Meet Dr. Kathleen Sexsmith, Assistant Professor of Rural Sociology
Updated: Feb 24
From labor to immigration issues, Dr. Kathleen is finding solutions for more fair and just working conditions for farmworkers.
Dr. Kathleen Sexsmith is an assistant professor of rural sociology at the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). Dr. Sexsmith has a 65% research and 35% teaching appointment but will be teaching 50% of her time starting in July 2020. As part of her teaching appointment, she has co-developed a course with Dr. Melanie Miller Foster where they take students to a local dairy farm to engage in a cultural and language exchange while helping immigrant farmworkers to learn or improve their English. Most of Kathleen’s research analyzes employment relations and working conditions facing Latino/a immigrant farmworkers in the U.S. Since 2011 she has been involved in research with farmworkers in the rural northeast, originally in New York State and more recently in Pennsylvania.
Dr. Sexsmith's first project at Penn State was looking at potential causes of the labor shortage in the PA mushroom industry, where there is a significant shortage of workers to harvest the region’s high volume of mushroom production. Kathleen asked over 100 Latino and Latina farmworkers on mushroom farms and packing plants what their employers could do to improve the workplace situation in order to encourage people to continue to work there. “I was trying to see what people wanted out of their employer to improve their satisfaction with their jobs as well as how the employer could stop having to throw out all these mushrooms no one was picking.” In this research, Kathleen also examined the problem from a gender perspective, by investigating the roles that women played in their families and how that could potentially constrain them from participating in the workforce, as well as how employers could better meet their needs.
Kathleen was always interested to be a professor
Kathleen was born and raised in Canada and since she can remember she wanted to be a professor. “I was always interested in the intellectual freedom that being a professor would allow because I do development-oriented work and I've had experiences where it's very difficult to be working directly for someone that you are also trying to gently critique or provide recommendations to. I like the opportunity to add my own input.” Kathleen's academic journey started at the University of Manitoba where she completed her bachelor's degree in economics. The non-mainstream approach in the economics department there exposed Kathleen to alternative approaches to economic policy and to promoting a more socially just economy. Enrolling in several international economics courses led her to pursue a master’s degree in international development at the University of Oxford in the U.K.
Before starting her master’s program, Kathleen spent a year abroad in Peru where she worked with an NGO engaged in studies and outreach efforts with fair trade coffee farmers. Their role was to help farmers succeed with fair trade coffee certification.
“That was my first time living abroad where I visited remote coffee producing communities with no roads, electricity or running water. It made me realize that we are all being led to believe that fair trade is saving these farmers. I remember going to communities where the people were really desperate even though they had fair trade certification. There was no observable difference in their quality of life as compared to the other farmers who did have it.”
This international experience led Dr. Sexsmith to her master’s thesis idea. For this project, Kathleen went to Chiapas, Mexico where she spent time with several coffee producers’ organizations that had Fair Trade certification. In this project she analyzed whether fair trade certification contributed to the empowerment of small producers using a value chain theory approach, finding some evidence of empowerment and some evidence of disempowerment. After completing her master’s degree, Kathleen returned to Canada and worked for the International Institute of Sustainable Development as a researcher on sustainable markets.
However, Dr. Sexsmith felt her academic journey was unfinished and wanted to pursue a Ph.D. to get the intellectual independence she was seeking. At that moment she decided to enroll in a doctoral program at Cornell University where she shifted her focus to the occupational justice concerns facing dairy farmworkers in Upstate New York. Kathleen had the opportunity to work as a research assistant for the Cornell Farmworker Program (CFP), which led her to develop a research project on the impacts of immigration enforcement on farmworkers’ lives that stemmed from the CFP’s outreach work with farmworkers around the state.
Setting goals and boundaries
Kathleen mentioned that R1 universities like Penn State offer a wide array of professional opportunities, but that setting work boundaries is essential because not doing so can lead to your inability to fulfill all duties of your job.
“You have to be very strategic in terms of making sure your activities fulfill specific goals. It's good to have goals as early as possible, and to think ahead from an early stage as to what all the steps are towards getting an external grant to pay for your project. How do I develop the necessary relationships with communities to make sure they are satisfied with and contributing to the design of the research? How do I get support for the exploratory part? You have to have a 2-3-year vision for any major project to get it off the ground.”
Research is not a business
Kathleen expresses that one thing she thinks about a lot is research ethics and what type of impact she wants to make in agriculture. “It's not a business. It's not about competition and winning and getting money and having the most papers. For me, it's about the relationships that I built along the way.” Dr. Sexsmith brings up the example of the new project she has in Honduras with an NGO where they are researching how gender shapes vulnerability to climate change among coffee farmers. She mentioned that if by conducting a research study she can produce findings that can positively influence the work that coffee farmers and farmworkers do and contribute to the ability of labor groups or NGOs to successfully win funding that supports their work, then that's the end goal.
Among all Kathleen’s experiences in research, she has found that when farmworkers are deeply involved in the design, implementation, and analysis of a project, the quality of the research is dramatically improved – in other words, the participatory action approach to research. She mentioned it can be a process that can lead to leadership building and their own sense of potential and empowerment. “Participatory studies are something that I really believe in and I think my role is to use any power I have to get funds that contribute to those processes.” She is currently beginning a new project on the impacts of agricultural automation on farmworkers with the Food Chain Workers Alliance, Alianza Agrícola, Justice for Migrant Workers, and Farmworkers Association of Florida that will employ these participatory action principles.
Juggling parenting and work
Kathleen expressed that in an academic environment parenthood is not always taken into account or valued the same way that she values it. “My main challenge is keeping my priorities in order and trying not to let my job spill into my family life any more than it does. My primary role is being a mother. I love my job, but my job is there to support my family. It’s not the other way around.”
Kathleen is very focused on her son Dominic. She is passionate about him learning to appreciate music, so they go to a family music class and play a lot of music-centered games at home. Kathleen expresses she wants to help him experience different things in the world and his identity as a person connected to two cultures and three countries. “He's an American citizen but I’m Canadian and my husband is Mexican, so I try to create opportunities for him to experience all those different aspects of who he is.”
Why do we need rural sociologists?
Dr. Sexsmith explains that the rural sociologist’s perspective is really important because it helps us to look at agricultural development issues through an intersectional lens. It's a way to always consider how privilege and inequality work, particularly in rural spaces which are usually not paid attention to in mainstream sociology. “The rural area is often overlooked. I'm most closely working with Latino and Latina immigrants, and their rights and needs are constantly overlooked in policy and academia. Rural sociology helps shed light on the challenges faced by people in these invisible spaces and marginalized populations.”
Our voices are almost absent
“Women in general are poorly represented in Ag Sciences. The more we can promote an environment where everyone is truly equally valued for their contribution the better the research.”
Kathleen wants you to check out these great resources!
Thank you, Dr. Kathleen, for sharing your story with us!
- The Women in Agricultural Sciences (WAGS) Team
You can contact Dr. Kathleen via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
This interview was developed, transcribed and edited by WAGS co-founder Marlia Bosques Martínez.