Serving Pride with FoodCorps

For many people, the first images that come to mind when they think of Pride are of raucous parades and rainbow attire. But for those of us in the LGBTQ community, Pride month is also a time to reflect on our shared struggles, and celebrate the wins we’ve achieved. Furthermore, it can be the one time of year we find ourselves in the company of large groups of other folks who identify as we do, and accept us for who we are. The importance of having this community and the support of allies cannot be understated. For some of us, June is the one time of year that we feel safe and enveloped by a supportive community. I am fortunate to feel this every single day that I walk into my workplace.

I’ve been working at FoodCorps for nearly five years. Before that, I served for two terms as a FoodCorps AmeriCorps member in North Carolina, where I had the great privilege of teaching elementary students how to connect gardening and cooking to the classroom, and support teachers and staff in creating an overall healthier school food environment. When I began my service in 2011, I was a fresh transplant to the state. I had lived my entire life in the US on the West coast, and had no experience of Southern culture. But love makes one do extraordinary things, so when my partner was accepted to graduate school in NC, I also made the move across the country.

Prior to my service with FoodCorps, I served with the Peace Corps in Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa where being gay is a crime punishable by imprisonment. When the stakes are that high, one can become used to putting on a phony exterior and hiding who they are. That’s no way to get close to people or build community with the people I was tasked to serve alongside. I hid my identity nonetheless.

Leah Harrison during her service with FoodCorps
Leah Harrison during her service with FoodCorps
Showing up in North Carolina with the previous experience of needing to be closeted in my work left me feeling vulnerable about how my identity would be perceived. It did not help that in 2012, during my first service term, North Carolina voted to amend the constitution (Amendment 1) to define marriage to be exclusively between a woman and man. While this political activity was swirling around me, I immersed myself in my service and completely dedicated my time and attention to the students and schools I served.

Inevitably, talk of current events made its way into the garden classrooms where I taught hundreds of third graders each week. While it hurt me to hear derogatory remarks towards LGBTQ people come out of the mouths of my otherwise sweet students, I quickly began to use their language as a teaching tool and a way to open up dialogue. I would ask questions about whether or not they knew a gay person (usually not) and ask the students how they would feel if someone spoke badly about them because of how they are. This tactic generally opened up awareness around hurtful language and actions that may have been commonplace before.

I knew that I was making an impact on the kids by the end of the school year. The town where I was living had organized its first ever Pride event, and as I meandered among the booths set up by community organizations and churches, I spotted one of my third grade students. She ran up to me, eager to introduce me to her two moms. In talking with them, I learned that this student saw my class as a safe space where derogatory remarks about her family would not be tolerated. This little girl had never made mention of her family structure at school, which drove home for me the importance of bridging differences and fostering acceptance in all areas of life, as you never know who might be silently suffering when injustices are left unaddressed.

If teaching in a garden does one thing, it develops student empathy and compassion toward other living things, starting with plants and animals in the garden and radiating outward. Channeling this thoughtful energy towards getting kids to think about treating other students and other human beings with respect, regardless of their differences, is a beautiful connection I began to make in my service. While I may have initially felt small, vulnerable, and “othered” in a new place, I took pride in how my time spent with these kids was not only helping them to understand how to grow a garden while learning science and nourish themselves, but also in how my weekly presence might help shape a more accepting classroom and school environment.

Leah Harrison, Associate Director of Field Programs and Tiffany McClain, Director of Organizational Equity and Inclusion
Since my service ended, much has changed around attitudes towards LGBTQ  people in our nation. In June 2015, the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage was a tremendous leap forward. This was, in a large part, attributed to the simple and relatable notion that love is love and people need not fear something as fundamental as the right to love. The decision just so happened to be delivered during Pride Month, and resulted in the most joyous Pride festivities I’ve ever witnessed. I no longer live in North Carolina and am deeply troubled by the ongoing exclusion of LGBTQ protections there, but I am also continually amazed by the increasing acceptance and inclusion of our community nationwide.

For me, Pride is about reflecting on the personal journey I’ve made in being comfortable in my identity and not being afraid to show it to the world. A year after the Obergefell vs. Hodges decision, I married my partner in the company of our loving family and friends. Every day, I have the great privilege of walking into an office filled with other LGBTQ folks and allies, and doing my work without ever once feeling uncomfortable about sharing who I am. (Thank you, FoodCorps!) And now, as my wife and I prepare for the birth of our first child next month, I am proud that he will grow up in a family where he is accepted and loved for whoever he may be, and will be surrounded by community that will support the three of us. There are struggles ahead, and much to continue to fight for. Pride month is a way to bring awareness around what must change in order to ensure justice and equity for all, as well as a time to celebrate who we are – as individuals and as a community – without being ashamed or afraid.

Leah and her wife on their wedding day.
Leah and her wife on their wedding day.