Featured Leader: Lydia Villanueva, CASA del Llano, Inc

In this month's Featured Leader piece, Lydia Villanueva, Director/Founder of CASA del Llano, Inc. from Hereford, TX, shares her journey into food systems work, her sources of motivation, and gets real about one of her greatest challenges -- "I don't know if I will accomplish all that I set out to do." 

Lydia, we are so glad that we connected with you at the FSLN’s 2018 Leadership Retreat in New Orleans and appreciate the time you took to speak with us more in this Featured Leader piece. Thank you for sharing your vulnerability, your knowledge, and your unwavering commitment to creating more equitable and healthy communities.  

PS – further below, you can find Lydia’s formal bio and additional information about CASA del Llano, Inc. 

Who are you? (Beyond the job title!)   

I am a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and a widow. I have two grown children and 5 grandchildren and two great grandsons. I have been a widow for 5 years, prior to that a wife for 43 years. I am a Community Organizer by heart. An advocate for the unseen and unheard. I enjoy helping people, giving them a hand-up.   

What inspired you to get involved in food systems work?  

Growing up, my parents were considered migrants, working in the fields, traveling from state to state. My father would always share the story of his parents crossing the Rio Grande and coming across carrying two of his siblings and a “Metate” a stone grinder to grind corn. His stories were told to us around the evening meal. My uncles and their families would travel to where we lived and would have all of their belongings in the back of a truck , so they would stop and visit and my parents would offer them a place to stay and my mother and my aunts would cook large meals for all of us. So, the way I see it, my ancestors were and even now continue to be the first hands that touch our food. It only makes sense to be part of the system that has been part of my upbringing.  

What is the source of your motivation and inspiration as you continue this work?  

My source is my people, “mi gente”, as they (immigrants) continue to work in the food system, whether it’s growing the food, preparing the food and serving the food, they are my motivators. I am inspired by their work ethics, passion for family values, and gratitude for the opportunity to be in America, the land of opportunity.  

What does food systems leadership mean to you?  

Food systems leadership means to me, that the person/s leading is willing to share their knowledge and understanding to identify the needs of others less fortunate. A leader who is not afraid to fail, to learn new ways of leading, and most of all listening to those affected by the challenges they face. Willing to step back and allow for others to lead so that a joint effort can impact the food system that is viable to all. Which in an essence, a true leader is concerned of the issue and ways to deal with the challenges, more than being identified as a “Leader”. 

Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you, or someone you look up to. Why and how has this person impacted your life?  

So many to name, but for sure Will Allen, of Growing Power. Even though his organization is no longer functioning, he continues to be involved with food at his capacity. And along with that Cesar Chavez, for advocating for the farmworker. His work has been my inspiration to keep advocating for all farmworkers.  

What have you enjoyed the most as a member of the FSLN? What do you hope will happen through this network?   

I enjoyed the Leadership retreat I attended and the fact that it was a diverse group of people who have attended and the leadership that coordinates it. I like the mentoring part, the fact that it’s the regular folks who are a part of the FSLN and it’s real. I hope I can continue to meet with others doing this work and that I can as well offer my insight of what I have done as a founder/director of CASA del Llano. 

What’s one thing you’ve learned in the last month that you’d like to share with the network?  

Last month as part of NSAC’s (National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition) Winter Meeting, we met in McAllen, TX; my growing up years I remember going there with my parents as our grandparents were from there. I had not been there in a very long time, we were perhaps one mile from the border of Texas/Mexico. My memories as a child were happy, going back, now, and knowing that many Latinos are living in tents because of the immigration laws really affected me. I learned that we cannot stop fighting for the injustices that are happening now. That in reality, we are not doing enough to provide support for a better Immigration Reform System, which in the long run we need to do more. There is no food system without Immigration Reform Systems.  

What are you most excited about for during the NGFN Conference?  

Networking, attending the sessions and reuniting with old friends. Offering support and encouragement to those friends still in the trenches of this work.  

What’s something about you (a fun fact) that not many of your colleagues know or that we wouldn’t expect from you?  

That I want to go live in Spain and teach English. Also, that I like to hike and discover new paths in the region I live near.  

What’s your greatest leadership challenge now, and what are you looking for support for? Something fellow members could help with. 

I suppose my greatest challenge is my age, I’m nearing a time in my career that I don’t know if I will accomplish all that I set out to do. The support I would like from fellow members is how do you know when the time is up? When do you pass on the baton to someone else to carry on your work, when no one is there? 

Any words of encouragement or advice to share with your fellow food systems leaders?   

Be open to learning from your elders, don’t forget about them in your quest to be involved in your work, many have a lot to offer, listen to their stories. Learn from their mistakes and share your knowledge with others. To be a good leader, you sometimes have to lead from behind the limelight, you have to be willing to share that limelight; it maybe that you may not always be the one to be in the front, what matters most is what you’re doing accomplishing the goal that you set for yourself, but ultimately the folks most affected by the food system are becoming owners of their own contributions to the food system that is beneficial to all and the future of the younger generation. 

Wow, thank you Lydia for inspiring us with your honesty, vibrancy, and dedication to creating more equitable food systems. See you soon!

More about Lydia: 

Lydia Villanueva is the Director/Founder of CASA del Llano, INC., (Established since Oct. 2000) a nonprofit rural outreach center that unites the regional education and training interest of other groups with the goals of a community-based, grassroots organization. CASA del Llano is a job placement center where they offer applications to job seekers in Deaf Smith County from several companies in the Texas Panhandle. The organization works toward identifying Latino farm owners in the Texas Panhandle (Hereford, TX) and works to build leaders who are empowered to take ownership of their own communities. CASA also runs a Summer Youth Program that encourages children (ages 6-12) to continue reading, as well as engages them in activities such as arts and crafts, gardening, cooking classes, and hiking. Lydia was the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) Policy Education Coordinator from 2005-2013. Currently on the Organizational Council of National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and Co-Chair of the Diversity Committee with NSAC (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition) since its inception.  Served on the Board of Directors of Panhandle Community Services.  

  •  Attended the University of California, Davis, and West Texas A& M University 

  • Project evaluator for the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Program with the Kerr Center and Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative in Oklahoma 

  • Member of the Community Based Partnership with USDA Ag-Census. And 2020 US Census 


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