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Olivia Smith: Changing the Way We Look at Food Systems and the Environment

As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, Olivia Smith recognized the value of an interdisciplinary education. While majoring in economics with minors in math and French, Smith took courses across the expansive liberal arts spectrum. But her window into the world of climate advocacy and research, she said, came from engaging directly in campus activism: “It really put me on this thread of what it means to enact social change.”

After working on campus food sovereignty campaigns and then for Frances Moore Lappé assisting with researching and fact-checking her work on sustainable food systems, Smith decided her next step would be a graduate degree at Columbia Climate School’s Climate and Society program.

“I knew that I wanted to pursue more education because I’d really only scratched the surface of my interests by the time I was graduating from college. And I found myself really valuing the interdisciplinary approach that this degree takes. I wanted to fully immerse myself in that,” she said.

A young woman sits on a bench in her graduation gown in front of a column
Olivia Smith will graduate from the M.A. in Climate and Society program this summer. Photo courtesy of Olivia Smith.

In the Q&A below, Smith discusses her goal of changing public understanding around the interconnectedness of food, land, power, and the environment; what she’s learned from the Climate and Society program; and the advice she’ll carry with her to her next opportunity.

While Climate and Society students like Smith will celebrate Commencement and Class Day this May, they will participate in a variety of exciting summer internships before officially completing the program in August.

Can you talk a little bit about how you became interested in climate work?

In undergrad, I was at a very liberal arts–oriented school and I took a lot of courses in history, sociology, and environmental studies. I also engaged in a lot of campus activism for social change, though less related to climate.

After college, I took some time off during COVID and I worked for Frances Moore Lappé, whose work focuses on sustainable food systems and how we in America specifically can work to fight the climate crisis by simply rethinking the way we eat and thinking about the food system more broadly. She’s been writing about food systems for a public audience since 1970, so for me, she is a larger reflection of what the food environment movement is like.

My window into the world of climate was mostly through social change, thinking about food and the environment, land and power. That’s kind of then been projected on to my economics degree and thinking about the ways the field of economics and established theories of value for our society really leave out the environment and leave out popular power. That led me to think about the climate and the ways that those values are changing under our feet.

What have been the biggest takeaways for you during your time in the Climate and Society program?

My background is in social sciences, but I really wanted to dip my toe more into the harder sciences with this program. I took graduate-level climate physics, and I learned more statistical theory and analysis. I’m also learning a lot about spatial data, which I think is key to working with climate data and environmental data, especially when it comes to justice, because it is all about access and being aware of your place in a larger system.

I’m also happy that I’ve been able to take a course on the history of the climate crisis. I’ve been able to learn more about policy. I also took a course on race, climate change, and environmental justice that has culminated in a hands-on community engagement project with a group in New Orleans that’s working to revitalize a historically Black beach that’s been closed for about 50 years. Now the beach is undergoing community-based projects to revitalize and reopen the beach to the larger public. We did a lot of soil sampling, water sampling, and testing, but also a lot of community engagement and community building. And that’s all thanks to the instructor and the course’s deep interest in merging the methodologies in science and in the social sciences, and really questioning systems that view science as the only dictator of decision-making. It’s about saying all these systems work together in this interlocking and informative way that’s not just taking the science as fact always and not deconstructing its larger social paradigms.

How has the program aligned with some of your broader goals for the future?

My goals are always shifting and I think that this program has really embraced that but also given me the foundation and the climate language, literature, and research that I want to use to talk about climate and food systems, specifically in urban areas and how the climate is going to stress and change and shape them. So I’d love to get my foot in the door with advocacy and policy, as well as research. I’m interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in geography or a related social science field to hopefully influence policy and the way people think about how food and power and lands are interconnected with the environment.

This year or so far, these two semesters have given me the ability to further question and be exposed to different histories, ideas, research methodologies, and findings that are in the works. I know it’s kind of vague, but I think I’m policy-oriented in a way that’s not just about communicating science to policymakers, but that’s about using science and people power to inform theories of change.

Have you received any advice during your education that has stuck with you?

The best advice I’ve received for educational life is to be a sponge and to always look for places where you can learn more and also take initiative. People aren’t going to always be the ones reaching out to you. You might have to reach out to them. And that really has manifested toward asking for help and guidance and just being very honest with people and saying, ‘I’m feeling a little lost in X, Y, Z. I would really appreciate your help, your insight. What would you do in my position?’ Being willing to have conversations that might leave you feeling more overwhelmed than you did going into them and being willing to always recognize that you’re still learning and you’ll never not be learning.

Latch onto the things that you’re getting value and meaning out of and feel free to let go of the things that are not serving you. If there are things that are missing, make them for yourself. I found that there was a lack of very specific food-systems curricula available to me, so I managed to build a cohort of people within the program where we used an old ecology, evolution, and biology syllabus on food, globalization, and the environment to create a separate reading group that lasted all semester. It’s not the same as a class, but it’s something that has led us to continue our personal interests and working practice within a specific sector that we care about. So be willing to take the extra step if you can. It doesn’t have to be formal in any way. It just needs to be something that you find meaning in.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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