MEET THE BOARD: Noelle warford

 

Who are you and why did you decide to join the NESAWG Board?

Hello, I’m Noelle Warford. I am based out of Philadelphia and I am the Executive Director of Urban Tree Connection. We are a grassroots non-profit in West Philadelphia that focuses on building a community led food system with our neighbors. 

Prior to being the Director of Urban Tree Connection (UTC), I was the Program Director. What really drew me to the organization was the land-based component. I was entering a whole new sector of work. I have been doing non-profit work for most of my career, but I was doing more social service oriented work around after school programs, transitional housing, workforce programs, and educational programs for both adults and youth. I was working for a pretty big social service organization and I was challenged because I felt like the service provision model, while very important, felt like a bandaid and wasn’t getting at the root of the issues. I felt like I needed to be doing more work that was on-the-ground thinking about root issues and systems in addition to providing survival programs and needs. That is what attracted me to UTC. 

While there, I didn't realize how connected I was to the gardens. It reminded me of my childhood and the time that I spent with my grandmother and her garden. I grew up in Ohio and even though we lived in the hood, everyone had some sort of green space. Moving to the East Coast was such a change for me, because I didn’t see that as much. Land, space, and peoples’ access was something I felt very connected to. I also was thinking about holistic health and wellness and what that means for Black people and People of Color in terms of being able to determine our own health and economic futures, and how important it is for us to be leading the work. 

Coming in as the Program Director I was managing and teaching some of the youth programs, gardening programs and the community education classes where we do health and wellness workshops. My first year with UTC, I found out about NESAWG. I paid attention to the conference because I saw that Shirley Sherrod was going to be there and I want to see her in person. At that point, I was learning more about Fannie Lou Hamer and the history of Black cooperatives so that is what attracted me to the conference. The conference that year was in Saratoga Springs, NY, and I was nervous to go because I don’t really know that part of the country. I ended going up with a coworker and it was really interesting. It was super white and there was this whole explosion that happened in the People of Color Caucus over something that happened in one of the workshops. I think it was such a critical thing though, because it was the beginning of a shift. The caucus was also trying to contend with ‘what is the role of Black and brown led projects?’ and how do they coalesce with multiracial organizations and/or white led organizations. What does it mean for them to be in the same spaces together? What does that shared content look like? I'm sure what was happening at NESAWG was just a microcosm of what was playing out in conversations nationally around food system work in agriculture. What happened at that conference was also true of the tone of Philadelphia during that time. There was a lot of tension between many organizations that had white leadership or who were run by people who had been in their roles for, quite frankly, too long. Some of these orgs were not really understanding how, in many ways, they were producing and reproducing white supremacy within their organizations (like being a white savior). That doesn't mean that any organization led by white people automatically falls into that category but it is to say that a lot of these older organizations were founded with some of that logic. That logic is embedded in that work in a lot of ways, like philanthropy and nonprofits. Unless you are actively working against it, you become complicit in carrying it out. That topic was being called into question by groups like Soil Generation having a significant shift and becoming more politicized. Similar conversations around food, economic and racial justice were happening around the country. It was at a time of Michael Brown and Travon Martin so all these ideas were getting folded into a social movement. Those things were politicizing our sector in a way that forced people who thought of the work as neutral to no longer be able to do that. I think that was underneath all the tension I witnessed at the first conference. Another thing that turned me off was that it seemed like NESAWG, although covering the whole Northeast, had a lot of conferences in New England. There was work that needed to be done in other places.

Through working with a lot of people and allies in Philly, I was hearing that people were still going to the conference and they started to see a shift happening. Moving it out of New England, Tracy coming on as Director, the revamping of staff, the focus on racial equity and economic justice all created a shift that caught my attention. 

NESAWG got on my radar again the year the conference was in Philly. A lot of people I knew were getting involved and they reached out to go. I went with a group of young people (which NESAWG provided scholarships for) and Jamila Medley from Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance. We presented together. It was a totally different feel in terms of the themes, who was coordinating the conference, and who were the main speakers. Some conferences will have a track or couple of courses on food justice but that is exactly what this whole conference was about. I was also tasked by my organization to become a bit more external. I had been so internally focused on rebuilding our organization because we were also going through our own evolution of uprooting white supremacy within ourselves and developing a vision that was rooted in justice. I could see the parallels with NESAWG and UTC. 

I saw that Malaika and Nicole were a part of the staff. Nicole presented a couple times as a part of this statewide coalition that I have been participating in the last couple years so I had a go-to person. Having Malaika on the conference planning front, and Nicole on the policy front built up NESAWG's credibility for me. 

In terms of my job, I was actively looking for something new. Something that was more rooted in community and smaller. The last role I had was in development. When you’re working in a development role for a big nonprofit it feels like pulling back the curtain. You see a lot of how power is brokered in a much more corporate way than I thought a non-profit should operate. I had this internal conflict of my professional and my personal values. That is what got me here. 

 

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

I think what's really important is not to enter into a field and expect everyone to teach you. There's a lot of work you need to do on your own. It’s also important to realize that you don’t come in a blank slate. You bring all of your other experiences and knowledge. I didn't come into urban agriculture and food justice without a pretty strong analysis already around race, class and gender. I had already been thinking and studying that for about 15 years. A lot of what I didn't understand was how that fit within the context of the food system, climate and environment. What do I understand about racialized capitalism and how do I see it playing out  in our current food system? How do I understand heteropatriarchy and how do I relate that to how we extract resources? What does that look like in our relationship to land and private property? It is important to commit to our own study and development to be effective contributors and leaders in our roles in our sector. It’s important to be thinking about what's the current historical and political moment that we are in and what is the future we’re trying to usher in. 

Another tip, and something we tell people reaching out to us about trying to start a farm or garden, is to do the groundwork in the neighborhood first. Is this something other people want or is this your vision that you created in the bubble? What is your connection to the community? What relationships have you built? What is the underground infrastructure that you've done? What community support have you garnered? Are you coming as one person or are you coming with a team of people ready to go? You can build garden beds all day long and they'll end up abandoned if you haven’t built relationships and sustainability of the project first. People make this work. While important, it’s not the gardens beds, the farm or the tools that make this work, it’s the people.

Finally, I think it's really important I have a clear, collective and shared vision, and to build your strategies and goals around that. You have to always be evaluating. That is important, especially right when there's a sense of urgency that spurs on a lot of reactionary work. This work needs to be slow and steady spade work as we build onto the work of people who've been doing this for a long time before us. Angela Davis says, “freedom is a constant struggle”, I think we have to be really honest about what type of moment we are really in, and it’s one of protracted struggle. It is not one of immediate transformation, so you have to have a long and sustainable vision. You have to build up your infrastructure to be able to meet your goals. Sometimes everybody is not moving at the same pace you are. How do we all stay together while doing this work? It is not easy. There is a lot of physical, mental and emotional labor that goes into that. You have to realize that people are showing up with all kinds of things like trauma, and their discomfort when entering a place that they do not know and they have to learn. That has been one of the most transformative parts of this for me, is that I have to constantly live on that edge where I have to learn and grow. 

 

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

I think this relates to NESAWG as well, but your organization can only go as far as where the entire sector is. You can do a lot of work to create a strong organization but you have to realize that you don't work alone. We’re in an ecosystem. For us to have the scale in which we need to significantly change food systems and other systems of oppression we all need to work together. There is a lot of work to do to get people to understand that task, commit to it, to understand why it is within their interest, and to do the work of it, while remaining strategic and coordinated. That has been really challenging but when we accomplish it, we can see the full extent of what is possible. 

 

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

I have so many! Right now we are digging very deeply into Just Transition. We have been studying this for the past 2 years. It comes out of the environmental and labor movement. Movement Generation and Climate Justice Alliance have some educational materials around it. It breaks down ‘what is an extractive economy?’ and how is that able to function through militarism, labor organization, resource extraction, our governmental systems and policies, to overall consumerism culture. It talks about what a living economy could look like in terms of building alternatives, centering how we can make our human resources and labor cooperative for the social and ecological well-being of all people and the planet. It teaches about different types of economy not rooted in consumerism and different governmental structures. There are tons of readings that can be done to understand all those different aspects which include books  like The New Jim Crow, and Angela Davis’ Prison Industrial Complex, Farming While Black and Monica White’s book, Freedom Farmers. I’m reading Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis right now which relates to what’s happening in the world currently, especially around questions like ‘what does defunding the police mean?’, ‘what does abolition work look like?’ and I can relate that my food systems work. 

 

How do you want to be remembered?

When I was younger I was really drawn to the helping professions. I wanted to be a doctor because I really loved my pediatrician, I wanted to help people and they make a lot of money and I wanted to live in a mansion. That dream has evolved over time to me just wanting to cause the least harm, to be the most effective and do the most good as I can. That’s what I want to contribute. I also want to be remembered as someone who had a lot of integrity around my values. Living in the system we’re in, we are forced to compromise ourselves all the time. I want to be in alignment with my political ideas. I want to be developing a strong practice of learning by doing and building on the practices of those who came before us. It’s important for me to keep integrity with my political values while being happy and living a fulfilling life.

 

Photos from Urban Tree Connection and Movement Generation