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Chico State

Office Hours with Criminal Justice Faculty and Rural Issues Researcher Amy Magnus

Amy Magnus leans on a pedestrian bridge in a lush, green envirnonment
Jason Halley / University Photographer

Dr. Amy Magnus is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice recently received an “early career award” from office of civic engagement for her work related to rural communities on Friday, December 9, 2022 in Chico, Calif. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/Chico State)

Professor Amy Magnus spent most of her life in metropolitan areas—from growing up and attending college in Las Vegas, Nevada, to completing her doctoral studies in Irvine, California. Yet, she’s always had a passion for rural communities.

Today, her interest in areas with smaller populations is the focus of her academic research—which also feeds her activist passion to solve social injustices and inspire the next generation. When she was looking at job opportunities, Chico State’s student demographic and strategic priorities fueled the sense of place and belonging that has been important throughout her entire life.

Now in her third year as an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice, Magnus said what she appreciates most is working with students from rural communities and how this dynamic allows her to connect with rural students.

“It’s really impactful to connect with students from rural places and say, ‘Your voice, your interests, and your story matter, and we need to elevate your voice,’” she said.

This spring, Magnus was honored by Chico State’s Office of Civic Engagement with the first of its inaugural Early Career Community Engagement Awards. The recognition goes to faculty in their first five years who are pursuing community engagement in their teaching or research, especially if they are pursuing racial and social justice.

When and how did your interest in justice and activism begin?

It has always been in my blood. I’ve sought leadership and community organizing roles since my early childhood. I believe that leadership and organizing are two of my key strengths. From this, I have always been involved in activist circles. For example, I volunteered at Planned Parenthood and worked on establishing comprehensive sex education in Nevada. I work on progressive political campaigns for candidates that align with my values and passions. I did activist work as part of my dissertation research. I’ve been involved with community organizing efforts for as long as I can remember, and these are all efforts that continue to inspire me. However, I became frustrated by the inability to make change in the way I wanted to see change happen. I went to graduate school, in part, to do the research I thought would be useful in making change for the issues I care about. I’ve always kept that thread of activism in my life, both professionally and personally.  

Why is a focus on rural communities and issues important?

Rural people are an underserved population we tend to neglect in society. Rurality adds its own dimension of identity, its own lens, and a way of thinking about who you are as a person and how you belong in your community—and that is true of our students. Many of our students at Chico State are from rural communities. You don’t need to teach a class on rural issues to connect with students from rural backgrounds. A good start is as simple as bringing rural examples to every class. What does the issue you’re discussing look like in a rural landscape? What kind of research is being done on this topic in rural communities? I am a professor in criminal justice, so one way I like to connect rurality to my classes is by talking about prison building and prison proliferation—why do we place prisons in rural communities? Why do we promise to “save” rural communities’ economies via incarceration, prison building, and other forms of carceral expansion? How does that narrative get built and what does that look like in reality? What are the long-term impacts of this? We can all adapt our lessons in this way to include rural people and communities in conversations that relate to our classes and disciplines.

Magnus Fact #1: For her dissertation, she spent a year doing an ethnographic research project in a rural community in the western United States. Working as a volunteer at a community organization that did everything from serving people in poverty, addressing child abuse, and working on domestic violence and with foster youth, her scholar-activism gave her the lived experience of being in the community and doing community-guided activism in real time while collecting data. She is now working on a book about the experience.

What are some of the biggest injustices faced by underrepresented and underserved populations in rural areas?

Some of the circumstances I see most often include economic deprivation, lack of access to transportation, lack of access to legal resources, inadequate access to medical and mental health professionals, and chronic and generational poverty. I do a lot of work in vast rural regions in Nevada and California where just getting to and from the grocery store is a challenge. Other issues I study include policing, gendered violence, and child abuse and neglect, for example—these issues exist across all community contexts but, in a rural community, they tend to be exacerbated. If we are talking about leaving an abusive relationship, for example, that is an issue people have to navigate in very different ways than in metropolitan areas. However, even with the injustices I see, rural people are also so incredibly creative and resilient and rise above a lot of these circumstances. Activism in these communities is much more subtle, personal, and integrated into the community than in major metropolitan communities. People are working to respond to these deprivations and they are making amazing strides. One of the great things for me is seeing the doers in these communities responding to the injustices they experience and making a difference in their communities.

Magnus Fact #2: Her favorite class to teach is “Criminal Justice Ethics” because it focuses on what is right and wrong with the system and how ethical decisions are made on individual, community, and societal levels. This class pushes students to think about systemic inequity, injustice, and ethics in ways that are both challenging and thought-provoking with the hope of inspiring students to pursue social change.

What is one of the biggest lessons you try to impart on your students?

I learn so much from my students every day. I want them to harness their passions and wisdom in their educational journey and, when they enter the workforce or whatever path they end up taking, to know that they have voice, they have power, and they have agency. In criminal justice, we talk about change and social justice, and I hope to instill in them that one person can make a huge difference—in individual lives and in a system. I hope my students leave my classes feeling inspired, empowered, and ready to contribute to their communities in meaningful ways.

Magnus Fact #3: When not working on voter engagement, researching issues in rural communities, teaching, or engaged in her own activism on social justice issues, she enjoys cooking, painting, gardening, and watching the Vegas Golden Knights hockey team!

You led voter outreach efforts with the Office of Civic Engagement this semester. What trends do you see in today’s students?

As somebody who has been politically active my whole life, something that is really special about this generation is their political engagement. They are voting, and that is amazing, but they are also involved in other ways. They are passionate about addressing environmental racism, climate change, economic justice, gender justice, and so much more. In this generation, we are seeing a culmination of passions and interests and a real desire for social change in ways that we desperately need in society. For me, it’s inspiring! They are hungry to be legitimate voices in political discourse—and they ARE legitimate. They are our upcoming leaders, they want to be involved in politics, they will be our next teachers and scholars. We, as a society, have to give young people a seat at the table and elevate their voices. From my perspective, I’m grateful that Chico State is very good at doing that for our students.

Dr. Magnus has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from University of Nevada, Las Vegas; a master’s degree in criminal justice from UNLV; and a PhD in criminology, law and society from University of California, Irvine with emphases in race and justice and law, society, and culture. Before she arrived at Chico State in 2020, she was a UC Irvine School of Law Initiative to End Family Violence Research Fellow, a UC Irvine Kugelman Citizen Peacebuilding Research Fellow, and a UC Irvine Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation Pedagogical Fellow.