Erin Kitchell, winner of the A.C. Jordan Prize 2023, wrote her award-winning dissertation on the environment, climate change and public policy in West Africa.
After attending Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, earning undergraduate degrees in both international studies and history, Kitchell headed off to the Peace Corps. The more Kitchell traveled, the more she became interested in exploring other cultures and being rooted in local realities.
Post-graduation Kitchell spent two and a half years in Western Africa with the Peace Corps. While she was there she did community based work in villages with less than 500 inhabitants, trying to answer questions of environmental governance and climate change that affected the day to day lives of the locals.
It was in the Peace Corps where she became connected to Matt Turner, who would become her advisor in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Kitchell’s Master’s degree focused on how farmers and herders dealt with climate change and the variability of the climate they lived in.
Her early work was focused on practical foundations of the patterns of land use and how farmers worked around one another. This is what would lead her to her dissertation that would take her close to a decade to finish.
Kitchell learned about the different needs and priorities of groups competing for land in Senegal and Mali, and how this led to negotiations and formations of different political identities between groups.
“Making claims to land is associated with the idea of a particular group and a history that a group has in using that land,” Kitchell said. “As they make claims they are actually reshaping ideas of what their identity is and how that identity relates to other groups that are also making claims for that same land.”
Her work didn’t stop there.
Kitchell was interested in looking at the bigger picture and how these decisions and claims of different groups played into larger policy reforms in West Africa.
Kitchell spent a lot of time out in the field with an estimated time frame of eight to ten years in Africa, between her dissertation and work with the Peace Corps.
“It requires an openness to other ways of thinking and creating permeability,” Kitchell said. “That is one of the values that has driven how I work.”
While finishing her dissertation, Kitchell took a job with Namati, a non-profit organization that works to advance social and economic justice by working with people who know, use and shape the law.
Kitchell still focuses on these same types of questions but has broadened her horizons by working with other countries outside of Africa like Myanmar. Her work in Senegal helped to provide her a groundwork for her work now.
“It provides an orientation and a perspective on understanding issues starting from how rural communities were dependent on land for their livelihoods,” Kitchell said.
Kitchell also mentioned how she has to be cognizant of what she doesn’t know, since she is working in a new area, and although ideas can transfer, they vary by country.
By working on these same issues with a more applied perspective to each country Namati works with, Kitchell is able to continue learning and serving communities abroad.