The British band Mumford & Sons was presented in September with the John Steinbeck Award at a campus concert, proceeds of which funded the new Steinbeck Service Fellowship.
Rooted in preserving the legacy of one of America’s greatest writers — and one of Stanford’s best-known dropouts — the inaugural fellowship will sponsor six students, half from Stanford and half from San Jose State University (SJSU), to spend their summers working in “Steinbeck country” and California’s Central Valley on service-based projects.
“Steinbeck country,” the setting for Steinbeck’s early life and many of his most beloved novels, is located south of the Bay Area, encompassing the Salinas Valley and the greater Monterey Bay Area.
Mumford & Sons won the annual John Steinbeck Award — awarded by SJSU’s Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies — in light of their commitment to assist local and global charities fighting for social justice. Previous honorees include Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Joan Baez and Jackson Browne.
The band’s songs “Dust Bowl Dance,” “Timshel” and “‘Rose of Sharon” reveal significant influence by Steinbeck’s works. In a speech between performing songs at the concert at Bing, Marcus Mumford described discovering the depth of Steinbeck’s canon while working with the poor in Hong Kong as a young man.
The members of the band collectively cited “Travels with Charley,” Steinbeck’s account of a road trip across America he made with his poodle Charley, as a source of particular inspiration for their Gentlemen of the Road campaign, which brings Mumford & Sons and other bands to rural communities across the country to deliver subsidized performances to raise money for charity.
The funding for the fellowship was raised through ticket sales of the 2019 John Steinbeck Award concert at Bing Concert Hall, featuring both conversation and the exhilarating live performances that the band is known for.
Two professors, Gavin Jones from Stanford’s English department and Nicholas Taylor from SJSU’s Center for Steinbeck Studies, are credited with designing the fellowship and proposing the idea to Mumford & Sons.
“We want to keep it local,” Jones said. “Stanford students are often flying around the world, doing extremely important things, but it’s also crucial to participate in community-engaged service on one’s doorstep.”
Along with performing service, the fellows will write about their experiences in honor of Steinbeck’s creative accomplishments. The intersection of English literature and community service is a unique characteristic of the fellowship — and one that was championed by Steinbeck throughout his lifetime.
“Everything is a little bit too scripted today. We want to view the students as an independent cohort who will work together to find creative solutions. Writing about their experiences is something that will allow students to reflect on their work,” Jones said
The program will continue Steinbeck’s legacy by focusing on alleviating the hardships experienced by California’s agricultural workers. “The problems that Steinbeck portrayed in his novels in the 1930’s — poverty and harsh working conditions for migrant families — persist in the region today,” Jones said.
Exposure to dangerous chemicals and aches from working in cramped tunnels are common occurrences to a fruit farm worker. As of 2016, a raspberry picker, for example, might expect to spend 13 hours a day picking, hauling and packing fragile berries. Workers complain of getting dizzy and vomiting at work — a result of dust, bee stings, flash floods, pesticides and chemicals.
Stanford’s Director of Community Engaged Learning in Education, Paitra Houts, is helping with the program development moving forward and is excited by the independent yet cohesive nature of the fellowship.
“A noteworthy quality of the fellowship is the networked approach and collaboration of two universities within the Bay Area towards a localized cause,” Houts said.