MEET THE BOARD: Rebekah Williams
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Rebekah Williams. I live in the Finger Lakes but I do most of my organizing with communities in Buffalo, New York. These days I have been venturing into the realm of statewide organizing with Black farmers across the state. I am currently employed by an urban agriculture organization in Buffalo called Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP), as a community organizer. My work as a commuter organizer there is very independent. My primary responsibility is coordinating a coalition of 22 grassroots organizations committed to bringing the Good Food Purchasing Program to Buffalo. The Good Food Purchasing Program is a values-based procurement policy that is national in scope, meaning there's Good Food Purchasing Program coalitions around the country. They have really awesome and powerful national partners including Food Chain Workers Alliance, Real Food Media, Union of Concerned Scientists and a number of others. There's about 20 national partners but on the ground in Buffalo my job is to recruit local grassroots partners to work in a coalition to advocate to bring the Good Food Purchasing Program to our region and get public institutions to align public spending with our public values. It is a values-based procurement policy. There are five values: environmental sustainability, local economies, animal welfare, nutrition, and valued workforce. I recruit grassroots organizations that align with one or more of those values to work in partnership with my organization to bring these policy initiatives to Buffalo. I'm also a co-founder of an emerging organization called Food for the Spirit which is dedicated to racial healing, ecological justice and equitable food systems. Food for the Spirit operates a network of over a hundred people throughout Buffalo and Western New York called the Buffalo Food Equity Network. The purpose of the Buffalo Food Equity Network is to bring about a new food economy that is led by communities of color for communities of color. That's our primary initiative with Food for the Spirit.
Why did you decide to join the NESAWG Board?
I chose to join the NESAWG board because I feel like in the last few years that I have been attending the ITAR Conference, I have seen how the organization’s dedication to racial equity principles has unfolded and bore fruit, especially in terms of who makes up the board, what the conference attendees look like demographic wise, and who make up the staff. I have been invited to serve on a number of boards locally and statewide in the last number of years and I've always said no mostly because I was always afraid of being a token. I am a light-skinned Black woman and somebody who's a middle-class socioeconomic background, and I don't have any interest in being the token for people of color. I don't believe I can speak for all those communities and I wanted to join a board that is predominantly people of color and diverse, rather than just me and the rest of a white board. When I attended the ITAR Conference the first time, in 2013 in Saratoga Springs and there was a People of Color Caucus and that stuck out to me because I had only ever been part of a people of color caucus once, many years before. Just knowing that the organization has set that space aside and committed funding to having a space for our community to gather at the frontend of the conference felt very welcoming. The three leaders of the people of color caucus were Karen Spiller, Qiana Mickie and Onika Abraham, who are all very wonderful women and I just felt comfortable in that home right away. I wanted to be there because I saw that commitment, and back home in Buffalo the food systems landscape was very white. It felt good to know that I had a community within the bigger regional food system of support and network.
At that time, I was the Youth Education Director at Massachusetts Avenue Project. Part of my job and what I was committed to personally and professionally, was lifting up youth involvement in advocacy work and in any food system, and to give youth the platform to speak up for what they thought was needed. In addition to the people of color caucus, I would bring youth to the conference with me. I would always go through this mad scramble of fundraising but it was always such a great experience for them. They got to stay in a hotel, and go out to dinner and experience independence. The youth that came were always interested in this kind of work so at the conference they were able to see a network of all these people but they also were very alone. Often, it would be two or three youth amidst all of the conference attendees. The other thing I saw NESAWG do which I got really excited about, was that there was myself and another person who were advocating that NESAWG needs to take a leadership role in integrating youth voices and experience into the conference planning and experience. Thus came the Youth Track. I felt very seen and lifted up by Tracy Lerman (who was the conference manager at the time) who was the one who came to me when she heard that I was advocating for that and pulled me together with somebody else and asked, “What is your vision for this? How could this work? Would you be open to carrying this on if I supported you?” It changed the demographic of the conference because we were recruiting youth from urban agriculture organizations. NESAWG showed a strong commitment to fundraising and grant writing for the youth track which was essential because I don't think that it was possible without that kind of support. Just seeing the transition of ways that NESAWG was open and flexible to see what racial equity might look like within the organization and lifting up people who had ideas not just towards racial equity, but other voices like youth.
The other main reason I chose to serve is the other board members. I’m so inspired by the work Dr. Heber Brown is doing in Baltimore for example. I’m excited to work with the new board members. I was bummed to hear that Onika was leaving, but thankfully I get to work with her now in my statewide work. I'm just so excited to be part of an organization that is transforming. I’m thinking about the transitions of what is going on in the broader world and we're at a critical time of necessary change. It’s great to be part of an organization that has already been doing the work to transition itself towards these changes that we need is a broader society.
How did you end up doing this work, and what is your motivation?
I have been in food justice and equity work for a long time. I was arrested in 1998 for protesting Driscoll strawberries at a Wegmans outside of Buffalo, in a suburb called Cheektowaga. I was 19 or 20 at the time and I'd recruited a couple of friends to join me. We went in solidarity with the president of the United Farm Workers Union who had flown in from California. I was doing some anti-sweatshop organizing on my college campus and I got pulled in by some local organizers who explained that there were farm workers out in the fields having pesticides sprayed on them while they were working. To me, that just to me seemed incomprehensible and completely blatantly wrong regarding the humanity of people. That went against my belief that
we as humans should be valuing each other and valuing the roles and responsibilities that we each have to hold up our communities. The people who are out there picking strawberries' work was just as important as anyone else's.
We were all in front of the Wegmans, “the suits” who were the union organizers and me and my “hippy” friends. The suits went in to negotiate with the managers to ask them to boycott Driscoll strawberries. Then the cops arrived on the scene. The first cop that got there demonstrated to me the same situation we are in right now. They came super pumped up, with adrenaline rushing. They started yelling at us, telling us to leave. One of the friends I recruited turned to someone and muttered “a******s”, and the cop was on her in a second. They started tussling. She’s from the Westside and was used to fighting back. She was not going to be pushed around. The cops were barking at us to get back or we would be arrested. It was horrible. I wasn’t going to let my young friend (who I recruited to come to the protest) get arrested by these cops alone so I stood forward to be arrested along with the three “suits”. We ended up getting out of jail that night with the help of one of the union organizers. I remember going outside and there were a hundred people in a crowd on the jail steps. There was a local legislator there who was fired up, along with other union organizers. They called us the “Wegmans Five”. That story is lifted up as part of the union story, and the food systems story. When I look back to why I got involved in food systems work, it is definitely based in the belief that all people should be valued. In that story too, I gained my first experience with police brutality.
After that, I got involved in some neighborhood level gardens. I started a community market garden project out of a $30,000 grant which got split by two organizations. When my son was younger, he was in a local public Montessori school and a group of moms and I started a Montessori outdoor learning experiment which was a school garden. All of it is part of believing that food is such an essential part of our lives and community can take part in that food system.
I was raised partly on a commune in the Finger Lakes called the Rochester Folk Art Guild. It’s 350 acres of land and they've been around for 50 plus years. It’s a guild of artisans but they also do organic gardening. It’s cooperative, communal, non-hierarchical living. I always think of when I was growing up, we would practice something called the bucket brigade, where, as a community, we would prepare in case there was a fire. We would line up from the pond to the big house which was probably 500 feet away and we made a line and we practiced passing buckets back and forth in case there was a fire so that we knew how to move quickly. That was a space where everybody did different things to make the community work. All of that work instilled in me the necessity of systems and valuing individual participation. So when I heard that farm workers were having pesticides sprayed on them, it showed me that not everyone thinks like that. There are CEOs and heads of corporations that are so toxic and filled with such greed that they would not see these people. I started thinking of how we can get the work done to take care of our communities and how can we change that so it reflects the communities we want to see.
You can read about the Wegmans Five in this article from United Farm Workers.
What are three tips that you would recommend for anyone who wanted to get into this kind of work?
I think it’s important to just start where you are. I think what that means to me is delving into what is important to you in the realm of food systems and food justice. What directly do you see in your life that is unjust or broken in the food system? Who is not being served? I think it's also important that you are starting from a place within your community. That is going to look very different for different people. For my friend Ingabire Adam, who was on a NESAWG Conference panel a few years ago, it meant advocating that there were chicken options on her school menu because as a young Muslim girl she didn't appreciate that her school had a lot of pork options or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. For a white guy, pushing him to start work in his community might look like him challenging the status quo and learning what is broken.
Tip two would be to take as many opportunities as you can. When I say this, I am thinking particularly of the youth I work with or in a community that is in need. You never know where opportunities can take you. On the flip side, if you are not in a community in need, I think stepping back from those opportunities is also good.
My third tip would be to push yourself to be open to challenge. Things might not always be completely comfortable. For the youth I work with, that could be getting a job in an urban agriculture organization because it's not what you know. We need to challenge ourselves and what we think is possible. Part of that process is striving to find your purpose which is really difficult work. The work I do with Black farmers statewide has a very personal internal purpose. It has to do with my ancestry and my commitment to the Earth in terms of being a Black environmentalist and knowing that our farmers are some of the people who are closest to the land and knowing that Black farmers are especially challenged in being able to maintain that relationship and have it be part of their livelihood. That's part of my personal purpose.
What would have been the hardest lessons or challenges in your work?
One of the biggest challenges has just been finding my way. When you're not somebody who follows the beaten path, you're having to constantly seek out examples or try to push yourself to think out of the box. I think about that a lot with the work I’m doing for Food for the Spirit: racial healing towards ecological justice and equitable food systems. Every time I rattle off that mission, I look at people's faces. I'm watching to see how that lands with them because I know what it means for me. It’s not a cookie cutter thing.
Do you have any books or authors that you recommend to learn about the food system or helped guide your personal journey?
One of my favorites is Warmth of Other Suns. It is critical for everybody in the United States especially to understand the migration of Black people from the south to other parts of the country, what the diversity of experience has been for them, and the false presumption that racism doesn't exist in the north. Another book I love is adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. And accompanying with that of course is Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Foodwise, I have been reading Freedom Farmers by Monica M. White. I think it is important to just read as much as you can.
How do you want to be remembered?
That’s such a good question. I've been reading Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for years. It’s really good. In one of the first chapters, he talks about starting with the end in mind. I want people to see me as being somebody who is very purposeful and living out my purpose and committed to that. I think that's the biggest one, and then I want to be remembered as someone who was committed to people- the development and love for people.