Kellee Matsushita-Tseng. Alex Roth-Dunn. Pam McLeod. Dave Stimpson. Ned Conwell.
The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) laid off these five staff members as part of their larger reorganization efforts, an especially devastating blow to those who worked closely with Matsushita-Tseng and Roth-Dunn.
The loss of Matsushita-Tseng and Roth-Dunn have catalyzed an uproar in the community, with many arguing that the potential benefits of a reorganization are not worth the repercussions of losing such vital staff.
Darryl Wong, Executive Director of the Center for Agroecology and Katharyne Mitchell, Dean of the Division of Social Sciences, are spearheading the reorganization efforts to deprioritize tangible crop production and instead increase the Farm’s ability to conduct research and educate students.
“I didn’t realize [working on the farm] was something I could do until I met Kellee,” said Matt Peters, a farm garden student assistant. “I’m a trans man and I didn’t think I would ever feel comfortable in a farm space, just because I’m built differently than the men that usually farm around us. I came and got to work with Kellee, and I learned to feel comfortable with myself and what I’m capable of doing.”
Matsushita-Tseng and Roth-Dunn played pivotal roles in shifting the experience for those at the farm by emphasizing inclusivity and increasing diversity.
They connected with different departments, such as the Center For Racial Justice, to build and maintain programs designed to support BIPOC and queer individuals.
“Kellee worked in so many visionary ways to ensure that the Farm would support native communities, queer communities, and communities of color,” said Christine Hong, chair of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies and director of the Center for Racial Justice at UC Santa Cruz. “And all of that work was not the vision of the Farm, not by a long shot, but the vision of Kellee, Alex, and the students they worked with.”
“[That] is what the Dean of Social Sciences and the head of the Center for Agroecology have jeopardized in issuing these layoffs,” Hong added.
Last September, Matsushita-Tseng began the Community Herb Garden, a POC-centered space that focuses on ancestral plants and medicine. Additionally, they mentored current BLM Garden steward Airielle Silva, and started the Food Justice and Equity Scholarship on top of their daily responsibilities.
Photographed above: the Community Herb Garden, created September 2022 by Kelle Matsushita-Tseng and currently stewarded by Sheil Grandhi. Photo by Mia Pabros.
“I’m mourning the fact that the garden has the potential to die,” Silva said. “If it’s so easy for the farm to lay off people that oversee the space, what does that mean for the space itself?”
The reorganization came after losing several pools of revenue, specifically a $2.5 million dollar donation set up by former chancellor George R. Blumenthal.
“These budgetary issues have required that the center make some difficult staffing decisions about how to staff the center in a fiscally responsible way,” read a statement posted on the center’s website.
Those opposing the layoffs acknowledged that while the Farm certainly is in a dire state financially, there were alternative options to consider instead of the layoffs. One option would have been to collaborate with those most impacted on a solution.
“Impacted parties only knew of this plan when it was already very far advanced,” said Hong. “It’s almost as though the leadership had no idea what was happening or its larger value to the community, and or possibly didn’t care.”
In an interview with City on a Hill Press, Darryl Wong reiterated that this transition has certainly been wrought with difficult decisions, but leadership said the reorganization will benefit CASFS Farm and the Center for Agroecology in the long term.
In light of the layoffs, the center intends to create three additional roles that would absorb the responsibilities of those laid off in addition to working on new initiatives.
“I’m really hopeful about the potential that the reorganization will bring in terms of meeting a lot of our long term goals. We have the opportunity to potentially expand in this new model, as we continue to push our staff to not produce for income generation, but to produce for programming and student interest,” Wong said.
In addition to problems of feasibility, leadership attributed the layoffs to the stagnant nature of union-represented positions, which were occupied by four of those laid off.
“Union positions are very constrained in the type of work they can do,” Matsushita-Tseng said. “My position was a trade position, meaning technically I wasn’t allowed to take on leadership roles, but the work we were doing did not match what we were supposed to be doing within our classification.”
As the Farm transitions focus to increase research and programming, Wong said that the creation of three new positions: agroecology program specialist, field production and education manager, and facilities specialist, will offer roles that can better encompass both crop production and leadership.
Farm leadership insisted that those laid off could potentially apply for the new positions being created; however, previous employees expressed doubt in the sustainability of new roles.
“I didn’t really see a role I could apply for that would [be] sustainable, that would meet my professional goals and interests and not be overburdened,” Matsushita-Tseng said. “It seems like a lot of the work of three people laid off got smashed into one position.”
In the interim, interns currently working the land have stated that support from leadership throughout the transition is lacking, specifically because these new roles have yet to be filled.
Community Herb Garden Steward Sheil Grandhi maintained that without Matsushita-Tseng and Roth, students have been taking on their work.
“There’s a ton of projects, but if you don’t have a faculty advisor to keep that continuity, the work falls on the student to keep it going and push it forward,” said Grandhi. We’re just trying to see what our future holds because we’re graduating this year.”
With a large number of those working at the Farm graduating this year, many fear that endeavors like the BLM Garden or Community Herb Garden may be put on the back burner as the new roles created must account for a larger workload.
The Black Lives Matter Garden was created by Leo Orleans in 2015 as a space for healing from the continuous murders of Black and Indigenous People of Color at the hands of police. Photo by Mia Pabros.
City on a Hill Press interviewed four fourth-year students currently working on projects started by Matsushita-Tseng and Roth, all of whom expressed incredible concern for the spaces that they’ve dedicated themselves to.
“Kellee and Alex made sure all BIPOC and queer people felt safe here. They facilitated all these spaces and changes. With them gone, the Farm feels like a very white-centered space again,” said Esmeralda Gonzalez, a Farm garden student assistant.
Several interns expressed a lack of confidence in Wong or Mitchell’s ability to amend the disrepair or actively engage with the community they intend to serve, partially due to the lack of communication between farm leadership and those working directly on the land.
“One of the things that has really hurt through this process is the silence. They say they want to include student voices in this process but they decided to make these decisions behind closed doors.” Gonzalez said. “This whole process has created a feeling of not feeling safe, or heard, or respected.”
Nearly a month after their layoff, City on a Hill Press spoke to Matsushita-Tseng directly.
They explained that in the wake of the reorganization, staff at the farm were encouraged not to speak with the media. Matsushita-Tseng said they were told that media inquiries should be forwarded to campus leadership. This directive came after Lookout Local published an article on the reconstruction, featuring those who were laid off.
City on a Hill Press talked to Scott Hernandez-Jason, Assistant Vice Chancellor of University relations, who maintained that his team was simply there to support staff who may not know how to navigate media relations.
“Whenever there’s an issue and media attention is coming to It, we remind staff that me and my team are here as a resource and that media inquiries should really be directed to us.”
Both Matsushita-Tseng and Roth have secured jobs at other organizations, but the future of CASFS Farm is uncertain, worrying many, like Esmerelda Gonzalez, who have dedicated themselves to those projects.
“Kellee and Alex embodied what agroecology is supposed to be. There’s a hole at the Farm, and a lot of people feel very directionless, like where do we go now? What is the purpose of being here at the Farm? There’s no answer, because we lost the people who gave them to us.”