Jennifer Sedell

I originally went to graduate school to study rural economic development through the arts and humanities. The plan, however, was immediately derailed by bugs. Or rather, a study on the controversies around killing bugs. Six years later, I somehow seem to be bending the two back toward each other: learning how to tell the histories of insect eradication to support those looking to transform California’s ag land.

In the years immediately preceding grad school, I managed AmeriCorps programs across Oregon. My favorite projects brought music instructors and museum educators to small towns on the coast and interior of the state. I saw the transformative potential of pairing civic engagement and the arts: communities rallied around new centers of learning, kids found new means of expression. But I also saw limits: extreme underfunding (personnel deserved professional salaries not AmeriCorps stipends), reinventing the wheel on yearly grant cycles, and systemic failures that no amount of idealistic newbies could fix. I couldn’t fix them either. But, somehow I thought that if I just had a masters in community development, maybe I could. (There’s no accounting for how many problems we think graduate school can solve before we start.)

When I arrived at UC Davis, however, I needed a job. ASAP. So I ended up on a two-year project studying how communities in California reacted to recent government programs to eradicate invasive insects. To be clear, I had no background in entomology, but I did know something about people and the complicated ways communities work. The work led to my thesis on the controversial program to eradicate the light brown apple moth by spraying pheromones over Santa Cruz, Monterey and the San Francisco Bay.

Moving onto a PhD in Geography, my work continued to explore how out-of-place insects transform relationships between people, places, and the ways we know about the world. I saw that the contemporary problems dogging efforts to maintain functioning and healthy food systems were rooted in a mangle of cultural, political, economic, and scientific histories. Peeling back layers of questions—why that way? when did that start?—I moved from interviews to archives.

In this process, I was lucky enough to connect with the California Institute for Rural Studies, which “believes that shifting CA Ag towards social, economic and environmental justice requires a clear-eyed understanding of how and why the current agricultural system developed.” For them, the history matters, because, “without this knowledge of where we’ve been and what structures we are surrounded by, it is too easy to reinvent past failed solutions, unintentionally replicate injustices and misplace energy fighting the wrong battles.” I am honored to work with them this summer to forward their mission.

The Mellon Public Scholars program offers an intellectual and professional opportunity to weave together my commitments to vital communities, sound historical research, and work that not only crosses publics but is generated across publics. I join a group of colleagues who, not unlike invasive insects, thrive outside of their proper place, agitating for transformation.