How to Survive the Disruption of Higher Ed? Focus on Rigor, Relevance and Reach

by Garrett Broad, author of More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Association of Geographers conference

We’re an easy target, us academics.

Most people don’t really know what we spend our time doing (hint: those lectures you see us deliver take time to prepare, squeezed in between advising students, committee work, research and writing), the idea of tenure seems both luxurious and archaic (it’s actually a pretty grueling process, and hardly automatic), while the skyrocketing cost of tuition suggests that faculty get rich at the expense of vulnerable young people (in truth, even the lucky ones aren’t rich, while our “adjunct underclass” often lives around the poverty line).

9780520287457With all of this in mind, it’s no surprise to see that “Thriving in a Time of Disruption in Higher Education” is one of the themes for this month’s conference of the American Association of Geographers (AAG). I’m actually not a geographer – my PhD is in Communication – but I will be attending the AAG conference, in part to hear what other scholars have to say about this question of “thriving” in such a precarious moment.

Without a doubt, there are aspects of this disruption that are completely beyond our control. But as I’ve come to learn in my early career as a scholar, there are things we can do as communities of professors, researchers, and university administrators to make academics less of an easy target in the future.

Three words come to mind: Rigor, Relevance, and Reach.

I am borrowing here from the mission statement of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California, which introduced these terms as the “new three R’s” that should guide community-engaged research in the 21st century.

These new three R’s were central to the scholar-activist approach I took in writing my new book, More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change. I knew the work had to be rigorous – any serious contribution to the research community or society at large must be methodologically and theoretically sound. The project was inherently relevant – food injustice is an everyday reality for too many citizens of the globe, while the food movement needs to do a better job of confronting systemic inequality in its varied programs. The reach part, however, has proved a bit more challenging – academics are still incentivized to write esoteric books and papers that very few people read, so it takes extra work to connect with audiences outside of the ivory tower through both multimedia and interpersonal platforms (like writing this blog post and doing community events during my Spring Break).

I know I’m far from the only academic who sees relevance, rigor, and reach as important to their work. Before we are disrupted out of a profession, let’s make sure other people know that’s the case.

Garrett M. Broad is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University.

Food Matters – But It’s Not Magical

by Garrett Broad, author of More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change

9780520287457Stop me if you’ve heard this oft-repeated claim of the alternative food movement:

We know that low-income people who live in “food deserts” tend to eat unhealthy foods and suffer from diet-related disease. So, if we could simply get them to understand the importance of healthy eating – perhaps by having young boys and girls taste a carrot grown in their own school garden – we would all be well on our way toward community health and sustainability.

I beg to differ, and my new book – More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change – counters this oversimplified, feel good story.

Indeed, throughout the life of the alternative food movement, many of its most popular programs have failed to recognize that nutritional inequity is actually linked to broader histories of racial, economic, and environmental discrimination. The “magic carrot” approach to community health promotion – which imbues gardening and nutrition education with almost mystical powers – has ultimately proved ill-equipped to tackle the systemic barriers that are at the root of food injustice and the health problems associated with it.

Based on years of ethnographic research and scholar-activism, More Than Just Food highlights the work of community-based food justice activists who do engage with these systemic realities. While these practitioners employ many of the same strategies that have come to characterize the alternative food movement in general – building gardens, providing nutrition education, and improving access to healthy food through alternative food networks – they do so in the purpose of a much larger cause. Situating food as a vehicle for a more expansive, people-of-color-led social justice transformation, they look to the legacy of groups like the Black Panther Party and its “Free Breakfast for Children Program” as a model for revolutionary food activism.

A primary aim of the book, then, is to highlight the capacity of community action to serve as a power base for a twenty-first century food justice movement. At the same time, however, the research cautions against overly romanticized visions of autonomous, community-based change, emphasizing instead the complicated and often contradictory nature of nonprofit food justice organizing today.

We are in a moment in which food justice groups, inspired by the likes of the Black Panther Party, also depend upon grants from the United States Department of Agriculture to achieve their community-based goals. What does this mean for the possibilities of a food revolution?

Read the book to find out more. But be advised that it contains neither magic carrots nor magic answers.

Garrett M. Broad is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University.