An interview with Melanie Stansbury M.S. ‘07, Congresswoman of New Mexico
Melanie Stansbury, M.S. ’07 arrived at Cornell in 2006 searching for new tools and knowledge to make a difference in her hometown community in Albuquerque. Backed by new insights into the theory and practice of community sociology, she returned to New Mexico with an advanced degree and a mission to unite her scientific background with a deep commitment to community organizing in policymaking.
Now a U.S. Congresswoman after a June 1 special election in the first district of New Mexico, her public service career has spanned work with White House Office of Management on science, natural resources and tribal issues to a staffer for the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. We sat down with her to learn how her time at Cornell impacted the ways she engages on issues of social inequality and environmental sustainability, the role of global development, and her advice for students seeking to make an impact in their own communities.
You were recently elected to the U.S. Congress and have previous experience serving in the state legislature in New Mexico. How does your background in the social sciences and community-based sociology support your service in office?
The reason why I went to Cornell and specifically into the Development Studies program was because I really wanted to make a difference in my own community. I really wanted to understand why in New Mexico so many communities struggle when our communities have such an incredible wealth of resilience. Part of why I went to grad school was to get the theoretical and technical training to really understand social inequality and environmental sustainability.
I use the tools I learned at Cornell literally every day as a policymaker. In particular, I try to make all of the policy work that I do community-based; in fact, I even call it “community-based policymaking.” I try to convene different groups of people as much as possible and let the organic information that comes from communities really inform the kinds of policy challenges and solutions and policy work that I do. I use the tools of sociology and community-based organizing every single day in my work.
How did your graduate work in development studies at Cornell influence your career path?
Part of the reason that I came specifically to this program is that I had read a book by professor Philip McMichael about food systems when I was an undergrad in California. Interestingly, I actually work on hunger and food systems as a policymaker now — even though it wasn't necessarily the path that I thought I would work on — but it's just such an important issue in our community. One in three children experience food insecurity in New Mexico. When I first read Phil's book, it was the first time that I had ever seen the struggles of inequality contextualized and to take a global approach to understand, why does inequality exist? How does it affect the daily well-being of communities? And then, how do you use that knowledge as a powerful tool to transform systems so that people can flourish?
I use the theory that I learned at Cornell to inform all of my policymaking, and it informs the social justice lens that I look through. And it’s also the nuts and bolts of both political organizing and policy work. Obviously, the best policies are evidence-based: they're based on good data, good science, and good analysis, but also in politics itself. Using the theory and empirical tools of understanding where voters are, how they think about things, how you talk to people, how you ensure that you're addressing the things that are most important to people — when it comes down to it it’s all social science.
Having that training and the theoretical understanding of social systems — as well as the nuts and bolts of data and social statistics — literally informs my work in both the political organizing and in the policy side every single day.
What does global development mean to you?
I think that the next chapter in our work to bring about a more socially just, equitable and resilient future on our planet must focus on centering community needs: lifting up community voices and leveraging tools and resources to empower communities to bring change.
And so to the extent that global development is a way to describe doing that — training people to do community-based work — I think global development means training the next generation of change makers.
Your policy work has been multidisciplinary, uniting life and social sciences on issues such as water security and environmental protections. What advantages do you see in combining social and physical sciences in policy work?
I really think of myself as a science translator. One of my primary jobs is to take physical and biological sciences and social sciences and really translate that into good, evidence-based policy, and also to translate between the physical sciences and social sciences. And I really credit the approach that Cornell takes in their graduate programs, especially in CALS and encouraging people to have multidisciplinary committees and research.
When I was working on my Ph.D., my mentors were in Native studies and in natural resources. And even when I did my comprehensive exams, my natural resources faculty member was asking me questions about water chemistry and biodiversity, and my associate faculty were asking me theoretical questions about political economy. I think there's such a value in having that sort of interdisciplinary background and training because part of what I was really interested in when I went back to school was to understand how social, political and economic systems constrain the ability of our communities to thrive and live sustainably. You can approach these questions from a technical standpoint, especially around water and food.
I think that the power of having an interdisciplinary training is that you are able to translate between different realms.
So take water, for example: I work a lot with climate and hydrological scientists and I'm often one of only one or a small handful of social scientists who are on teams with physical scientists. We face really big questions about what we are going to do about our water supply: for example, is climate change radically changing everything? You need social scientists who can help understand how you craft solutions and understand what the science is telling you on the physical sciences side. And then, knowing that, how do you translate that into policy?
Do you have any favorite memories from your time at Cornell?
I have so many favorite experiences. I think the thing that stands out most for me is the incredible people. The thing that is so unique I think about Cornell is that people come from all over the world to study there, especially in CALS. I loved engaging with people from all over the world who are grappling with these huge questions, and meeting together to exchange ideas and share new ways of thinking.
What advice would you give to undergraduate and graduate students studying global development who want to pursue a career in public service?
I think my main advice is to reach for the stars.
I think that most people who go into global development or social science are drawn to the field because they care deeply about something, and especially about social change and addressing needs of their communities or the well-being of people.
There are so many different ways that you can do that work. You can be a scholar and a policymaker, or you can just go the scholarly route, you can just go the policymaker route, or you can go the community activist route.
And what I think oftentimes people don't realize is that we need more scientists and we need more researchers to go and serve as government officials and to run for office. I always, always encourage people to listen to whatever is in your heart.
Explore degrees & programs in Global Development
Interpret problems, clarify solutions, develop leadership and foster positive social change in social and economic development, agriculture and food systems or environment and development.
Integrate diverse frameworks and methodologies with classical sociological theory to fuel investigation, analysis and evaluation of social phenomenon.
Enhance your practical and technical skills and prepare you for a career in field-based development and policy in low-income and rural communities around the globe.
Engage with critical contemporary issues relating to food security, food sovereignty and food justice.
Prepare for a career in teaching and lifelong learning.
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