CIRS Blog about Rural California
June 23, 2017
After reflecting on this topic, I realized that the best summary available is the paper which Profs. Marc B. Schenker and Stephen A. McCurdy wrote with Heather E. Riden and myself titled Improving the health of agricultural workers and their families in California: current status and policy recommendations, published by the University of California Global Health Institute in February 2015.
Instead, I’ve decided to focus today on how Marc’s leadership and influence broadened the scope of research at the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS). In turn, the ultimate impacts of CIRS became greater than any of us could have ever imagined.
Prof. Marc Schenker and I met for the first time on June 6, 1990, at a Conference on Health Concerns of Living and Working in Agricultural California, sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension and the School of Public Health, UC Berkeley. CIRS was asked to bring community folks to the conference as panelists to discuss specific topics of current concern, and, as well, contribute an overview presentation about rural California. CIRS arranged for farm worker advocates, leaders from predominantly Mexican-American rural areas, and staff of agencies providing health services for farm workers to participate in the conference.
As a few who are here today were aware in 1990, it was risky of Marc to seek to engage me in his new initiative. Some eleven years earlier, I was part of an effort led by California Rural Legal Assistance, inspired by the late Ralph Abascal, to sue the Regents of the University of California for ignoring the needs of a great many rural Californians, most importantly, farmworkers, but also small-scale producers, organic farmers and the rural poor. We were not seeking monetary damages, rather we wanted major changes this public institution’s priorities.
Although we prevailed in Alameda County Superior Court, the lawsuit was thrown out by the California State Supreme Court ten years later. But, from the filing of the lawsuit, very quietly, the University of California helped to start or support the Small Farm Center, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, and the Student Experimental Farm. Moreover, the controversial Alternatives in Agriculture course, begun in 1977, was added to the formal curriculum of the College of Agriculture.
It was in this context that Marc’s invitation was most welcome. Bob Spear had let it be known that one of the purposes of the conference was to scope the possible creation of a Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at UC Davis as part of the newly authorized Agricultural Worker Safety program of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. After the conference, Marc asked CIRS to become a coinvestigator of the new Center and prepare a research proposal as part of his grant proposal for which he was Principal Investigator.
Quite frankly, in 1990, I could never have imagined what the relationship with Marc’s initiative would eventually yield. When the first NIOSH grant was awarded to the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety, in one of the very first discussions with him, we agreed to collaborate in undertaking a population-based survey of farmworker health that would include a modest physical examination.
We approach a farmworker clinic in Parlier, a well-known farmworker community. Joined by a few folks from Marc’s research group, and by Dave Runsten from the CIRS staff, we went to Parlier where Arcadio Viveros, Executive Director of the United Health Centers clinic, and Mayor of Parlier, welcomed us and agreed to cooperate.
I clearly recall one of the first comments Marc made to me about our work.