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A Central State professor is helping create more Black and Native American agricultural producers

Brandy Phipps, Ph.D (pictured in with officials from the USDA and College of the Menominee Nation
Courtesy of the College of Menominee Nation
Brandy Phipps, Ph.D. (second person from right pictured) with a co-researcher, officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and officials from the College of Menominee Nation at the opening of the aquaponics extension and training facility on the Menominee Reservation.

A Central State University professor, Brandy Phipps, received a National Award for Excellence in Agricultural Teaching this past November. She was one of eight public university faculty across the country to earn this distinction.

Phipps joined Central State University’s Department of Agricultural and Life Sciences in 2019, and received tenure in 2023.

WYSO’s Adriana Martinez-Smiley spoke with her about the work she's being recognized for.

(The following transcript has been edited for length and brevity)

Adriana Martinez-Smiley: Could you talk about what got you interested in the subject of agriculture?

Brandy Phipps: So my credentialing and my academic background has always been in nutrition. At the beginning, it was really focused primarily on nutrition from a biomedical standpoint. So what nutrients affect disease and health processes? And can we kind of get to the nitty gritty of exactly what's happening at the cellular level? And while I still do some of that, my path was pretty winding.

When I first finished my Ph.D., I got a tenure track position, was teaching nutrition, etc. I did that for about three years and thought that maybe academics wasn't for me. The place that I was teaching was incredibly non-diverse. I was the only person of color in my department and one of only several in the entire university. And at first I didn't think that that would be a big deal. Turns out it might have been a little bigger deal than I thought at the time. And so I left academics and thought that I would never go back again.

During that time, I got really involved in community work. So I served for quite a few years as an executive officer on the board of directors for a Tri-County food bank. I was the inaugural chair of a county local foods council. And so as I was doing that work, I don't know any other way to say it, but it transformed me.

While I still do some of that biomedical work, a huge part of my research now is–I call it sustainable nutrition sciences. It just talks about my work being at the intersection of climate change, food systems transformation, nutrition and health equity. And so when we talk about my interest in agriculture, my interest is really in food systems.

Phipps, left, pictured with Dr. Craig Schluttenhofer, co-investigator, for the SUSHI project during construction of Central State's aquaculture research facility
Courtesy of Brandy Phipps
Phipps, left, pictured with Dr. Craig Schluttenhofer, co-investigator, for the SUSHI project during construction of Central State's aquaculture research facility

Martinez-Smiley: What does it mean to work at Central State? Like, what sets it apart in your eyes?

Phipps: Well, I say this to anybody who asks. I 100% believe in the mission and vision, in the historical importance and current importance, quite frankly, of historically Black colleges and universities [HBCU]. To put it very short, Black students deserve excellence, and therefore they deserve excellent faculty that are going to use progressive and innovative pedagogical techniques that are going to give them research opportunities and other experiential opportunities that make them competitive in the job market or for graduate schools. And they deserve to be taught in a way that takes into account the history that includes them.

We know that African-Americans and people of color have contributed in huge ways to agriculture, to food systems, to nutrition all through history. And we don't often hear about those individuals when we're being taught at predominantly white institutions using traditional curricula. So to be at an HBCU, where not only do I have the permission or the freedom to teach within that context, I am encouraged and expected to teach within that context, which for me is incredibly rewarding.

Martinez-Smiley: Part of the reasons why you received this award is due to your research around the sustainable use of a safe hemp ingredient [SUSHI] and one of your goals of that project is to increase the representation of not only African-American students or graduates in agriculture, but also Native American students. So I'm wondering if you could dive a bit deeper into why that is important for you. 

Phipps: Diversity, inclusivity, equity and justice are really at the core of who I am, not just what I do. And so we do have a research portion, which is looking at the use of hemp as an ingredient that can replace some of the higher cost and less environmentally sustainable ingredients in aquaculture feed, especially for high value fish. But we also have a significant outreach and education component with the College of Menominee Nation, which is a 1994 tribal college and land grant institution on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin as one of our main partners. The goal of that is to increase the workforce of Native Americans in agriculture and then specifically in aquaculture.

And so on the education side, we're offering scholarships for Native American folks to gain one of several agriculture related degrees. And then on the layperson workforce side, we have created a hemp workshop for people who want to become new producers or processors. And we are creating a workshop that we will be offering very soon on the Menominee Reservation for those who want to enter the aquaponics space. So growing both fish and nutritious vegetables in a closed loop system. And not only are we providing the training, but we actually have funding to fund up to six new aquaponics producers on the reservation. And we're approaching this with a systems lens, right? We need education, we need training, we need funding and support for new producers. And so all of that ends up resulting in stimulating the economy, increasing diversity in the workforce and building connections between different types of land grant institutions that haven't historically worked together.

Menominee students who work on the SUSHI project.
Courtesy of College of Menominee Nation
Menominee students who work on the SUSHI project.

Martinez-Smiley: So partly how this was brought to my attention is seeing this award. It's a distinction for you, but also for the university. I'm just wanting to hear what you hope comes as a result of this. 

Phipps: Well, certainly any time that that I or another faculty member here at Central State is recognized for–whether it's a large grant opportunity, whether it's a research award or a teaching award–it certainly brings attention to the quality of the work that we're doing here at Central State, which I think is important. I think it makes students proud of where they are to know that their faculty members are nationally recognized and sought out. I think that I hope that it encourages other faculty to look at what they're doing and think about how they're presenting their pedagogy and experiential opportunities for students.

James Baldwin, when he talked about education and the purpose of education, it was always to create agents of change, right? It was never to learn for the sake of ourselves only, right, to hoard knowledge, but it was to use that knowledge and that understanding and that leverage to challenge harmful systems and structures and create a better society for those who come after us.

Adriana Martinez-Smiley (she/they) is the Environment and Indigenous Affairs Reporter for WYSO. They grew up in Hamilton, Ohio and graduated from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in June 2023. Before joining WYSO, her work has been featured in NHPR, WBEZ and WTTW.

Email: amartinez-smiley@wyso.org
Cell phone: 937-342-2905