PhD candidate starts Uruguay site for sustainable living

PhD candidate starts Uruguay site for sustainable living, learning

A sunset view from the Rizoma Field School in Colonia, Uruguay.
A sunset view from Playa Los Pinos, Colonia, Uruguay.

Photos provided by Ashley Colby Fitzgerald.

WSU PhD candidate Ashley Colby Fitzgerald wakes up each day with a unique challenge—learning how to live off the land on a small-scale farm in Uruguay. One day, she may have to troubleshoot an ant infestation in her garden. The next, she may be testing new ways to conserve house water runoff so that it returns to the water table.

Colby Fitzgerald and her husband, Patrick, moved to Colonia, Uruguay, two years ago to start the Rizoma Field School—an experiential learning site that teaches college students about small-scale solutions to global environmental challenges. The goal is to show students how populations across the world practice sustainable living—and how local practices can help inform broader sustainability initiatives.

Ashley Colby Fitzgerald

“It’s just so apparent that people need expertise beyond really technical and specific knowledge bases,” Colby Fitzgerald said.

“They really need to be able to think in a multifaceted way—and experiential learning really helps with that and emphasizes local knowledge.”

The Rizoma Field School hosted their first group of students from the University of Idaho last year and are in talks with the Office of International Programs to host a group from WSU in Spring 2019.

The WSU Sociology Newsletter had an opportunity to talk with Colby Fitzgerald about life in Uruguay, her long-term plans for the field school, and how her time at WSU influenced her work.

Pierce Greenberg: First, I’m curious, what does a typical day look like for you in Uruguay?

Ashley Colby Fitzgerald: “So, it differs from when we have a group or not. When we don’t have a group, we are trying to figure out how to grow food for ourselves and live off the land. And we’re doing this in a very slow way because we really know nothing. We’re both from Chicago—a very urban environment. But we decided it was important to learn these skills, learn from local knowledge, then share that information with other people from around the world.

Our daily life is kind of a mixture of little projects. For example, today, I’m working on a gray water garden. All of our water that is leaving the house—which is not toilet water—is going into a garden, and the plants are soaking up that gray water and filtering it so it can go back into the water table.

The only things we know about this process are from books, so it’s a constant process where we’re learning how to do experimental environmental living type things. And when I go out there and the water smells and there’s water sitting there, I have to figure out why that is and do more to fix it. That’s our typical day—and we’re building these skills up slowly.

Ashley's wife Patrick and her child, XYZ.
Ashley Colby Fitzgerald’s husband, Patrick, and daughter Isabel in 2014

When we have a group, it’s different, because we’re spending the whole time talking with the group, showing the group around. We go and work with people who do some form of subsistence agriculture, whatever they’ve identified as the project they need help with. At the end of the day, they go back to their place and we have a big reflection. We talk about the context of what they’ve seen that day and try to help them understand by comparing it to the U.S. and how it’s different.

PG: What has been the reaction from residents in Uruguay to you living there and bringing these groups of college students in?

ACF: My immigrant experience is very different from what I expected. When I was in the U.S. and I told people I wanted to live off the land, they thought I was insane. But here, by just saying, ‘We’re trying to grow food and eat it,’ everybody just nods their head and says, ‘Oh, of course,’ because that’s what everybody else does here. So, that’s been nice and people have been really interested in helping us troubleshoot and learn about gardening and small-scale construction.

With having the groups come, the reception has been extremely positive because the groups have wanted to work with at-risk or in-need communities. We’re working with people who are doing extremely small-scale agriculture that are being crowded out by industrial agriculture, even here in Uruguay. So, I think the people here are grateful that we are coming in and helping them do their work and paying them for their time. That is an important principle to me—we are saying we want your help, but we also want to pay you for your time. We’re not just going to extract your time and labor for our own benefit.

We’re sending a message that we value small-scale agriculture and local knowledge in this region. And the response to that has been extremely positive so far.

University of Idaho students learning about small-scale agriculture.
University of Idaho students learning about small-scale agriculture at the Rizoma Field School.

PG: I’m interested in the programmatic or academic side of things and what you tie in to at the end of the day when the groups come. Could you talk a bit more about your graduate school experience at WSU and how it informs what you talk about with students at the end of the day?

ACF: My time at Washington State really catalyzed the field school idea. It was really Scott Frickel’s environmental sociology class that convinced me of the necessity of combining the understanding of environmental social problems and in-person, contextual experiential learning.

We read a piece that compared two groups of scientists studying salmon populations after the installation of a dam—one group using computer simulations, and the other counting salmon in the field. The scientists in the field were so much more accurate than the computer models. It showed that science was going in this direction of being so far-removed from the natural environment it is interested in. So, I was super excited and moved by that. Of course, I had all sorts of interests already in social justice, experiential learning, and travel, so I kind of put all of those things together to make the field school.

I also talk about the sociology of food and agriculture—Jessica Goldberger’s graduate class—which was about the social and environmental problems caused by industrial agriculture in the U.S. and around the world.

The pedagogical point I’m trying to make with the students is that the solutions we need for environmental social problems require us to look towards people who have been living sustainably for many decades but are not in the conversation about sustainability solutions. I make the case—based on my graduate studies—that there is a lot to be learned from people outside of the sphere of environmentalism.

For example, my next-door neighbor here would never use the jargon of environmentalists, but he is living, working, and creating food that people in the richest places in the U.S. are, too, and calling agro-ecology. For me, it’s sort of a social justice and environmental component, where we are both lifting people up who are outside the conversation of environmental solutions and opening up students’ eyes to how much can be done on such a small scale—even just the scale of their own life.

University of Idaho was the first student group to visit the Rizoma Field school.
University of Idaho was the first student group to visit the Rizoma Field school.

PG: Where did you get the inspiration for the name of Rizoma Field School?

ACF: In [former WSU professor] Dan Jaffee’s globalization class, we read this article about the new international or transnational social movement being represented not by a tree—with a central organization and branches—but instead is represented better by a rhizome and root structures. There is no centralized organization and resources can be shared horizontally. But, in each place, the rhizomes use the resources they need in their specific space. So, it’s extremely horizontal, rather than vertical in structure. That really inspired me, as well, in the development of the field school. I was thinking a lot about what a modern social movement looks like—and, to me, it looks rhizomic. Instead of top-down, it’s about sharing resources and making networks—that showed me where I want Rizoma Field School to be in the world.

Uruguayan community partners Martin and Mariano Garcia, who practice a form of agroecology.
Uruguayan community partners Martin and Mariano Garcia, who practice a form of agroecology.

PG: Looking forward, what are some of your long-term goals for the field school? Do you hope to scale up to be hosting groups year-round?

ACF: We’ve been talking about that. Part of the reason we moved here was to be around our kids while they were growing up. So, we don’t want to ramp it up so much that our kids are in daycare all the time.

We want to make sure we have a good work-life balance. That’s in-line with all the other things we’re thinking about—which is reinventing ways of living and thinking. We’re thinking three groups a year with these 10-day trips—and then we’ll re-evaluate when we get to that point.

At this point we are open not only to alternative breaks but also to any short-term study abroad experiences that fall in the line with the general theme of sustainable livelihoods. We can certainly accept more schools and start being in talks with more schools to develop this. We’d be especially keen to develop a program with WSU alumni and affiliates.

Part of what I really want to do is not just be a provider for experiential learning abroad but to develop a curriculum that I can share with other people who want to do in-context learning experiences. What is a good reflection? What is good pedagogy for teaching these kinds of topics? I want to work on developing that and making it free so that other people can share and use it and tweak it in their contexts. So, that’s the bigger thing—being part of a network of people that are doing experiential learning and being interested in teaching about small-scale sustainable solutions and developing that over time.

You can learn more about the Rizoma Field School on their website,