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Washington State University
CAS Connect September 2013

Resilience and strength

Leveraging a Bullitt Fellowship to change the world, one farmer at a time

Amber Heckelman arrived in the Philippines in 2007 as a college-educated woman from the West, ready to experience the culture of her family’s heritage through a university-affiliated program. Two months later, she returned to the United States as a determined champion of the Filipino peasant farmers who struggle to survive and yet provide a major portion of the food security for their countrymen.

“I made two vows when I returned: to share these stories and to return to the Philippines to help,” said Heckelman.

The best way to do this, she decided, was to continue her education.

Amber Heckelman. Photo by Laura Evancich, WSU Vancouver.
Amber Heckelman. Photo by Laura Evancich, WSU Vancouver.

Heckelman and her brother grew up in a tough ghetto community in southeast San Diego, raised by their single Filipina mother. Despite its hardships, Heckelman offers a balanced view when discussing her childhood.

“Many of the families, including my own, suffered from poverty and the legacies of racism and discrimination, yet they persevered. It was wonderful to grow up in a community rich in cultural diversity and full of strength and resilience,” she said.

While friends around her turned to drugs and violence, Heckelman turned to education. Her determination and scholastic achievements enabled her to leave San Diego and earn a BA in urban and environmental planning from the University of California-Irvine in 2002. After graduation, she spent two years in Indiana as an AmeriCorps team leader working with The Nature Conservancy and other educational programs. She then returned to San Diego and managed several before- and after-school programs at low-income schools, working to address some of the social and academic challenges she grew up with.

While in the Philippines, however, Amber witnessed poverty and suffering far beyond her own experience. Lean-to homes built on landfills. No access to clean water. Countless people, many of them displaced farmers, rummaging through the waste in search of food.

Critical faculty support

Heckelman admired the work of WSU anthropologist and Regent’s Professor John Bodley so she applied to graduate school in Pullman in the hopes of working with him before he retired.

“I found his work on the implications of development and progress on indigenous communities both inspiring and compelling,” she said.

For her master’s thesis, Heckelman hoped to identify key factors that perpetuate the endless cycle of extreme poverty and pervasive landlessness of the Filipino peasant farmers.

Bodley, an expert in small-scale cultural anthropology and her master’s thesis advisor, was impressed with her initiative and intensity. “Amber’s research on developing methods to help marginalized farmers regain access to land, increase self-reliance, and improve the local food supply is very important, particularly in light of the escalation of political and social unrest in the region,” he said.

As Heckelman delved into the cultural underpinnings of the Philippines, she found substantially degraded landscapes and significant ecological destruction were among the major challenges facing the farmers.

“I realized I didn’t have the knowledge, resources or capacity to effectively help them,” she said, “and that’s when I committed pursuing a second master’s degree.”

Andy Ford, WSU professor of environmental science, recalls when Heckelman first came to his office. “We typically don’t recommend students obtain a second master’s degree, and certainly not concurrently. However, when Amber came to talk to me, she had already figured out how to make it work, what courses she wanted to take, how the science would complement her work in anthropology, and why she needed a broader education,” he said.

Heckelman’s environmental science thesis took on the challenge of soil loss in Haiti, yet another impoverished and ecologically fragile society. Another WSU faculty member, Kevin Murphy, an assistant professor in crop and soil sciences, provided critical interdisciplinary guidance and resources.

International impact

After successfully defending both theses, Heckelman began a doctoral program in environmental science at WSU-Vancouver in the fall of 2012. Her intended dissertation on “Exploring Peasant Science: Food Sovereignty and Adaptations to Climate Change in the Philippines” will assist a well-established Philippine cooperative known as MASIPAG to document the successful effects of local agroecological practices.

Heckelman’s compelling body of work earned her the 2013 Bullitt Foundation Environmental Fellowship and $100,000 in financial support over the next two years.

“Amber is an amazing and dynamic student. She’s one of a growing number of truly interdisciplinary scholars, someone who will develop advanced understanding of human and environmental systems through a deep understanding of the science, culture and research in both areas,” said M. Jahi Chappell, assistant professor of environmental science and justice and Heckelman’s doctoral advisor and committee chair.

The fellowship will allow Heckelman to attend conferences and trainings, purchase fieldwork equipment and travel to the Philippines. It will also enable her to balance her studies with the civic engagement activities that sustain her: during her first year of graduate school, she completed more than 900 hours of community service and received a WSU Students in Service award. Recently, she facilitated a workshop on campus about the challenges of Filipino peasants, and developed a food justice workshop for teachers working with underserved youth in Vancouver, Wash.

“My faculty advisors have always made time for me. They have helped me become a better thinker and a stronger writer by challenging me to dig deeper and broaden my scope,” said Heckelman. “I am truly thankful for their expertise, their encouragement, and their ability to guide with compassion—all of which has helped me define my interests and led me to where I am today.”

Bodley expects Heckelman will continue to find avenues to fulfill her vow, “Small-scale solutions can sometimes solve the biggest problems. Her local work in the Philippines has the potential to improve thousands of lives in the future.”

See Amber’s photos at