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]

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Response to PSU's Eating Animals Roundtable [Discussion?]

We, the Lewis & Clark College Environmental Symposium lead chairs, thought it would be worthwhile to attend Portland State University's Eating Animals Roundtable Discussion so as to research related school sponsored discussions regarding food and to gain insight for the content and tone we want to set for our upcoming symposium "Following the Food Chain." We left the event jarred by the discussion and discourse that transpired which has led to the following charged response. We recognize that this is a strongly opinionated article and we hope that in taking such a critically firm stance we will light the fire of controversial debate for our own symposium.

The Eating Animals Roundtable Discussion was intended to be a, "lively discussion of what is increasingly being recognized as one of the most vexing set of issues of our time" (Portland Center for Public Humanities). It was meant to be a forum in which panelists and audience members could discuss and contemplate the nature of eating animals and our role as animals that eat. Unfortunately, this event was anything BUT a roundtable discussion. Discussion is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as, “[the] consideration of a question in open and usually informal debate.” Eating Animals was certainly informal yet seriously lacked the diversity of debate characteristic of an intellectual panel. Speakers Camas Davis, Kathy Hessler, and Ramona Ilea represented a variety of perspectives. Camas the ethical butcher, Kathy the animal lawyer, and Ramona the foodie philosopher should have all butted heads throughout the two hour long roundtable, and still the event felt more like a kumbaya, hand-holding, vegan indoctrination presentation. Where was the controversy, the scrutiny, the questioning? Well, let us back up a moment, there were questions…there was a whole hour dedicated to audience questions…but the questions did not probe, pry or press with substance or style suited for the setting.

This PSU event had groundbreaking potential to hit on ideas we commonly accept and take for granted. Why do we eat meat? Are we a part of the Darwinian food chain and if so, is eating meat merely a nutritious necessity? As carnivores, do we stand above and removed from the rest of the animal kingdom to be deemed an exceptional breed? How do morality, justice, and ethics apply to our dinner plate? When considering these ideals, can the solution be found along the grocery aisle or must the solution go beyond the consumer to grander and greater decisions. THESE are the questions we wish we had heard. We did not need to hear about Joe Schmoe from the back row's life saga as a vegan. We did not want to hear about how it makes Cindy Lou in the front row cry at night to think about the beakless baby chickens. These were supposed to be debate-oriented questions, not emotional appeals for vegetarianism. There is nothing constructive or effective in approaching these issues in that manner. To be honest, we all blew it. We brought together three fascinating panelists with wonderfully different specialties. We had over an hour in which we could have picked their brains, gained perspective, and formulated knowledgeable opinions yet we spent that time blabbing and pointing fingers. In particular, the arguments of Camas Davis were simply ignored and discredited by some of the most outspoken members of the vegetarian audience. Little meaningful discussion was raised since those who asked questions came forth with pre-conceptions and self-praise that defined the event in a one-sided fashion.

Despite how disappointed we were with the ineffectiveness of the roundtable, we did gain a lot of valuable insight as to qualities and practices we want to replicate (or steer clear of) when producing the 13th Annual Symposium on Environmental Affairs “Following the Food Chain." Most importantly, we have vowed (for the sake of both panelists and audience members alike) to ensure that questions raised actually end in question marks. In addition, the event allowed us to get in contact with some of the panelists involved; Kathy Hessler has already been helpful in providing provocative ideas worth debating in our panels. Lastly, we believe Camas Davis’ Portland Meat Collective is a great example of an alternative food movement in the Portland area that is trying to change the way our food system operates. In an attempt to remove meat consumers from the snare of the American meat industry, she proposes a local “relational” economy in which meat eaters have an emotional relationship with the animals that produce their meat and dairy. It is just a shame that people, even in Portland, cannot look past their own engrained beliefs and recognize that such an attempt to go against the status quo is valuable, even if it means meat is still part of the daily diet.

We encourage any comments or questions so please feel free to contact us (Claire Cummings and Ben Mitzner) at clairec.lclark@gmail.com and bmitzner@gmail.com

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Abroad in India: Reflections from My Fall Semester

Almost two years ago in Environmental Studies 160, my good friend Rosanne Wielemaker and I chose to do a small research project on the Navdanya Farm in Dehradun, India. Little did I know at the time that my interest in this organic farm would lead to a second situated research proposal in India, an application for the Lewis & Clark study abroad program in India and an independent field study on third world environmentalism. This fall, I was able put my two years of theoretical research on India into a real cultural experience by spending three and a half months traveling and studying the country with twenty-four of my fellow classmates. While I was there, I had the opportunity to learn about India’s history and culture from two brilliant university professors—Sunil and Nita Kumar—as well as a host of other native lecturers and local townspeople. In addition, Rosie and I were able to conduct an independent study on waste management and environmentalism in India.

From September 1st to December 14th, I lived in about five of India’s major metropolises and dozens of other small and rural areas. We began the program in Delhi where—under the guidance of Sunil Kumar—we studied medieval and modern India through field trips to monuments, mosques, shrines and temples as well as through projects that forced us to navigate the city on our own. From there, we went to Dehradun, Rishikesh and Haridwar before finally settling in Varanasi for the month of October. I was fortunate enough to be in Varanasi during the major Hindu festival of Diwali, which meant plenty of sweets, firecrackers and parades. Unlike a developing economic and political capital such as Delhi, Varanasi is a city in which India’s social and ecological problems are more apparent. The city’s significance in Hinduism, old infrastructure and large handicraft industry make Varanasi an incredibly unique place to study environmental issues such as waste management, pollution and urbanization. Consequently, Varanasi was where I situated my independent study.

In the spring of 2009, Rosanne and I decided to collaborate on an independent study regarding waste management practices in India. After a semester of intensive research and planning, we submitted our project proposal to the ENVS steering committee and waited anxiously for the fall to begin furthering our investigation. However, research projects do not always go as planned, especially in new and foreign countries. Despite the many drawbacks that we faced in attempting to follow our original proposal, we were able to create and accomplish a new project, using the data and contacts that we had already established through another, separate assignment in Varanasi.

With help from the Nirman School, I spent nearly two weeks learning about Hindu philosophy on humans and nonhuman nature from Dr. Veer Bhadra Mishra and his colleague R.K. Mishra of the Sankat Mochan Foundation. As the high priest of Varanasi and a former professor of Civil Engineering at Benaras Hindu University, Dr. Mishra—more commonly known as Mahantji—combined his faith and knowledge of science to form the Sankat Mochan Foundation, an organization that works to raise awareness of pollution in the holy Ganga river. While it is considered the Mother Goddess in Hinduism, the Ganga River is incredibly polluted and many Hindu residents in Varanasi refuse to accept this objective fact. In Varanasi, I listened to these local Hindus talk about their love for Gangaji and then watched them throw plastic bottles into their beloved river. During these two and half weeks, my main objective was to look at the significance of religion to an individual’s actions towards the biophysical world. In finishing my assignment in Varanasi, I was able to gather a tremendous amount of data for my independent study, which I will continue to analyze this spring.

From Varanasi, we headed south to Bangalore, Mysore, Penukonda, BR Hills and Nagarhole to learn about other issues of environment and development in India. My visit to the Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK) organization in BR Hills was one of the most eye-opening and humbling experiences that I had throughout my stay in India. VGKK is an organization formed by Dr. Sudarshan that aims to protect the culture and livelihood of tribal peoples in the state of Karnataka from the effects of technological development and wildlife conservation. VGKK provides these tribes with health facilities as well as education in both academic studies and organic agriculture. In BR Hills, I was able to witness the benefits of this program: the preservation of biodiversity and local knowledge.

After spending three and a half months in a third world country, I have had a rough time transitioning back into my previous lifestyle knowing that the same issues that I saw and people that I met still exist 8000 miles away. At the end of the day, I am grateful for choosing India two years ago as my situated research site in ENVS 160. Because of that small choice, I am now returning to my studies at Lewis & Clark having gained a tremendous amount of inspiration and knowledge from my experiences and travels in India.

Posted by Emily Nguyen '11