Chris Murakami; Research Consultant University of Missouri; Assessment Resource Center

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The National Wildlife Federation EcoLeaders Career Center is celebrating the motivating stories and career accomplishments of young professionals making their names (and a difference) in the sustainability movement. We’re calling this group of change-makers and rising stars “The EcoLeaders Top 50 Inspirations.”

Interviewee: Chris Murakami
Research Consultant
University of Missouri; Assessment Resource Center

Interviewer: David Corsar, NWF

Chris is a Research Consultant at the University of Missouri, where he works in the Assessment Resource Center. As a 2010-2011 NWF Fellow, Chris focused on creating a Community Garden for Mizzou to provide a “living lab” for students learn about methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from local food production and other sustainable habits and understanding.

David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as a Fellow help shape your career?
Chris Murakami:
I think that it was a really important start to the work that I’ve done since – not just in early childhood and agroecology education – but also in terms of community development and scholarship and engaging collaborators and working with teams to focus on pressing environmental issues through local action.

DC: What was the top thing that you learned in your professional skill that you learned as a part of that experience?
CM: I’d say facilitating meetings with a variety of stakeholders and figuring out how to take action on a larger project - taking that big problem and breaking it down into smaller, actionable items with a large group of people who come from different institutional roles and roles within the community and figuring out how to organize and manage and actively participate.

DC: What are you up to these days? What is your role at the University of Missouri and why did you choose to work there?
I work at the Assessment Resource Center, which is an external unit of the College of Education at the University of Missouri. The most direct reason why I’m here is that I want to pursue a faculty position here. My wife is in medicine at the University of Missouri in a residency, so for me, it’s kind of functioning like a post doc position, and my research is focused on evaluation and assessment research.

Most of what I do day-to-day isn’t directly related to my core passions in sustainability and agroecology. However, that being said, I’ve been able to work on various projects that I’m passionate about and can inject those passions into my work and those projects.

DC: Could you describe one or two of those projects?
One of the most directly related projects was a World Bank-funded project in which they contracted with the University of Missouri to develop a master’s program in food security that would be taught at Lomonosov Moscow State University. I worked with a faculty member at MU who’s a professor in rural sociology and we developed two courses – one on sustainable agriculture and development and another on comparative food systems.

DC: What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability?
To put it simply, it’s engaging people in the challenging work of making progress towards a more sustainable civilization. This idea of how we encourage people to be actively engaged in something like their food system. What does that active engagement even look like? The fact is that issues like climate change or access to fresh water or global access to healthy foods are really complex issues that are arguably insolvable but incredibly important to our current existence and our future resilience. So, we have to be engaged in those things, and our engagement needs to be in a mindful way that is thinking not only short-term but also long-term for managing natural resources and achieving social justice and financial viability.

DC: What motivated you to begin this path?
Initially in undergrad, I wanted to go into medicine like I think a lot of young people do that have aptitudes in science and math, but that changed with a couple experiences I had as a sophomore. I canvassed for a California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG), and I worked with campaigns for the National Wildlife Federation and other conservation and sustainability related organizations. That really piqued my interest in some of the pressing challenges that we face, and I started to think about how I could use my experience and understanding in science to make progress on some of those issues. At the same time, I became interested in human anthropology and culture and things that play an important role in terms of how we are going to continually change to deal with environmental realities and scarcity and things like that. So, I also became really interested in education and learning.

After I finished my undergrad degree, I taught 8th grade science with Teach for America for three years and reorganized my curriculum to focus on sustainability issues in service of teaching the physical science content. I was going to be in front of a class full of teenagers and had to come up with some convincing reasons for why students need to learn about science. Sustainability issues are a compelling way to convince students they need to be more scientifically literate and to engage learners in those difficult but important concepts.

Similarly, I felt that food and agriculture is a really important place to start when thinking about sustainability issues. It took a long time, wrestling with what I could do individually and what kind of impact I could have on things like climate change. Like a lot of young people, I was very intentional about biking as much as I could and using alternative forms of transportation. There are a bunch of things that I did to reduce my impact and model that for my students – that it is a normal thing to be concerned about our individual and collective environmental impacts.

When I pursued my masters in science education, I had the opportunity to be able to focus on how people learn from their experiences with food and how that is associated with some of the transformation that’s needed in our food systems, so that we can continue to work in the direction of sustainability and social justice.

DC: Who are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainable food and agriculture sector or in the larger sustainability movement?
Michael Pollan – it’s typical, but he really opened my eyes to the connection we have to our food systems through the environment and how that’s connected to politics and things like that. Mark Winne has worked a lot in the area of food access; he wrote Closing the Food Gap, and that really opened my eyes to the problem of access to food and how difficult it is for folks – even in the U.S. – and how complicated food access issues are to address. Despite the dominant narrative about how we need to produce more food, there is also a considerable and perhaps more important gap in terms of food access. Wendell Berry – there’s some things I don’t necessarily agree with him on, but his focus on the deep knowledge of agroecological landscapes became really inspiring for me.

DC: Have you had any mentors or career coaches assist you in developing your career path?
My dissertation adviser, Marcelle Siegel, she has a background in biochemistry and science education. She focuses on assessments and instructional decision making and how the way that we assess learning influences the type of learning that occurs then thinking about how to make those assessments more equitable for all learners. Applied to the realm of sustainability and sustainable agriculture, it becomes really important because the vision is not for sustainability to be this elitist movement but to figure out how to be inclusive and attend to the social dimensions of learning and social justice dimensions of sustainability.
I think it’s not typical for a dissertation advisor to give as much autonomy as Marcelle did. Her work has focused on the ways that you can support learners so that they can figure out who they want to become. There’s all these different possibilities of becoming that are sometimes missed because instructors or people who are in positions of leadership are more interested in controlling rather than enabling. There’s obviously balance in that; you need to be able to say, “no you can’t say what you just said” or whether it’s right to push back and challenge, but I think fundamentally learners need more autonomy and flexibility to explore possible ways of being. Marcelle is great at this.
Also, Mary Hendrickson is a faculty member that I work really closely with and is a strong mentor. Her background is in rural sociology, and she studies the consolidation of the food system and some of the vulnerabilities that that creates for us as a society and some of the powers embedded in these institutions. She inspires me to think about how to navigate and negotiate and pragmatically make progress within institutions that don’t necessarily hold similar values. Her work in local food systems emphasized the importance of relationships and networking in order to provide competitive advantages for growers – which speaks to some of the deficiencies of industrial multinational food systems and opens up opportunities for engagement and democratization of food systems.

DC: What would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability either in food and agriculture or in general?
Some of this emerged from the work that I did with the National Wildlife Federation Campus Ecology Fellowship, where, as students, you come with a certain understanding and definition of what sustainability is. We’re at a time where everybody will talk about sustainability but they’ll mean something completely different, and some of that might be generational; some of that might be individual or a contextual basis, but it’s important to figure out what you really mean by sustainability – where your position is in that matrix of sustainability and knowing that it matters significantly in how you are positioned.

It’s also the balance of figuring out who you are and knowing that in certain circumstances you might need to figure out how to form relationships instead of burning them down. I think in a lot of cases, it’s easy to be the environmental activist who creates more enemies or divisions than allies or relationships. So finding those commonalities and those things that bring people together in pursuit of sustainability rather than being polarizers is important, though it’s a really difficult thing to do.

Food & Agriculture

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Date Added: May 15, 2017
Date Last Modified: May 15, 2017