Public Scholarship Comps: An Interview with Emily Culver ’18

25 September 2018
Emily Culver '18
Emily Culver ’18

Before Emily Culver embarked on her Sociology/Anthropology Comps project, she knew that she wanted to do research that would reach beyond academia and be of use to a broader community. She had interned at Growing Up Healthy the summer before, so when she reached out to the coordinator about the possibility of volunteering alongside them while doing research for her Comps, they were happy to have her.

Growing Up Healthy is a local organization that works to foster diverse community connections throughout Rice County by training neighborhood leaders and advocating for systems change; in particular, their Farmer to Family program provides local produce at a reduced price to low-income and refugee families in three neighborhoods in Northfield and Faribault.

Based on eight weeks of ethnographic fieldwork, during which Emily coordinated events, met with community partners, attended Growing Up Healthy functions, and conducted qualitative interviews, Emily’s project examines how community, neighborhood, site, and conceptual space facilitates social capital development in Growing Up Healthy’s Farmer to Family program.

What drew you to working with Growing Up Healthy and pursuing this topic?

I started out wanting to look at whether or not Farmer to Family was meeting its stated goals, the nature of those goals, and what it meant for a program to be providing healthy produce and education about healthy produce to low-income residents. Then I went into the field, and over time I realized it really wasn’t about the vegetables. Yes, people were going to get the produce, but there was so much more happening than that—one of my informants described the produce as the “lure.” It was the impetus for the Nights in the Park events, but it wasn’t really why people were coming or why they chose to stay. So that’s when I started looking at the relationship piece—the nature of each neighborhood’s relationship with Growing Up Healthy as an organization, with organization staff, and the inter-neighborhood dynamics as well.

I have an interest in community development to begin with, so I was also drawn to that, and I knew that I had some rapport and footing with the organization, which allowed me entrance into more of the nuances. If you start out in a completely foreign location or environment, it’s a lot harder to delve into that type of project so quickly, especially with the expectation that you’re going to write a paper on it the next year. It was long-winded because I ended up shifting quite dramatically from what I went into the field thinking I was going to do to what I focused on in my actual comps. But I think I benefited from having those dramatic shifts in some ways, because it forced me to really think about what I was seeing and experiencing. When your plans are completely uprooted, then you’re not necessarily wedded to your own preconceived notions.

Do you plan to engage this work in any other context in the future?

Yes, definitely. I’ve gone back and forth between the policy side and the on-the-ground side, but I think something that’s really special about doing work with a specific organization or directly with communities that you want to impact is that you’re living it everyday. It’s not detached from what you’re trying to make policy decisions about; you see it, and you know what’s happening. That visceral feeling validates the work, and having connections with people directly helps you know if what you’re doing works or not, and I really like that.

How do you see this fitting into public scholarship?

Something that was really important for me in doing a comps project was that it wasn’t going to disappear into a scholarly vacuum. I think often scholarship exists within the scholarly community and doesn’t get back to the people that it’s about as often as it should. So that was something that I really wanted to disentangle in my own work. I ended up looking at how space facilitates social capital development in a number of ways—some of that’s physical space, while some of that’s more conceptually-based.

My hope was that in outlining those things, I could give the organization what I had written and found, so that they had that reference point to say, “This is something that she noticed, so maybe we should highlight this, or maybe we should work on this.” I really wanted it, above all, to be useful to the organization. Because they had partnered with me, and given me that privilege, I really wanted to make sure that I was serving them and the Rice County residents that they work with, above everything else.

How do you view the relationship between SOAN and community engagement?

I think a big part of community engagement for me is relational—building relationships between people, building trust, hearing what people have to say. Ultimately, what you see statistically doesn’t always align with what people say they want. Sometimes that’s a conflict, but I think sociology and anthropology both teach us to listen to what people think, what people have to say, and how people conceive of their realities.

I think that developing relationships with your informants, hearing what they have to say, and being able to bring that perspective to light lends itself to that partnership. When you feel a responsibility to more than yourself, you hold yourself to a higher level of accountability, and you really want to think through what you’re doing, what you’re writing, and how you pose certain questions. I think that speaks to both the strength of community engagement and the strengths of sociology and anthropology.