Once upon a time, I used to guide the development of workplans for AmeriCorps members. The plans needed to be clear lists of discrete and do-able tasks with outcomes that were measurable in some way. For many projects, the workplan provided a meaningful guide to an otherwise fuzzy three- or ten-month project. Over the years, I oversaw a few hundred workplans. I got a good idea of what panned out and what didn’t. So it is somewhat embarrassing that I now find writing my own workplan for a summer project so challenging.
“So who is your audience?” asks the newest addition to the advisory committee, a free-lance historian with over twenty years of experience. A small group of us are gathered around farmer’s market nectarines and cherries in a bright dining room in Walnut Creek, discussing the projects for Cal Ag Roots, a program of the California Institute for Rural Studies. The program manager jumps in: “Anyone with an interest in changing California agriculture toward sustainability and justice.” A question lingers in the room unasked: but who exactly is that?
The conversation has been prompted by an assessment of the previous year’s accomplishments: a series of three podcasts accompanied by short written pieces and several in-person events at universities, granges, and, once, on a train. A live performance of one of the stories, about the mechanical tomato harvester, fell somewhat flat at a meeting for new and small-holding farmers, exactly the kind of people who would fit the description. I ask if maybe a different story would have been better received. Yes, absolutely. Another committee member, from the Community Alliance for Family Farmers, chimes in: “we need to tell each story in a way that is relevant to that particular audience.” Ah, so there are particular audiences within “the audience.”
Since the beginning of the Mellon Public Scholars program, our leaders have pushed us to think critically about “our public.” The concept can be difficult to parse. There are the organizational partners, devised of a community of staff, board members, volunteers, funders, donors, and a whole host of other stakeholders. There are the communities in which they endeavor to work, an even looser and dynamic set of participants and organizational partners. Somewhere in that second category, a notion of “audience” arises: a portion of the community, of the public, that participates in programming across an as-yet-defined spectrum of engagement (or simply consumption).
In Steven Lubar’s Seven Rules for Public Humanists, he decrees that communities define “community.” The notion is laudable. And, it sounds a necessary caution for academics accustomed to developing their own categories: you want to do work in the wider world, you have to listen and defer to those with whom you work about how they organize themselves. However, there is an implicit danger in the idea, the potential to believe that communities come pre-formed, intact with borders and edges already in place, knowing who to include and exclude. Moreover, there’s an assumption that the “community” with whom we work (our organizational partner) knows exactly who that is. What is the community of “anyone interested in changing California agriculture”? Undoubtedly, that community is made up of many communities, which bleed and overlap but do not neatly overlay one another.
The tension between broad and particular audiences—the many communities the group wants to engage—keeps bubbling up in the advisory committee meeting. The question is hardly philosophical. It drives the logistical concerns of how to build every aspect of the project. On the website, how does the group provide opportunities for those interested in specific topics to dive deeper? For the stories being produced this year, is it possible to create only three long-format stories? Or should there be smaller segments that can be put together in different ways for different audiences? For funding, how would different stories about agricultural history connect to different audiences in ways that would appeal to different grant makers? Who has what connections to groups that might be interested in partnering to develop specific stories? Do you have their contact information? Oh great!
As we move from stone fruit to green salad, the group never quite resolves the central tension of how to create and tell stories that will appeal to a broad audience while engaging specific communities. Yet, the discussion itself—tangents, disagreements, dropped conference call participants texting back in with ideas—reveals how dynamic a community in action can be. Always in formation. Pushing and testing itself. At that moment, I take Lubar’s advice: I sit back, take notes, and quietly absorb their deliberations.
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.