By Rachael Warecki ’08 Photography by Jacqueline Legazcue
Professor of Politics Nancy Neiman has always been interested in the intersection of wealth and power. “It’s how I define political economy,” she says.
There are various lenses through which to examine this particular intersection, as many of Neiman’s courses—and much of her research—address. In addition to teaching in the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities, she also teaches classes on theories of international political economy, the culture of capitalism, and infrastructures of justice; her areas of expertise range from financial markets in developing countries to the influence of business over public policy and the global food system. But, at the heart of these different approaches remains the same basic question: What happens when a democracy is captured by concentrated wealth?
In Neiman’s expert opinion, the outcome of any concentration of capital—whether that capital is finance or food—is essentially the same. “If you think about the Monsantos and the Cargills of the world,” she notes, referencing two agribusiness behemoths, “their influence over the system is very similar [to that
of large financial corporations].”
Neiman has spent her career examining economic markets and their relationship —or lack thereof—to social justice. Her most recent book, Markets, Community, and Just Infrastructures (Routledge, 2021), is not only a multidisciplinary analysis of community-centered markets, but also a culmination of years of research, community engagement, and advocacy at Scripps College and beyond. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, before receiving her master’s degree in economics and PhD in political science from Yale University.
A member of the Scripps faculty since 1993, she has received numerous honors and recognition from the College as well as the surrounding community, including Scripps’ Mary Wig Johnson Teaching and Community Service awards, the Claremont College Presidents’ Sustainability grant, and the Sustainable Claremont Community Partnership Award.
When Neiman first started teaching, her courses focused on political finance “because that was the place where I felt the concentration of wealth really affected influence over policy and the political system,” she explains. However, she realized that she wanted her students to simultaneously become involved in organizing, advocacy, and activism beyond the classroom—an involvement that was hard to include in the realm of finance-related courses. “I really wanted students to be able to do grounded community engagement projects, to be involved in issues of economic and social justice,” she says.
It’s all about building community and organizing capacity in order to build a more just system.
So Neiman shifted her course focus from finance to food. Her classes now include a co-requisite, half-course credit internship that requires students to conduct four to five hours each week of community engagement. Students can opt to work with one of seven local organizations that are addressing environmental and economic justice issues in marginalized communities, such as Buena Vista Community Garden in the city of Pomona; Huerta del Valle, a community garden and urban farm in Ontario; and Uncommon Good, an urban agriculture nonprofit in Claremont.
“I’ve chosen community engagement projects that are not just about food justice, but ones that are particularly about community organizing, about leveraging what we might call ‘social capital’ into political action,” Neiman says. “It’s gardening, but it’s also working with the community in various ways.”
Community is at the heart of Neiman’s view of leadership. When reflecting on her sources of inspiration, she notes that, while there are “many dynamic people with organizing and leadership skills, it’s movements I would name, rather than individual people.” In particular, she views global food sovereignty movements—such as the Maldhari Rural Action Group, a grassroots organization based in Gujarat, India,and La Via Campesina, which
supports rural farmers and Indigenous communities across Asia, Africa, America, and Europe—as vibrant, transnational exemplars of organizing for food justice and land rights.
Although these movements are located in different regions around the world, Neiman explains, they are tied together through issues of access to common land for the purpose of growing food that is sustainable for the local community, and they push back against corporate land purchases made for the purpose of growing food for export. In the United States, Neiman also admires the Restaurant Opportunity Center, Fight for 15, and Black Lives Matter, all movements that have advocated for living wages for restaurant and food service workers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the next two years, Neiman will continue her research into food sovereignty movements as a recipient of the Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Fellowship, funded by the Department of State’s United States-India Educational Foundation. Neiman plans to travel to Gujarat, India, where she will conduct and present research at Ahmedabad University. Her project will track key coping strategies practiced by Gujarati pastoralist communities during the COVID-19 pandemic to determine how pastoralist identities in the region support—and are supported by—a broader transformational food sovereignty movement.
“For me, the heroes of the movement are organizations and campaigns for economic and environmental justice,” she says.
Scripps students have created and participated in several such movements over the years, including the Drop Sodexo campaign, which advocated for the College to switch its dining services provider due to Sodexo’s partnerships with private prisons and other correctional facilities. Several of that movement’s leaders, Neiman notes, came out of her food politics course.
The heroes of the movement are organizations and campaigns for economic and environmental justice.
Neiman has also been involved with the College’s Olive Harvest since a student first proposed the creation of more sustainability programs at Scripps in her Core II class on the politics of culture and food. In fact, the continued existence of the College’s olive trees near the Bette Cree Edwards Humanities Building is itself a tribute to student organizing: When the decision was made in the late 1960s to construct the Humanities Building on its current site, students protested until a compromise was reached and 60 olive trees were preserved for replanting in the building’s courtyard.
More than 50 years later, Scripps regularly invites Claremont Colleges students, faculty, staff, and local community members to participate in the College’s biennial Olive Harvest. When the event returned to campus in fall 2021, more than 200 participants—including Neiman—harvested approximately 700 pounds of olives. The bounty was then transported to a miller who pressed them to extract the olive oil. Proceeds from olive oil sales went to the College’s sustainability fund, to which students can apply to support sustainability projects on campus.
“We have this incredible resource that would otherwise go to waste,” Neiman says of the event. “[The harvest] brings attention to the fact that these are not just decorative trees, but trees that can produce something of value, which we can use to make something communally.”
In April, Scripps hosted the College’s 10th annual Sustainability Fair, featuring yet another shared campus resource: fruit. Neiman collaborated with Kendall Lowery ’22, an intern with the College’s sustainability team, to harvest oranges, lemons, kumquats, and other fruits from the campus. Neiman and Lowery then led small groups of students in marmalade-making at the fair’s first-ever fruit jam booth. Despite the health and safety precautions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fair—and the fruit jam—provided students with an opportunity to come together while learning about creating a more sustainable future.
“The primary thing is building community,” Neiman reiterates. “Whether you’re doing community gardening off campus or some initiative on campus, it’s all about building community and organizing capacity in order to build a more just system.”