Siena Chrisman is the Manager of Strategic Partnerships & Alliances at WhyHunger in New York City. She joined WhyHunger in 2005; in her current capacity, she works with organizations and advocates around the country to build the movement for a healthier and more just food system. She is the editor of Green Roofs: Ecological Design and Construction (Schiffer Publishing, 2004), and holds a BA from Mount Holyoke College. Originally from Amherst, MA, Siena lived in Italy prior to moving to New York, teaching English, doing odd jobs, and learning what a culture looks like when it values food. She now lives in Brooklyn, where she cooks, bakes, composts, and is anxiously awaiting warmer temperatures so she can start planting in her community garden plot.
What issues have you been focused on?
In my work at WhyHunger, I’m fortunate to focus at both macro and micro levels, working with national level organizations and local grassroots groups around the country. We’re able to see the connections—how federal policy impacts local communities, for example; or the commonalities between groups from, say, Iowa and New York City, who may seem very different on the surface. A primary focus of my work is making these connections—helping to organize the grassroots for national policy advocacy, or bringing groups together to learn from each other.
What inspires you to do this work?
I am most inspired by the grassroots community leaders we work with. There are such incredible people all around the country, and right here in New York—I have friends and colleagues working in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, or the South Bronx (which has one of the highest diabetes rates in the country) who are making changes in their communities every day—often on top of another job. They eke out the time and energy to organize, advocate, grow their own food, and inspire their neighbors at a very basic level of personal engagement. Despite the enormous changes they’re making, most of them are still so under the radar, and I’d say most people don’t realize that this is where a lot of the good food revolution is coming from.
Much of my work is done in service to and in recognition of these leaders. My work is about amplifying their voices and stories so more people can be inspired and learn from them.
On days when I’m ready to just give up because the problems are so huge, I think about them—and I also think about the joy of sharing amazing food with people I love. At the risk of sounding cheesy or trite, I’m inspired by the idea of a better, healthier food system for everybody and, despite all obstacles, truly committed to working towards a world where that joy is a basic right for all people.
What’s your overall vision?
My overall vision—which dovetails with WhyHunger’s – is a just, healthy, sustainable food system that nourishes all people. More specifically, I see it as a localized system, with a diversified network of producers producing for regional markets before export, supplemented by fair national and international trading systems. This would build local economies, create jobs, and develop resilient, self-reliant communities.
What books and/or blogs are you reading right now?
I recently finished Don’t Think of An Elephant by George Lakoff. Such great stuff about framing and messaging—and how, basically, conservatives are winning because they’ve learned how to frame the debate. The food movement has a lot we could learn from Lakoff.
I’m completely in love with Mark Bittman in his new Opinion column and blog at the Times. I love “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” and years of Minimalist columns too, and I think the crossover he’s made is so brilliant—we trust our cookbook authors; they become characters cooking with us in our kitchens. Bittman is using the trust he’s built up to guide his broad audience gently into some right-on, pretty sophisticated, progressive food politics. I think his voice is exactly the one the food movement needs right now. Plus: the New York Times has a food writer on its op-ed page! What a thrill!
I read The New Yorker – I’d like it to do more about food, but I’m frequently flagging relevant articles. There was recently a profile of a Peace Corps volunteer and his advocacy in Congress for increased Peace Corps funding, which made me think a lot about alternative strategies for congressional advocacy. Back in the food realm, Obama Food-a-Rama and Civil Eats are great. And I’d be completely lost without the Comfood listserv.
Who’s in your community?
There’s often a pretty fine line dividing personal and professional for me. I work nationally, with colleagues all over the country—many of whom are also friends; so that’s one community.
And I live in Brooklyn, which, as you may have heard, is doing a lot with food—I feel like it’s gotten to a point with local food that the borough has kind of jumped the shark, so to speak. The next big trend might be super-processed, eating-on-the-go—as a backlash against the huge local/sustainable thing! On a personal level, I love that, and it’s an amazing place to live. I have a great food community there—I’m part of a community garden and a CSA, I have a network of friends who are farmers. A big part of what makes Brooklyn such an exciting place to live is the really diverse, community-based food work—I’d like to see more of the diversity of it get more publicity, rather than the current media focus that too often seems to be exclusively on young white hipsters growing crops on rooftops.