Featured Leader: Chloe Marshall, Policy Specialist at the National Farm to School Network
Chloe Marshall, the National Farm to School Network’s Policy Specialist, is someone you should know about. It’s no secret that working to transform the food system is tough. Beyond passion and dedication, it takes grit, persistence, and deep commitment.
Within the first 20 minutes of speaking with Chloe, it seemed as if all this, and more, had been built into her DNA long before she became Policy Director. One of the first things she mentioned was that her motivation for doing this work comes from:
A faith standpoint. It’s “I love, because I was first loved,” and I want to pass that onto others.
I have a lot of privileges. I grew up in a stable home with a lot of care and investment that a lot of folks around me didn’t have. I have been given all of this, and I want to share it out. The people I serve don’t have the luxury of me stopping.
As long as I can do this, I will. As long as there’s someone I can help, and they want that help, then I’m here to offer it. It’s a community. And if we’re about community, then we’re about sharing our wealth, and that’s what I want to do. Right now, I have a wealth of resources and talent and connections and the willpower to do good things. And so that’s what I’m going to do.
Wow, that’s beautiful. Does faith play a role in your life?
I belong to the Church of Christ and both my parents have been involved in ministry work since I was a kid. My parents presented it in a genuine way, they were never perfect people, but they never pretended they were better than they were.
I saw that love is an action, it’s something you do.
I’ve taken that with me, and I’ve gotten to explore that and my roots in my own way. That drives my work now and really shapes my views on social justice.
Do right by God at the end of the day. This work is how I do that, and how I know I’m able to serve.
Speaking of serving, let’s talk a little more about your journey into food systems work and where you’re at now.
So, I’m one of the few people that likes what they do! It’s a work of love.
After graduating from college, I moved home to Detroit and worked with the Gleaners Community Food Bank and really enjoyed it – we were doing mobile markets before it became an innovation!
I then worked in food banking, first as an Americorps volunteer at the Maryland Food Bank in Baltimore, then at the Capillary Food Bank as an Outreach Coordinator. Outreach Coordinator can mean a lot of things, and at the time it was a pretty open-ended position. I ended up working on advocacy, starting a food justice coalition and becoming involved in a lot of local work and work with the food policy council.
Sounds like the ambiguity of a more open, flexible position worked out well for you! Did it seem that way at the time or was adapting to this type of position take time?
I work well in that type of situation. It was good for me, especially since I was really just getting started in this work. I didn’t expect to be in the policy space at all – I had no interest in it whatsoever until I realized what it was and how that worked.
I feel like we don’t get good civics education; rarely do we learn how governments function and what role we as citizens play in that.
At the food bank, I began to really understand how policy shapes our everyday experiences very directly. I developed a deeper understanding of the root causes of poverty and realized that, while food banking is important, at the end of the day, it’s not the solution.
The solution’s going to lie in policy change, cultural shifts, and paradigm shifts.
And as a black woman I think about racial equity and liberation of black people and all people of color. For me, we all have different paths to that liberation. But for me, policy is something I care about and am skilled in, and so policy is my pathway to liberation.
And you continued with policy into your current position as Policy Specialist of the National Farm to School Network!
Yes. Ultimately, I wanted more focus, to hone in on one particular area.
Let’s hear about it!
Well, it’s more than lobbying!
Policy work depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. I spend a lot of time learning. I analyze policy that comes through, read legislation and proposals from other organizations to figure out where NFSN fits in. I take a deeper look to understand how these things advance equity, if there’s alignment with our mission, and whether it makes sense for us to support it.
We’re supporting state partners, doing federal lobbying, and a lot of partnership development.
So how do you partner with other organizations?
It’s not simple! Partnership development is about networking and learning what people are up to in order to see if and how we can get involved.
Sometimes there is alignment and sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes you just drift away. And that’s ok! You’ll come together as a coalition just to pass a bill, and then disband until it’s time to join up again.
Speaking of coalitions and partnerships, you recently joined a few other network leaders for the FSLN’s Network Leadership Retreat in Durham, New Hampshire. What was your experience like?
It was really interesting. It was a challenge for me to step out and go beyond the professional boundary of “who you are and what you do” that I set in the work and connect with people on a personal level. I felt challenged in a great way.
The equity piece was also a challenge. There were a lot of people in the room who had a nuanced understanding of equity and how that’s implemented in the work place, but folks of color shouldn’t bear the responsibility of changing white supremacy culture. We often have the most nuanced understanding of it, but it can be frustrating when the people who need to change don’t know.
It’s an important tension to hold and conversation to have. What does anyone gain by just playing nice and avoiding tough conversations?
I also learned a lot about the technical workings of a networks. NFSN is very dynamic and alive and I’m constantly amazed by how organically people work together… Well it looks seamless – but there’s a lot of hard work and intentionality that goes into network development.
But movements come in phases. You don’t come out of the ‘network womb’ fully formed and ambulatory. There are stages. You have to get people familiar an idea, then comfortable with the idea of taking action, and then it can become self-sustaining.
Its hard for me to grasp sometimes because I want to do everything right now. But when you’re working with groups of people, you have to work in stages – you can’t grow from a bunch of strangers to a functioning group of people in one day.
And what stage do you think the food movement is in?
This whole movement is still in the awareness building stage, but I think it’s starting to lean into “taking action.” People are talking about it more; they’re asking real questions around how we produce, procure, and grow, food. People want to be treating their bodies better and treating the earth better.
I think part of this is because the conversation is leaning into climate change. The climate change conversation can be a doomy and gloomy conversation but there are promising practices out there and great activists, especially in black, brown, and indigenous communities, that we need to elevate and throw our resources behind.
Policy work is dominated by white people from various backgrounds but don’t experience this work or haven’t grown up in the communities we work in or talk about. It takes a lot of work to be equitable but I want folks to put a little more pep in their step about this equity work and make it real. We have to move past the discussions and put resources into centering black and brown folks. Until we grasp that black, brown, and indigenous folks need to be at the forefront of this movement, we’re going to lag behind.
As a leader in the food movement, what is one of your biggest leadership challenges?
I struggle with not always knowing what the right way to do something is. I’m constantly analyzing if my work is really rooted in justice and equity. I’m conscious about decolonizing my work and not using old tactics to do the same things, but doing things differently, effectively, and productively so that the work matches the values that I speak.
I feel like we sound so radical when we try to undo things!
In fact, I just came to the realization that the 40-hour work is psychotic! I don’t rock with this. We’re living in an industrial life. I’m a huge advocate of a 4-day work week. In DC especially it’s a grind culture – work hard, work hard – you barely get time to play.
I’m all for the 4 – day work week! In the meantime, do you have any self-care practices to take care of yourself?
I try to establish good habits, I read my bible in the morning and force myself to not work on my commute. I try to keep certain moments and time sacred and free from obligation.
I also have an amazing group of friends. They’re amazing black women and we’re all in the same position – working tirelessly to do something we care about while trying to not project the capitalist culture. One friend just invited me to a meditation class – I’m going to actually go one time! So yes, we stay supportive, but we don’t beat each other up if we can’t take care of ourselves all the time.
That’s really special to have such a support system. Do you have any words of encouragement that you’d offer to your fellow food systems leaders out there reading this as they continue transforming this system?
This work is so personal, but you’re allowed to enjoy life.
When you can, leave this work at the desk. Don’t feel guilty about not being able to do everything on your check-list. You’re not the only person working on this, you don’t have to save the world by yourself. That’s why we have coalitions and teams.
And find your tribe. Find the people that give you energy at the end of the day. It can be draining work, and when we allow it to drain us and we don’t let anybody pour into us or find things that bring us joy or reenergize us it can be really hard.
Keep doing what you’re supposed to do and thank you for doing the work.
Last question! What’s one thing bringing you joy right now?
I’ve been cooking a lot! I tried making pork loins the other day – it didn’t go well.
But I tried! And I felt really good about trying.
Chloe, I am so grateful for the time that you took to speak with me and am honored to be able to share our conversation and your journey into food systems work with the broader FSLN community– thank you!