People’s Grocery – Food Justice in Context

Sep 26, 2013

Food Justice: Context
By Nikki Henderson
Executive Director, People’s Grocery

For me
Food Justice strikes the heart
I live in West Oakland
I walk to work
Bike to work
One mile from my house.
The context for food justice
Lives in the way my neighbor washes my car
Just because his mama taught him to take care of ladies he respectsIt lives in the gentleman who screams in the street at night
Yelling at things only he can see
It lives in the scores of young brothas
That holler at me when I walk to work
That I greet with a smile and a nod
As they teach me about the gentle bashfulness of black men
And I teach them about ways to approach women
It lives in the old woman who reminds me of my grandmother
That I greet in front of the 99 Cents Store
I watch her carry sugar cereal and plastic wrapped bell peppers
And I remember my grandfather’s wrapped feet
As he struggled not to succumb to diabetes
It lives in the 10 year olds
Who stop by the corner store on their way to school
To pick up Hot Cheetos and Candy

This is my life
Before I get to “work”
This is the context for so many
It’s easy to read about
And “absorb” through a “personal interest story” in the news
But how do you feel the lived experience
If you haven’t lived it?
How deeply can we access empathy
For things we have not seen?
This is the context for food justice freedom fighters
Our success runs as deep as our ability
To connect
To share
To understand with our hearts and stomachs
In addition to our minds
How do we include this in our “work”?
How do we pull this knowledge of human relationship
From the soil
As we grow new life forms
That we consume and transform?
How do we internalize and cultivate
The wisdom inherent in our cyclical relationship with food?

The lived experience of those working toward a healthier, just food system is a critical building block of solutions that work. As an Executive Director of a food justice organization in Oakland (CA), I’ve attempted to incorporate my experiences and those of our team into the ways we operate—from our management practices to our community outreach approaches. If I interacted with the grandmother-like woman at the 99 Cents store on my way into the office and I arrive with a heavy heart, can I take that feeling and utilize it during our outreach to the housing project across the street? If we all notice the 10 year olds at the liquor store, can we use that experience to design our youth programming at our quarterly festivals? This methodology has dramatically impacted our programmatic success, and more significantly, it has supported our team with having a personally sustainable approach to community-based work in the midst of very difficult circumstances.

I began to wonder: how could this methodology reach to the highest levels of our strategic planning process? It’s more easily manageable to connect “lived experience” to programmatic goals, but if I wanted capacity building and other organizational development activities to be driven by the “heart” in addition to the “mind”, how could I approach this?

For context: historically, organizations in the social justice sector of the food movement have been under-resourced and have had difficulty evolving past the “start-up” chaos that characterizes many grassroots organizations. Now a decade old, the social justice sector of the food movement has an opportunity to build organizations with competitive salaries, evaluation prowess, and capacity to direct research and policy. For equity to sit squarely in the center of the food movement, grassroots justice-focused organizations must establish collective power and be positioned to lead national dialogue. This is our organizational development challenge as a movement over the next few years.

It’s a well-traveled, paved road to scaling in conventional ways. Traditional models of building power (including replication) have become important conversations in grassroots and philanthropic communities as the social justice sector of the food movement has increased our brand strength, accessed larger media platforms, and achieved long-term success with our local programming. However, many of our organizations see challenges with a centralized “national office”, local “chapters” and other traditional models – this type of scale can sometimes (although not in all instances) inhibit local ingenuity from receiving investment. This is where I usually notice the breakage between the “heart” and “mind”—national offices and chapters make logical sense, but the management of personalities, relationships, and identity (the heart realm) requires finesse and subtlety.

When thinking about food work in historically under-invested communities, the significance of local ownership, identity, and assets cannot be overemphasized. Most solutions and initiatives led by those struggling with food insecurity, in Oakland, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, and dozens of other cities have evolved with very strong identities that are key to the continued engagement of community members. Individuals and families struggling with limited incomes, gang violence, health crises and the myriad of other poverty symptoms have found a place to claim as our own in the food justice sector. This individuality and uniqueness of each city’s response to food insecurity must be cultivated, if the movement wishes to nurture leadership amongst local residents, a step beyond participation. However, we do not want to lose the collective visioning, fundraising, efficiency and widespread impact a national organization can provide (the mind realm): how can we harness the power of both national aggregation and local autonomy? Both the “mind” and the “heart”?

For me, this is where lived experience, local ownership, and network theory intersect. The complexity of neighborhood improvement in our communities requires leadership from those with lived experience in such communities. Poverty, and the myriad of symptoms resulting from it, is a visceral experience that cannot be replicated. Individuals with loved ones who suffer from the loss of children, life-threatening health ailments, and the accumulative psychological effects of “never having enough” have an altogether different approach to community transformation. These individuals exist uncomfortably within field-specific work (social services, education, and even food systems) and consistently find themselves striving for a holistic approach to social justice. These leaders have integrity, determination, and drive that is an incredible asset to social change work. However, without partnership from others, it is difficult to thrive. Incorporating our lived experience into our work requires a higher attention to relationship and trust—we need partners with us more urgently.

One of my dreams is that the food justice movement will create a series of strong networks within which we can reshape the field and centralize holistic community development as the work of social justice. Networks built upon good will, trust, and camaraderie. We would encompass food systems, housing, education, family wellness, education, and every other sector that affects the lives of families. We would approach collective impact in a way that allows for multiple interests, and spend more of our time operating in collaboration. This is where I’m devoting my energy over the next few years – and I’m looking forward to finding partners with which to move forward.

Nikki Henderson Headshot 2012Nikki began her work in social justice through the foster care system in Southern California, having been raised with seven older foster brothers. Through mentoring, tutoring, and directing Foster Youth Empowerment Workshops, she developed her passion for youth leadership development among communities of color. She later shifted into sustainability, developing course curriculum for the University of California system and advocating across the state for environmental justice and political ecology. She has worked closely with Van Jones and Phaedra Ellis Lamkins at Green for All, fighting for a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. She was also a part of Slow Food USA in Brooklyn, NY where President Josh Viertel came to regard her as an “extraordinary leader with a vision for how food and urban farming can be tools of empowerment”. In 2009, Nikki co-founded Live Real, a national collaborative of food movement organizations committed to strengthening and expanding the youth food movement in the United States. In 2010, Nikki was featured in ELLE magazine as one of the five Gold Awardees. She has a Master’s degree in African American Studies from UCLA, and is originally from Los Angeles, CA. Email Nikki or contact her at Ext. 21


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