JEDI

First Steps

I started on the board during a pivotal time in our nation, having my first zoom training with Glenn & Kate in June 2020.

In the same month, George Floyd was murdered. It brought light to a flame that is still burning—the Black Lives Matter movement. The world watched as a man screamed for life, his mother. and uttered his last words: “I can’t breathe”. Those 9 mins and 29 seconds caught on video shook the country, awakening awareness in some, and a reminder to others.

Some of us took to the streets to protest, others got more involved in their community, many just continued the work they were already doing, some ignored, and others remained numb. In our community, flames were caught. As a board, we began to discuss Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion–JEDI–as it related to the Co-op. 

As we mapped out what it would look like, the board decided to create a committee that would lead the charge. In March of this year, I became Chair of the Justice Equity Diversity Inclusion (JEDI) Committee for the Middlebury Natural Foods Cooperative. Since becoming chair, I observed the committee’s eagerness and desire to act and came up with a plan. Seeing this eagerness, I took a step back and reflected. I wrestled internally as I asked myself how we can “be the change” in this new space. How do we move the focus from deliverables and concrete results to regrouping and starting inward? Can we do this alone? Do we need facilitators? How do we create a safe space so we can process & be honest? Where do we begin?  

Thus, I heard the call – we began inward. This included a mix of activities that allowed us to work on our own biases hidden in plain sight. Our refocus became a process of unlearning together, learning together, sharing together, creating a safe space, to be honest, and process together.  

As a committee, we continue to connect, build trust, and reflect. Our first step was a retreat this June where we created a safe space for everyone to reflect on their own privilege and experiences. As the facilitator, I lead by inviting everyone to be present, talk about their own privilege and fears around this work through a series of activities.

This is just the very beginning; we know this is the work of lifetimes to repattern and know ourselves first.  We are invested in doing the work for ourselves, as a board, staff, and the Co-op. What will it look like years from now?  We have no clue, but we are committed to showing up together to keep taking that first step over and over to do the work.

Esther Thomas is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member

Talking with Megan Brakelely at The Knoll at Middlebury College.

Walking the TAM from either direction to The Knoll at Middlebury College is an other-worldly experience. From one direction the path meanders along open fields and through a little magical forest filled with fairies. From the other side, the path winds alongside another type of current (pun intended) day magic – large flat square objects that follow the sun transforming sunlight into electricity to support the renewable power portfolio of Middlebury College.  Once upon The Knoll the Labyrinth and Dalai Lama rock beckon the visitor to slow down and just be, surrounded by the vast perennial, vegetable, and flower beds. 

The Knoll is tended by Middlebury College students under the guidance of Megan Brakeley and other Middlebury staff.  Megan brings a great vibe and deep experience with farming to her tending of The Knoll similar to her predecessor Jay Leshinsky balancing and harmonizing the needs of non-human living beings with human living beings.  Megan graduated from Middlebury College in 2006 with a degree in Spanish and a minor in Environmental Studies. After seven years of learning from her students and the land through teaching and farming after graduation, Megan pursued a Masters of Environmental Management from the Yale School of the Environment.

I’ve known Megan since her days in the Center for Community Engagement at Middlebury, and have been witness to what she calls one of her superpowers, “navigating and advocating for different kinds of spaces.”   Whether you are a silphium (The Land Institute’s perennial sunflower) in need of some ground to call home, a student finding your “place” at Middlebury, or you are seeking an organizer with deep knowledge of sustainable farming who is calm and centered (Megan is on the Organizing Squad VT Releaf Collectively) you will not regret knowing Megan. 

As a mentor for students and a mentee of many others as she expands her connection to the BIPOC farming community in Vermont, she feels fortunate that Jay worked alongside her as she transitioned to running The Knoll. Megan brings a great laugh, a huge smile, and a deep knowing that is instantly comforting.  While many of us at the Coop know Jay from his many years on our Board of Directors, serving as president, Megan has been grateful for his stewardship at The Knoll.  The Knoll was founded by students just a couple of years ahead of Megan at Middlebury who also benefited from Jay’s wisdom.  “Jay is someone who holds experiences and lets them soften him.  He has a gentleness with others, is always curious, generous, generative, and creates space for others,” Megan reflected. Jay and Megan shared stories and tea during early morning meetings at the Wilson Cafe on campus during the transition. Jay shared the origin story of the Knoll with Megan at that time, which emerged from many voices and many hands to come into the shape it is today.

One of the things Megan brings to her work, and to these uncertain and even chaotic times, is curiosity about leadership.  What does it look like to support sustainable farming practices in Vermont – in the BIPOC community beyond her Middlebury College work?  How are these spaces held, how are they re-claimed?  Megan is stepping into her own as a leader, accomplice, and amplifier as she considers the current state of the world and her place in it.  She works for the shift believing in the work required to change the dominant power structures to create access, equity, and inclusion. “Leadership, representation, fresh ideas, and familiarity with reimagining and thinking outside existing hegemonies matters,” Megan observes. “What does it mean to ‘center voices’ in a holistic way where we also acknowledge past harm, work toward making amends, and do the real reparative work to actively resource the people who can transform and guide this work?”  These are ideas and actions the Board’s recently formed Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) committee is addressing.

And, how does all that relate to growing food in the role of the educator? Megan brings her questions and her insights “growing food means becoming intimate with multiple intelligences, seeds, dirt, weather, tending.  How can we as a community feed and nourish each other? What does it mean to be free and in service to each other and the land?”   

Recent good news is that the summer intern program will be back this summer at The Knoll where students collectively work the land taking the blank garden spaces and choosing as a group the story the land will share during a 16-week space.  “Working with natural systems is always an adventure, we work hard, are thoughtful, do our best, and then roll with what comes each summer,” Megan said.

Nadine Canter Barnicle is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member and a member of our Communications and Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committees.