Featured Leader: Nancy Dawson
Perhaps the most interesting interviews don’t begin with a classic prompt. With Dr. Nancy Dawson, all it took was “how are you?!” and we dove right into it.
No small talk, no references to our time together at the Food Systems Leadership Retreat in New Orleans in June 2018. In the first five minutes, I learned Nancy had just returned from hosting a Pop-Up market with Ag First Community Coop, where she’s a volunteer board member, in Poulan, Georgia and was putting the final touches on a 150-person Farm to Table event in Russelville, Kentucky the following day, while also getting ready for the Federation of Southern Coop’s 52nd Annual Meeting in Alabama in a week.
Then how did Nancy find the time to share her journey in food systems with me? Partly thanks to the Alexa device – who was nicely told to “stop interrupting our conversation” but thanked because “they keep time, if you have a busy schedule it’s good - you can use AI to your advantage!” So, thank you Nancy for sharing your time and story with me, and thank you Alexa for your scheduling skills 😉
So, who is Dr. Nancy Dawson?
A multi-tasker and organizer. An advocate. A farmer and forager. A bridge between elders and youth. Russelville’s “Down the Street Momma.” A professor and historian. A quilter. A descendant of midwife, herbalist, and runaway slave Elizabeth Thompson. A food systems leader.
If you want to get real technical, you could also say coordinator of the youth-based Russelville Urban Gardening Project (RUGP), active board member of the Kentucky Gourd Society, an organization to promote the use of and information about gourds, like their deep connection to African American culture and history, or Vice President of the Advisory Board of Kentucky State Extension and Council for Agricultural Research, Extension, and Teaching Delegate at the Kentucky State University. While we’re at it, let’s also add Costume Designer featured in the short film Coopers Plantation and designer and historical advisor for the upcoming film Forgotten Timepiece. She’s also referenced in the book, Quilts and Human Rights and featured on TV about African American farmers in Kentucky.
In fact, I ran into Nancy at the Newseum in Washington, DC where she had organized an event honoring Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first African-American woman White House correspondent, the first African-American journalist to accompany a president while traveling, and longtime activist and author. Dunnigan is also the honoree of the Farm to Table event that Nancy’s organizing through RUGF, Dunnigan’s hometown and Nancy’s current town.
While I’m convinced that Nancy has superwoman powers, she says she’s a born multi-tasker who believes that organizing people is like making a cake:
You don’t take all the ingredients and mix them together at once. Sometimes you have to take the lemon zest out to the side, sometimes you have to beat the eggs, sometimes you have to add flour – you have different steps but in the end, you fold it all together and you have a cake.
I organize like that.
You have to start working on things far in advance, and sometimes you may be working on more than one cake at a time – that’s what I do, that’s what a chef does! Even if it isn’t happening right now, I’m getting the stuff together for it and not waiting til the last minute. If you do that, you can do a lot of things.
What was it then that inspired her to become so deeply involved in this work? Well, that is a whole other story:
I had a near death experience. I had resources as a professor but then I got sick, was in between jobs, and was in the hospital for almost 45 days – I died and came back with a new lease on life. When I was sick and at home, I thought “what would my momma and daddy do?”
See, I grew up with all this food, I knew I needed certain vegetables – so many of our illnesses are related to eating a certain way. I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas and my family were descendants of runaway slaves from Missouri. We were in Quindaro, a community where almost everyone crossed the river from Missouri. My great-grandmother was Elizabeth Thompson. She was forced into being a midwife in slavery – she was bashed in the head with scissors because she didn’t want to deliver a baby – and what 12-year-old in slavery wants to? – but later, after she ran away and crossed the river, she worked in Kansas City, Kansas with an African American doctor. People would stop me on the road growing up and say “your great grandmother delivered me!” she delivered everyone in the neighborhood!
You had a question about a person whose had a tremendous impact on you – well, it’s Elizabeth Thompson, my great-grandmother, someone I never met.
And she grew up in slavery, but I know her stories because she passed them down – my aunt and dad, they’re telling me first hand stories of slavery when I was a little kid – all these people telling me stories of slavery; its much closer than we think. This important because it shows you how slavery wasn’t so long ago.
And those people knew a lot about agriculture because they were farmers.
The African American experience in America begins with agriculture – we were brought here because of slavery and because we were skilled agriculturalists. Oftentimes people think of the enslaved African as having to be trained, but actually they were captured from places that were already doing agriculture. The African American experience in America is an agricultural experience. That’s where it started. That’s why today I think there’s a resentment around farming. Even just yesterday, we were digging for potatoes with some of the youth at RUGP, and the youth say “this is slavery!” – that’s how its perceived. But with everything going on, people need to have these skills to survive.
My paternal great-grandfather, Henry Dawson, he was in the Civil War and when he moved to Kansas City as a freedman his neighbor was Julius George Grows and he was called the Potato King because he grew more potatoes than anyone in the US. I remember my father talking about the Potato King – he was a major farmer and entrepreneur. My great-grandfather was into farming sorghum molasses. It was instilled in you then that you had to have 1) land and 2) to be able to feed yourself.
My great grandmother, Elizabeth Thompson, she was taught by the local Wyandot Indians about foraging and my father was a morel mushroom farmer. We’d go into the woods and he’d show us what mushrooms to take.
My family always had some type of garden.
If you go back, all the generations in my family were farmers. I knew it, and I learned it, but I didn’t have an interest in it. I assumed everyone knew what to do with vegetables and animals but I didn’t think it was applicable. I was an observer, I didn’t want to do this since it wasn’t cool – I wanted to move far away, so I went to New York. I was resisting.
But I’ve been all over the country and it took me back to being a farmer. I never thought I’d use this skill at the level that I am now.
So, when I got sick and moved here (Russelville, KY), I planted plants on my front porch and the neighborhood kids would come talk to me and ask what everything was. I figured it must be a message, so I started RUGP with a 4-H group. Now, we have children and elders at the garden, I call it gardening for engagement.
You can use gardening and farming as a mechanism to engage people, that’s what I do.
After learning more about Nancy’s journey and insights into food and farming systems, and the many cakes she’s baking, I was curious if there was a fun fact that not many people would know or expect about her:
People don’t see that a middle-aged black woman can do all that she does. People don’t believe me. People have certain expectations about what you are. People call me Dr. Dawson, but I don’t push this – not only was I professor of African American studies but I was also Director – but to be honest, I like that people get surprised! It breaks our stereotypes.
These experiences help you see if people are genuine – that’s one of my criteria.
It was at this point in our conversation that I got to experience first-hand the organizer in Nancy; a few of the youth in the RUGP were knocking at her door and, rather than stop our call, I heard:
Someone’s at the door, hold on. “Okay look, you need to do me a favor. Can you go down and get some eggplant? You know what eggplants are! The purple things!”
This is what I do. I’ve been on them since they’ve been small, now they’re 15 so I treat them different. They call me the “Down the Street Momma.” I don’t have any birth children, I have a lot of children. We trying to keep kids off the street, we give them what we can. Hopefully one of them will pick up this farm; those kids that came through the door, they have the ability to, if they want to.
We need the younger people, we’re getting older and can’t do the same stuff that we used to. A lot of the farmers with the knowledge are elderly and there hasn’t been enough information passed along, this is a struggle. There are lots of groups coming up to try to solve this – young urban farmers. Some – but not all – stuff is antiquated and we don’t need it. We need a meeting of the minds. That’s why I’ve been successful with some organizations – I’m old enough to know what was, but because of my training and background, I know what’s new and works.
With my remaining time with Nancy dependent upon how quickly the boys collected the eggplant, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to ask for any words of encouragement, or advice to share with fellow food systems leaders:
It would be a phrase – I think it was by Adam Clayton Powell – keep the faith. That’s what you have to do with this, it’s not easy. So many things can get you discouraged along the way. I was going to give up, I was so frustrated and upset. Anything can happen. All things are centered around agriculture, and there are good days and bad days; but there’s no utopia.
You need to know the truth – are you ready for it?
You’re gonna make mistakes, you’re gonna run out of funds, that’s real. You just need to know if it’s for you, if you want it. Don’t get into it if you’re not up for a challenge, but in the end, it’s a beautiful thing. I love it. I do it for the kids. Food is a conversation piece – it brings everything together and is necessary for human sustainability.
Just don’t give up, keep the faith.