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Fellowship to Carry On Vision of Advancing Food Justice in Syracuse
Jonnell Robinson never had to go very far to find Evan Weissman. They were colleagues, confidants and next-door neighbors, and all Robinson had to do was call for Weissman over her backyard fence.
When it came time for the heart-wrenching decision to replace Weissman as the 2020-22 Lender Center for Social Justice Faculty Fellow, the Lender Center didn’t have to look very far, either.
Weissman, associate professor of food studies and nutrition in the Falk College, died unexpectedly April 9. Shortly before he passed, Weissman was awarded the Lender Faculty Fellowship; he wanted to examine if the food systems in Syracuse were meeting the needs of the community, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In collaboration and consultation with the Falk College and local food system representatives, the Lender Center chose Robinson to carry on the fellowship in Weissman’s name. By selecting Robinson, associate professor of geography and the environment in the Maxwell School, the Lender Center ensured that the fellowship will be a testament to Weissman’s passion for advancing food justice in Syracuse.
“Jonnell embodies the spirit of Evan’s colleagues rallying to keep his project and dream and all of the work he had done alive, even though he has left us,” says Kendall Phillips, co-director of the Lender Center and professor of communication and rhetorical studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “Like Evan, Jonnell has a longstanding relationship with the community, which was important, and it was clear she was open to interdisciplinary collaboration and finding new ways to approach this problem.”
Lender Center Co-Director Marcelle Haddix, Dean’s Professor in the School of Education, says Robinson was “an automatic choice” to assume the fellowship.
“You want people in the fellowship who believe in the scholarship and action they described in the application,” Haddix says. “This was Evan’s life work, so I think out of such a negative and sad situation it is reassuring to see Jonnell and a number of people come together to carry out his work in the way that honors the integrity and vision of what he proposed.”
Over the years, Robinson says she and Weissman had many conversations about the importance of conducting research that made a difference in the lives of community members.
“I’m honored to carry out this fellowship in Evan’s memory,” Robinson says. “Evan’s contributions to the everyday practices and academic scholarship of food justice are profound. The Lender Faculty Fellowship will enable a passionate team of SU students and faculty to realize Evan’s vision of strengthened local food policies and grassroots efforts.”
This is the second Lender Faculty Fellowship. Casarae Lavada Abdul-Ghani, assistant professor of African American studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, is the 2019-21 inaugural Faculty Fellow. Her project, “The Social Justice #Hashtag Project: A Digital Humanities Study,” examines social media as a methodology to uncover social justice trends that challenge global citizens to tackle explicit and implicit racial and gendered biases.
The two-year timetable of these fellowships, Phillips says, is to allow for the Faculty Fellow and Student Fellows to spend a year identifying a problem and the next year trying to fix it. Led by Robinson, Weissman’s fellowship will focus on creating a local food system that prioritizes access, sustainability and resiliency.
The student fellowship is open to any Syracuse University undergraduate or graduate student who can commit to the two-year project. Robinson says the student Fellows will work alongside members of the newly created Syracuse Onondaga Food System Alliance (SOFSA) to engage in research, community engagement and reflection with the goal of building a local food council oriented toward social justice.
For students who are interested in becoming a Fellow, or faculty and staff who know students who are passionate about food and social justice, more information is available on the Lender Center Fellowship application page.
“We’re very excited to involve students across disciplines who want to learn more about food systems and community engagement and can bring their interdisciplinary insights into those food insecurity issues,” Haddix says.
Anne Bellows, professor of food studies in the Falk College, played an integral role in the selection of Robinson to carry on Weissman’s vision of the fellowship. Bellows says Robinson was the ideal choice because of her ability to involve students in her many community projects.
“Jonnell is really special,” Bellows says. “She’s special because she worked at the community level to start the urban agriculture society group, and she has worked with a number of people in terms of food insecurity and different kinds of emergency feeding systems.”
Bellows says Weissman was “unfailingly kind” and supportive of his students. She remembers how Weissman invited several of his students to a public policy webinar hosted by Syracuse Grows, an urban agriculture and community gardening group, because he wanted the students to have a place at the table and a voice in the discussion.
Alongside University and community partners, Weissman and Robinson co-founded Syracuse Grows, and Robinson remains a member of its advisory board (Weissman was also an advisory board member). Weissman, a Syracuse native who attended Nottingham High School, was also involved with the Syracuse Hunger Project when Robinson moved to Syracuse in 2005. Robinson joined that group, and they hit it off instantly.
Their families became close, and Robinson said her family was thrilled when the house next to the Weissmans became available so they could buy it and become neighbors with Evan and his wife, Erin. Robinson says she misses talking to Weissman on campus, at food system meetings and over the fence, and the best way she can honor Weissman’s memory and those conversations is to support the community through the fellowship.
“Evan played such a huge role in my personal and professional lives. It is still hard to believe he’s gone,” Robinson says. “Not a day went by where I didn’t have a conversation with Evan, and a lot of those conversations were how important it was to do research that had an impact and made a difference in the community where we live.”