Cassandra Ceballos, '17

November 30, 2015
Junior combines passion for social justice with focus on food systems

Labs were never where Cassandra Ceballos, ’17, saw herself. She enjoys working out in communities too much. So she left behind the quiet, sterile observations of biology research for grassroots activism in the food justice movement.

“When someone doesn’t have access to food, they can’t even live,” says Ceballos. “I believe in the bottom of my heart that food is a human right.”

Ceballos has a deep understanding of that right. She and her twin sister grew up in a single parent household on St. Croix Island in the Virgin Islands, which imports about 90 percent of its food.

“Eating well is a very comfy option,” Ceballos says. “We had processed, sugary crap. But we also had some local food — I got mangoes off the tree and avocados.”

That’s part of why she chose to intern last summer at the Community and Food Justice Coalition in Oakland, Calif., a tiny nonprofit with the ambitious goal of ensuring access to food for people that is equitable, environmentally and economically sustainable, and community-driven. The group works to connect dots between community members and opportunities.

Ceballos says she wanted to learn what it’s like working at a nonprofit before she committed to the often grueling hours and breakneck pace.

At a small nonprofit, the schedule always varies. Ceballos found herself attending community meetings several times a week, writing posts for the organization’s blog and managing their social media, and even thinking about how the language of a new initiative on race, power, and privilege can be integrated into messages about food justice.

“We don’t always have to know the answer,” Ceballos says. “It’s about looking at society and breaking it down. What I enjoy the most is working with other people who care about it just as much as I do. I warn people that I’m going to annoy the hell out of them because it [food justice] is all I talk about.”

Her energy is palpable: at one roundtable meeting during the internship, she had a breakdown over the fight to increase the minimum wage. And her thoughts on country of origin labeling are incredibly convincing. She speaks with confidence about the facts, and her energy doesn’t seem to ever wane.

Ceballos’ passion for food and social justice began to take shape in Eating Locally, Thinking Globally, a Sophomore Scholars in Residence course that explores food systems and inequality.

“There was no point where I wasn’t learning something,” Ceballos said. She later applied much of that coursework, she says, to her UR Summer Fellowship at the Community and Food Justice Coalition. The Bonner Center for Civic Engagement awarded Ceballos the inaugural Abby Brown Ayers Civic Fellowship, which supports a student whose internship in the nonprofit or government sector focuses on early-childhood education, nutrition, or food justice.

Ceballos likes to point out that her economics minor and sociology major are a natural pairing for her interest in social justice. Understanding how wealth is distributed (economics) and understanding how society is structured (sociology) are key for figuring out how to make progress on social justice movements.

The long hours and never-ending work didn’t faze her last summer. In fact, she wants to go back as soon as she can and says the internship didn’t feel like work; rather it’s the stuff she would be doing with her free time.

“People don’t get to take a break from being hungry,” Ceballos says. “Doing grassroots nonprofit work really showed me what social justice is about, and I love it.”