Who are you, and what kind of work do you do?

My name is Kelsey Watson. I currently work for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) as the Grassroots Coordinator. I have been there for almost 2 years now. I started as the Grassroots fellow and then there was some space for me to stick around so I happen to stick around. NSAC does work primarily in federal food and agricultural policy and I work on the grassroots side of that. It's a coalition, so I work a lot interfacing with our members and coordinating our membership around current campaigns that we're working on, checking in with them on different capacity needs and helping organize things that we're doing around policy initiatives. 


How did you end up doing this kind of work?

I am originally from a small town in Michigan called Ypsilanti. When I was 13 I went to this youth entrepreneurship program. I can remember this presentation they gave from an organization in my hometown called Growing Hope which does healthy food access work in the community, runs a farmers market, etc. They had a youth program so I got involved with the youth entrepreneurship and gardening program. I was 13 and started growing my own food and setting it at the market. It was really neat, and I never left I guess. I stuck with that, and started to work with them in larger capacities as I got older. I was like 22 or 23, working as their youth programs coordinator. I was working with them on their garden based nutrition programming for our youth programs throughout the summers. A lot of it was working with little guys talking about vegetables, creating and growing food with them. We had a smoothie bike that we would bring around, which was a lot of fun. We had a truck farm, called Clifford the Truck Farm which we were growing food in, which was great for demos. I did some farm work with them as well. We would sell at the farmers markets. I started that really early and I loved it and that's what I ended up going to school for as well. I went to Michigan State University because I wanted to go into a college of agriculture, and they have one of the best in the country. It’s a land-grant university. It’s old and white. 

I went there for a degree in ag. I started with Environmental Studies and Agri-Science.  Shortly after I started, they created a new major, so my degree is in Environmental Studies and Sustainability, and Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems (which is quite a mouthful). During my last few years there I did a lot of research programs and a lot of work with farms and farmers. During my last year, I started doing work with the Center for Regional Food Systems with Rich Pirog primarily, who is the Director of the center. I was working on this pretty large publication that they published called An Annotated Bibliography on Structural Racism. After I did work with them I ended up applying for this position with NSAC and delving right into the policy world, which is something I never wanted for myself. I had never saw myself doing policy work. I took this civic engagement course through a couple of like black community leaders that I met through a Black Lives Matter Lansing movement. This course was meant to get people involved in local politics and some programs where they help people run for offices. After helping with that kind of work, I thought, “I want to run for office” (which I haven't yet). I have worked in policy for so long, and as much as I dislike it, there is a lot of power that it holds. I want to figure out how to make it work for me and the people I care about. Around that time, NSAC had their fellowship opening up, so I applied, and moved to D.C. And here I am!


Do you think you are going to run for office one day?

Possibly! I have joked about it, but I would actually like to be the mayor of my town. The founder of Growing Hope, the org I started doing food work with when I was young, actually ended up becoming Mayor. She is this white, lesbian women who is my mentor and been my friend for a long time. Then a friend of hers, who is also involved in food work became Mayor after that. 

Some part of me has that desire, but I am trying to figure out what motivates that desire. I need to figure that out before I actually run. It would be really cool though. All my family and friends are still in Ypsilanti and it’s a place I really care about a lot. I have some other friends who are involved in policy work back home also. One day, maybe!


What is your motivation for doing this work?

My motivation for doing my paid work is to sustain myself and to be financially stable, to be honest. Policy work is not necessarily my calling. Organizing unwilling white people is not my calling, not in this capacity at least. 

The work I do outside of that is reassurance for me though. It is something I love and care about. I've been involved with Black Urban Growers (BUGs) us for a little while now. Last year I started doing work with them on their national organizing team for their conference. I went to my first BUGS conference in 2017 and I've gone every year since. That shifted my whole world. I went around the time I was working on the Annotated Bibliography on Structural Racism. I was working with Shakara Tyler. She is a black woman based in Detroit and she finished up a doctoral degree at Michigan State at the same time when I was there. She works pretty closely with Monica White and some of the other really wonderful Black movement elders.. I got to know her pretty well. There was this really weird thing of having conversations and writing a publication about racism in the food system, in a center run entirely by white people. We reflected on that a lot. That was something that was hard for me to recon with as a relatively young person who hadn’t entered into the work world yet. I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do but knowing I wanted to avoid the non-profit industrial complex as much as I could. I realized there were not too many options for that. Getting involved with BUGS, other black farm movements, and food and farm justice projects has really been my motivator. 

People often ask me why I’m doing this. I always reply that I think food is so beautiful. It’s something that is full of pleasure but also is a source of pain and trauma. Because of that, I think it is something really wonderful to organize around and for. People always say, “Everybody eats”, but that is not true. People say that because they want to create a common denominator with all people, but we don’t all have the same relationship to food. Exploring that is really interesting. Food, and our relationship to food connect us to land. That’s been my motivation. I just love Black people. I love food. I love farms.


Why did you decide to join the NESAWG Board?

I have been to a couple of NESAWG conferences in the past. The first one I went to was in Philly, 2 years ago. It was great. It was also my first year with NSAC. One of my coworkers was supposed to go, but couldn’t so I got to go in her place. I am really glad I did. For me, it felt like it was the first convenience of white food systems people and food organizations that didn't feel like equity was conversation that still centered that whiteness. We went on his really incredible farm tour so some awesome black farms in Philly which is like such a great place to do. I have been doing urban farm tours since I was like 15 years old in Detroit. Occasionally there are Black farmers but this NESAWG tour just felt genuine and real. I was appreciative that space was made for that by a white organization. It felt like they were starting to do this work in a way that feels better. I went to the POC Caucus there as well. This past fall, I helped Karen Spiller organize the POC Caucus. I enjoyed it. I’ve really enjoyed working with NESAWG leadership in the past. NESAWG is also a member of NSAC so I already had some of those relationships. I’m also interested to learn what it means to be a board member, and to learn more fundraising. I am learning and developing connections from people that know more than me. 


What are some tips that you would recommend for anyone who wanted to get into this kind of work? 

Building genuine connections and relationships is the only way this kind of work is sustained. Something else I have appreciated a lot about the Black Food Justice Movement is that it tries to be intentionally intergenerational. I think that's really important to movement work as a whole. It’s about respecting all the work that has already been done and doing what you can to help propel it forward. We need to use the lessons and the wisdom of people who have been doing this work for a long time. 


What would have been the hardest lessons or challenges in your work?

The main thing has been coming up against walls of power that are inherently integrated into the non-profit industrial complex and white supremacy, and dealing with white people as gatekeepers to power and resources. When people ask me why I do my paid job, I tell them that part of it is that I like my access to power and resources while working there. As much as I don’t love it sometimes, I have access to a lot of different things, and if I’m able to find small ways to redistribute that knowledge, money or time, I can appreciate that. It is a challenge. Working as a Person of Color with white people constantly is a challenge. Sometimes I feel like I am banging my head into a wall. Why do I have to have conversations with you about your whiteness? Why do I need to tell you that Black lives matter? It just feels so foreign to people sometimes. I have spent a lot of time with white people in my life, but working with them in this capacity is so strange. You can see up close exactly how much power they hold and are not willing to give up. 


Do you have any books or authors that you recommend to learn about the food system or helped guide your personal journey?

The past few years I have been a really bad reader. For me, some of the books that have really pulled me into this work, and to care about it, are cookbooks. I love cookbooks. I read them cover to cover. My relationship to food, both as it grows and in the culinary, is so important for me and part of the reason I do this work. They are so interesting and often include a lot of history.That’s really important for rooting you in a movement and a purpose. Michael Twitty has a cookbook, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. It is an interesting way to explore questions about food and history for people who didn’t have an introduction to that in other ways. Toni Tipton-Martin is a chef, an author and a food historian that focuses on Black food ways and cooking. She has two cookbooks I like: The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks which is a collection of cookbooks and Jubilee. I have done some exploration into a lot of work by different people, some of whom don’t have cookbooks. For instance, there are some really cool Gullah Geechee folks I’ve looked into. I’d recommend all of the work by Monica White. Dr. Ashante Reese’s Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. is a good one. It talks about food apartheid and justice work in D.C. One last cookbook! One that has connected me to my personal heritage is Ziggy Marley and Family Cookbook by Ziggy Marley. That’s one I love. 


How do you want to be remembered?

That’s a hard one. I think I just want to be remembered as happy.