California Institute for Rural Studies

History of CIRS


Where We Started

When a group of activists came together to form the California Institute for Rural Studies in 1977, California agriculture was experiencing a moment of profound change brought on by the widespread adoption of a new piece of technology: the color-sorting mechanical tomato harvester. It was a classic story of rural development where a few benefited enormously, while many rural Californians endured enormous, unexpected burdens. Farmworkers, small farmers and rural community members lost work, an industry faced painful restructuring and vital infrastructure shriveled. In response, CIRS began its long journey to shed light on issues that typically remain in the dark– and to feed critical data about rural life to political movements for justice.

Working with a coalition– and with lawyers from CA Rural Legal Assistance– we help win a Supreme Court victory in a lawsuit against the University of California that demands that they track the social consequences of their research and fulfill their mandate to serve the public– not just large agricultural interests. This leads to the establishment of the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, the hiring of Spanish-speaking Cooperative Extension Agents and an effective ten-year freeze on the development of mechanization technologies in agriculture.

During these foundational years, CIRS became a 501(C)3 nonprofit with close ties to a sister-organization, a 501(c)4 political advocacy organization, the California Agrarian Action Project (CAAP). The two organizations eventually split, with CIRS maintaining focus on research-for-action in deep partnership with farmworker communities and the United Farm Workers, while CAAP becoming what is now the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

Where We Went

CIRS’s co-founder, Don Villarejo leads the organization through two decades of powerful research work. The CIRS office in Davis becomes a hive of activity with many staff and interns, producing prolific reports on everything from water infrastructure to patterns of land ownership to farmworker health issues. Many of these reports can be found in the archives of this website. 

One report, Suffering in Silence, which is based on the California Ag Worker Health Study conducted in 1990, raised awareness across the state about farmworker health issues, leading to major investments in health infrastructure and outreach networks based on the promotora model. 

Board of Directors and Staff, California Institute for Rural Studies, with Office Mural by Delgadillo, ca. 1992
Don, Luis and Grace Oseki conducting a workshop on community organizing in the San Joaquin Valley during the early 1990s

Don became a nationally recognized expert, forming strong relationships with policymakers, researchers (inside and outside of Universities, especially UC Davis) and with California communities who knew they could trust CIRS to speak truth to power and reveal rural realities.

After Don’s retirement in 1999, the organization went through a period of change. CIRS continued to focus on farmworker health, expanding our research to look at the social determinants of health (including several studies on farmworker food insecurity).

In 2008, Gail Wadsworth became Executive Director just as the Great Recession was wiping out nonprofits across the nation. In a move that saved CIRS as an organization, Gail closed down the Davis office, creating the network of remote offices that CIRS still uses today. Gail led several important projects, rooting CIRS in the Eastern Coachella Valley with a sweeping Household Health Study, conducting the California Heat Illness Prevention Project, spearheading a range of farmworker housing studies, including the one in the Salinas/Pájaro Valleys, and the 2020 Census study that helped ensure that the Trump Administration could not add an immigration question to the Census. She also brought Ildi Carlisle-Cummins onto the CIRS team, supporting her in the launch of the Cal Ag Roots Storytelling Project.

Where We’re Going

“Crack of Dawn”, is a 8×12 foot collaborative mural work by Tim Z. Hernandez and muralist Ramiro Martinez. Commissioned by the Pan Valley Institute for the Tamejavi Festival, “Crack of Dawn” depicts the reality of immigrants in contemporary North America through symbolic representational imagery utilizing land, labor and struggle as its primary focus.

In March of 2020, just a week before the Rural Justice Summit was set to launch, it became crystal clear that COVID-19 would have us rethinking our role in rural communities once again. 

By the end of March, more than 40 researchers, community-based organizations and policy advocates across three states were meeting for hours every week to launch the COVID-19 Farmworker Study (COFS). By August we had the only data in the nation on how COVID-19 was affecting the agricultural workers who were being praised as essential, but deliberately excluded from many public health protections. 

But the work doesn’t stop there. COVID has highlighted long-standing vulnerabilities and structural injustices in farmworker communities that will take long-focus to change. CIRS is committed to these efforts and coordinated action in the short and mid term. 

The pandemic helped to clarify our unique role in movements for rural justice. Our new vision statement reads: Rural life in California is radically transformed as systems of oppression and extraction give way to systems which are life-affirming, sensitive to many types of knowledge, equitable and reflective of the rich cultural landscape of California.

Learn more by downloading our Strategic Compass below.