In my previous work as an LGBT advocate, creating space for people of color was a given—especially in preparation for a weeklong gathering where folks of color would be occupying a predominantly white space. These pre-conference (or pre-orientation) gatherings serve as a time to come together and establish a network of support that is ready and available to address issues particular to being a person of color working to fuel change in the context of what can feel like a white-driven movement.
Every August, a new class of service members descends on Portland, Oregon for National Orientation, a week full of back-to-back workshops and sessions that prepare them for a year of service in one of 17 states or Washington, D.C., where they will implement FoodCorps’ evidence-based strategies to help high-need schools become healthy schools.
For the past two years, the day before National Orientation begins has been dedicated to the Pre-Orientation Gathering for Native/Indigenous, Multiracial & Service Members of Color. Created and organized by Tiffany McClain, Director of Organizational Equity and Inclusion at FoodCorps, the pre-orientation gathering was designed to address the needs of incoming service members of color. Describing her motivation, Tiffany wrote to me:
A couple of years ago I interviewed some FoodCorps alums of color about their experiences as service members and many of them talked about how difficult it was to meet other service members of color amidst the hectic schedule and large numbers of people at national orientation. Usually distributed across different states and service sites, they felt like they walked away from FoodCorps without a deep connection to other people of color and indigenous people who shared their passions for food justice and wellness. So the inspiration for this pre-orientation gathering came out of a desire to help them fill that void.
In both college and grad school I benefited greatly from an opportunity to connect with and learn from other people of color with whom I shared a common passion, people who have continued to be part of my life and who I never would have met had someone not taken the initiative to create the space and opportunity for it.
But sometimes, even to people of color, providing this space this can seem like an odd decision. One first-year service member was dismayed when she first saw the gathering on the agenda. Why are they separating us out? she thought.
Another service member expressed appreciation: “When I saw it I felt more comfortable knowing there would be a space for me.”
These and many other perspectives shaped the conversations that took place that day. Service members began the day sharing their personal stories in response to a series of prompts. Through this exercise, participants who heard something that resonated with their own stories were invited to join the storyteller in the middle of the room. It wasn’t long before almost everyone was standing. We found a shared strength in voices both disparate and similar.
Below is a sampling of those prompts, and the responses they elicited:
Who are you/your people: When and how did you/your family/ancestors’ history intersect with the history of this country or the place you consider home? Where did you/your family come from? Why did they move?
“My people were whoever I was around.”
“My people are queer and trans. My ancestors’ history is this country’s history.
“My parents come from India, from a farming community in an area known as the land of five rivers.”
“Where I come from, most people only have access to frozen, highly processed food. Produce has to be shipped in, and it’s expensive.”
What role did land/food/health play in you/your family/your ancestors’ struggles and triumphs?
“My grandparents had a garden. I was in my pre-teens when I learned that food doesn’t come from the grocery store; it comes from the ground.”
“My mother bought a farm and raised horses. We always had a garden.”
“I grew up on a reservation with no access to fresh foods. All we had was a convenience store.”
“My mother worked in food service. She spent all day serving food while we didn’t have food in our home.”
“Food didn’t keep us healthy; it kept us together.”
What brings you here today?
“I’m here because I love my people.”
“How do I include people who have been excluded?”
“Food is always at the center. Breaking bread is how you become a part of your family.”
“Food is a language of it’s own.”
“Food is medicine. We can grow old without growing sick.”
What is the intersection between your story/mission and FoodCorps’ mission?
“I want to shift the static narrative of what healthy means. You can maintain your health and your culture. Healthy eating doesn’t necessarily mean kale.”
“I’ve never been immersed in a group that felt similarly. I’ve never related to so many people.”
“I went from being a lost puppy dog who wanted to do community organizing to stepping into thinking about myself as an educator.”
“I see myself in my students and feel empowered and represented.”
The collective power generated in the room through the sharing of stories was palpable. That day, silences were broken. Issues were identified and examined. And a group of emerging leaders claimed their agency as the telling of stories segued into a brainstorming of solutions and actions.
While originally planned only as a pre-orientation gathering, at the urging of service members we gathered again on the penultimate day of National Orientation. This time, we met to share ideas that included self-care techniques for entering majority-white spaces, and suggestions for how lead with authenticity and empathy in this work when we encounter well-intentioned but ill-informed allies.
Service members spoke of the importance of the bonds they established during that first gathering in helping sustain them throughout the week.
As one participant shared, “Sometimes just having you there to exchange a look and a sigh when something happens, like girrrrrrrl…”—that connection was enough to get through those difficult moments.
That service member who was initially put off by what she saw as separation discovered the value of coming together with her peers: “Now I get it. And I’m so glad I had that experience to ground me and make connections before orientation started.”
These service members have since entered (or returned to) the communities they have dedicated a year to serving. While all will work with students from low-income homes and children of color, many will work with supervisors, principals, educators, and other leaders who make up a predominantly white space. As most people of color living in America are painfully aware, they will experience microaggressions or find themselves at the receiving end of a well-intentioned but ultimately hurtful gesture.
The pre-orientation is just one piece of an organization-wide effort to combat structural and interpersonal racism. In her new role as Director of Organizational Equity and Inclusion, Tiffany McClain will be working to ensure we at FoodCorps are doing the work we need to do both internally and externally to create a more just food system and a more just world. During orientation, service members received anti-racist trainings from Rachel Willis of Elevating Equity as well as Erin Dunlevy and Cardozie Jones of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools.
Still, some white allies became concerned when they heard we were meeting again. Did something happen? they wanted to know. We laughed and shook our heads. Nothing had happened. All things considered, it was a calm week. We just wanted to continue the conversation and solidify the networks we need to ensure everyone has a seat at the table. And there remains much work to be done.