“I have two big commitments: Social justice and kindness.”
Asking an entire generation of young people (over 80 million strong) to do service as a prerequisite to graduating high school is probably one of the biggest social experiments in history, which is one reason I’ve been fixated on campus-oriented / student-led initiatives. I met Regina when she worked at Independent Sector, and I was impressed by her candor and commitment to busting loose. Now she’s running Food Recovery Network and challenging students across America to be leaders in providing healthy meals and fresh ideas to their communities.
What’s your thing… not what you do, but why you do what you do?
I have two big commitments: social justice and kindness. I enjoy collaboration, and, perhaps because I see more results, I lean into that. That doesn’t mean I don’t have incredibly high standards and won’t give feedback when needed, as any of my friends will let you know, but I tend to adhere to the radical candor approach where I care very deeply, and I don’t mind respectfully and compassionately holding people accountable and being held accountable in return. It’s not easy, but it’s what I strive to do. I obtained my MA to collect the tools I would need to participate in the dismantling of structural racism. Social justice is a lifelong commitment and pursuit for me.
OK, now tell us what you do.
I am the Executive Director of Food Recovery Network. FRN is a national nonprofit that unites students at colleges and universities to fight food waste and hunger by recovering perishable food that would otherwise go to waste and donating it to people in the community or partner agencies. Today, FRN has evolved into the largest student-driven movement against food waste and has become a leader in the food recovery space.Since our founding in 2011, the food recovery movement has grown rapidly, as the next generation of leaders seeks innovative strategies for promoting environmental sustainability and creating a more equitable food system. FRN harnesses the energy and capabilities of over 4,000 college students across the country and empowers them with the tools and resources necessary to catalyze positive, systemic change within their communities. Our programs are now on nearly 200 campuses in 45 states and the District of Columbia and have recovered and donated more than 4 million pounds of food to date—the equivalent of more than 3.3 million meals to individuals and families in need.
As a young leader, what makes you want to scream most about the state of philanthropy? What gives you the most hope for our sector?
What makes me want to scream is an issue that almost all nonprofits face: our philanthropic commitments are annual, and only a couple brave funders provide multi-year grants. Like a lot of my peers, I spend almost all of my time fundraising. We are engaged in long-term social change, but I am constantly fundraising, writing proposals, submitting reports, and trying to secure new funders. That means I have to watch every single dime. That means that it takes a long time to build up a secure enough budget that feels baked enough to increase the salaries of my team and make some of these bigger cost investments. The way our sector is funded makes that almost impossible.
What gives me the most hope about our sector is that I’m in some very inspiring and badass company with people who are 100% dedicated to solving big problems. While we face barriers to long-term social change and dismantling an unjust system, the folks in the nonprofit sector are adaptable, creative, and resilient. And, as long as there are people who are hungry, who struggle with housing, who struggle with obtaining jobs, who suffer from PTSD, who need safe childcare, who struggle with literacy or addiction, all of the hardships that an unjust system supports, we in the nonprofit sector say, “I am committed to helping so that this is not the reality of my neighbor or of my community”.
If you could get the ear of a presidential candidate, what law or policy would you most urge them to enact, and how would it radically rock your world?
A living wage for everyone! And, while there isn’t one policy or candidate who can do this, a commitment to racial healing. When we constantly live in a place of fear, or of losing (jobs, housing, our health), or of not having enough, we are susceptible to the teachings of “othering” and scapegoating those who may seem different than us. Our current racist structure has allowed for this to happen for too long.
Also, while I’m on this jag, an immediate push for a living wage in for-profit, publicly traded companies. Companies like Amazon, Dunkin Donuts, Walmart, etc. could enact a living wage today without too much disruption to the bottom line of their shareholders. While I want these companies to make money for their investors, I’d like them to do that after other socially beneficial goals have been met. I want a culture that supports helping one another before profits. I want you to feel comfortable being a billionaire after you feel comfortable knowing your entry-level workers are making a living wage as a minimum.
How much money would you need to truly run wild, and what would it allow you to do?
Ah, great question. Let me start with $25 million dollars a year to put FRN’s strategic framework and FRN10x concept into place, so we can unleash a mighty workforce development tornado that spreads talented FRN student alumni far and wide. Using what they’ve learned from us, they can then support and partner around the advocacy and policy work needed to make permanent structural changes that so many organizations are working on now. And then we could create even more allies, pilot new programs, and oh, pay the FRN team what they truly deserve. That, and maybe bringing in a healthy lunch for the team every once and a while without stressing about whether it’s in the budget. I can start there at a minimum.
What was the last code word, bizsplaining moment, or condescending comment you got from an elder, and what did you say, or wish you could have said to push back?
When I was coming up through the ranks, the term “emotional labor” did not exist. When people insisted that you help them to “understand,” there was no term for what that felt like being asked to be that guide, navigator, or teacher. For many of us, emotional labor was constant, whether we liked it or not, or whether we were ready to do that work or not. For many, it felt / feels terrible, like being trapped. When people would ask you about your racial makeup, that is work. When they ask you to talk on behalf of your community because you are the only one they know from that community, as if your community is homogeneous, not only is that tokenism, but that is work.
Flash forward to today and my reflection of this is that I happen to be someone who does not mind engaging in this emotional work—most of the time. I’ve been reading more and more about others like me who actually like the role of emotional laborer. So, to answer your question, when someone bizsplains, whitesplains, heterosplains, transplains, ablesplains, mansplains, etc., I’m learning to respectfully question, open up the conversation, and discuss further. That is an ideal, though. A lot of the times I hear the comment, filter it, and process it in that split second, move on without comment, and fully process it later on. My new practice is to try to stop that automation, bring in questions for clarification, and open up the conversation a bit more in a respectful way.
Talk about your best elder ally, and how they inspired you through their actions.
I have observed so many incredible people in my career accomplishing some really amazing things. I don’t know if I have “a best,” but I do have some traits and approaches that I’ve come to bring into my practice over the years. For example, you, Robert. Your ability to think so big-picture, so disruptively, that people don’t even see where the dots connect up to your ideas. They have to wait a bit for the work to begin to see a pathway begin to emerge in front of them. That’s amazing.
I also think about certain leaders I’ve seen run their nonprofits with an asset-based mindset, who saw a vision for the community and patiently set about making that vision a reality by bringing in the right board members, the right stakeholders, and persisting when goals were not achieved, because honestly, it’s not always possible to hit every single mark every single time.
Tell us about another young leader everyone should know about.
Matt Scott, who recently interviewed me for his podcast, 180 Degrees of Impact. I love Matt—he is caring, he is curious, and his whole platform is to shine light on people doing amazing things in their neck of the world. We need more Matts in the world and I highly recommend everyone get to know Matt and his work.
How do you think philanthropy can better support more organizations that are led by young leaders of color such as yourself?
First, provide multi-year grant money, at a minimum of six years. Second, young leaders need access to mentors and resources. For example, it took me pretty much the whole time I was at FRN to “save up” enough money to pay for a high-level program evaluation. Then Covid-19 hit, and I had to use those resources to keep the organization moving. The kind of evaluation I am looking to do cost about $50,000, which is a lot of money for us! Philanthropy should not just fund more leaders of color, but also underwrite projects like that, so we know that our vision is matched with verifiable impact.Coming up, you worked at a few well-established, national organizations. If you could speak at one of their board meetings, what would you say to maybe roust them to be bold, not just old?
Some nonprofits don’t need, or ask much more from their board other than have a known name who writes a big check. Frankly, that’s what nonprofits have been told for ages: “Get a big name, from a big corporation or law firm, with deep pockets.” Many of the nonprofits on whose boards I’ve served or the organizations for which I’ve worked need much more.
Outside of the board meetings, if you can’t commit to doing things like introducing someone with finances or resources, sharing good news of your nonprofit to your networks, and making an ask of your networks to support your nonprofit, then you really need to consider if you’re doing the best for that nonprofit. Being a thinker and strategic guide to the nonprofit is so valuable, critical and needed, but we need these resources and connections even more.
About the Author
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.