Featured Leader: Qiana Mickie, Executive Director of Just Food
Qiana Mickie has “an encyclopedic level of pop culture knowledge.”
When I asked Qiana to share a fun fact that not many people would know about her, that was her first response.
“I am very rooted in pop culture and tend to make connections from food work to a song and music for example. I’m fascinated by the process of creatives.”
Her appreciation of pop culture focuses not on the end product, but on the entire creative process – understanding what inspired the piece, and the effort, time, and iterations it took to create it.
As Qiana said, “there’s an art to brilliance.”
Perhaps it's not a surprise, then, that her approach to food systems work has been focused on the different elements and stages – the process – that create equitable food systems. Qiana’s appreciation for the creative process and her dedication to amending structures, shifting narratives, creating relationships, and centering community so that we have a just, equitable food system, is palpable, admirable, and inspirational.
Like writing a song that plays for generations after its release, creating an equitable food system doesn’t happen overnight. But before we dive into what all Qiana’s been up to, let’s find out more about who she is…
I identify myself as a single, black, woman mother, and a community member. I was born in Richmond, Virginia, where my dad lives out in the country, but grew up a city kid in the Bronx. My dad is all about family, the land, and the country, and my mom is a wild-fire, a free spirit who is all about family and friends.
I have vibrant and early memories of Virginia. I remember spending time with my great grandmother in the house that her husband built. She’d wake up really early, she’s from the land, and make biscuits from scratch. I remember so vividly being in the kitchen, playing with flour, and seeing the sun come up. They kept a sizeable garden, and I remember plucking tomatoes and just eating them off the vine…
I had this duality growing up – being in a traditional home with a free-spirited mom who hung out downtown. But this duality and deep sense of family and community, is a big part of my personality and how I show up in my work; I easily embrace different cultures and want to build solidarity and impact in community.
So, your earliest memories involve food and relationships-- is this where your journey into food systems began?
I started getting involved in the food space around 9 years ago or so, after working in development for nonprofits and production management in entertainment. I was volunteering for the Harlem4Change and was given the chance to attend a Just Food community advocacy course to learn about food policy and food justice. It is in that course that I began to understand the connection between the food and health inequities I saw in my life and neighborhood to implications around food access and policy.
There are words, phrases, a history behind policy that I never knew of. I realized that if I really wanted to see impact and create lasting change, then I would need to get more involved.
From my vantage point, at that time, I didn’t see a lot of folks of color in the policy space. I felt that if we’re talking about things impacting the community, then why aren’t we having community members talk about their experiences and inform policy? So, I started doing a lot of community engagement and policy work.
I know that jumping into policy is an unusual road into food justice, but to me it made sense. Policies influence our structures, it’s systemic. If I know this to be true in other areas, like environment and reproductive health, it is also systemic with food. The more you dig into food policy, the more you see the dark side of it. It’s rooted in inequities. Going into policy work so early on allowed me to understand food from that perspective and to see how inequities are systemic. This really encouraged me to work towards infiltrating and dismantling the system to build up a regenerative and equitable food policy.
That being said, I learned early on that I’m not a policy wonk. I want policy to be accessible and encourage community to join in action. I don’t need to be a wonk to do that. My first paid position in the food space was working with CSAs at Just Food, where I got that first-hand connection to farmers and community. At the same time, I was also consulting for the city of New York around financial empowerment and asset building.
So yes, all of these seemingly disparate things came together, and became the starting point for me – I began to truly see how food can be a driver for community wealth. Food, and food-based businesses, could so be connected to financial empowerment. This is what got me excited!
To better understand these connections, I joined the first food hub management certification class in the country out of the University of Vermont in 2015 and apprenticed at Corbin Hill Food Project and eventually worked there for a few months. At Corbin Hill I realized that I wasn’t actually interested in managing or operating a food hub.
What I wanted to do was to bring equity into the food value chain. To maximize racial, economic, and environmental equity in a food chain.
I began asking myself “what are the strengths and opportunities between logistics and aggregation, policy, people, investment, capital, and equity,” and focused my energy into building out those pieces.
Wanting to do this work with intention and integrity is what brought me back to Just Food. I felt that at Just Food, the intersection between all of those pieces was most vibrant and had the most potential to make it a reality.
Okay, wow, so that’s a lot of twists and turns… from production management to exercise to volunteering to policy work to CSA management to financial consulting to…
Yeah, I didn’t put it together at the time, but now that I look back, I can see my trajectory. This windy road is the path that I’ve been building towards all along.
Having a background in for profit, nonprofit, and production – gave me a perspective and commitment to building models or projects that are viable, marketable, accessible, in a sector that we don’t usually think of – like food, or food policy.
And so now you’re the Executive Director of Just Food NYC. Tell me more about this.
Ha, well, something I tell people a lot is that black women don’t get cruise ships, we get Titanics.
Just Food had gone through a lot of changes and in 2017 the Executive Director position was open. To be honest, I struggled to take this leap into leadership. As a Black woman, I am used to people deterring me from opportunities and not believing - no matter my credentials and experience - that I could be an ED. I internalized those doubts and started to question myself. I wondered if I could maintain my equity principles and successfully balance an organizational budget and put my vision into concrete action.
As I deliberated my decision, the sole Latina Just Food board member challenged me to push through the doubt. She’s the one who told me “you have strong opinions, strong ideas, the work and the experience to back it up with – if you want to move towards the change you want at Just Food, you have to take the ED position and try.”
I am inspired by Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hammer, Fred Hampton and their work within movements – and I realized that what matters is less about being a trailblazer, and more about etching out a little more progress for others. And you’re pulling folks up with you, so that the next person can keep moving the work forward. The transformative change we want to see is also iterative.
I also find that to be an effective leader you need to have a high tolerance for change, which I do. Just Food was in this unique position to pivot into a new direction. I enjoy pivots. So, here I am. I took the leap.
That’s where my leadership at Just Food comes in - building infrastructure and connections between sustainable policy, mission aligned partners, critical resources, and healthy food - to build an equitable value chain. Right now, there’s an opportunity to center equity within food work, and build community-based economy in solidarity with principles of fairness, equity, and good food. This is what Just Food is primed to do even more now. We can leverage our longstanding relationships in the community, farmers, and policymakers to use food as the intersecting point of equity, labor, policy, cooperative businesses, entrepreneurs of color. It might not be what Just Food started out doing 15, 20 years ago, but it’s what is needed now. This is the time for resilient models of and by the community; for building equity-based solidarity economies.
That is no easy feat. What are some of the challenges you’re facing right now as you build this equitable economy in New York City?
Funding is always a challenge for nonprofits. But it becomes an exponential challenge when trying to build innovative approaches around food for historically marginalized communities such as Black, Latinx, and mixed income communities at a certain scale. These communities tend to be supported in philanthropy as recipients of charity, and success metrics, grant cycles, and other indicators that funders use to determine allocations are often not in alignment with the capacity and needs of many frontline, small scale equity centered organizations - like Just Food – that are creating lasting change. Trying to address generations of inequity and divestment of capital and resources within under resourced communities will not get solved by a 1-year restrictive grant.
There’s a savior element to philanthropy, with nonprofits expected to demonstrate need for financial support by focusing mainly on our struggles, but there is so much more in these communities than just persistent deficits. Trying to lift up a narrative that encourages funders to shift grantmaking towards funding the “connective tissue” and infrastructure work that it takes to build collective wealth within impacted communities and doesn’t rely on just a deficit point of view, is a challenge.
Another challenge, but well worth it, was transitioning Just Food into our current partner driven, project specific approach and re- designing staffing and leadership to be more reflective of the diversity of our broader network and create more opportunities for existing partners in the decision-making power within the organization. We have a new Board of Directors, fully active Advisory Committee, and team that consists of existing partners.
You mentioned some brilliant movement builders. And you are very clearly also a mover and shaker, a systems thinker, and a leader in this movement. What are your thoughts on leadership?
I feel it’s important as an effective leader to create space and opportunity for others. We all could do a better job and challenge the tokenizing of a few leaders to be the voices of the movement. A lot of people don’t see themselves as leaders because of it and the movement suffers for it. But the more we amplify their stories, lift up their existing work, and shift how we define and support leaders- I believe more folks will consider themselves changemakers in the movement. Power should come from the people, not a tokenized few.
So what would you say to those folks who might be on a similar path? On this sometimes windy road?
Trust in your brilliance. Grow comfortable in connecting to your intention, your gut, and challenge yourself to connect to the action you want to see in your community and beyond. Challenges can be pivots to opportunity. Folks must be willing to find inspiration from multiple places. Stay true to yourself. Even in the face of adversity.
Trust in your brilliance. I love that, thank you.
The second fun fact Qiana shared was that she taught herself how to twirl a baton.
I always wanted to be a cheerleader.
Well, while you may not have been a cheerleader for a sports team, you are unequivocally a champion of food systems change, and a cheerleader for those doing the work. Thank you for sharing your journey, your challenges, and your dreams with the rest of the FSLN.