Christine Caruso is the Schumann Institute of the Bailey College of the Environment’s newest assistant professor of the practice. Her area of specialization explores food systems, specifically in urban centers, and how equity and environmental justice factors play a role in health outcomes. She is interested in community-focused initiatives, and is eager to hear from students. This semester, she’s teaching Environmental Justice and Health Equity and a section of the ENVS senior colloquium. I had the opportunity to speak with Professor Caruso about her work and her new position!
I would love to hear a bit about your background. Where are you from, and how did you find your interest in studying the environment?
I am from Connecticut, so I am local and rooted here. I was born in Virginia but left at the age of three months and moved abroad with my family. I spent the first few years of my life abroad and then settled here in Connecticut when I was around four. A lot of my life and identity is around this area, but with a broader international context. My parents are intercultural and from different regions of the world, which has also influenced me.
I received my education and lived in New York City and Boston, focusing on urban environments in the Northeast. When I started studying the environment, it was through my interest in public health and food. As an undergraduate, I majored in psychology, and was interested in social and behavioral issues, understanding what makes people tick. I have always been interested in place-based issues, before I realized that that was environmental thinking.
I went on to eventually get a master’s in Public Health and Community Health and examined how place impacts people in a variety of ways, focusing on health outcomes. I studied the physical and social environment and social determinants of health. I had a budding interest in food at that time and a real interest in how mental health is influenced by the environment.
I then pursued a PhD in environmental psychology. Environmental psychology is a research subfield of psychology that studies the interactions of people and their environment; specifically, how people shape their environments in ways like design, architecture, urban planning, as well as small street level ways that people shape it, like wearing a desire line through the grass. This really deepened my interest in the food environment. I concentrated in Urban Food Systems, looking at the way in which food is distributed in the environment, focusing on equity.
While living in Boston and New York City, did you study food systems in those specific cities?
I did look a little bit at Urban Gardens in Boston, but looked more holistically at the food system in New York. My dissertation really looked at the food environment, specifically in the largest public housing development in North America, which is located in Queens, New York. I studied the population dynamics with the physical environment and the distribution of food, as well as the strategies that these very marginalized folks would utilize in order to access food for themselves given the different structural challenges that they faced. I also worked a little bit with the New York Department of Mental Health and Hygiene to map the food environment at that time.
Do you have any advice for Wesleyan students who are interested in studying the environment, who may also be interested in pursuing phD programs? Is there anything that made you feel certain that you wanted to pursue a PhD?
I think in the end it was the level of research that I was drawn to required doctoral training. The kinds of questions I was drawn toward answering were in a unique area. I wanted professional experience and research in academic settings and community settings.
I’m very community engaged in my work. I have worked for some nonprofits and was an AmeriCorps volunteer at one point as well. All of those elements informed my trajectory and cultivated my interest in looking at food environments and food security and impacts on health equity. However, a lot of the questions that I came across had a field research element that felt very top down, investigator driven, from the perspective of the academic and the institution. I am very interested in community voices and stakeholders. I wanted to develop the skill set to work in partnership to look at the questions I had a sense were trickling up from the community. I wanted to engage people more directly in what those questions might be, and to help provide resources to folks in a way to look at those questions systematically.
So, for me, it was about finding a way to deepen my practice because I believe there’s a lot of performance surrounding amplifying community voice, but often people aren’t truly committed to it because it is complex and resource intensive, or because they lack a full understanding of what it entails. They still conduct research on the community rather than with them. So, I was trying to carve a trajectory that was consonant with my values, still focusing on the questions I had at that time.
Have you considered what community engagement could look like on Wesleyan’s campus? Are you interested in conducting research here and engaging with the student and Middletown communities?
I’m still exploring the Wesleyan community and am eager to connect with students. I think we can come together around a shared desire for equity and concern for food access and the environment. I recognize that my role grows from a larger initiative in food security and environmental justice through the Schumann Institute of the Bailey College of the Environment, and I am grateful to the folks that have been cultivating this work.
While I have a general sense of the interests involved, my first step is talking to folks. I’ve heard from faculty and some staff members, but I haven’t talked to enough students. I want to know what students want to learn about so I can facilitate their learning in the areas I have a background in.
What are some strategies for community engagement?
I’ve been thinking a lot about how folks show up in the campus community and the broader community. I want to learn about the initiatives, social movements, and coalitions that are already in existence that are waiting to be brought into the world with more support and resources.
I have been deeply involved in the capital region, which overlaps with and is adjacent to Middletown. Much of my work is focused in the Hartford Capital region and is policy oriented, working with state-level coalitions on various issues.
I also have been really thinking about civic work through direct democracy practices and initiatives. One area I have been involved in for nearly a decade is participatory budgeting. This movement originated in Brazil in the late 1980s and has spread across the world. Participatory budgeting involves transferring decision-making power from the government to community members directly, through accessing budget decisions. In Hartford, there is a mechanism for participatory budgeting, where a portion of the budget is set aside in a nonprofit organization called Hartford Decides. I was previously a board member, supporting community members coming together to identify priority projects to use this fiscal budget component for.
I have also engaged in this work in New York City. Typically, the budget allocation in participatory budgeting is focused on capital projects, involving the construction or transformation of existing structures. I think it is fascinating to watch to see how community members engage in this process and consider ways to directly access public funds to shape their environment. They can utilize these funds to plant trees, improve lighting, create new spaces, or enhance existing ones that may have been left behind due to systematic disinvestment, often rooted in structural racism or other factors. It’s really interesting to see the potential for this in towns like Middletown that have a variety of stakeholders and voices. There is also a capacity for PB processes institutionally, where university funds could potentially be set aside for stakeholders to decide what to do with them.
Was there anything that drew you to Wesleyan specifically?
I’ve been aware of Wesleyan for a long time. I have some dear friends who have been here, and I grew up on the Connecticut shoreline. I think that there is a desire and opportunity to leverage the resources here in ways that seem very genuine. It seems grounded in the culture of Wesleyan that there is real intentionality and passion that I see are around a variety of equity issues. The type of transformation that I am passionate about, that I think that our community and our world wants and needs, requires real dedication. It is a herculean effort and it feels like Wesleyan is truly invested. The students that are attracted to the institution seem motivated toward this transformation.
Is there anything that you are most looking forward to in this upcoming year?
For me, it’s being part of a community where shared values and energy are focused on advancing a broad agenda for the environment, justice, and equity. I am looking forward to the opportunities for learning and relationship building. I feel like I am entering an established community, although I recognize that there is a lot of reconfiguring and strategic planning needed as we emerge from the challenges of the pandemic.
Being a newcomer in this period of flux is quite exciting. There is a strong desire to redirect resources and invest in growth, health, and well-being. It’s a fertile moment to cultivate these ideas. With my role in particular, regarding food security and environmental justice, I feel that it is so ideally suited for me because it is in areas I am deeply passionate about and have worked in for decades. I look forward to finding fellowship, collegiality, and opportunities to mentor, support, and engage with others who share concerns for the issues that I feel are critical to our present and future.
Is there anything you would like to share, that you have not yet had the opportunity to speak on?
I want to learn how I can be of service to the institution and community, putting the students first. I am passionate about this nexus of food and the environment. Food brings the environment into our bodies, and we need to comprehend the importance of maintaining the environment in order to ensure the stability of this incredible health resource. Recognizing the environment’s critical role, we can address issues of health, equity, and environment together.
It seems like a crucial moment for Wesleyan to cultivate this understanding, considering the challenges posed by the pandemic, social and political polarization, and the climate crisis. I am curious to see where this journey can go. I am looking forward to getting to know staff, faculty, and students. I want to hear from students about what they want to learn about within this intersection of food and environment, and hear what they are passionate about.
Professor Caruso can be reached at email@example.com.