Emma Lietz Bilecky, MEM/MTS

Research Associate

Emma Lietz Bilecky earned joint degrees in Theological Studies and Environmental Economics and Policy at Duke University. Her academic work focused on the social and political dimensions of food systems and food environments, asking how food and the processes of its production constructs landscapes, communities, identities and place. With the World Food Policy Center, she contributes work bridging academic scholarship with communities of practice, informed by a passion for food justice and agrarian ethics.


Emma Lietz Bilecky is a master’s student pursuing joint degrees in Theological Studies and Environmental Management, Economics and Policy who will graduate in May 2019. Her academic work focuses on the social and political dimensions of food systems and food environments. She wants to understand how food and the processes of its production ultimately construct our landscapes, communities, identities and sense of place.

“I am particularly interested in ethical critiques of land and agriculture, and specifically how gender and race come into play in agriculture ethics. Essentially, the way farming landscapes take shape,” Lietz Bilecky explains.

Why She Chose Duke

A big part of what made Duke her choice for graduate school was the ability to extend her theological education and develop depth of knowledge in the policy and environmental fields as well. “I knew that here I could make connections between agricultural policy and ethics,” she explains. “I was already familiar with the work of Duke professors Norman Wirzba and Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis, both prominent agrarian theologians.”

“Dr. Davis looks at how land comes to play a prominent role for communities in the Hebrew Bible. She describes land as a member of the covenant between God, humans, and the rest of creation.  She plays with language to talk about land as kin, a member of the community very much like humans themselves. This means land is fundamentally important for how we think about ourselves – who we are,” said Lietz Bilecky.

“Most people don’t think about their own faith traditions’ view of or relationship to land, or human responsibilities to care for the places they find themselves. Understanding unspoken connections between land and human communities would help people to think more carefully about how to live in a hurting world,” she said. “It’s important interrogate our faith traditions and understand how they shape our imaginations, and maybe to push back.”

“Theology is interesting to me because I want to know why particular communities think about things the way they do,” she said.  She wants to explore how religious thought informs people’s actual communal life and practice. She is interested in the Christian communities because they are so prominent – and powerful - in America.

“I really think that the beliefs we hold influence how we interact with our environments. Biblical texts like the Book of Genesis talk about humans having dominion over creation, which can be interpreted either as a responsibility for caretaking—or permission to take and do whatever we want with the earth that sustains us,” she explains.  

She is animated by the idea that we need to relate to the earth differently. ”I think people generally have this idea that Christian life is about the hereafter. That it’s not about our embodied life –about the places we live. I think that is really dangerous,” she explains.

“To live an ethical life requires us to pay attention to the places where we live. I enjoy thinking about how food animates our physical lives and serves as a connector. It’s both physical and spiritual. This helps me think about what humans are for and what a balanced life of faith looks like.

“What I like about the World Food Policy Center is that we are looking at the ways various communities are coming to think about their relationship with food differently and are being formed by very real and embodied practices. It’s exciting to be part of this,” she said.

“My work with the WFPC has helped me see how these views and convictions I hold play out on the ground—in real life. I have been able to meet and learn from practitioners in communities that I might not have otherwise have had a chance to bump into to,” she said.

Dual Graduate Programs

Lietz-Bilecky seeks to better understand the challenges of doing applied ethical work, and is drawn to the work of faith practitioners working with the food system. For her Master of Environmental Management, Lietz Bilecky is working on a master project. For her Master of Theological Studies, she is writing a thesis. She’s exploring questions of land loss and dispossession—and in particular, the Pigford v. Glickman case which arose out of North Carolina in the 1990s. Pigford v. Glickman (1999) was a class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), alleging racial discrimination against African-American farmers in its allocation of farm loans and assistance programs between 1981 and 1996.

Through her research, she has interviewed a number of organizations in North Carolina who support farmers who have historically been discriminated against by the USDA. There are mismatches between the USDA’s official story describing  the improvements they made for minority farmers, and the lived experiences of individuals who experienced – or failed to experience – the impacts of policy change. Many black farmers lost their land, and once lost, it is almost impossible to get it back.

“I think it’s a story that needs to be told and it’s a story I need to know as a person interested in agricultural policy,” she explains. “It’s a story that is exemplary of agricultural policy in the US in general. I’ve always been curious about how landscapes took shape the way they did. But oftentimes, it doesn’t match the way in which farmland has been developed. Why does the land and land ownership look the way it does today? What policies and conditions made possible the ecological transformation of farmland, and who has lost is this effort? Questions about environmental health ought to include questions about equity. I’m interested in the stories at this intersection.”

“I want to hear stories that are less frequently told, and I want these stories to inform the way that I see land and eat from land. In the future, I hope to be in a position to share them,” she said.

Food & Faith Work at the WFPC

As a graduate research assistant with the World Food Policy Center, Lietz Bilecky is contributing to a literature review looking at food and faith work as it exists both in academic scholarship and in communities of practice.

“One of the center’s goals right now is to get a sense of what’s happening on the ground across faith traditions. With Alex Treyz, I have been able to gain a better understanding of this vast and fast-changing landscape,” she explains.

“There’s no central repository of information where food & faith people go to inform the work the do – it’s a movement, and the work is happening all over the place, which makes it very hard but also very interesting. People are talking with one another and are informed by faith traditions and writings and there is a lot of connection. That is very appealing to me,” she explains.

She strives to create spaces for conversation between academics and communities. At the 2018 Inaugural Food & Faith Convening event, organized by the WFPC, she was able to “to see practitioners engaging with academics – people really engaging with and responding to the land they live, worship and grow food on. People are doing really inspirational things.”

“The convening was amazing – people in the room were already committed to their work, to each other, and to this movement. It was great to see the excitement around and commitment to connecting food, faith, land and race, and economic development. It was a unique kind of academic conference –it was community-centric. It was about what people on the ground are already doing and how institutions and academics can support them,” she said.

Lietz Bilecky graduates in May 2019. She’s applying a wide range of positions, but hopes to continue work in food system advocacy.