Geography PhD candidate named among Storytellers finalists

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council // Special to Western News

Western Geography PhD candidate Marylynn Steckley was named recently among five finalists in the Research for a Better Life: The Storytellers competition, sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Councils of Canada (SSHRC).

Marylynn Steckley doesn’t want this to turn into American Idol. Her research, she stresses, is a collective effort – larger than any one competition’s winner.

“My work is really just a small contribution to the work many Haitian activists and social movements are doing, really,” said the Western Geography PhD candidate. “Even my tiny contribution is a product of a lot of Haitian mentors and friends patiently teaching and guiding me.”

Stemming from those combined efforts, Steckley’s work was named recently among five finalists in the Research for a Better Life: The Storytellers competition, sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Councils of Canada (SSHRC).

SSHRC launched the second annual challenge last fall, asking postsecondary students from across the country to demonstrate in three minutes or 300 words how a SSHRC-funded research project at their institution is making a difference in the lives of Canadians. Selected from a field of more than 150 nationwide, the finalists are now preparing to tell their research story on the stage at the SSHRC Impact Awards ceremony this November in Ottawa.

Steckley’s research focuses on the plight of Haitian peasants. Her interest in this pursuit grew out of her time in Haiti as a policy analyst and advocate for the Mennonite Central Committee. Working alongside her husband, the couple became a part of the country’s social fabric, eventually having and raising their two children there until moving back to Canada last year.

When she decided to pursue her PhD, Steckley connected with Western Geography professor Tony Weis.

“Marylynn is driven by a passionate concern for agriculture, food, and rural development in Haiti, which is by far the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” Weis said. “In particular, she cares about the livelihoods of peasant farmers and how they are adversely affected by a combination of political, economic and cultural dynamics, including things like trade liberalization and soaring food imports, exploitative relationships with merchants, popular attitudes that denigrate the consumption of peasant foods, and increasing instances of land dispossession.

“What stands out most about her journey is the depth and scope of her fieldwork, which are truly remarkable for a graduate student.”

In the course of her PhD, Steckley lived and worked in rural Haiti with her family for the better part of three years (including one year while on maternity leave), during which time she conducted extensive qualitative interviews, participant observation and surveys with peasant farmers. Not only is she fluent in Haitian creole, but so are her children.

“The net result of this extended immersion,” Weis continued, “is exceptionally rich empirical data and a deep understanding of peasant struggles.”

Steckley’s dissertation, divided into three manuscripts, will explore land grabbing practices; policy analysis; as well as cultural influence on food systems. That final topic is what earned her a Storytellers nomination.

“The Storytellers challenge really impressed on me the value of communicating research in compelling ways that can speak to real people and motivate social change,” Steckley said. “Spreading the word about social research might just inspire action toward a more equitable world.”

Starting last month, and running every Tuesday in the lead-up to the Impact Awards ceremony, SSHRC has highlighted one finalist on its website. These Take Five with the Final Five pages include interviews with the each of the winners and links to their winning submissions.

Steckley’s Take Five will be posted Tuesday.