“It was during this process of sharing and analyzing that I became acutely aware of the need to strengthen my approach to activist-scholarship to better embody my political commitments to (food) justice by appreciating the mistakes I make, and, more importantly, owning up to them and learning from them.”
In the fall of 2018, Syracuse University Food Studies Professor Evan Weissman published an article about a photovoice project on the perspectives of at-risk youths of color on food injustice.
Unlike typical articles, however, the one he published did not mention rigorous research methods, survey data, or IRB permissions.
Instead, the article was a striking examination of missteps and privilege within activist-scholarship.
Weissman wrote candidly of an experience presenting his research to colleagues: “After the presentation, I cried. I cried not because I was relieved the presentation was over, but because I had been so naïve, so careless, so fucking stupid . . . so unbearably white.”
“My efforts to intervene in tone-deaf approaches to food justice were themselves reproducing the sorts of work I intended to critique.”
Though reflexivity is common practice in social science scholarship, such humility, raw honesty and candid expression exactly characterized Evan Weissman.
As Evan’s former graduate students, we feel compelled to share his unique approach to advising and pedagogy as lessons for others engaged in activist-scholarship and as people who may one day teach and advise students ourselves.
Evan brought with him every day an enthusiasm, compassion and genuine engagement with his students that was unmatched by others within academia. He inspired people new to the field and veteran food service workers alike to look at food in a new way – exposing food inequities as interrelated to other social problems, and as functions of the political economy.
Class with Evan had it all: one moment we were in the throes of a discussion on the foundations of capitalism and the Agrarian Question; the next we debated which pizza place had the best veggie supreme (and you can bet that Evan facilitated a taste-test at the start of the next class to determine the winner).
Anyone who knew Evan could tell you he never did anything halfway. From advising you through career path uncertainties over fried cheese curds, to buying you a whiskey after your thesis defense, to taking the neighborhood gaggle of his kids’ friends to the ice-skating rink – Evan was fully present in every interaction. In his academic and work life, this attentiveness translated not only to serving as an outstanding academic advisor – willing to help with just about anything – but also to having the humility as a researcher to deeply reflect on times his work may have perpetuated the very ideals he intended to critique.
We believe Evan’s humility, compassion for his students, and genuine regard for research that was truly community-engaged, are legacies that will continue to guide the food studies students, scholars, and others who were privileged to know him.
Evan advised novice food studies scholars with authentic concern for their future success and personal well-being. He made it his mission to compassionately yet honestly advise students in the context of their life circumstances. The first question he asked when you sat down in his office was, “How are you, really?” He remembered every detail you’d told him before – partners’ names, hometowns, hobbies. Evan was the rock that kept students motivated to show up to class when it didn’t seem possible: through heartbreak, financial distress, or deaths of family members, Evan went to great lengths to use every resource available to help many graduate students stay afloat during difficult times.
Evan’s inclusiveness and ingenuity can be seen in several new initiatives he introduced. Notably, Evan built the Syracuse food studies program with his colleagues from the ground-up not long after he had graduated with his PhD in Geography from Syracuse University in 2012.
Evan developed many novel food studies courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. As part of his curriculum, he invested significant time connecting his students with collaborative projects at local farms, community gardens, and food policy councils, guiding them to understand that writing about food inequality from the ivory tower does little to dismantle unjust systems if it does not also engage in politics of justice from within the community.
Evan was not only an exceptional teacher, but a lifelong learner who carefully and consistently re-evaluated the positionality and privilege with which he moved through the world. This is exemplified in the final sentence of the article, in which he writes:
“Those of us committed to (food) justice – especially folks such as myself who enjoy traditional privileges – need to better understand our shortcomings. We must all be willing to make mistakes in the pursuit of justice for the struggle entails nothing less. It is important that we accept this and then work to do better.”
We believe Evan’s humility cultivated a powerful compassion for humanity. With Evan, one could be fully seen, heard, and accepted without judgement; largely, because he understood his own humanness, and confronted his own limitations and weaknesses without defensiveness. The commitment to food justice and unique approach to reflexive research Evan fostered within us will carry on through our studies and practice, and we wish we could thank him for that.
– Former Graduate Students of Evan Weissman in Food Studies at Syracuse University