington DC. Through some stroke of luck, the Sierra Club ended up giving me a full scholarship to attend the event. On February 9, I flew to DC along with two other students, Tom Lang and Caitlin Piserchia, to take part in two days of workshops and speakers and a day of lobbying ot our representatives on Capital Hill. After figuring out how to get to our hotel on the Metro, we arrived at the Marriot Wardman, which was probably as big as the entirety of the Lewis and Clark College.

A contradiction immediately came to mind as I spent more time at the hotel, going to workshops and being treated to served dinners and glass elevators. The conference seemed to exemplify consumerism at its best. The Hotel was expensive, the food was meaty, and just about everyone had to fly to reach the conference. Is this modern day environmentalism? Do environmentalists get to discuss options and express grievances while simultaneously participating in the system of consumerism that is the root of so many problems? I couldn’t help but feel hypocritical. I definitely was not in Portland anymore. Where were the composting and local food options? Where was the simplicity of Tryon Life Farm?

I realized that the kind of environmentalism that I was experiencing was born of brutal political engagement. One speaker who was representing the EPA referred to the political battle over coal currently waging in West Virginia as a “war with the enemies.” I realized that in circumstances when people’s livelihoods and values clash with forces like the coal industry, the kind of inclusive environmentalism practiced at Tryon Life Farm or even Portland at large is not possible. The Blue Green Alliance ( is a branch of the Sierra Club that has a partnership with Steel Worker Unions to fight for environmental justice and safe conditions in the workplace. I met a woman from South Carolina who had been diagnosed with brain cancer after being exposed to a chlorine gas repeatedly in the workplace. She was at the conference to fight for her right to work in a healthy and safe environment; she was there because in a way, she had to be, unlike myself.

I used to have the vague opinion that the Sierra Club was just the coffee table book of environmentalism, or that all they did was host their fancy conferences and never address the heart of environmental issues. I have realized that just because they don’t focus as much on the local issues, they are the ones funding and pushing for political policies that will make environmentalism effective on a national and ultimately global scale. However, finding a balance between National Environmental Conferences at the Marriot Wardman Hotel and isolated community action on a local scale is the key to making any lasting environmental impacts.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Stay Involved

Stay involved. If you want to go back to school or find a job in your field of interest you have to stay involved. For me, the greatest contrast between college and the outside world is the level of passion and engagement. At Lewis and Clark I felt almost effortlessly connected to environmental issues; Proctor or Podobnik would raise concerns about the latest environmental legislation and friends in the library would debate land use and conservation strategies. Whether through these avenues or through my own research, this comprehensive knowledge allowed me to speak confidently to colleagues, employers, and friends. Once you graduate, it is well worth the extra effort in order to stay engaged with what you love.

As I unfortunately came to realize, my perfect, ideal job is hard to get. Whether secretary or barista, the opportunity for a lively debate over name-your-environmental-issue-of-choice quickly diminishes once you leave the Lewis and Clark campus. I feel fortunate to have a few friends with whom I can ramble away about the environmental world; we exchange newspaper articles, nonprofit job openings, and graduate school research ideas. But on a day-to-day basis I find it difficult to remain connected to the field I care so much about. Engagement in the environmental community is no longer a given.

Staying involved became my life-link to keeping my mind astute and my future opportunities open. It’s fine if your job isn’t in your desired field, but work to stay engaged with what you are passionate about. Over the course of a year I interned for two environmental nonprofits. In the first, I worked on local land-use policy, and while policy work is not my favorite, I felt joined to something bigger. The second internship, a local collaborative conservation effort, threw me into meetings with key local players. Taking meeting notes was less than glamorous, but I got to listen in on the big ideas. Both of these internships were only a couple days a week, but it was enough to make the difference. I made connections, expanded my network, got my name out there, but most importantly, I kept my mind sharp.

Liberal arts education, and the environmental studies major in particular, teach you the importance of connecting interdisciplinary ideas. The ecological questions you might ask with Dr. B. [Dr. Bierzychudek] are contextualized by the framework built in environmental sociology, economics, or the core ENVS classes. Even once the details are forgotten, what remains is the value of multiple perspectives, that various drivers, pressures, states, impacts, and responses exist and should be examined.

From summer positions, internships, and a graduate class I have gained the confidence and context to discuss current environmental issues with future employers and potential graduate school advisors. Because I understand a diverse array of environmental issues, I am able to apply to more positions at more organizations. During interviews, I stress that I have a skill set that allows me to handle the immediate job opening, but also act as a team player within the organization and with outside agencies. When I spoke to potential forest ecology advisors in the University of Washington’s graduate program I was passionate, up to date on local issues, and able to convey my diverse knowledge base. Lewis and Clark’s excellent biology program provided the concrete skills I needed, the ENVS program built my foundation of broad knowledge, but my outside involvement demonstrated my passion for and commitment to the field. Or so I hope.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

So You Want A Job?...The Value of Unpaid Work

For the past three and a half years I have spent buckets of money to work for free. This full time job I like to call “college” demands long hours and countless odd tasks, yet I willingly and gladly show up to class every day because I know it matters. Everyone is told go to school, get good grades, and a job will come. But somewhere between the economic downturn and the influx of brilliant kids graduating from college, the “getting the job” part of that process has fallen by the wayside for many graduates. As a second semester senior I have yet to experience a post-graduation job search, but after seeing enough friends go through the process I feel as though I have learned a thing or two. The best piece of advice I was given by a 2010 alumna was: get an internship, and get it now.

Doing well in school and achieving respectable grades are certainly crucial, yet as any LC graduate can tell you it’s not about the letters you receive but rather the skills you gain from your college education (see this blog post by Andrew Coggiola ’09). While international relations theories and rock climbing 101 have taught me a great deal, it is a bit of a stretch to connect the skills I gained from those courses to a job in food policy and programs (my dream career). I have, however, participated in two internships this past year and they have been wonderful ways to incorporate my career interests into my college education.

My first internship was with Oregon State Representative Jules Kopel Bailey, a Lewis & Clark alumnus whom I met at a Student Alumni Association Majors Meeting. When I first asked about a position in March he wasn’t in need of an intern, but with enough persistence I was able to secure a summer internship. During my time in the representative’s office I responded to constituent e-mails on animal cruelty, answered concerned phone calls about state budget cuts, and investigated the status of pending bills on pollution in Oregon coastal waters. In addition, one week in September I had the chance to fill in for the Representative’s senior policy advisor to take care of the Capitol office for a few days. I learned a great a deal about state legislation and the inner workings of local politics.

Since my time in Jules’ office, I have taken on a second internship working with the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Food Policy and Programs. I have done everything from recording minutes at the monthly Urban Food Production and Distribution meetings to revising a grant application for hunger free communities to surveying the Portland community-supported agriculture economy. And believe it or not, I got school credit for it!

These positions have opened many doors for me. I have gained a fuller understanding of the careers I want to pursue, I have networked with countless individuals and organizations, and most importantly I have gained experience in the workforce before my job search has even begun. The unpaid job of an intern is certainly nothing glamorous, but when graduation rolls around and everyone else is looking for ways to enter the business, I can rest assured my foot is already in the door. So go to college, get good grades (and an internship), and then hopefully a job will come!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

An Independent Study In Peru: Examining The Controversy Concerning Genetically Engineered Corn

Here is a quick little story about my independent research project during my semester aboard. Last spring, I lived and studied in Peru for three and half months. The majority of my time was spent in Cusco, the city that was once the center of the Incan Empire. I also had the opportunity to travel beyond the Andes, down into the Amazon rainforest, and to the coast as well. In each of these three regions I found myself astounded by the different agricultural practices. I was fascinated by the traditional technologies, the diversity of varieties and species, and the abundance that these systems were capable of yielding. Despite my interest in the more traditional agrarian structures I found myself studying Peru’s most industrialized and commodified models of agricultural production. As a part of the study abroad program, students construct an independent research project that is situated in the area where their topic is taking place. I chose to study corn; more specifically the current legal, political, and ecological concerns surrounding the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) hard yellow corn. In turn I found myself in one of South America’s largest cities, Lima. I stayed in Lima for three weeks and spent most of my time hopping buses and running all around the sprawling city to conduct interviews and speak with individuals involved in the current debate regarding the use and illegal presence of agricultural biotechnology.

Cheers from my friends at the Chicharia.
Chicha is a favorite and ancient beverage of the Andean region, which is made by fermenting yellow corn.

Currently it is illegal to cultivate biotechnology in Peru; however, in 2009 a biologist by the name of Dr. Gutiérrez-Rosati discovered the presence of genetically engineered alleles in hard yellow corn growing in the Northern coastal region. This means that Peruvian varieties of conventional hard yellow corn cross-pollinated and exchanged genetic information with a GE variety of hard yellow corn. Yellow corn is grown primarily to feed pigs and chickens, while it is also used to make oils and flours. One thing I noticed quickly upon arriving to Peru is that Peruvians love to eat chicken. This food protein preference creates a large demand for yellow corn to fatten the chickens. The current levels of production cannot meet the high need and therefore Peru imports corn from two countries: Argentina and the United States. These two countries are the world’s leaders in corn production as well as the leaders in the use of agricultural biotechnology. The presence of transgenes in Peru’s hard yellow corn has been attributed to the importation of GE varieties. The most likely scenario is that farmers are sowing the imported corn instead of using it as feed. When I arrived in Lima I was curious to understand what greater implications would ensue as a result of these GE corn varieties in the coastal region.

My goal was to listen to the differing opinions and perspectives regarding the presence of GE corn in the northern coastal region, and to contextualize this in the greater debate regarding the future use of agricultural biotechnology in Peru’s food system. I spoke with many individuals who are involved in the subject matter in varying ways; biologists, environmental lawyers, the owner of a Peruvian biotechnology firm, government employees of agricultural organizations (equivalent to the USDA), and with activists and agricultural commodity traders. Each conversation offered a new lens from which to view genetically engineered yellow corn and biotechnology in general. I was able to see how this crop has a long and complicated series of relationships and particularly its economic significance. I left Lima with a much greater understanding of the GE corn feud however this was only a minute component of the biotechnology debate. Furthermore, the discussion around GE corn in Peru has changed dramatically since I left Peru.

This image is from Dr. Gutiérrez's report on the presence of transgenes.
This is a visual representation of the specific transgenes that she found in Peruvian hard yellow corn.

Upon returning to Lewis and Clark College, I discovered that Dr. Gutiérrez’s claim that transgenes are present in Peru’s corn has been negated. The Peruvian governmental organization INIA, the institution in charge of agricultural investigation and experimentation, declared Peru to be free of transgenic crops. They claimed to have found no evidence of genetically engineered DNA in the corn samples, which they allegedly took from the same region where Dr. Gutiérrez collected her samples. INIA requested for Dr. Gutiérrez that she provide them with her samples with the transgenes and the locations in which she found them. Interestingly, Dr. Gutiérrez refused to provide INIA with the samples and the locations.

This new development leaves us without an ending and provokes a whole new series of questions. My biggest question is simply why Dr. Gutiérrez is withholding the information and evidence needed to resolve the situation. My guess would be that she is attempting to protect the farmers whose fields produced the transgenic corn, in order to prevent legal issues that may include patent violations as well as infringement of national law. Though it is rather curious that she has refused to provide the desired information to INIA, from the conversations I have had with her I would like to believe she is a genuine and honest person, invested in the well being and health of her national food system as well as its biodiversity. If I am correct and these are her objectives then she must come forward and provide the necessary information to INIA. If Gutiérrez fails to provide the samples and the locations where she found them, Peru and it's corn diversity may be a risk.

A Few of Peru's native Corn Varieties

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Proverbial Light at the End of the Tunnel

A cell phone rings loudly in front of me, its owner scrambling frantically to silence the silly ringtone as quickly as possible to avoid further embarrassment. A couple of guys at a desk to my right try to subdue their laughter as they watch a video on YouTube, their efforts as futile as mine as I attempt to tune out the pained, awkward flirting I hear in the background. For a second I wonder if the past year and a half has been a dream, am I still in college? But then reality comes crashing down on me as always. I’ve left the world of academia behind me for now, and I actually have a job, like a real one with money and everything. Maybe working as a writer on contract with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration isn’t all that different from college? There are still assignments, lots of reading, I’m learning new things, and I still feel like the dumbest person in the room. Maybe college did prepare me for the real world.

“Well, good for you,” you might sneer sarcastically, “I’m glad you have a job, but I don’t have one and certainly won’t get one with a liberal arts education and a degree in environmental studies, not with this economy!” And you’d be right of course, at least partially. You most likely won’t find a good job that you like right out of college, I didn’t. If you do please feel free to contact me and rub your success in my face. I won’t be jealous, I’ll be happy for you. What I found, and what you can find too are unpaid internships. Yes, the “unpaid” part of that doesn’t sound too appealing, but we’ll get to that later. The “internship” part sounds good though, and everyone will tell you that you’re “getting your foot in the door” and “building your resume” and “gaining valuable job experience,” etc. And they’re right of course, at least partially. Unpaid internships can be valuable tools with the potential to set you off on a course to bigger and better things, but you’re going to have to work for it. If you work hard you’ll start to stand out and presumably someone will notice you and presumably this person knows people who know people who would like you to do more work but can’t pay you yet. This process may continue for some time, but if you make yourself indispensible enough someone in a position of authority may one day break this cycle and start paying you. That’s the plan anyway…

“Fine,” you say, “that sounds like a good plan, and it worked for you, but I don’t have any job skills. I have a liberal arts education and a degree in environmental studies, remember?” Wrong, you do have job skills; you just don’t know it. Can you write well, communicate effectively, work in groups, and use Microsoft office? Are you familiar with the concept of time management? Have you honed your critical thinking skills to a razor-sharp edge and do have a firm grasp of the social, political, and environmental issues affecting your community, your country, and your world? If you answered yes to all of those questions (and let’s be honest, if you’re a senior about to write your thesis then you better have) then congratulations, you have job skills!

“Ok,” you say, “so I have enough job skills to maybe get an unpaid internship that might start paying me eventually. In the meantime, I would like to eat and sleep under a roof but I can’t do that because I don’t have any money because I can’t find a job.” Wrong again, you can find a job; you just can’t find one that you want to do. Notice that I said “job” not “career” or “successful, well-paid dream job,” I just said “job.” They’re out there. I worked at a pizzeria for a year before NOAA started paying me enough that I could quit, and I have friends who did all kinds of stuff before getting a good job or going to grad school. Would you like to wait tables, bag groceries, babysit, or do weird landscaping work that you found on craigslist? No? Shocking, neither did my friends and I, but we did it anyway because we had to pay for ramen and PBR somehow. Plus, these jobs are rarely full time, so you can spend your free hours looking for better (un)paid internships!

I don’t say any of this to discourage you, but rather to assure you that everything is going to be ok. I’m not saying that the unpaid internship combined with crappy, menial job formula is guaranteed to work for everyone, but don’t get discouraged before at least giving it a shot. All joking aside, unpaid internships are actually incredibly valuable. The experience you gain and the connections you make will someday be worth more than you could ever imagine.

So enjoy the rest of college. Work hard but not too hard, and most importantly don’t worry too much. You’ll be just fine.

Written by Andrew Coggiola, '09

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Thoughts on a conservation internship

I spent last summer interning for the conservation department at the Oregon Zoo. It was an amazing experience, overall. I was given opportunities to see firsthand how conservation projects are implemented, funded, and overseen. I even spent part of the summer doing fieldwork for the Zoo’s well-publicized western pond turtle conservation project. I am passionate about wildlife conservation, and I was excited by the work that the Oregon Zoo is doing to make a positive impact on biodiversity both here in Oregon and all over the world.

Most of the conservation department, however, is staffed by conservation educators. These are wonderful, caring people who love animals and spend their days creating activities and programs for children, teaching them everything from native Oregon bird calls to details about the life cycle of a cheetah in far away Africa. This is all well and good. It is inspiring and difficult work. But somewhere, there is a disconnect. Nearly all of these people drive to work on a daily basis. I can’t say that I was shocked to discover this, but it has unsettled me enough to reexamine how I have been thinking about conservation. I found myself wondering on certain days during my internship, is this really the best we can do? We can teach kids about a carbon footprint, but it is wasted energy if no one connects the dots between the plight of polar bears in Alaska and driving two miles to school everyday. It is all too ironic to me that even as educators finish up a lesson on the impending impact of climate change on polar bears, they gather up their things and get into their SUVs to go home.

Surely there are dozens of such disconnects between thought and action in our everyday lives. In some ways our society has constructed this disconnect in its very organization: we live in a culture where academia, critical thinking, and great questions are compartmentalized into classrooms. It would not be hard, for example, to find someone extolling the virtues of organic food on our campus, but found a few days later purchasing the cheaper, conventionally grown produce in the supermarket. Conservation certainly necessitates passionate people like the conservation educators at the Oregon Zoo, working every day to spread awareness, but it also needs action from ordinary citizens. It is possible to imagine a world where consideration for the conservation of our natural resources is an integrated part of American life.

The historical view of conservation as a far away forest where no humans go is just that: historical. It cannot be our contemporary view of what it means to protect the biodiversity that is so important to our health and the health of the planet. In the end, we all need to be conservationists in order for any real conservation to succeed. Each of us is responsible for connecting the dots between thought and action in our everyday lives.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Challenges of Labeling

As an ENVS major focusing on food systems and social justice, connecting the food on my plate to broader processes of production and distribution has become a frequent dinner conversation in my life. One conversation in particular stands out. My companions included a few passionate vegans who were able to list off from memory dozens of unpronounceable ingredients containing animal products and a student involved in the Portland-based Non-GMO project who was able to perform a similar trick with products including genetically modified ingredients. A friend of mine and I rounded out the discussion, attempting holism but clearly most passionate about issues surrounding farm-worker justice and international agricultural imperialism.

This conversation really made me appreciate Real Food Challenge, which is a national student organization committed to leveraging their power as students to demand that the four billion dollars colleges in the United States spend on food each year goes toward food that nourishes consumers, producers, and the planet. I recently returned from a national organizer training with Real Food Challenge that pushed me to look at food issues more broadly than I otherwise would.

Purists won’t be pleased by RFC. “Real Food” is considered fair, local, humane, and ecologically sound, but the standards for many of the categories are not as stringent as single-issue foodies might prefer. Legitimate criticisms have been leveled at the organic, fair trade, and humane certifications that the Real Food Calculator is based on. As a member of the 2010ENVS Symposium Planning Committee, I’m trying to ensure that each of these labels is considered with a critical eye.

Just because something is labeled fair or organic or real doesn’t make it nature’s perfect food. I know that. Knowing this has left me even more motivated to work with Real Food Challenge. An example is in order: For my ENVS 330 final, I researched fair trade coffee commodity chains. (Check out Brewing Justice author Daniel Jaffee at Symposium!) Producing coffee is hard work, and the people on the ground have a hard time making ends meet. As it turns out, this is often true even when the coffee carries a fair trade label. Research for my ENVS thesis will likely involve researching the complexities of the fair trade label, including the complexities in negotiating with large organizations, the cost of certification, and the fact that farmers still receive a fraction of the end price.

In contrast, my work with RFC surrounding fair trade will mostly involve educating others about the difficulties in conventional coffee production and trying to mobilize students to increase consumer demand for fair and direct trade. I understand that fair trade coffee isn’t perfect, but I also understand that it is better, and that convincing corporations to switch from conventional coffee to individual, direct, and equal relationships with each producer is perhaps out of the range of immediate possibility.

As imperfect as labeling practices are, they are certainly better than the most common alternative, which is no consideration at all. For example, though it is possible to buy coffee from Central America where the producers have a guaranteed minimum price, strawberries purchased from a grocery store carry no such guarantee. When I buy strawberries or broccoli at the grocery store, I have no way whatsoever of finding out whether the workers were allowed to unionize, what their living conditions were like, or even how much they made. This is true even if the produce is certified organic and was grown within 100 miles of my house. The only thing more confusing than labels, it appears, is not having them at all.

I would love to see a food system where all connections between producers and consumers were direct and fair, as well as a food system based on connections to the land that could be sustained for centuries to come. This is what I’m working for, but I recognize that it can’t be achieved overnight.

The philosophy of Real Food Challenge is about not letting our desire to make the food system perfect get in the way of our ability to make it better. The role of academia and critical thinking in all of this is about not ignoring the devilish details (how much more do fair-trade producers make, exactly?) in the name of progress. I think that both approaches are irrelevant without the other, so I’d like to figure out a way to make activists and academics more directly accountable to one another.

With respect to our upcoming ENVS Symposium, this will mean pushing speakers who have dedicated their lives toward promoting change to reflect on how they could be doing better. It will also mean pushing speakers who specialize in deconstructing imperfect solutions to be as specific about their visions for change as they are about the flaws in the action plans of others. It will mean challenging all involved to recognize that there are no easy answers, but that it is this very fact that makes responding both intellectually and actively to the challenges in our modern food system so important.

[Written by Tara Brown]