Carrie Sedlak earned a Master of Public Health (MPH) and a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from UW–Madison in 2015. She earned bachelor’s degrees in geography and anthropology at the University of Denver. Following her undergraduate schooling, she went to work in Thailand as an environmental educator, where teaching a course on agroecology piqued her interest in food systems and community-supported agriculture (CSA).
Sedlak moved to Madison with her then girlfriend, who had just started graduate school. Before deciding that she also wanted to attend graduate school and beginning her master’s programs, Sedlak worked as a farmhand at Crossroads Community Farm to learn about organic CSA farming. She also volunteered for food-oriented nonprofits, including FairShare CSA Coalition, where she is now Executive Director.
What is your role as Executive Director at FairShare CSA Coalition?
FairShare’s mission is to connect farmers and eaters. As the director, I work to fulfill that mission and support my staff and our Board in achieving this goal. I’m involved in all aspects of our work just as each of the staff is involved in most of the work, which is something that I love about our organization. My work ranges from steering the strategic direction of the organization, to administrative tasks, managing staff, writing grants, developing sponsor relationships, program planning, and more.
What are some of the joys that you find in your job right now?
I work with an incredibly intelligent, motivated, and passionate group of colleagues. The Board is incredibly supportive and very tuned in to the key issues that FairShare is working on. And the farmers – I think that farmers don’t get nearly enough credit for what an incredibly difficult line of work they are involved in. I’m always so impressed with the farmers and am so appreciative of the work that they’re doing, both from my role as the director at FairShare and my role as a person in the world eating the delicious food that they grow. It is an honor to be able to work with such wonderful people and to literally have it sustain and nourish me and my family.
What about the challenges?
We are no different than the majority of nonprofits, in that it’s challenging to find a steady, secure source of funding. We are by no means solely grant funded, but that’s certainly an important part of our revenue. We need grants to help us accomplish our regular work and support our staff capacity, which means applying for grants that we may or may not receive. We have far more work to do than can possibly be done and are keenly aware of all the great projects we could pursue should we have the staff capacity to go after them.
A big issue that we’re currently facing is the new set of challenges facing our farmers. Climate change and labor are major issues right now, and that’s not something that FairShare has historically focused a significant amount on. Originally, the main focus for FairShare was to provide awareness and education around CSA and to operate our food assistance program. Farming and the organization have evolved quite a bit since then, including these newer aspects like climate change and a challenging labor market, so we are trying to figure out what our role is in these spaces.
What kind of things did you do when you were planning out your graduate study to make sure it prepared you for your work now?
Something that I was pretty focused on making happen was to have a project assistantship for the duration of my graduate career, for two reasons. One was to help support the cost of attending grad school. Thankfully I’d heard from a good number of mentors and others that it would be very possible to find a project assistantship. You just have to be proactive and get in touch with a number of professors and/or centers on campus, find out what they’re working on, and see if it aligns with your interests and skills.
[The second reason is], I wanted to take [what I was learning] from each of the classes and incorporate it readily into practical work. The Master of Public Health program had applied projects and [Urban and Regional Planning] did, as well. But I wanted to be working on something that was consistent throughout the semester, and where I could be applying my learning instantaneously.
I had a project assistantship through the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) on campus for the majority of my time at grad school. I also had an assistantship for a semester at the School of Medicine and Public Health on the Obesity Prevention Initiative grant project. I was fortunate to be working on projects in my assistantships that were very related to what I was focusing on in school, and I worked with incredible academics and professionals in both of those assistantships. I therefore had mentors throughout my graduate school career.
What skills from graduate school are important to you in your work now?
I would say, primarily, critical thinking. The number one thing I do at work is evaluate whether or not what we’re doing is making an impact, [whether] we need to consider changing course, and when and how to implement an evaluative framework. I’m a systems thinker. I’m of the mindset that there is never a perfect system and I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. I think that’s just reality. It’s good to embrace that and [know] we can always do a little bit better (or a lot better) depending on what we’re trying to achieve. A main area of interest for me in entering grad school was to continue building on the evaluative skills I had already gained through my undergrad degree and professional life.
It sounds simple, but I’m surprised sometimes at the questions that aren’t asked in a given situation. Basic questions can sometimes be missed if one isn’t trained in how to think about all aspects of an issue. That was something I learned throughout my career but was really brought to a head in grad school.
What advice would you give to current students who are in master’s programs or prospective students who are looking at starting one?
[My advice] more than anything is to try to find an assistantship or job outside of grad school. It is immensely helpful to be doing something in addition to your coursework so that you can begin implementing what you’re learning. I think this is the way that learning becomes ingrained – by practicing it. There are many ways to accomplish this, like becoming a project assistant, research assistant, or a teaching assistant for a course that’s related to what you’re studying, or by working in a related field outside of school.
Another piece of advice is to take advantage of the extracurricular opportunities at school, such as through talks or presentations that you can attend. I tried to stay aware of what was happening across campus because there were many other disciplines that focused on work that I was interested in or learning about. These complementary perspectives can add significant value and depth to your overall learning.