For Dr. Valerie Imbruce, the journey to becoming Director of Washington College’s Center for Environment and Society (CES) began with an undergraduate trip to the remote cloud forests of Ecuador and found its way to researching the provenance of exotic fruits and vegetables in Chinatown.
In Ecuador, she developed a keen interest in the local flora. “I really got interested in tropical plants and their taxonomy, so I did a study of trailside vascular plants—those that can grow large and stand up straight because they have a vascular system with hardened cellular tissue—as opposed to algae and mosses—so I learned botanical nomenclature and how to identify plants by collecting them and making pressings of them for herbarium specimens,” she says.
Her early fascination with botany resulted in a field guide of tropical plants to educate visitors at the ecotourist lodge where she did her research.
“It was satisfying. I was learning. I was sharing what I learned with others. So, I decided that I wanted to pursue graduate studies. I started off in a master’s program and was then offered other opportunities to enroll in a PhD and become fully funded, working out that piece of graduate education.”
That led her to PhD work at the New York Botanical Garden, the preeminent place in New York to study botany and eventually to study the markets of Chinatown through the lens of food justice.
“My interest in tropical plants morphed into considering the plants we eat, and how that connects us to different environments. I started thinking about the mechanics of how plants are grown and distributed and how certain types of plants become culturally important and then economically important to feed groups of people. I wound up doing an in-depth study of Chinatown in Manhattan.
Fascinated by the cultural diversity expressed in the Chinatown markets, Imbruce began to explore the connection between market and vendor produce and how they were acquired: how did they get there?
“The streets of Chinatown have tables full of fresh produce. All these different Brassica species, from the mustard family of plants, like bok choy, Shanghai choy, yu choy, right? All of these vegetable species that come from East and Southeast Asia. These were not products that you could find readily in other places, and so, what I did was follow those, use fruits and vegetables as objects to follow their pathways of travel. Where do they come from? How do they get to the city where people are orchestrating these networks of exchange?
Imbruce identified a diverse network of entrepreneurs, from street vendors to international farmers, who utilize their social connections to establish trade systems tailored to Asian American audiences and cultures. Notably, these activities are concentrated in New York, which, due to its massive trade volume, is recognized as the produce capital of the United States. Eventually, she investigated one group in Honduras that developed an Asian vegetable export business in the Comayagua Valley, a prime region for agro-exports. They cultivate crops like Chinese eggplant, bitter melon, and chives, targeting markets on the East Coast of the US.
“You might look and say, well, we’re so good at supplying all of this food. We have food at low cost everywhere, but who is “we”? Where are the access points to what kinds of foods? Are they nutritious foods? Are they culturally appropriate foods? And is the cost relative to any one person’s income for those? So that’s where the justice angle comes in, for food systems. How is food exchanged to meet our needs?” Chinatown’s food system grew out of necessity at time in the US’s history when the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited immigration from China and there was much anti-Chinese sentiment.
Now Dr. Imbruce focuses on her work as Director of CES. Six months into her role, succeeding Dr. John Seidel’s tenure as Director, Imbruce describes her role as requiring work on several different planes combing stewardship and education.
“I have come as a steward for what has been built, which is an incredible academic center that has positions and programs in place that are very much in line with how I see undergraduate education and how I see the “environment” in society. It’s that blending that brought me here, the natural and the cultural, and I think it is important to retain. So, part of my mission right now is shoring up things we have and filling positions at CES.”
One ongoing stewardship project is Harry Sears’ gift of 5,000 acres to the College. The River and Field Campus (RAFC) is a 10-minute drive down the Chester River and includes river frontage, forest, wetlands, grasslands, and agricultural lands. The campus is intended to serve as an educational and scientific research site. Presently, it houses two significant programs: the Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory and the Natural Lands Project. Recently, further development of the site has been underway.
“Part of what I’ve been doing over the past couple months is helping expand those programs. For example, at Foreman’s Branch, we’re going to be breaking ground on a new bird banding station within the next year, and we’ll have a new facility where we can host educational workshops and host tour groups. There are tons of students who come to learn, Washington College students as well as area K through 12 students and bird enthusiasts of all kinds.”
While immersed in academics and directorship tasks, Imbruce won’t be sidelining her years of teaching skills. Reaching beyond her love for the world of academics and intellectual ideas, the new CES Director wants to create practical applications and discover audiences who can benefit from the bridge being built between the College and “the rich natural and human resources of the region.”
Imbruce plans to teach during her directorship and to develop a community food systems class with the hope of learning more about the various organizations in Kent County that work on food security issues—from ‘how people feed themselves when they need help to the kind of restaurants and supermarkets and shops in the area.’
“I would like to take a holistic look at our food system and find community-based projects that students can engage with,” she says. “My feeling is not just saying this is what we choose to study as students or academics, but to ask the community “what do you want?”
Dr. Imbruce received her Ph.D. from the City University of New York, where she participated in a collaborative program with the New York Botanical Garden. Her dissertation focused on food systems.