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  • Truth Telling in the Face of Power:A Review of Daniel O'Connell and Scott Peters, In the Struggle: Scholars and the Fight Against Industrial Agribusiness in California (New York: New Village Press, 2021)
  • John Forester (bio)
Truth Telling in the Face of Power: A Review of Daniel O'Connell and Scott Peters, In the Struggle: Scholars and the Fight Against Industrial Agribusiness in California ( New York: New Village Press, 2021)

Daniel O'Connell and Scott Peters have produced a book as extraordinary in style as in substance. They present detailed accounts of eight scholar-activists and organizers who have struggled to understand and expose the diverse impacts of agribusiness on California communities. But O'Connell and Peters do this by giving voice to their eight narrators—and the result reveals a power of voice that is at once striking and moving, accessible and generous, displaying a continuing commitment and conviction that is at once instructive and inspiring. The "damning indictment of the greed and corruption that flourish under California's system of industrial agriculture" (3) that follows grows not from any summary arguments of the authors but from the decades of grounded, engaged research, legislative testimonies, scholarly books and investigative reporting identified in the practices of these narrators, key actors "in the struggle." The massive inequalities they portray may nevertheless not surprise readers, even as the poverty perpetuated by such concentrations of land and power and regulatory deference remains infuriating.

Daniel O'Connell has lived, worked and written about the politics of agriculture in California's Central Valley for more than twenty years. He was drawn to the University of California, Davis to study "International Agricultural Development" for a master's degree; he later went to Cornell University to do doctoral work on the intersection of engaged scholarship and agrarian democracy. Teaching at Cornell, Scott Peters had deep interests [End Page 148] in the democratizing potential of the contemporary university, including the rich history of the land-grant university mission and university extension services. He has also developed innovative oral history methods that allowed diverse professionals and organizers alike to present compelling and revealing accounts of their community-engaged work.1 Their collaboration complemented O'Connell's knowledge of leading actors in the Central Valley with Peters's knowledge and skills of crafting the grounded stories of those striking practitioners.

As a result, the central actors animating In the Struggle include prolific academic researchers and community activists, legal aid workers turned organizers, and investigative journalists. Their stories corroborate each other as jigsaw puzzle pieces fit together; what emerges is not a shared political program but an astonishing portrait, a lived texture of making research matter, focusing research on issues of public good and vulnerability, realizing that facts matter. We see clearly how the facts of ownership and living conditions can matter enough so that big growers and land holders would be all too happy to suppress research, to eliminate faculty positions, to press federal agencies to look away rather than enforce regulations.

One story line through these stories details activist research careers surprisingly free of ideological baggage. We see no jargon here and less academic theory, but rather an appeal to getting the facts, a curiosity about the community effects of ownership and scale, an almost quaint invocation of the mission of public, state universities—to serve the broader public by gaining knowledge about public welfare, to tell the truth about systems producing human suffering.

But of course there were stories here of labor conditions in the fields that big landowners preferred not to have revealed. There were then and remain today questions of the abuse of power, of the failure of legal protections to be implemented, of the working conditions of immigrant and migrant farm labor, and of course myriad funding constraints on research efforts.

We see early on, for example, as economist Paul Taylor fell in love and then worked with photographer Dorothea Lange that "Taylor was given permission to hire Lange as a 'typist,' even though, of course, what she would do was photography." The authors continue, "Few relationships have been as potently productive and enduringly compelling in the cause of agrarian justice during the twentieth...