American University professor connecting research to the community

Garrett Graddy-Lovelace, a researcher and teacher at American University, sits at her desk in her office on April 9. She has conducted research on agricultural biodiversity to benefit agrarian societies around the world. (Photo by Justin Wise)

By Justin Wise

WASHINGTON – When she finished her undergraduate degree 19-years-ago, Garrett Graddy-Lovelace attempted to go back to her family’s farm to make a living. But due to the struggles that farmers face, she decided that she was no longer going to farm.

Instead, she realized her true calling: conducting research to help farmers and agrarian cultures in the United States and throughout the world.

Graddy-Lovelace, now a professor at American University, grew up on a farm in central Kentucky and studied at Yale University. After graduating, she returned to farm life, working with her aunt, uncle and cousins in Kentucky. While there, she recognized first-hand the struggles that farmers face, leading to her decision of becoming a researcher with the primary goal of helping farming communities.

“Farming is not a viable livelihood, even though it seems to be crucial to society and cultures around the world,” said Graddy-Lovelace.

She then went on to get her master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School and then later her doctorate from the University of Kentucky. Her focus was on agricultural policy and biodiversity, but she also studied ethics and the role of spiritual and religious traditions in driving movements for social justice in agricultural policies.

Graddy-Lovelace wanted to conduct research on the needs of farming communities in the U.S. and elsewhere. She has traveled to a dozen countries. Outside of the U.S., she has spent the most time in Peru, where she lived for a half year multiple times.

“She’s made a commitment to spend time with communities, to live among people in the communities, to learn their language and to understand their social practices, so that she could be sure that she’s telling an accurate story about their lives,” said Ken Conca, professor at the School of International Service at American University.

Graddy-Lovelace didn’t take the information that the communities had to offer and profit from it. She didn’t conduct the research to make herself famous in the academic world. Her goal, she said, was to actually help the people in the communities.

“She has an ethos, which is that when she does research, she shares it with communities that she has gotten information from,” said Carolyn Gallaher, associate dean for faculty affairs at the School of International Service at American. “There have been hundreds and hundreds, probably thousands, of cases where researchers … go and take that information back and monetize it, and none of that goes back to the communities.”

Graddy-Lovelace was hired by American in 2011, and has been a key faculty member of the Global Environmental Politics program in SIS. She said that she is “honored to be teaching.”

“Fundamentally, I’m nerdy. I love reading, I love writing, I love researching, and I love teaching other people those skills,” said Graddy-Lovelace with a smile.

Her goal was to teach students the importance of community-based research. She had students work with the local community and conduct projects that revolve around agriculture and biodiversity and how they intersect with society. Recently, Graddy-Lovelace and her class worked with American’s pop-up edible garden and participated in the school’s Campus Beautification Day.

Graddy-Lovelace has also published many scholarly articles and has been invited speak at multiple top universities and major conferences. She recently gave eight different presentations at the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers. The meeting was attended by about 9,000 people and consisted of 6,000 presentations.

“There’s no question that she’s a rising star in the field,” said Conca.

Graddy-Lovelace is working on a book with MIT Press about agricultural biodiversity and its importance for the sustainability of farming. She also works with the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American, conducting research into the history of racism and sexism in agricultural communities.

Graddy-Lovelace shows how empathetic and determined to help people she is in all aspects of her work. She conducts research to help farmers in the U.S. because of her farming background. She conducts research to help agrarian communities in other countries because of her time living among them. And she teaches college students so that they too can go on to change the world.

“She’s an astonishingly good teacher and somebody who cares really deeply about the people she works with,” said Simon Nicholson, an assistant professor at American’s School of International Service. “Garrett is one of those people with enormous integrity and you don’t always find that with everybody, certainly not somebody who’s as smart and impressive as she is. She’s just an extraordinary human being.”

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