Fulbright Scholar fights food insecurity in Brazil

Saranda Ross has never been a stranger to responsibility.

At 10 years old, she got her first job selling newspapers around Olympia. In her high school years, she worked full time in restaurants instead of attending classes. Along the way, her family faced challenges — hunger, homelessness, barriers to legal services — that all too often cause millions of Americans to slip through the cracks in the system.

Through it all, Ross, her mother and siblings stuck together, bending but never breaking. Now years later, Ross is a recipient of one of the country’s most distinguished legal scholarships, which she is leveraging to fight environmentally impacted food insecurity in Brazil.

“Growing up we were poor, and for us, access to food was an issue — not consistently but it was an issue — and that was an inspiring factor for the proposal for my scholarship project,” Ross says.

It is my intent to not only learn how Brazil manages land and food availability, utilization, access and stability, but also to discover additional strategies to support sustainable systems.

Ross is one of 22 UW students and alumni awarded a Fulbright U.S. Student Program Scholarship for the 2020-21 academic year. The program is the largest U.S. international exchange opportunity for students to pursue graduate study, advanced research and teaching in elementary and secondary schools worldwide.

Ross’s focus is on the impacts of climate change on food supplies. As part of the project, she will research, analyze and propose actionable legislative and sociopolitical solutions to food insecurity issues in Belo Horizonte and Salvador — two major Brazilian cities with a combined population of nearly 5.5 million.

“It is my intent to not only learn how Brazil manages land and food availability, utilization, access and stability, but also to discover additional strategies to support sustainable systems,” Ross writes in her project’s statement of grant purpose.

Fluent in Portuguese, Ross will be conducting interviews with government officials and leading scholars, taking a deep dive into legislative and administrative policies, and identifying barriers to and opportunities for substantive change. She will also take environmental law classes at her host institutions, the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Federal University of Bahia.

In many ways, the project is a continuation of an education that got a decidedly late start.

Environmental Change

Ross grew up in Arizona until she was 10 years old, when her mother packed up her children and left behind an abusive partner.

Though they left a bad situation, they found themselves struggling, moving from place to place, sometimes with nowhere to go at all. Her mother’s struggles with mental illness made it difficult to work consistently, and the family faced eviction, mental disability discrimination and found little recourse in the legal system. In an ensuing custody battle, Ross’s mother did much of the legal work pro se after struggling to find a lawyer who would help.

“Obviously as a young kid, I didn’t understand why certain things were happening,” Ross says, “but I did know that in terms of my mom, we had a lot of trouble navigating the legal system for assistance.”

Ross grew up fast. She worked to help support the family until she was 17, when she finally felt comfortable with the idea of moving out and focusing on her goals.

Ross made up for lost time, earning her GED, completing community college and fulfilling the requirements ultimately needed to get into the UW. Her frustrations with the legal system growing up fueled a drive to fight for systemic change, and in a matter of years, she had propelled herself into the law school and distinguished herself as one of her class’s most engaging students.

Ross was active in the Black Law Student’s Association, worked as senior managing editor on the Washington International Law Journal and served on the board of the UW Law’s Environmental Law Society. She also continued her volunteer work, which began at Tacoma Pro Bono during undergrad, through the Immigrant Families Advocacy Project (IFAP), where she teamed up with fellow law students and an attorney to help an undocumented domestic abuse survivor through the visa application process.

Still, when it was time to prepare for life beyond law school, Ross remembers looking at law firms and seeing very few people like herself, a Black woman in a legal landscape dominated by white men. She sought out mentors who shared their experiences, and she says that helped pave the way to where she is today.

“Representation matters, and for me, it means a lot to be able to meet someone who looks like me, comes from a similar background, and hear how they navigate this white world of law,” Ross says.

The Fulbright Scholarship is the next step in a long journey, one that has shaped Ross into the legal professional she is today. And while the scope is vast and the responsibilities are great, she is infinitely more excited than concerned. Responsibility, after all, is something she knows a thing or two about.