Class of 2007 – Innis, USP
After graduating from Innis College with a double major in Urban Studies and Environmental Studies, Ian Aley worked for 4 years with FoodShare, a Toronto-based non-profit organization. Ian worked as a community food animator, building community capacity in low-income neighbourhoods to run community kitchens, markets, and gardens. He now lives in Madison, Wisconsin, the town where he grew up. Ian is the general manager of a multicultural farming cooperative, sits on the county food policy council, and grows fruit and nut trees. He works part time as a planner at a telephone company. He recently applied to a masters in urban planning at the University of Wisconsin Madison, where he hopes to focus on regional food systems, cross cultural dialogue, and climate change resilience.
What were your programs of study while at U of T (i.e., minors, majors, specialist)?
MAJOR: Urban Studies
MAJOR: Environmental Studies
In a few words, please outline your career path.
Environmental issues and community development have always been at the heart of my work, but my focus has evolved over time. Early in my career I focused on behavior change: educating and organizing to help communities reduce the footprint of their day-to-day lives. The intersection between environmental and equity issues developed as an interest during university and I began to focus my attention on food issues. I have primarily worked in the non-profit sector.
What drew you to urban studies? How has your background in the subject benefited your career?
If environmental studies is concerned with our relationship to that which is around us, urban studies is environmental studies for people who live in cities. I was drawn to urban studies because it is about relationships to place and community and the structures that shape those relationships. It is about how we listen to one another: how many voices share space. I remember one moment in particular in an urban studies class when David Lewis Stein offered the insight that everyone’s opinion on a political issue is valid as long as you acknowledge the context from which you speak. I found this incredibly freeing. Rather than waiting until I had complete information on an issue, I could engage in the democratic process from wherever I stood. These ideas, that everyone has something to offer and something to learn and the importance of grounding in context, underlie my facilitation and education practice to this day. The Urban Studies program also gave me a solid foundation of practical knowledge about the workings of the city that gave me the vocabulary to interact specifically with the City of Toronto but also more broadly with urban issues.
How did you become interested in farming? What is a common misconception that you find others often making?
I love the way food brings people together: how no matter how many languages are spoken in a room, food can be a starting place for relating to one another. Communities can address unwieldy issues of poverty, racism, and climate change in a way that is tangible and often celebratory.
I have worked with farmers in Cuba, Nicaragua, Malawi, and Ecuador. A common thread I have heard is the misconception that farming is mindless and purely physical work. Farming requires a huge amount of knowledge: some of which farmers gain by reading scientific studies, but the real bodies of knowledge, compiled through generations of observations, are transmitted orally and kinesthetically. Farmers build a relationship with the land: one of care and reciprocity, and then shares the abundance of that relationship with their community. Farmers have deep observational literacy that sometimes goes unappreciated by the modern world.
What types of challenges do you face in your profession?
A central question in my work is how to ensure that simultaneously food producers are paid a living wage and all people have access to good, healthy food. I am drawn to creative solutions for bridging this gap.
Work life balance is a theme that I see coming up in my own life, in the environmental movement, and more broadly in society. When you believe in your work, it can feel natural to dedicate more and more time to the cause. We cannot heal the brokenness of the world with the same forcefulness that caused the harm. Scientific reports on climate change or any number of other issues inspire a sense of urgency, but if working late every night starts to degrade your relationships with your family, friends, body, and other facets of your life, it may be time to reconsider how you spend your time. Positive social change can happen through our direct efforts, but sometimes doing more might not be the answer. If we can quiet down, we may find many of the solutions we are straining to realize already at our fingertips.
What is your opinion on GMOs?
I am troubled by Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) on a number of levels. Proponents of GMOs often argue that GMOs are necessary to increase food production so that people will not starve. The works of Raj Patel, Vandana Shiva, the Via Campesina movements demonstrate that small scale, diverse, traditional farming practices produce far more food per acre than industrial food systems and that more production does not necessarily mean less hungry people. Distribution and a concentration of land ownership often lie at the roots of food shortages. GMOs are often controlled by large agribusinesses who prohibit saving of seeds. These crops often also require specific fertilizers and pesticides that can only be bought from that company. When farmers can save seeds from season to season and grow their own fertility, they generate economic activity and interdependence within their community. I would far prefer to see a food systems controlled by those who are growing, processing, and eating that food rather than a moneyed few.
How do you see the farming & agriculture industry changing in the next 5 years? How would you like it to change?
Eating insects will likely be a food trend in North America over the next five years.
Over the next couple of generations, I would like to see us shift our food systems away from monotonous industrial systems toward more diverse and vernacular foodways: ones that are specific to climate and culture.
While attending UofT, which, if any, extra-curricular activities were you involved with outside of the classroom (e.g., clubs, teams, volunteerism, on-campus employment)?
During my time at UofT I was very involved at Innis Residence: first as part of the residence council and then as a RA. I played intramural sports and participated in various environmental initiatives.
Did you participate in any “experiential learning” opportunities as a student (e.g., fieldwork, international experience, internships)?
One summer I worked at the national office of the Slow Food movement in New York City while taking an environmental studies research course. Critics of the Slow Food movement often chide it for being economically inaccessible and culturally aloof in practice. The rhetoric of the movement runs contrary to this, espousing values of equity and diversity. I explored how the Slow Food movement translated their ideas into the day-to-day practices of an organization and how they could practically be more accessible to a more economically diverse audience.
My last course of undergrad was a cultural anthropology and conservation biology field course in Ecuador. We studied in the Andes, Galapagos, and Amazon. I learned an incredible amount from meeting people and exploring these places. This was the first time I travelled to another country outside of North America or Europe. Travelling with a group like this gave me confidence to explore other places after graduating.
What is your favourite memory from your time spent at Innis College?
My favorite memories of Innis are of conversations with friends, juggling a soccer ball in the quad, and incredibly goofy and creative residence events, such as a Life Aquatic Dance Party.
Do you have any advice you would like to share with current Innis students?
If you are feeling called to do beautiful work in the world: caring for elders, running for political office, organizing environmental protests, or whatever it might be, pace yourself. Especially in your first few jobs after graduating, you may feel compelled, internally or externally, to work incredibly hard. If that feels right, follow that passion, but it is much better to spend your whole life doing something you love rather than going hard and then burning out. The things that I have found most helpful in supporting my work-life balance have been taking quiet time to listen and not being afraid to say no. Saying no to one opportunity, even if it is something you would ideally like to do, means you can more fully and deeply say yes to something else. Sometimes that opportunity has not yet arrived, but by leaving space in your life, you will be ready for when it comes.