Anna-Liisa Aunio’s research over the past several years focuses on understanding the sociological drivers of environmental issues, particularly in relation to climate change and food systems. She is currently the Principal Investigator for the Food Justice and Sustainability project at Dawson, which focuses on mapping the food system for Montreal’s 33 boroughs, building and carrying out community food organizations needs and assets assessments for five neighborhoods, and hosting dialogues to support collaborative research and action to guide food policy in Montreal.
Interviewed by Ingrid Bejerman
1. You have a very impressive and diverse background. When did you first (personally) become interested in environmental issues? And how do environmental issues inform your work as a sociologist, or vice-versa?
I became interested in environmental issues as an adolescent, which was a bit strange in Sayreville, NJ. Sayreville is DuPont town and had a Hercules (ammunition) plant when I was growing up there; it was a working class town with a World War II legacy (as DuPont and Hercules produced munitions for the military at the time and most people who went to high school would move on to work in the plants). The high school is called Sayreville War Memorial High School and our football team is the called the Sayreville Bombers.
Needless to say, it was not necessarily what comes to mind as a milieu for a nascent environmentalist. But I became (much to my parent’s chagrin) a vegetarian at 13 because I thought it would help the rainforests in the Amazon. That was my first step towards a more thorough and now quite long investment in environmental issues personally.
I didn’t start working on these issues professionally, however, until starting my PhD at McGill in 2002. I wrote my dissertation on NGO engagement in the UNFCCC and attended the first international negotiations in 2005 when they were held in Montreal (which, incidentally, was also during which the first international climate protest took place). After completing my PhD, I started working on food issues and food justice as an extension of this work in my teaching. Food became a way to bring climate change ‘home’, integrating teaching, research, and my personal life in gardening.
2. As Principal Investigator for the Food Justice and Sustainability project at Dawson, you are in charge of high-level research and also very practical, hands-on activities. Can you tell us a little bit more about your work in this capacity? And your most memorable accomplishments?
The most memorable transformation and accomplishment is probably what first bridged my climate change work to teaching: founding the rooftop gardens project at Dawson. It is now part of the overall sustainability plan at the college, is managed by Sustainable Dawson, and serves as a teaching and learning space for countless courses throughout the year. It also produces a good harvest that we donate and sell at affordable prices to the Dawson Community.
The FJS project was the next step out from the college into the community. In one course, students participated in EcoHack, where we responded to the call from a community organization to map food assets in Montreal; at the time, they didn’t know what other services and projects were in their neighborhood and wanted to better coordinate as well as avoid duplicating food aid.
I think what I love most about the move from climate change politics to food justice is that it brought together two of my long-held commitments: environmental issues and social justice. I had always cared for both personally, but in my professional life they were quite segmented in terms of experience. Before I started my PhD, I worked in Baltimore on social justice and educational issues and, specifically, dropout prevention as well as youth policy broadly. I wrote my master’s thesis on the teen parent requirements in welfare reform in the U.S. So, in that life, I was implicated in thinking and working on social justice issues in those systems. When I moved into my PhD, climate justice was ‘on the menu’, but not part of the interorganizational work on policy. But food brings both of these commitments together in very meaningful and practical ways: that is, access to fresh, healthy, affordable and sustainable food is both an issue of the environment and an issue of social justice.
3. You’ve cited Michael Pollan’s book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” as one of the readings you tackle in your Sociology of Food course at Dawson. Can you tell us more about this and/or other literature you find ‘works’ with your students?
I teach using a variety of texts and engage them in debates on the same. Some that I tried initially and continue to ‘work’ include the debate between locavores and globavores, which has coincidentally taken on new meaning in COVID-19, and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But I also think it’s important to place these in the context of urban environments (in fact, my ‘movement’ towards food justice has also involved a movement towards teaching and learning about urban sustainability broadly). So I assign Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and we talk and walk Frederick Law Olmsted‘s ideas.
4. You have lived in many cities and travelled extensively. What does being a Montrealer mean to you?
Being a Montrealer means living in and appreciating my neighborhood, walking the mountain, and surviving the weather.
Other recent media appearances and articles: