Pam, who I was grateful to meet on an urban agriculture tour in New Orleans this past October, is the founder and Executive Director of the Women and Agriculture (WandA) Network, one of a group of organizations strategically thinking about food justice and women farmers in urban areas. She is the former Deputy Director of the New Orleans Food and Farm Network and currently tends a small, but vibrant urban farm called Sun Harvest Kitchen Garden located in the severely distressed Central City neighborhood of New Orleans.
Currently, she’s got an abundance of Asian greens, red leaf mustards, collards, spinach, onions, herbs that carried over from the summer like fennel, curry, basil, all kinds of mint, stevia, tarragon, rosemary. In the spring she hopes to make cucumbers, tomatoes, and parsley and green onions available to a neighboring senior center residence complex because they really want access to fresh seasonings. She also has a market garden portion that will grow for Café Reconcile, a nonprofit restaurant that serves as the primary training ground for “at-risk” students seeking to acquire skills in the food service industry. (They also make a sweet tea that made me cry and a crawfish bisque that’ll get you crawling back for more!)
What issues have you been focused on?
I have primarily been working across the city with interesting people and groups about the notion of creating a viable infrastructure for urban ag in NOLA. What does that mean?What’s the best approach to get us some concrete results? We have serious food security issues here post-storm. They were big before but even more now. So, I’ve zeroed in on working with others to utilize urban agriculture as a revitalization tool.
And, now as a part of the WandA Network, it’s about how to enlist more women across ethnicities and social and economic spheres to start farming and involve them in becoming successful growers. I think we have great opportunities with the amount of restaurants we have in New Orleans More and more of them are wanting to source as much locally grown produce as possible. We have a year-round growing season in our local area but we need to create the knowledge base and the skills to better utilize it.
What inspires you to do this work?
I was inspired from spending time in the country, the rural areas of Louisiana where my parents are from in Lafourche Parish. It was a strong agrarian community, growing cane and some produce. Both my parents are from farming families. As a little girl I was always attracted to what life was like in the country, maybe in a more romantic way and I spent summers there. When I was eight, my dad gave me my own little garden spot in front of our house. So, I have been gardening most of my life.
Now with the food movement I see how I can bring that passion to some every day work.
What’s your overall vision?
I often tell people I’m helping to sow the seeds of a local food tapestry here in NOLA. I have this vision of being able to fly into the city and see the topography of our marsh lands and our waterways and tributaries, and really being able to see our landscape integrated with food producing gardens. I think we have an opportunity to create a model in our rebuilding and recovery to make wiser, more efficient use of our vacant and blighted land.
“Feeding communities. Cultivating beauty. Nurturing lives” is the WandA tag line and my vision.
What books and/or blogs are you reading right now?
I just bought a book, the latest from Muhammad Yunus on changing the landscape of poverty in the world called Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism and Half the Sky about the transformation of women from oppression to opportunity across the world.
My favorite quarterly magazine is Urban Agriculture produced by the RUAF Foundation. It focuses on the global nature of the food security and urban agriculture movement. I just get so excited when it arrives in the mail. And, I can’t wait to read Farmer Jane.
Who’s in your community?
Oh my goodness. I interact with so many people across so many lines and culture groups. Mainly the people I interact with are what I call the Sisterhood of my House. It’s the women who live in my house, from my 10-year old granddaughter to my mother who is 96. My sister comes over and shares in the care of our mother. I can also count on her and my daughters to help me in the garden. I also have two close “sister friends” that are founding executive directors of young organizations. We have formed what we are calling exciting strategic partnerships to see where our work intersects so that we can lend each other development and fund raising support.
I’m finding that my day-to-day associations are strengthened by my “community of women.”
What are your commitments?
My main commitment right now is making sure I’m taking care of myself and really, really devoting some quality time and attention to that. I realize in order to continue being strong in this work that I have to do that.
Beyond that I’m committed to really honestly figuring out, not just by myself, but with a circle of colleagues and friends and partners how to best do this work. How to do my small part, whatever that part is. If it’s a small piece I really want to do it well; if it grows, all the better. I really want to go from idea to impact. It’s great to have ideas. But if they aren’t developed in a way that’s impactful, even if it’s something small then we’re really missing the mark.
What are your goals?
I know some people have a three year plan, but right now I have a goal of successfully working through an incubation period for WandA that began July 2010 and is projected will go through Spring 2011. I’m devoting careful attention and planning to that public launch of WandA by nurturing current partnerships and seeking potential opportunities.
What does change look like to you?
Change is a constant thing. When I think about developing my garden, over the course of a little more than a year and a half, I’ve seen a vacant property go from no fertility to increasing fertility and that really took some consistent, careful and thoughtful input. I guess change looks like taking careful and thoughtful action applied to whatever the situation is. That lot went from compacted clay and urban decay to fertile ground but it didn’t just happen because I brought in loads of soil, it happened because I brought together all sorts of inputs that had to work together in a complex system.
Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?
In partnership with one of my development colleagues, Gia Hamilton of Gris Gris Lab, we’ve initiated an “action outreach” plan to engage participants in our work that are usually deemed undeserved or vulnerable. I know of people that fall into these groupings who don’t have a lot of resources but are extremely creative and entrepreneurial.
What projects are affiliated with yours?
A major signature project is developing Sun Harvest Kitchen Garden as a demonstration social enterprise growing operation to teach youth and women how to grow for the marketplace.
WandA is developing The Beautiful Blocks Project that will conduct action outreach along 11 blocks of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, a national historic Main Street. The project is being launched during the 10th anniversary of Café Reconcile to pay tribute to the efforts of all of the groups that have been part of the neighborhood’s revival. We plan to engage the residents, organizations and businesses in transforming the corridor by creating beautiful streetscapes, edible landscapes and yard gardens.
What projects and people have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?
Recent research into women’s collectives led me to SEWA in India. They are well-established women driven entrepreneurial organization that supports women from the lower castes of India and have been around for some time. I was so inspired.
I’m also inspired by Village Heath Works in Burundi where my cousin is its executive director. I’ve been so moved that she, as a young woman has been able to connect significantly to the profound needs of the people there. We both use this term “mighty work to describe our work.
Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next 5-10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility?
Nationally I’m really pleased that one of the best things to come out of Washington is the First Lady’s focus and commitment to food security, better health, and quality of life for children and families. I’m encouraged by a series of recent meetings and conferences I’ve attended focused on food security that indicate increasing interest in food policy on local, state and national levels.
In five to 10 years our food and agriculture situation, as well as the health of the nation, might possibly be improved by better educating women and youth about these issues. Accounts say that the world is more urban than ever. Better, more innovative training and practices at home, in schools and throughout our communities about our connection to food can influence policy and thus change.
What does the food movement need to do, be or have to be more effective?
We have to be more open and realistic about including people of color, women and youth to add to the diversity of leadership and participation in the food movement. My experience conducting food systems and agriculture related research and work in West Indian and African American communities led to accounts of youth, in particular, associating farming with slave labor. So, in our 21st century, information and technologically interactive world, we have to devise creative ways to change that image.
What would you want to be your last meal on earth?
I would want my last meal on earth to be some really good barbecued tofu with a combination of tender young mustards and collards, and buttery corn bread. And, a tall glass of sweet tea with lemon.