Tell me about yourself.
I like to spend outside, read, cook and make a lot of cheese and yogurt! That’s a lot of it, but I also do a lot of interfaith work outside of DFA. I was raised Catholic, but I don’t practice that anymore. I’ve practiced Zen Buddhism for six years now, and then for some complicated reasons I’m now converting to Judaism. I definitely have an interesting faith community. The nugget of wisdom I find in both philosophical and traditional religious underpinnings is something that definitely speaks to the spirit.
How did you get where you are today?
I studied food in school and was really interested in the ways in which food shapes the way people live and structures society and how different economic and social forces dictate our food landscape. I was doing research after college through a fellowship and I was working in cocoa farming communities. I was learning a lot from farmers and trying to understanding how a global supply chain that is shaped by a lot of luxury demand in mostly wealthy countries shapes life in different farming communities. I came back from that experience having realized that it was going to be really hard to make things work if the food that we eat was only coming from across the globe. It’s hard to care about other communities if you aren’t a part of them or don’t feel connected to them tangibly. Thinking about all this, I came back and started helping local farmers and schools communicate to get more good food into school cafeterias. I learned a really obvious lesson when I noticed that students weren’t eating this food-you can’t do anything for young people without them. We started creating programming to invite student voice into menu creation and food policy. That’s how I came into starting Detroit Food Academy!
What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome?
I had no background in running a non-profit, so that was definitely a big hurdle. I had to learn what was needed to sustain an organization and had to unlearn a lot of what I learned in school about how you need to structure space for things to be effective. Instead, I thought about how when we build things we make them inclusive and welcoming and sometimes we unintentionally set up barriers. For example, if we have a job call, we might assume that the person who is applying has access to a smart phone. I’ve had to unlearn a lot of that.
How do you describe social entrepreneurship?
As a mindset, which is fundamentally how we (DFA) come at it, I think it is an idea of using one of the most powerful forces we agree to acknowledge in our society, economics, to push towards things that are beneficial. I think sometimes it can be really watered down. Not to shame Starbucks, but sometimes they’ll say “5 cents goes to clean water projects” and it’s five cents out of a three dollar purchase! I do think social entrepreneurship can truly be revolutionary when you think about who the business owner is and their values, who’s working at a certain place and how that’s impacting the planet. It’s definitely a great space to start thinking about how we can turn forces that are sometimes perceived as mostly destructive to good forces.
Why do you choose to live in Detroit and what does Detroit mean to you?
I grew up in the suburbs where most people that are white live in southeast Michigan. I grew up living in the legacy of white flight and enforced economics and racial segregation that has defined this region. I went through those stages that everyone goes through, “The city is fun, I’ll go down for a baseball game!”. It’s this entertainment/exploration relationship with the city. Later in high-school, I ended up working for a well-intentioned but sometimes challenging volunteer program and got to actually meet young people in high-school who actually lived in Detroit. I got to step back from the narrative that people who have time and resources to give don’t have things to receive from communities. I was really glad to start getting those lessons in high-school. I love Detroit and it’s a teacher in my life. I also feel that there’s a lot of harm the community I grew up in has done and there’s also a lot of ways in which we can heal. There’s harm on all sides. There are ways to build walls, and or thinking about all of this can be a way to be like “What if people stepped into this and acknowledged all that has happened and used it as a way to make our work and communities better?” It doesn’t have to just be pain. It can be a way to fix our problems.
What career would you pursue if you couldn’t do this one?
I’ve been interested in policy for a very long time. It seems like a space where a lot of ideas get fought out. A lot of what I do is really tangible – hyper-local and small scale. Policy is definitely something I’ve thought about.
What do you think your most valuable asset as a leader is?
On leadership assessments, I rank high on conscientiousness. It’s a category of skills. I tend to remember a lot of details, I’m organized, I think things through and that’s definitely helpful. I’m not sure what people would say, but I try to listen and make it so that DFA isn’t top-down and one person running everything.