Erin Sweeney

Andrew Stewart.

Fulbright recipient, Erin Sweeney, transforms her love for farming and food systems into research and takes it to Singapore.

What fellowships or scholarships have you received or applied for?

I received the Fulbright Student Grant for Graduate Study, I will be researching in Singapore. I’m [also] a Western New York Prosperity Fellow, [where] I’m part of a cohort of students that are working towards building economic prosperity and growth in the region through job creation. We’re primarily focused on entrepreneurs and developing new business ideas.

What clubs or activities are you involved in on-campus?

On the student activity level, I’m the vice president of the Graduate Planning Student Association (GPSA). We represent master's and undergraduate students in the department of urban and regional planning. Our role is to make sure the student’s voices are heard but also that there are opportunities for students to meet one another, have social events and also meet professionals and network in the community.

I’m also a graduate assistant in a split position, between the Community for Global Health Equity, which is a Center for Communities of Excellence located at the School of Architecture and Planning. It’s focused on bringing together faculty and students who are interested in global health work. I also work at the Food Systems Planning and Health Communities Lab.

What is your current research focused on?

During my time [at the Food Lab and the Community for Global Health Equity], I’ve had the opportunity to do research on, as an example, the decline of traditional crops in a community in India and the impact of policy on land-use change. As a planner, we’re thinking about how our plans and policies are supporting or undermining food systems as a whole, but specifically, I’ve been focusing on the experience of small holder farmers. [Small farms are] defined really differently around the world, but in my lab, we think about it as farms that are smaller than nine acres. This past January, I was the team lead on a pilot project to go and conduct interviews with small holder farmers in India. I was in a state called “Odisha” and we were piloting an interview tool that looked at a variety of domains that impact farmer’s daily living practices and ultimately, their well-being. We’re trying to get a better understanding of the experience of small-holder farmers and the ways in which policies might influence them.

You mentioned you will be studying in Singapore with your Fulbright scholarship, what will you be researching there?

Singapore is an interesting place because it is a city-state, there is only about five million people on the island. They are also a very young city-state, it only became its own country in 1962. So it’s a really interesting place for those of us interested in urban planning and policy development to see what can happen fairly quickly in a population. Then, because it’s an island and has a pretty concentrated population, Singapore imports more than 90 percent of the food that is required to feed the population. Even though the country itself doesn’t struggle with food insecurity, there’s the question of food resiliency and what would happen if an extreme weather [event] would happen. How would that impact the population? That is the broad picture of why I was interested in Singapore. Also, since I did work in India, I’m interested in going back to Southeast Asia or South Asia. Singapore was a nice fit because it is kind of a microcosm to understand how land-use policy impacts small-holder farmers because the government actually owns all of [the land]. That makes it really interesting to look at farming and food systems.

Have you always been interested in that region?

No, that’s really recent. I was in Singapore for other reasons last July and had the opportunity to meet a couple different scholars that are working there on food resiliency. Through conversations with them and then meeting a farmer that’s a part of a broader farmer cooperative in Singapore, I was really excited and inspired to try and understand ways in which [both] urban agriculture and traditional farming in a rural area are working in a hyper-innovative and hyper-modern situation.

What sparked your interest in food systems?

I am a late-comer in grad school, I graduate with a self-designed [bachelor’s] degree in 2010. I was always interested in food systems, in the sense that I grew up in rural Western New York by a lot of dairy farms and had a lot of friends whose families farmed. I think that gave me an ongoing interest in the ways in which food and farming impact the rest of the community, but also how food can be a lens to look at other issues that the community might be experiencing. After graduation from my undergrad, I managed a community farm for a couple of years and learned how to actually farm. It was a really good learning opportunity and also gives you some legitimacy when you’re talking to farmers … Then I moved to Maine and did some work more regionally, but again, thinking about how to connect small-holder farmers to lower income or under-served communities.

What do you think set your application apart?

I do think it’s important to remember that with Fulbright, there are certain programs or countries that are a lot more popular than others. So, probably the fact that Singapore is a newer program helped. More specifically in my application, going through the process that the Office of Fellowships and Scholarships makes available, really helped me think about how I wanted to prep my application. [Additionally], getting in touch with universities in Singapore early on, who might have wanted to be my host and finding faculty that I would want to work with was really important. My first [application] draft, I took to a couple different people: colleagues of mine, Megan Stewart, Colleen Culleton, the Fulbright coordinator at Canisius College and my own mentor Samina Raja. They all looked at it and took it apart in different ways. I think I owe the success of my application to the number of people who read it and said, “OK, you can make it more interesting this way” or “Definitely don’t go into this much.” But, I tried to make it clear that I had done a lot of research about the issue that I wanted to research and the country itself. I wasn’t guessing about anything, which I think is probably important. The personal statement, everyone kept telling me, “Just go deep and make it as personal as you can.” [You need to] talk about the things that were challenges in your life, as well as the successes because Fulbright expects you to have challenges when you move to another country.

What are your current academic or career goals?

Between [finishing my] undergrad and coming to graduate school, I did spend a lot of time working for small or non-profits. I felt like, at the time, there was a lot that I needed to learn and be taught by the various communities that I worked with. I recognized that the impact I would be able to make in those communities was less simply because it was more of a one-on-one or a smaller scale impact. Whereas, starting to think about influencing policy and plan-making can impact a much broader range. That’s why I became interested in researching policy and how policies are made, then whether or not policies are targeted toward the population that they claim to serve. Because I’ve had this interest in working globally, I’m really excited for the opportunity of the Fulbright, but I’ve also learned that as a researcher and as a person that likes to think about other cultures, it’s really important for me to recognize the limits of my own capacities, as well, because I’m not from that place. Because I’m not Singaporean, I will rely on a lot of the people around me to guide the work that I hope to do. It will be an entirely collaborative process. I do think it’s important for anyone to consider what culture they want to work in. Then to recognize that the culture we are from and most identify with is probably a good place to work because you don’t have to spend a lot of time to really understand the place you’re working in. I look forward to potentially influencing planning and policy-making in Western New York or at least the Northeast part of the U.S. I’d like to work for a broader organization, something like the American Farmland Trust.

Who is your biggest inspiration?

If I had to pick one, I would say my mentor, Samina Raja because of the way she thinks about research. We talk about food systems and planning but we’re not talking about growing lettuce. We’re asking, “Can different communities within a city actually get food that is culturally appropriate and nutritious?” We are also really conscious of our role as researchers and recognizing that we have to learn from the communities that we’re learning. We can’t go in presuming to know, really much of anything and be willing to have a lot of humility throughout the process. The way in which [Samina Raja] runs our lab is really similar. She thinks about the various components of the lab in terms of who’s there, what different groups people represent, and how the knowledge that we have as a collective, fairly diverse group of people, will better inform the work that we do. That said, the entire team that works at the Community for Global Health Equity have been incredibly inspirational. Very much so because they bring a depth of knowledge in global health equity work around the world, and all bring a different disciplinary perspective. It’s forced me to think outside my own “urban planning box.”

What keeps you motivated in your research or career?

My own background and interest in thinking about communities where food and farming is really important to them and how that impacts how the community sees itself, the authenticity of a place. Just really wanting to conduct research that supports a community to really enhance the existing sets of place that they already have. In a lot of ways people see food as the thing that brings people together to eat, to grow it, to prepare it. It also helps disparate groups or folks that might not be talking or split by political divides, start to have some common goals. My hope is that using this lens of food research, might help move forward a greater sense of equity for communities that are seeking to become more self-sufficient.