Photo of Jamese Kwele. Photo courtesy of Jamese Kwele
Earlier this year, Jamese Kwele left her role at the Philadelphia, Penn.-based The Food Trust to join Ecotrust as our first Director of Food Equity. Born and raised in California, Jamese had been living and working in Philly for 20 years before returning West. After a few months settling into her new role and new home, Jamese talks with Doe Hatfield about community, vision, leadership, and Pacific Ocean.
You lived in Philadelphia for 20 years. What is a favorite place of yours in or around that city?
One of my favorite places is Lansdowne Landing. It’s a community space in the little town where we lived. The Landing was conceived and built by the community. It began as a municipal parking lot that was repurposed first with an artist-led community mural painted on the ground. A committed group of neighbors then came together to make it a beautiful, welcoming place for folks to socialize, build community, and relax. Some neighbors helped build furniture like benches and tables. Others donated things like board games, toys for kids, plants, flowers, and canopies. It is a place built with volunteer power, donations, creativity, and love.
How did the 20 years in Philadelphia shape your perspective?
Philly shaped my perspective on what it means to be unapologetically Black, to speak truth to power, be surrounded by love and community, and to struggle, resist, and through it all, experience joy. I’m grateful for my time there—I experienced a lot of healing in those 20 years.
What was your point of entry into food systems work?
My entry point was when I joined the The Food Trust in 2008. I began by working in a community-based role on the SNAP-Ed team where I facilitated nutrition education programming in community sites: schools, libraries, gardens, farmers markets, corner stores, churches, community centers, etc. After several years, I moved to a new position in another department within the organization. That marked a transition to an office-based role where I took on more program development work. I served as a technical assistance provider for healthy food access projects all over the country and implemented a pilot farm to shelter project. I also went on to lead the design, development, and evaluation of a farm to early care program that eventually evolved into a statewide advocacy initiative.
What excites you about community food systems work?
Community food systems is a field where we interface with many people at different levels across various sectors. Through the years, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with folks in public health, government, early childhood, agriculture, nonprofits, philanthropy, cooperatives, community groups, the private sector, etc. What really excites me about this work is relationship-building and forging strategic partnerships to move the work forward.
Director of Food Equity is a new job at Ecotrust. What’s your vision for the role?
I see my own role as that of a facilitator. Equity at the center. What does that mean? How do we work towards bringing that into practice? How can Ecotrust get in right relationship with community? How can we work in solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and other folks of color who have been leading food justice work across the Pacific Northwest? How can we shift power and resources, including capital, to advance equitable outcomes? And we can’t forget the land — food justice is land justice.
Ultimately, underlying all this is a process of healing—thinking about how we can get in right relationship with one another, but also in right relationship with the land. A recognition and a respect for the fact that we are on Native land is foundational to that. So, we have big, meaningful work ahead.
This is work that is going to take leadership. Who is a leader that has influenced you?
It’s important for us to ask ourselves, “What type of leadership?” I believe it will take shared leadership. So to honor that idea, I will lift up the collective leadership of Soil Generation, a Black- and Brown-led coalition in Philadelphia that has done incredible work to build power and mobilize around land justice issues.
Summer in the Northwest is finally here. What do you have planned for your hours outside the office?
I am grateful to be closer to the Pacific Ocean. I grew up in the SF Bay Area and trips to Stinson Beach were a regular part of my childhood. I’m looking forward to visiting the Oregon Coast with my husband and two children this summer. They don’t call it the beach in the Mid-Atlantic region, they call it the shore, so I can go back to calling it the beach (laughs). Yeah, I’m looking forward to reconnecting.
In a recent keynote address, Jamese Kwele shared examples of centering equity in Farm to School and where opportunity exists to do more.