CIRS Blog about Rural California

Don Villarejo

Don Villarejo

Don Villarejo became active in civic affairs in 1955, successively participating in the student, civil rights and peace movements. In 1960, he was a founding editor of New University Thought, one of the first publications of the New Left, serving as Chair of the Board of Editors until 1965. In 1967-68, he participated in the preparation of protests at the 1968 National Democratic Party Convention in Chicago.

After several years of involvement in the Los Angeles peace movement, including founding the Indochina Work Group (dedicated to ending U.S. military intervention in Vietnam), he joined the eight-member National Standing Committee of the Indochina Peace Campaign in 1972, representing the Pacific Region, a position he held until the conclusion of the U.S. involvement in 1975.

He served as volunteer with the farmworkers movement in 1976 and, after the conclusion of this work, founded the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS) in 1977, serving as Executive Director until his retirement from that position in 1999. CIRS is a private, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to helping create a rural California that is socially just, economically viable and ecologically balanced.

His professional career has been multi-disciplinary, starting with a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Chicago in 1967. He joined the faculty of the Physics Department at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1968, serving until 1975, and then taught at the University of California, Davis, for several years until switching careers subsequent to the founding of CIRS. Dr. Villarejo's experience as a research physicist, particularly analytical and quantitative skills, proved to be invaluable preparation for his subsequent career as a researcher interested in agricultural economies and rural societies.

Dr. Villarejo has served as a consultant for numerous public and private agencies, including the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, California State Assembly (Office of Research), California Department of Industrial Relations, U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Reclamation, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, California Rural Legal Assistance, International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Locals 601 and 890), and Migrant Legal Action Program, among others.

He has received a number of awards in recognition of his service, most recently the 2000 National Service Award of the Office of Migrant Health (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services) for "Exemplary commitment, dedication and service to the nation's migrant farm workers."

Dr. Villarejo's publication, Suffering in Silence (November 2000), was cited by The California Endowment as the primary motivating factor in its recently announced $50 million commitment in new grants to provide health services for hired farm workers in California.

June 23, 2017

After reflecting on this topic, I realized that the best summary available is the paper which Profs. Marc B. Schenker and Stephen A. McCurdy wrote with Heather E. Riden and myself titled Improving the health of agricultural workers and their families in California: current status and policy recommendations, published by the University of California Global Health Institute in February 2015.


Instead, I’ve decided to focus today on how Marc’s leadership and influence broadened the scope of research at the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS). In turn, the ultimate impacts of CIRS became greater than any of us could have ever imagined.


Prof. Marc Schenker and I met for the first time on June 6, 1990, at a Conference on Health Concerns of Living and Working in Agricultural California, sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension and the School of Public Health, UC Berkeley. CIRS was asked to bring community folks to the conference as panelists to discuss specific topics of current concern, and, as well, contribute an overview presentation about rural California. CIRS arranged for farm worker advocates, leaders from predominantly Mexican-American rural areas, and staff of agencies providing health services for farm workers to participate in the conference.


As a few who are here today were aware in 1990, it was risky of Marc to seek to engage me in his new initiative. Some eleven years earlier, I was part of an effort led by California Rural Legal Assistance, inspired by the late Ralph Abascal, to sue the Regents of the University of California for ignoring the needs of a great many rural Californians, most importantly, farmworkers, but also small-scale producers, organic farmers and the rural poor. We were not seeking monetary damages, rather we wanted major changes this public institution’s priorities.


Although we prevailed in Alameda County Superior Court, the lawsuit was thrown out by the California State Supreme Court ten years later. But, from the filing of the lawsuit, very quietly, the University of California helped to start or support the Small Farm Center, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, and the Student Experimental Farm. Moreover, the controversial Alternatives in Agriculture course, begun in 1977, was added to the formal curriculum of the College of Agriculture.


It was in this context that Marc’s invitation was most welcome. Bob Spear had let it be known that one of the purposes of the conference was to scope the possible creation of a Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at UC Davis as part of the newly authorized Agricultural Worker Safety program of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. After the conference, Marc asked CIRS to become a coinvestigator of the new Center and prepare a research proposal as part of his grant proposal for which he was Principal Investigator.


Quite frankly, in 1990, I could never have imagined what the relationship with Marc’s initiative would eventually yield. When the first NIOSH grant was awarded to the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety, in one of the very first discussions with him, we agreed to collaborate in undertaking a population-based survey of farmworker health that would include a modest physical examination.


We approach a farmworker clinic in Parlier, a well-known farmworker community. Joined by a few folks from Marc’s research group, and by Dave Runsten from the CIRS staff, we went to Parlier where Arcadio Viveros, Executive Director of the United Health Centers clinic, and Mayor of Parlier, welcomed us and agreed to cooperate.

I clearly recall one of the first comments Marc made to me about our work.


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census black and white


When most Americans think of California, they typically conjure up visions of beaches, Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge, Silicon Valley, or an urban/suburban lifestyle. But for many decades, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, California also has had more rural residents than any of the eleven western-most states of the contiguous forty-eight. Census 2000 found California’s rural population totaled 1,876,753 persons, nearly twice as large as second-ranked Washington state’s non-urban population (Census 2010 has not yet reported rural population findings).  

Rural economies of California have been historically dominated by natural resource production (some would say “exploitation”): farming, ranching, fishing, logging, mining and hunting. During the past several decades, only farming has experienced real growth in economic terms, largely due to a major expansion of the annual output of high value commodities, such as fruits and nuts, vegetables, ornamentals and dairy products.

California’s agricultural success story is illustrated by the fact that nine of the ten U.S. counties with the largest value of farm production are located within the state. But the fishing and logging industries are in serious decline and may never recover, while mining and hunting long ago depleted their natural resource bases.

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