California Institute for Rural Studies


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The California Institute for Rural Studies conducts community-driven research for action in rural communities working for justice, equity and health.

Learn more about the grassroots organizations that CIRS works with to achieve rural justice.

Meet the CIRS team

Alondra Santiago
Associate Researcher
Pixley, CA occupied, unceded Yokuts lands

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Coming from an immigrant farmworker household in rural California, I felt unseen; often forgotten by our representatives. I witnessed my community and loved ones struggle due to lack of resources. This fueled my passion to aid and fight for my community. I was granted the opportunity to work within the Central Valley through my fellowship with NextGen California. This organization afforded me the ability to work on three major components: (1) getting out the vote, (2) preventing further oil drilling in Arvin, and (3) organizing a march to “Keeping Families Together.” I loved my time in the organization as my passion grew to keep empowering my community. For this reason, I went on to earn my political science degree from UC Davis seeking to come back to the Central Valley. This past year, I was honored with the opportunity to be involved in Phase 2 of the California COVID-19 Farmworker Study. I am proud to be continuing my work with the California Institute for Rural Studies, and excited to return home to be bridging political advocacy and community.  

Caroline Collins, PhD
Cal Ag Roots Producer
Chula Vista, CA occupied, unceded Kumeyaay lands

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Caroline first joined the CIRS Team as an Archival Researcher and Podcast Producer of our “We Are Not Strangers Here: African American Histories in Rural California” project. She is also the Cathryn P. Gamble Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego where she earned her PhD. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside and a B.A. in American Literature and Culture from UCLA. Her work examines how the history of the American West is made and remade, particularly in California and especially in popular culture. Her public scholarship includes exhibits and media produced in collaboration with nonprofit organizations, museums, academic partners, and communities.

Cristel Jensen
Organizing and Development Director
Visalia, CA occupied, unceded Yokuts lands

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Cristel is CIRS’ Community-driven strategist and the Rural Justice Summit team organizer. Cristel grew up surrounded by the mountains of the Sierra Gorda in San Luis de la Paz, Guanajuato, Mexico. Cristel immigrated to the US seven years ago and while culture shock is still challenging to navigate, she doesn’t forget the indigeneity that was stolen from her ancestors during colonization in Mexico and claims, without shame, her Indigeneity. In her work, Cristel centers the stories of rural life in California that is radically transformed as systems of oppression and extraction give way to systems which are life-affirming. As a Community- Driven Strategist with the California Institute for Rural Studies, Cristel is sensitive to many types of knowledge, equitable and reflective of the rich cultural landscapes of rural California.

Dvera Saxton
Fresno, CA occupied, unceded Yokuts lands

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Dvera I. Saxton, Ph.D. is a medical and environmental anthropologist based in the San Joaquin Valley. As a researcher with the California Institute for Rural Studies, she is supporting the COVID-19 farmworker study with qualitative study design and collaborative facilitation. This includes working with community-based organizations and researchers to engage with farmworkers about their lived experiences during the pandemic. This data supports agricultural workers and community based organizations in their efforts to promote systems and policy change. Dvera received her doctorate in anthropology, with an emphasis in race, gender, and social justice, from the American University in Washington, DC. She completed a postdoctoral research fellowship with the Social Science Environmental Health Institute at Northeastern University in Boston, MA and recently became an Atlantic Senior Fellow for Equity in Brain Health with the Global Brain Health Institute, based at UC San Francisco. Her book, The Devil’s Fruit: Farmworkers, Health and Environmental Justice is available from Rutgers University Press, and is based on environmental and health justice activist research she conducted with farmworker communities and their children, grandchildren, and educator allies in the Pájaro and Salinas Valleys in 2010-2013. She is also an associate professor in the anthropology department at Fresno State, where she teaches first generation undergraduate students.

Erika Ramirez-Mayoral
Project Manager
Santa Ana, CA occupied, unceded Tongva, Acjachemen, & Kizch lands

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Erika is CIRS’ Eastern Coachella Valley Project Manager and is currently crafting tools for action from our ECV Household Health Survey. Erika is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Communication at UC San Diego, was raised in California border towns, Mexicali and El Centro, and grew up in Imperial and Coachella Valley on occupied, unceded Kumeyaay and Cahuilla lands . Before coming to CIRS and UC San Diego, she organized alongside young women and parents around education equity and co-founded Raices Girls and Women of Color Network, and Las Nepantleras in Coachella, CA. Her interdisciplinary scholarship and activist work explore the use of oral history and testimonio in social justice circles and community development in rural California.

Li Schmidt
Cal Ag Roots Associate Researcher
Davis, CA occupied, unceded Patwin, Miwko and Waali lands

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Li is the newest member of the Storytelling team at CIRS. As researcher, activist, artist, and farmer that comes from the Asian diaspora, Li also runs a plant nursery that grows East and South Asian heritage foods for the Asian American community that is called Cultural Roots Nursery. She is also actively involved with the California Farmer Justice Collaborative and the Asian American Farmers Alliance, which both work to bring equity to farmers of color.

Amie Frisch
Acting Executive Director
Garden Valley, CA occupied, unceded Niesenan lands

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I’ve been passionate about the food movement since my college days, as a founding member of the Real Food Challenge, then as a co-founder of Veggielution Community Farm in San Jose, CA. Since then I have worked in the tech sector and started my own succulent nursery called Vivid Root. I’m excited to come back home to the food movement and the nonprofit space as part of CIRS, where I’ll be helping to keep the behind the scenes admin stuff running smoothly.

Meet the CIRS Board

Oralia Maceda
Centro Binacional para el Desarollo Indígena Oaxaqueño Fresno, CA

Chris Benner, PhD – Treasurer
UC Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, CA

Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez, PhD
Stanford University
Stanford, CA

J Jordan
Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability
Sacramento, CA

Juan de Lara

Juan De Lara, PhD
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA

Paola Ilescas
Latino Coalition for a Healthy California
North County San Diego, CA

Megan Beaman Jacinto, JDPresident
Beaman Law
Coachella, CA