The Leading Voices in Food
E165: North Carolina Youth Food Initiative Brings Young People into Social Transformation
Today, we’re going to explore one way that young people in North Carolina are working to improve their local food system. The Food Youth Initiative is a program based in the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, which is housed at North Carolina State University. Now we’ll be talking with the Program Coordinator, Bevelyn Ukah, and the Program Partner, Ree Ree Wei, of Transplanting Traditions Community Farm.
Bevelyn Afor Ukah works as a consultant to train youth and adults in building skills that encourage equity, organizational efficiency, cultural connection, and collaboration. She coordinates the Food Youth Initiative Program (FYI), a program of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), which engages youth that lead food justice work across North Carolina. She also co-coordinates the Racial Equity in Food Systems initiative at CEFS, which develops a shared understanding of language, history and race. She serves on the Transplanting Traditions Community Farm Board, the National Rooted in Community Board and the NC Climate Justice Collective.
Ree Ree Wei is the Executive Director of Transplanting Traditions Community Farm. She moved with her family from a refugee camp in Thailand to South Carolina in 2006 and later resettled in Chapel Hill. Ree Ree first joined the TTCF community in 2013 as a youth intern with the TTCF youth program. After graduating from Chapel Hill High School she became the Youth Program Coordinator, coordinating food justice activities for refugee youth participants. Ree Ree continued to work with TTCF while in college as a cultural consultant and interpreter, and she graduated from Guilford College in Greensboro, NC as Bonner Scholar with a degree in Community and Justice Studies and Forced Migration and Resettlement Studies. In the winter of 2021, Ree Ree joined the TTCF team as the Business Development Coordinator, supporting farmers to find innovative strategies to reach long term business and income goals.
Great, well it’s good to have you, and as I was explaining before we actually went live on this, we’ve done, I don’t know, 150 podcasts or so, but this is the first one that specifically deals with youth in the food system and the role they can play, so I’m really happy to hear from you about what seems to me to be a very innovative program. So, Bevelyn, let’s start with you. Can you tell us what the Food Youth Initiative is and talk about your work there?
Bevelyn – Yes, the Food Youth Initiative is a program of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. It sometimes challenges me to call it a program, because it’s more so a network of youth groups across the state that are doing food justice work in their areas. So as the Network Coordinator, my job is being in relationship with them, listening to the work that they’re already doing in their own communities, and finding as many ways as possible to make sure that they’re connected to each other’s work. All the youth groups that are a part of the network, about eight now, are all doing various things that are connected to the food system. What makes it that much more powerful is when they come together because they’re able to exemplify different entry points on what food, and food systems, and food justice looks like.
You know, community organizations are very often doing quite creative work, but work in isolation and don’t get the chance to connect up with other community organizations to share ideas, and strategies, and things. I’m imagining this is a very powerful experience. Have you found that to be true?
Bevelyn – Yes, I have found that to be true. And I would love for Ree Ree to answer this question as well. It’s always awkward when bringing people together. And youth tend to be super honest about how they’re feeling in their bodies. So when bringing these youth groups together from these different walks of life, the first day or the first few experiences are a little bit awkward. And it’s one of the most powerful witnessings that I see over and over again, how a bit of time and a bit of tools and resources can get people talking and moving. How it completely shifts the trajectory of how these youth can learn from one another. I think that the first step in bringing youth together is to make sure that there is a validation that the work that they’re doing is innovative. And the work that they’re doing is important. That it actually pushes against the grain of how the rest of food systems work looks. And once we start to name that and identify that, it’s super powerful in terms of the transformation that takes place when youth come together.
Thanks for that explanation. Ree Ree, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. It sounds like something pretty magical happens when the youth from different groups get to come together and share things. Has that been your experience, too?
Ree Ree – Yes, that has in my experience. Being part of FYI, and I started out as a youth with Transplant Traditions Community Farm back in 2013, it was very new. And very awkward, and very weird to be able to be in a space of I want to do something as a youth, but I feel very uncomfortable. But over time, having that physical connection, being able to see each other in person, and network, and share out changes perspectives, and youth confidence and youth visions for their future. I can say that I am a testimony to the work of FYI and TTCF Youth Program. I have learned skills that are beyond what I thought that I needed. Over time, I built a lot of skills and learned why my voice as a young person matters. Why collective working together matters, and that is unique about this. One youth group inspires another youth group, and different food systems and food justice work, it’s very interconnected.
It’s nice to hear from both of you on your perspectives on that. Ree Ree, let me ask you a follow-up question. I know there’s a lot of interest in this concept of youth justice, and how does youth justice connect to food and environmental justice?
Ree Ree – Yes, there are these expectations and societal norms that youth are supposed to do this, and this, and this, and that. And sometimes adults and even society put youth in a box. But when we were talking about youth justice, we are able to create a space for them. And that’s what FYI is really good at it, and being able to be say, “Okay, we are going to work on food justice or environmental justice,” and, “Here, this is your space.” And food work gets to be creative. They get to come up with things they want to do, and giving them the autonomy for them to be able to say, “I want this, because I see this, and this is what I can do,” even though this youth might feel like they’re unable to do it, but over time, that space, giving youth that autonomy, oftentimes there’s not room for youth to be able to do that. And especially the work that FYI does and Transplant Tradition do is that we centers around where youth are able to have the decision making of how they want to strategize about this project. What goes on this picture, that type of thing. So when youth are given the space and the voice, they’re able to see the connection between food and environmental justice and how work that they’re doing is not just on a surface level; it goes deeper and they’re connected. Youth are able to address these different generational issues that their ancestor experienced.
You’re giving voice to something really important, and I could see how this would be such a powerful experience for the youth that you work with. And let’s talk a little bit more about the particulars of the program. So Bevelyn, I know that one part of the project overall, the initiative is the Mural Project. Would you describe what that’s about?
Bevelyn – Bringing youth together is the important part, but the strategic planning that we put into the process of how we bring youth together is really important. And our theory of change acknowledges that for systems change to be possible, we need to work on multiple levels, including a policy level. We need to be able to educate ourselves and our communities through storytelling and other forms of expression. We need to be able to act and create models or create spaces that offer this reimagination of how our food system and our society should look like. And as we’ve been talking about, it’s also important for us to build relationships and to be able to maintain those relationships, because ultimately what we’re trying to create or continue is an ecosystem that brings a sense of belonging, for not only the youth participants, but also for the communities in which they live.
And so the Mural Project is heavily connected to the education part, the storytelling part of our theory of change. Every year, when we bring youth together, there are multiple skills that are being developed. We’ve focused on storytelling from different mediums and different forms. In the past, we’ve done photography and made sure that youth had access to really nice cameras, and that they could go around their communities and take photos. And they had a few exhibits. We also created a traveling exhibit for the youth to be able to own this exhibit and be able to use whenever they’re doing presentations. We’ve worked on public speaking in the form of learning how to write monologues and sharing them. We did that at the Durham Art Council some years back. We’ve done a whole compilation of poetry and worked with a poet who worked with us for a whole week. And so right now we’re creating a mural that is centered around community stories, around food and environmental justice. We have youth coming from Transplanting Traditions, and Chapel Hill, Pupusas for Education, which is based in Durham, and then A Better Chance/Better Community, youth and adult allies are coming together to form this experience.
It’s an eight-month project where they have been learning about one another, relationship building, but also building their knowledge base on the root causes of food injustice and lack of accessibility to healthy, culturally relevant food, and also learning about root causes of climate change in ways that we can galvanize ourselves to shift this narrative, to be more connected to our natural environment and to be more ecologically conscious. That was a first phase. And the second phase we’re in right now which is where youth are gathering together in Durham over the next three months to work on a storytelling project, get to know one another, but to work on a storytelling project where they will be going out into the community and creatively offering opportunities for people to talk about their experiences around climate, environmental justice, and food. They will bring those back to our hive, I guess I’ll call it, in forming, designing a mural that expresses those stories and that mural will be on a food truck. Pupusas for Education has offered a food truck for us to paint on over the next few months, and it will be unveiled on June 11th at Transplant Traditions Community Farm. And I will say that that unveiling will be a party and everyone is invited.
That sounds so lovely. I can imagine how meaningful an experience this would be to the youth. The food truck idea is a really good one. Yeah, I can’t wait to see this. It just sounds so neat.
Bevelyn – Yeah, we’re really excited about being able to have a mobile mural that people can see all over the place. It’s more accessible this way.
It represents a collective effort of a lot of different people, so it just sounds so nice. So I’d like to ask both of you kind of a follow-up question, and, Ree Ree, let’s start with you. What kind of impact do you think the youth are having in their communities?
Ree Ree – Sometimes they feel like they don’t, but it’s a huge impact. They are the voices and they’re the ones that are speaking up and publicly saying it out loud to the community that these issues are important, and they’re being impacted at a very young age. And they’re even impacting folks directly or indirectly one way or another. Like our youth group, they are doing tutoring, and they don’t realize that is a huge impact to the direct causes of literacy issues. And the other bigger impact that they’re having is they’re addressing things that not many people are aware of, like food justice, environmental justice, climate just- Like why are we changing the narrative from seeing things as an issue to, “Okay, it’s an environmental problem.” Now let’s flip the narrative to, “Okay, we’re fighting for environmental justice or food justice.” They are using their own voices and their bodies, and being able to say, “We are doing this work and we need you all to listen to us because these issues are going to continue.”
You know what it reminds me of is the early days of seat belts, where there were a lot of adults that were reluctant to wear seat belts, but education programs started happening in schools. Youth then came home with the message, and adults were listening to the pleas of the youth to wear seat belts, and it really made a difference. And I could see that same thing kind of happening here. Bevelyn, does that make sense to you, and what kind of impact are you seeing youth having in their communities?
Bevelyn – I think that’s a really great example, the marginalization of youth voices. It’s very intentional. Historically, anytime there’s been large-scale transformations, those societal transformations have been led by youth. For social transformation, younger generations have the juice. I think it’s really, really important for youth to be able to share their own stories and talk about what they’re doing. And at the same time, part of my job is to share as much as possible the actual activities, the actual things that youth are doing to shift our food system. So earlier, when I was talking about the theory of change, when I was talking about policy, education, replicable models and networks, I was more so speaking from the perspective of how we’re building out our programs within the Food Youth Initiative, but ultimately, each of these youth groups are already working in their communities on all of those levels to make changes. And one example is Poder Juvenile Campesino. They’ve been doing a lot of work on farm labor rights, specifically building awareness around the challenges, not only that farm workers experience, but that farm worker youth experience, as our policy in the United States allows for children to be in our fields with very little protection. A lot of these youth are farm laborers themselves, and so they’re not just advocates. These experiences directly impacts them and their families. And then Ree Ree’s already talked about education and storytelling. Transplanting Traditions youth have been heavy advocates for the farm and for the farmers, as a lot of the farmers may have challenges around speaking English or even accessing certain systemic resources. And so, to be able to openly talk about the importance of recultivating home in the United States in Chapel Hill, that story has heavily been told by the youth of the farm. I can go on and on about the replicable models and networks, but I just wanted to be super clear that we’re not just throwing these words around, climate justice, food justice, environmental justice, that the youth that are a part of this network are doing groundbreaking work in their communities. So I heavily encourage folks to continue to follow us so that you can continue to educate yourselves about the high impacts work that is being done.
It sounds like with the youth having voice and carrying messages forth is important to both the people who are speaking the message and the people who are hearing it, so you can see really important impact occurring with this, couldn’t you?
Ree Ree – Yes, and I see in some ways, like something I have learned being part of the youth program that I have learned over time, is that the impact is both on a personal level and also at the big P, on a policy level, on a public level, so it impacts folks directly and indirectly in a way where it leads to cool things, like being able to address for policy changes. And they’re able to learn how to advocate for themselves personally. So that’s sometimes the impact that sometimes people don’t often realize, youth also are learning how to advocate for themselves, which is like big things that, and especially a lot of youth that we have worked with and learning about you are able to advocate for yourself, you have that autonomy. Especially for BIPOC youth and being able to empower them, just tell them, “You can do both of these on a personal level and on a policy level.”
So one final question for you both, what sort of support do you need to continue this kind of work? Bevelyn, how about you first?
Bevelyn – You mentioned earlier that there hasn’t been a direct interview about youth in the food system. I believe that there’s little awareness about the impacts that youth make on our food system. And therefore there are minimal resources for continued programming and continued network development around youth, and so I’m looking to do more intentional work around fundraising, as opposed to grant writing, because we’re able to have a lot more freedom to support youth needs and to be able to identify blind spots that I think that grant makers are having in the process of creating financial opportunities for youth to be able to soar in this work.
And Ree Ree, what about you? What do you think? What kind of support is needed to continue this kind of work?
Ree Ree – Yeah, I think the type of support that’s needed is from all kind of level, being able to, one, like listen to youth. Oftentimes adults have biases about youth. Listen to them, listen to their story, make time, being very intentional about learning about what youth are doing and giving time for that instead of making judgment. And the other thing is to follow the different youth groups of all of FYI network. It’ll be really cool to be able to see what they’re up to and why their work are, and it’s very unique in a way that they’re addressing these social issues on a local level. And the other thing is that all of our youth group, they’re doing these intentional work that sometimes staffs are limited. We rely on volunteers and contractor peoples to be able to really do these meaningful work, to really continue to support and uplift youth, so on a fundraising level, to support that and reach out and donate.
Well, thank you both for being with us. This work is really exciting, innovative, and I’m glad that we can play a role in letting our listeners know about it. So, thanks so much for being with us.
Bevelyn – So, Ree Ree’s really humble, but Ree Ree was 13 when she started with Transplanting Traditions, and about 14 or 15 when she was one of the co-founders with other youth groups of the Food Youth Initiative network, and essentially she hired me. I applied for the job and she hired me at maybe 15 years old. She went through the program, went to Guilford College, studied Human Relations, came out of college, and is now the ED at Transplanting Traditions. And so I just wanted to also name that career trajectory, that to me is so powerful of how when youth are supported and when they have intentional relationships, how many possibilities open up to young adult’s leadership within these powerful food justice spaces.
For more information about the Food Youth Initiative: https://cefs.ncsu.edu/youth/food-youth-initiative/
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