Featured Leader: Hnin Hnin, Director of Aligning Abundance/Executive Director of CoFED
In this Month’s featured leader, we hear from Hnin Hnin, Director of Aligning Abundance/Executive Director of the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED). Hnin exists to transform systemic injustices into compost for collective liberation. They are a trauma-informed facilitator, cultural strategist, and vegan cook who has committed the last 14 years of their life to creating a just, joyful and regenerative food system where people can heal their relationships to self, each other, and the earth. Prior to becoming CoFED’s executive director, they worked at ROC United and Slow Food USA, organizing consumers, producers, and restaurateurs for food systems change. They live in Boston with their partner and two cats from Houston.
Who are you?
I am the product of courageous people crossing three borders in three generations. My ancestral roots trace back to Toisan, a coastal city located in southern China. Displaced by war, my grandparents migrated to Burma, where my parents were born and raised, and where my sister and I were born before my family eventually immigrated to the U.S. I grew up in Brooklyn, eating Burmese, Chinese and melting pot American foods that reflected my family’s migration story. It gave me a deep and embodied appreciation for different ways of being human.
What inspired you to get involved in food systems work?
Before I got involved in “food systems work”, I worked in the food system. One of my first jobs as a 15 year-old was working customer service at a local Italian bakery earning $5/hr. Later in life, I would learn that the bakery stole my tips and some of my wages. But at the time, I had fun working there with friends. Still, I wanted a deeper relationship to food and land. The summer I turned 17, I searched for free nature-based youth programs online and ended up building boardwalks at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. It was the first time I camped and backpacked. My crew leader and the first vegan I met, Mike, gave me his copy of Fast Food Nation. I read it in my tent. I learned about the “food system”, why some folx are exploited as workers, why others have access to local, organic food, and how conventional agriculture was destroying the earth. The rest is history.
What is the source of your motivation and inspiration as you continue this work?
I’m driven by love, joy, and beauty. Everyone who is part of FSLN is more than well aware of the problems and injustices within our current global industrial food system. The problems don’t motivate me as much as the possibilities. What lights me up is how young people, especially queer folx, people of color, and poor folx, are envisioning and practicing ways of being that honor the dignity of all life and living systems. What keeps me going is the potential to unlearn systems and cultures of domination over the earth and others.
What does food systems leadership mean to you?
Leadership is about integrity -- in the sense of being whole. It means practicing the courage to be your whole self, while recognizing the interconnectedness of life. If we understand ourselves as belonging to an ecosystem, with the power to harm as well as the power to heal, we might start to understand collective liberation differently. We might see how our own “personal” and “professional” lives are in relationship, or how the food system is contextualized by other social-cultural, environmental and political-economic systems. Embodying a whole systems approach is a spiritual practice where we tap into the integrity of life, death, and all the cycles in between.
Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader?
My mother taught me how to cook in five colors (eg. green, red, yellow, white, brown -- or any other color combination), see food as medicine, and defend our human right to food -- which she says are free gifts from the earth. When I was a kid, walking down the street with my mom, she would stop by the side of an iron fence and harvest leafy greens. Later, she’d take me to Prospect Park to harvest sichuan peppercorns and gingko nuts while trying to evade the police (foraging is illegal in NYC). Having grown up in Burma, my mom was used to climbing mango trees and enjoying the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables that grew around her. She even once lived in a house on stilts, where you could remove a floorboard and fish on rainy days when the fields flooded. Hearing her stories and watching how she rejected the forced privatization of food for profit instilled in me a commitment to abundance and the possibility of a more human connection to food, land and water.
What have you enjoyed the most as a member of the FSLN? What do you hope will happen through this network?
Last year I participated in a FSLN retreat and ED peer learning circle. I loved meeting other people through both opportunities. Folx like Geetika from La Cocina and Lyncy from The Food Group. Everyone has a story, and we each arrive at food systems work for different reasons. We use different languages. We hold different worldviews. The multiplicity that exists within the FSLN is an invitation for us to, in Audre Lorde’s words, “use each other’s differences in our common battles for a livable future”. I’m hopeful and excited for that to happen through this network, to make space for all our stories and time to weave the threads together.
What’s one thing you are most proud of?
I’m really proud of bringing a trauma-informed lens to CoFED’s work. Trauma occurs when a person’s coping mechanisms are overwhelmed. Anyone can experience trauma. Trauma does not discriminate. Unfortunately, because we live in a society that structurally creates dominant groups and culturally values violence, control, and domination over others, trauma is pervasive -- and affects our capacity to show up or build solidarity across difference. Much of the existing literature on a trauma-informed lens or approach has roots in public health. Having a trauma-informed lens simply means that an individual or organization recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma and integrates that knowledge about trauma into policies, practices, and procedures to reduce re-traumatization or secondary traumatization of everyone involved within a system.
As an executive director, I’m an outlier. I’m queer, non-binary, immigrant, working-class, a person of color, and young-ish. More than my identities, it’s how I choose to actively make sense of my lived experiences that allows me to lead differently, including with a trauma-informed lens. For me, I am committed to creating space to acknowledge trauma and how it may be playing out during a conflict. Sheena Tubbs, a Black therapist from Houston whose work I resonate with, says, “If there’s drama, there’s trauma.” That’s been a really helpful truism that reminds me to pause during moments of conflict and look at where the hurt may be happening. It helps me respond in a way that invites love and healing -- and not write someone off as simply “difficult to work with”. I’ve also been reading a book called Power Under by Stephen Wineman, which explores how trauma shows up in social movements, especially when folx who have experienced trauma and feel powerless are in objectively dominant positions and capable of harm. One of the central theses is that a society based on domination requires that we are all sometimes “the oppressed” and sometimes “the oppressor”, and so we need to create more space to share openly about our experiences of trauma, powerlessness, rage, or violation rather than demonize and dehumanize each other in order to create more non-violent social change practices.
What’s one thing you’ve learned in the last month that you’d like to share with the network?
Recently, I was preparing to host a Lunar New Year dinner. While we decided to do hot pot, we wanted to have a few cooked sides too. The internet led me to a YouTube video by a Chinese cook showing us how to make vegan “eel” with shiitake mushrooms. Hot tip: You take a dried shiitake mushroom and rehydrate it. Then you use scissors to cut the mushroom into a spiral, starting from the outside and working your way towards the center, as if you were following the lines of a snail shell. After cutting the mushroom, you coat it with flour and fry it. Bam! Vegan eel.
What’s something about you (a fun fact) that not many of your colleagues know or that we wouldn’t expect from you?
Fun question! As an Asian-American, I constantly find myself on the “othered” end of someone else’s assumptions, misperceptions, and model minority myth stereotypes. It’s hard to know what folx are projecting onto me or “expect”. Perhaps I’m more adventurous than people know or think? I’ve traveled to two dozen countries, including two round-the-world trips, and more than half of the states in the U.S. Most of it was free or paid for by work. Ask me how :)
What’s your greatest leadership challenge now, and what are you looking for support for? Something fellow members could help with.
My partner and I watch this show called The Profit. It follows Marcus Lemonis, a billionaire angel investor who is committed to helping small businesses across America. I love watching the show because Marcus has this amazing ability to be incredibly human. As a partner to the entrepreneurs he invests in, he’s direct yet empathetic and kind. I’d love support in strengthening my communications skills. I’m working on voicing unpopular opinions that I believe in while practicing love and grace.
Any words of encouragement or advice to share with your fellow food systems leaders?
Yes! First, if you are here and human, know that the earth has made space specifically for you. You belong. Your story matters. You matter. We live in a world that is structured around divide and conquer. There are intentional barriers to us being in loving and liberated relationships with ourselves and the world around us. If you are trying to change this, if you are reaching across the aisle, if you are taking steps to dismantle the idea of the “other”, thank you and keep going! And please share what you’ve learned. We have so much to learn and unlearn from each other’s stories.
Thank you , Hnin, for sharing your story and giving us lots to think about!