By Maureen McNamara
Colorado State University
Boulder County Public Health
In the past two years, I have spent hours bent over books, harvesting beets, writing my thesis, teaching art students about evolution, and exploring “behind the scenes” of restaurants. How is it all connected?… through anthropology.
When I entered the MA program in Cultural Anthropology at Colorado State University, I knew I wanted to study agriculture and production. I was driven by questions of policy, research, and applied anthropology. Throughout my community based thesis research on the economic viability of the local food movement in Northern Colorado, I gained important research, communication, and community development skills.
This past summer, in between hours of writing, I let my brain wander to thoughts of the future. After working for four years post-undergraduate, I went back to school to re-awaken my brain and to further my career options. I knew I wanted to work in some combination of research, policy, teaching, community work, and food. But, I had no idea what that meant. With an open mind, a commitment to anthropology, and a supportive network of colleagues who notified me of job openings—I moved from graduate school to the working world.
As I finished writing the draft of my thesis, a friend suggested I apply for a county-level Public Health position, Bilingual Food Safety Specialist. With the flailing economy and my lack of experience in public health, I did not think I stood a chance. At the end of my first interview, I wanted to make sure that the panel understood anthropology and the skills I had to offer. I have spent years learning about different communities and cultures in Guatemala City, the Guatemalan highlands, North Carolina agriculture, Northern Colorado farmworkers, and various educational systems. These intercultural experiences made me an anthropologist, allowed me to apply a holistic approach, and understand communities from the inside and the outside. I explained what applied anthropology is all about—working with people and communities to create the change they want to see in the world. The day after my second interview, I was offered the position. My advisor, who served as a reference, told me that “I was not what [the panel] was looking for, but I convinced them that I was the right person for the job.” In my interviews and subsequent conversations, I emphasized the skills I learned through my fieldwork and anthropological training. I am a good listener, a researcher, a communicator, a community partner, an advocate—an anthropologist. I do not have a food safety background, but I can learn. I can apply my anthropological skills to prevent food-borne illnesses and strengthen the public-private sector partnership.
I have only been working in public health for a month, but my colleagues have told me how excited they are to have an anthropologist on the team. I am currently in training. I will conduct restaurant inspections, lead food safety training for restaurant workers, and over time, build community partnerships, implement research and evaluation on the program’s effectiveness, and collaborate on food safety policy. I am fortunate to work for a team that is progressive in their approach to food safety. The team wants to become even more proactive (as opposed to a reactive regulatory approach) and continue to build community partnerships, develop more food handler and consumer education programs, and advocate behavior change. I look forward to working with the community, restaurant workers, and policy to improve food safety.
I am thankful to the anthropology discipline and community, especially my great advisors over the years—Tim Wallace and Kate Browne. I entered school skeptical about what anthropology had to offer and leave a proud believer in the discipline and application of anthropology.