Podcast Episode #5

Chris Nickell
Political and Agricultural Organizer

Anthony LaLena, Interviewer

Listen on Spotify

Episode #5 Transcript:

Pallas Catenella: Hello and welcome to the Working PhDs podcast.

Anthony LaLena: Welcome to Working PhDs. I’m Anthony LaLena, graduate student at the Eastman School of Music today. I’m interviewing Chris Nickell who received a PhD in Ethnomusicology from NYU. Recently, Chris worked as deputy chief of staff for New York State Senator Robert Jackson. Chris is now a labor organizer in the agriculture sector.

So first thank you for being here.

Chris Nickell: Thanks for having me.

AL: And I would like to give you that opportunity to talk about how you got to where you are today.

CN: It was a challenge. And I’ll roll it back to my second year of grad school, which was 2014, when I got involved in the graduate worker union at NYU. Long story short, NYU was the first place to have a recognized graduate worker union in a private school with a contract. That was in the late 90s and early 2000s. And then they were de-recognized under the Bush National Labor Relations Board and fought a bitter fight to get re-recognized that did not end up succeeding and went a bit underground for a few years. And I joined NYU when they were on an upswing, got involved in the contract campaign and helped set up the newly renascent graduate union.

And I think that process was the first time I realized that I was an organizer at heart. And so sort of after a few years of working on the campaign and then helping to set up the infrastructure for the union and build out the card campaign and the organizing and increased membership, I pivoted up to my own neighborhood.

I live in New York City. I live in a Northern Manhattan neighborhood, in Washington Heights. And there was a predatory rezoning that the city was proposing. And I got involved fairly early on in the fight against that and the fight for a just rezoning. And that was really influential for me in developing both my political consciousness but also my grassroots connections, because this is the neighborhood where I’ve lived for nine years now and I care about it deeply.

And I think what it was for me is getting in touch with this community outside of any semblance of academic discourse or writing or thinking, and really transferring the skills that I developed as an organizer up to my own community was really powerful for me. And I felt very fulfilled and nourished by those connections in a way that I didn’t really feel, even though I was still enjoying the research and enjoying writing.

After the fight against the rezoning ended, we actually did not win that fight, per se, I was asked to join the campaign for then-candidate for State Senate Robert Jackson, because of the experience that I’d built as an organizer in the community for the previous three years on this rezoning. And so about two months later in October of 2018, I was approached by the person that Senator-Elect Jackson had tapped to be his chief of staff, my friend Johanna Garcia. She asked me if I wanted to join their office and I would be the deputy chief of staff. She had seen my work as an organizer and thought that I could bring good things to the office. And I really felt called to work. I mean, my office was five blocks from where I live. So it was really hyper-local work. That felt really significant and satisfying to me.

So really for about 12 months, I was doing both. I was finishing the dissertation and I was working more than full-time in a legislator’s office, in a senior staff position, a managerial position.

AL: So the first thing I think about when you’re telling your stories, I wonder, how did your relationship with your dissertation change? I can’t imagine sustaining the motivation to finish that when I’ve already decided that I would like to work somewhere else.

CN: So I can’t sugarcoat it. It was very difficult. The first year I had to use most of my vacation hours for writing, and I had a fairly grueling routine where I would write for an hour in the morning before I went to work most mornings, and I would try to write for at least 30 or 45 minutes at night before I went to bed. And then on the weekends, when I didn’t have other work obligations.

And so I think the relationship to the project became at once less invested, but that actually made it easier to finish up. I think so often when PhD students are on the cusp of the job market, there’s so much psychic and emotional pressure attached to the dissertation itself because it’s the key to getting the dream of a tenure track. And because I no longer felt that, the stakes just felt so much lower for me and I was able to write more productively without self-censoring as much, without doubting myself as much. It gave me a greater sense of confidence in my own work. And it also put things into perspective for me, because I was making a living at something that had nothing to do with this document that I was writing.

And so the main driver ended up being, wanting to have a product that was faithful to the work that all of my interlocutors had put in with me as an ethnographer. And I wanted to do as best as I could by the people who had given me their time and their life stories. And that was what motivated me to finish it, not the need for material survival to get a job. And I think that that was super salutary for me and something I would wish anybody who finds themselves really stressed out about finishing the dissertation.

I think part of my realization that academia was not going to be a long-term home for me was how drawn I was to this work. And it was less about finding time to do that work while I was dissertating and more about finding time to dissertate while I was doing that work. And that was the signal for me. That was what, let me know that, yes, okay, I’ve invested a lot of time and energy and effort in this project of acquiring a PhD. But the doors that it directly opens are not beckoning to me as strongly as these other demands on my time that I’m inviting in. I’ve thought about it long and hard.

I think therapy is a really useful process for this as well. I kind of came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a case of a simple avoidance mechanism. I was really passionate about this work and it really gave me a sense of satisfaction and a sense of self-worth that I wasn’t getting and was not in the foreseeable future going to get from academic work. And I think that’s an intensely personal discovery process that everybody needs to go through in their own way.

I do think that there are structural reasons that it turns out for each individual the way it does, but it’s ultimately a really personal process of, like, coming to grips with how attracted you may be to other spheres of labor. And then the question is if that is a greater attraction than you feel to your academic work, is that something that you can materially support yourself doing? And the doors just opened for me in a way that made it clear that the answer was yes.

AL: The other thing I was thinking as you’re going through your decision to pick up alternative labor, I suppose, is what that process was like. How did you approach your advisor about this?

CN: It’s so funny. Cause while you’re asking this question, I have in my mind the old reflex of, “Is it going to be politic for me to talk about this? What if it gets back to my advisor?” And I think that’s a conditioned response that we have, even though I’m now four years out and don’t have any intention of going back into academia. And I think it’s important that you’re aware of those things, the way that we’re conditioned to think about the relationships with our advisors and the potential for damage to be done, even unintentionally, because of those relationships.

I was very blunt. I had two advisers on my project, co-advisors, and I was very blunt with them when I got the job offer to join Senator Jackson’s office and accepted it. My primary advisor, I was their first advisee. They were a young faculty member at the time. And the reaction was understandably less than positive. If I remember correctly, they said, under their breath but aloud, “Of course my first advisee would get a job outside of academia before they even get here.” And you know, I understood where that came from then and I understand it even more deeply now. And I don’t fault them for that.

 I already had a very structural relationship with my advisors. It was not a deeply personal relationship for a number of reasons that I think were ultimately all good. And it just cast the relationship and an even more structural position because I was no longer, depending on their gatekeeping potential for my material survival. And I think when you remove that from the equation, the relationship changes.

And I think it changes in some ways for the better. And I was really grateful to have their continued response to my work, even while I was navigating the pressures of full-time employment outside of academia. I think they were as understanding as anyone can hope academics to be, because it is such a different world to work in government than to work in academia. And so I’m grateful that we’ve been able to manage that relationship where I’ve heard other instances of it going south very quickly.

AL: So I’d like to pivot a little bit and ask you about your current work and your most recent work with Senator Jackson and moving into agriculture. So I guess first we could just begin with, you know, what exactly were your responsibilities, your duties? What did your job entail working for the State Senator?

CN: So within an elected officials office, especially a legislative office, you can kind of think of three main buckets of work: there’s policy and legislation, there’s community affairs and communications, and there’s constituent services. And as the deputy chief of staff, I was responsible for communications and for constituent services and community affairs.

Over the course of my tenure there, the team that I directly managed ranged from three to five people. On the communications end, we have weekly e-updates to the constituents on your email list. You have social media postings daily. You have longer-term projects around specific legislative interests that the Senator might have. So for instance, we put out a 25-page vision to public education for the Senator, because that was his main claim to fame, being an education champion. Three times a year, you send out a print newsletter to your constituents. All of these things are fully bilingual in our district because it’s English and Spanish dominant. And it’s also just thinking about strategy around communications, especially if you’re trying to get a bill passed, working with the policy team to develop a media strategy around that and with the advocates.

And then constituent services and community affairs is about planning, relevant engagement events in the community. I made it an organizing role as well. And so I would door knock at least once a month, either with small businesses or with a building that we knew was having issues with their landlord, if they wanted help starting a tenants association. And then constituent services is people coming into the office, pre-COVID and now, and then during the height of the pandemic, it was, you know, over the phone, with any number of issues that government is presenting for them.

And so you have to learn how to do a lot of different things at the same time and kind of keep all the balls in the air. And I stuck my nose into policy as well, even though it wasn’t my lane properly, I was sort of a consultant in the office on areas of policy that I knew really well. And so I was never bored, let’s just say that.

And I think I learned so much so quickly because I was working with people, my chief of staff and the Senator, who were very seasoned. I think the reason that I’m pivoting at this point is there are multiple reasons, but I think the clearest one is simply that after three years in the office, two of which were consumed by the absolute maelstrom of need that the pandemic created, I needed to not just take a vacation. I needed to leave in order to be able to do some of the healing work for myself that I’d put off because of my responsibilities at the office. And I think that was the best decision that I could have made.

AL: Yeah. I’d love to hear more about this new career shift. What drew you to agriculture? Are you scared for yet another pivot?

CN: Having made a fairly obtuse pivot already, I’m not afraid to make another one, if I can put it bluntly. It’s not that I’m not afraid. It’s that I have more confidence that it will work out because it has worked out before.

I very much understand the kinds of struggles that exist in agrarian life. All my family is from rural West Virginia and I don’t have any romantic vision of agriculture. Like, I know it’s backbreaking labor, and I understand the levels of compensation. And I understand the difficulties that that kind of a life can present from a kind of secondhand perspective, having grown up around folks who were engaged in that work.

And at the same time, I feel like it checks all of my personal boxes of what I’m looking for. It’s a multi-dimensional polymuse that every year is going to be different. It never exhausts itself. And even if you hit a stride, there’s always a new area that you can explore. You can cultivate mushrooms, you can add, you know, a different breed of sheep. There’s so many different forms of experimentation that it can take in it. It has that playful nature to it that I really enjoy, the sort of puzzle nature of it.

And quite frankly, one of the things I realized working in the senator’s office, which was the first time I was working in a really explicitly hierarchical workspace, is that that doesn’t work for me. I really don’t like having to resort to a hierarchy in order to get something that I need out of somebody else. That feels really icky. And it doesn’t feel like the only way to do things, but elected offices are very hierarchical spaces and it takes a lot to erode that. And so I’m not looking for that anymore.

AL: It sounds like you’ve developed a lot of different kinds of proficiencies in the job. What skills from your PhD did you find were transferable to your work with the Senator into your current work? Or how did you have to work to make those skills apply?

CN: I think the skills that were transferable first and foremost, just having written as much as I did in grad school and perfecting my own voice and my style, I was able to channel that into, once I got the hang of it, writing in the Senator’s voice. Obviously, there was still some Chris in everything that we put out, but I think by and large, I was able to capture the Senator’s voice. And because I was so good at pounding out text, it was always far easier for me to write for the office than it was for anybody else.

And that extended from policy briefs that I would help edit from the policy and legislative team when it was an area that I had a certain expertise in, this 25-page vision for public education that I mentioned earlier, that was as long as a dissertation chapter. And it was overwhelming for other people in the office to conceive of and manage that much text.

And I think the other thing that is difficult to separate from my experience as an organizer but is worth trying, is that as an ethnographer, I got to hone my abilities to listen to people and to meet them where they are. And that is essential in casework with constituents. It’s also essential when you’re working with advocates who are pushing for whatever kinds of change they want to see in the world via legislation. And it’s useful in conflict resolution as well that we were often called upon to do in the community.

AL: Well, thank you so much for all the time you’ve dedicated to this interview and the thoughtful answers to my many questions.

CN: Of course, it was a pleasure.

AL: I guess I just want to ask on the way out, if there’s any last lines you might want to say. Any advice about anything, really, about entering into a new workspace, about dealing with the current one if you’re not sure.

CN: Yeah. I mean, you know, it’s not going to be advice that’s unfamiliar for your listeners, but you really need to build the practices of reliance on a solid network of support and care. Because the fact of the matter is that getting a PhD is in many ways a dehumanizing process and no matter how great the people you’re surrounded with, maybe the structures aren’t there to serve you.

The kinds of care work that you need to do for yourself and for others around you are not often enough emphasized, but if you have folks in your life that you can process with either formal relationships, like a therapist or informal relationships, like close friends, family, lovers, all of that is so essential to being able to not necessarily be successful by the books, cause I don’t really think that has a lot of value these days, but being fulfilled and being satisfied with the work that you’re doing.

AL: Right. Thank you. That’s really sort of eternal advice. Yeah, that resonates very deeply with me. And I’m sure with very many of our listeners. Thank you so much again.

CN: Of course.

PC: This episode was produced by Pallas Catenella and Suraj Saifullah. If you’d like to be featured as a guest on our podcast, or have suggestions for who we might invite, feel free to email us at contact@workingphds.com. You can find this address as well as a link to our website. In the description of each episode, our Working PhDs project has been generously supported by the Humanities Center of New York, the Central New York Humanities Corridor, the University of Rochester Humanities Center, and the Institute for Music Leadership at the Eastman School of Music. We’d like to thank our guests for sharing their stories and the graduate student workers and faculty mentors whose tireless efforts went into creating this podcast. Thank you for listening.