Childhood, Cannabis, and Cycles: Chitchatting with James Padilioni

Professor James Padilioni is a visiting assistant professor in the religion and environmental studies departments. His interests lie in African Diasporic ritual, healing justice, and herbalism — topics that explore the overlap of religion and environmental studies. Professor Padilioni has taught classes such as “Sacred Plants, Holy Fungi, and Religious Experience,” “Healing Praxis and Social Justice,” and most recently, “‘Tis the Season: Festivals of Solstice, Yule, and Christmas.” The Phoenix spoke with Padilioni on his religious background, research interests, and activist work. 

Zoha Ashraf: Most students here know you as a professor whose interests lie at the intersection of religion and environmental studies. Which one of the two did you become interested in first? Was it a simultaneous interest that developed?

James Padilioni: The answers start somewhere in early childhood. I was born into a practicing Catholic family, but my mom was Baptist. I was born into this mixed religious family. I had been to the Baptist Church with my mom and her family and my aunts in Virginia. Having to discourse about the difference between Baptist and Catholics from elementary school, I guess that can be the beginning of a religious studies interest. 

But I think my natural curiosity as a kid gravitated towards environmental studies topics. I had a rock testing kit in third grade, and you could drop certain liquids on top of different types of rocks to see different reactions that would happen. And then I got really interested in weather and meteorology a. And I had a teacher who encouraged that. In the class, when thunderstorms would happen in the middle of the day, she would stop and turn off the lights and make the class sit in silence and listen to the thunderstorm as it came through. So she kind of helped encourage my interest in weather and I told my parents to buy me a NOAA weather radio, the National Weather Service forecasts that would just run on loops. I would fall asleep at night with this weather radio under my pillow. Just listening to the repetitions and readings of forecast discussions. I learned a lot of meteorological dynamics from listening to those forecasters. 

ZA: Have your academic interests always been intertwined with your personal family background?

JP: When I was in middle school, my family converted to all of us being Baptist. In that switch, then, it was a very self conscious thing that we were leaving the Catholic Church to go to the Baptist Church. My mom was very excited because she felt alienated in the Catholic Church, but she was a good wife to a Latin husband, who decided that we were going to be Catholic at first then let my mom take over the religious instruction when I was 10. 

In the Baptist Church, I learned how to play the piano. I’m interested a lot in religious ritual and performance and this is because from thirteen through 21 or 22 years old, I played piano in church, sang in choir and ensemble and played for teen ensembles. My mom started teaching in the Southside Baptist Academy, which was the school attached to our church. So we were going to church all the time for everything, whether it was for the school days, in the afternoons, getting piano lessons, or teaching people piano lessons. I probably was playing the piano like 50 hours a week. 

I stayed local for college and went to Temple University, initially. The Baptist Church wanted us to stay local and not go far away for college so that we could still go to church while we were college students. I remember being at Temple and then running across the city to get back out here to the suburbs, so I could be at Wednesday prayer service, play the piano, and then run back to campus. That was exhausting. But I enjoyed gospel. 

The Baptist [Church] has a lot of Black tradition in it and I didn’t know this — I wasn’t an academic about Baptist history in the African diaspora growing up. But there were things about the music performance that were fun. I enjoyed seeing people worship. I enjoyed controlling the energy of a worship service through my music, and by playing more aggressively or more or less you could whip people up into a frenzy or bring them down into a somber moment. So that made religion exciting for me when I got to participate in the actual production of ritual.

ZA: In a few of your classes, you’ve mentioned that you’ve been involved in a lot of activism. Do you mind talking about what types of activism you’ve participated in and how you got into them?

JP: My activism starts around the same time as my piano playing. It was around cannabis. That was the one issue that radicalized me, and I realized in the case of cannabis, it’s an object or a plant. It’s one thing, but that one thing could become 360 degrees-worth of training in political activism from different perspectives, whether that’s lobbying, farm justice or cultivation. When I was in college, running to and from church, I met cannabis for the first time [and] that changed my perception of the world. I remember thinking ‘this is a plant that God made.’ That’s what my church taught me — that all plants and animals are God’s creatures. It didn’t make sense for me in my Baptist logic — why a plant that could do such interesting things to the human psyche be completely verboten? 

By this time I had transferred to West Chester University of Pennsylvania, which was maybe about an hour or so from Lancaster, and closer to farm country. There, we were doing a lot of farm justice. Plants, hemp, and then cannabis, and I remember talking about it so that I wouldn’t skirt around the stigma of smoking. But as I grew in my independent thinking, I eventually left the church and went full time into cannabis activism. I was one of the founding members of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at West Chester University (SSDP). One of our slogans was to “come out of the cannabis closet.” And we wanted to publicly claim cannabis usage. And that felt like it was something new — to do that and try to position yourself as an academic student and be active on campus in clubs, and then also have marijuana be a part of your cultural aesthetic. 

SSDP would also bring students to Washington DC for lobby days. It’s so interdisciplinary when you’re trying to do lobbying or activism for cannabis because on one hand, you want to teach people the botany and why they should not be afraid of a plant. There should be no boogeyman when we’re just talking about plant chemical substances. But then, on the other hand, you need to know politics, legislation and the judicial process if you want to actually engage in lobbying. This was right on the brink of the legalization movement in the United States where states started actually legalizing recreational marijuana. I was able to be a part of some [marijuana legalization] movements. I worked on the Colorado campaign in 2012, Safer Choice. There was also the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), where we worked as contractors to either design graphics or run their social media or research statistics so that they could make billboards. It was a very interdisciplinary process because you had to flip from politics to botany to history, and it was exciting.

ZA: Following your activism, how did you decide to become a professor?

JP: When I was 25, I was working at the National Museum of American History as a jazz research curatorial intern. That was a nine-month internship. Jazz and cannabis [both] have a long and storied history, so I made them interrelated studies. It was all sort of one world for me. So there was this question of ‘how am I going to research?’ A lot of the time, I was at my desk at the Smithsonian working on cannabis reform and then switching tabs to go back to something else that was jazz-related. I was doing a lot of research in different kinds of ways, but it was all very structured so I would be told what I needed to research relative to the legalization campaign. There were certain things that we were told to research relative to jazz, and I brought cannabis into that research, but I could only go so far with it. 

ZA: So you just wanted to do your own independent research?

JP: The thought eventually emerged enough that I started talking to people about grad school. I remember my first plan was to just go to get a Master’s degree in Public History because I had also worked at Colonial Williamsburg as an interpreter in this time. It wasn’t my first plan to go get a PhD and become a professor. I wanted to do museum studies in Public History. And I had one of my undergrad professors suggest to me that it would be easier to get fully funded if I applied to a PhD program instead of a Master’s and that Master’s programs at the time hardly were funded. Nowadays, there are more master’s programs that have funding available. But I’m saying this so that every student reading this interview can see how superficial my decision to become a PhD student was. It wasn’t because I had a ten-year vision of the type of professor I wanted to be. It was because I wanted to not have to pay or have to get student loans. It’s the accidents — the happy, serendipitous accidents — that are a life journey. So I made the choice to apply for the PhD program. 

ZA: How did you end up at Swarthmore?

JP: Again, this is all serendipity. I ended up at Swarthmore because of [Associate Professor of Religion] Yvonne Chireau and that’s the quick, easy answer. We became acquaintances when I was still disserting. Yvonne’s work is very critical to the type of research that I was trying to do in grad school, and I had read her book years before I ever met her. In PhD programs, there are times when you need an outside reader, and Chireau had agreed to be my outside reader on my dissertation committee. And when I applied for a Consortium for Faculty Diversity postdoctoral fellowship at Swarthmore, Yvonne Chireau served as my faculty mentor. I’m very grateful to have crossed paths with her. 

ZA: Does it feel full circle to be working at a college so close to where you grew up?

JP: Being a part of [Swarthmore] now feels different and it feels nice to be a professional person in the same spot where all of my memories going all the way back to middle school are. So, I feel like a completed, whole person when I get to live many different lives in different places, but I’m getting to live them all at the same time here. 

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