Alumni Profiles

Sophia McRae

Class of 2019

Sophia McRae striking a pose on a snowy trail.It’s hard to capture just how deep and lasting an impact the Environmental Humanities, and Professor Nadir, has had on my personal and professional life. I took my first course, the ever-popular Literature and the Modern Environmental Imagination during the fall of my freshman year, and never looked back. As a history major, I appreciated the intellectual rigor and environmental lens with which we discussed our narratives of the past. I loved sparring with my classmates about how concepts we consider fundamental to “modern American life” (faith in progress, scientific exceptionalism, and neoliberalism, amongst others) are at best incompatible with and at worst intentionally destructive of alternative ways of knowing and living with the natural environment, particularly targeting women and communities of color, and leaving ecological ruin in their wake. The wider implications of these theories were enough to shock a first-year in college, but the literature and art through which we were able to digest the new knowledge was moving, humanizing and, importantly for growing minds in the university setting, very real.

The Environmental Humanities provides more than a new, ecologically-focused approach to understanding our place in history: it is the vehicle for many students, myself included, to wrap their heads around our climate crisis. It allows us to understand and to feel ecological grief, teaches us the cultural framework and implications of climate change not present in the scientific rhetoric that is so dominant in our mainstream narratives, and explores why living in the Anthropocene can be so paralyzing for individuals and for societies. It also provides me with hope, an impact that cannot be understated. Beyond learning from Black, Indigenous, and POC authors, scholars, and creators, we could learn from and participate in local movements through community-engagement opportunities. This became a focal point in my undergraduate experience, and undoubtedly grew from my participation in the environmental humanities.

To begin talking about myself (in my own bio, shocker), is to talk about my passion for food and food justice. The seeds for this passion were literally planted before the environmental humanities gave me the words to express it: my participation in local food justice activities began in high school, when I volunteered with the Ganondagan White Corn Project, an Indigenous food sovereignty initiative focused on replanting and reinvigorating native white corn in the Haudenosaunee region of Upstate New York. I fell in love with the idea that reinstating a true local food practice could benefit many layers of community: from the quality of the land, water, and air; to the animal, insect, and microbial participants; and into the human lives and cultures that live on and with them. I witnessed this again my second year at the U of R, when I took Professor Nadir’s community engaged course, Food Justice, Urban Farming, and Social Practice Art at the Gandhi Institute, also at the time the site of Seedfolk City Farm. It made sense to me that urban agriculture works very literally on the ground level to support communities, and can provide far more than just food to resource-strapped neighborhoods in Rochester. Food, as I learned through this and other EHU classes, can hold immense power in its ability to harm individual bodies, communities, and the earth. Our current food system is one which reinforces barriers between white and historically marginalized populations, in this case black and brown people. But food can also be an incredible tool for healing, empowerment, and connection with our past and present communities. I was inspired, curious to learn more, and eager to get involved.

Sophia petting a donkey who is eating hay.

I became more active with urban agriculture the following summer, working with Taproot Collective to design community-engaged coursework for Prof. Bakhmetyeva of the Susan B. Anthony Institute, while performing independent research abroad with the support of UR’s Discover Grant on community-centered urban agriculture projects in Berlin and Freiburg, Germany. By then I had decided to work toward RCCL’s citation in Community-Engaged Scholarship, and declared a second major in Environmental Humanities through the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. The minor program had just been officially declared, but as I had already fulfilled its requirements it was only logical to continue, and I became the university’s first declared Environmental Humanities major. I concentrated my major coursework around food studies and food justice, and continued working here and there with urban ag projects on and off campus. I became a member of Dining Team Green to start working within our own campus food system, and through them brought the nation-wide campaign, National Farmworker Awareness Week, to our university community. The following summer I was lucky to be a part of a community-based research project in the climate-sensitive, Himalayan region of Ladakh, India, to conduct oral history interviews about community resilience in the face of Climate Change and natural disaster. In the winter of my senior year I began an internship with the Urban Ag Working Group in Rochester, my first completely non-UR based involvement in the community, and I was excited to work with members of Foodlink and various urban gardens to plan their annual spring conference. Perhaps my most hard-earned legacy project came through my community-engaged citation capstone project, for which I worked with the EcoRep program on campus to partner with an urban farm just off Genesee Street in the 19th Ward. I created a committee of students, led by a student-director position, to complete a variety of capacity-building projects for the garden. Beyond having early exposure to community engaged learning and more broadly to the city of Rochester, first-year students could leverage their personal creativity, skills, and agency as members of the U of R to benefit urban farms that do so much for their neighborhoods, but often have few resources or time to expand. Institutionalized to survive student turnover rate, the committee is now partnering with my post-grad workplace in Beechwood, the E.D.E.N. Gardens at St. Mark’s and St. John’s.

After graduating in May 2019, I knew I wanted to dedicate myself to my community in Rochester in a full-time capacity, rather than alongside being a student. I therefore am serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA through the Rochester Youth Year program, where I happily serve in a capacity-building role within my hostsite. St. Mark’s and St. John’s operates seven gardens around Beechwood and a weekly food pantry, alongside individual tutoring and career counseling, and free childcare during RCSD holidays. As a small team, I am involved in most things happening within our organization, while also expanding my network in Rochester by building partnerships on behalf of St. Mark’s and St. John’s. My transition to postgrad is smooth and natural, as I continue working with friends, mentors, and coworkers in the Urban Ag Working Group, the EcoReps, and RCCL.

Sophia standing on a trail in an ornate, flowing outfit.

My work in the food justice world has been intentionally rooted in the ground of my own community, namely through urban agriculture and food security initiatives. I hope to eventually find my niche by gathering experience in other sectors of food justice, such as policy work to promote sustainable systems-change from field to fork. The Environmental Humanities has not only provided me with the historical knowledge, intellectual framework, and critical mind that fostered my growth and success in my undergrad and postgrad experience, but it has also given me an entirely new context to understanding my role in the future of food, environmentalism, and community work. I know that I will continue to carry both the important lessons and the more touching “human” moments shared with the environmental humanities community with me as I continue my work beyond the realm of the University of Rochester.