Featured Leader, Shelley Dyer, Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation
This month, we caught up with Shelley Dyer, Quality Assurance Manager at the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, certified yoga teacher, world traveler, and FSLN Network Weaver! She shares her inspirations, what leadership means to her, and her vision for an equitable anti-racist food system and some practical steps on how we can get there.
Shelley is the Quality Assurance Manager at the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC). She is responsible for managing relationships with third party social service providers, monitoring for social work and health and wellness focus areas, and producing publications to highlight the work of the Tenant and Community Services Department. Prior to her current role, Shelley worked for over 2 years at TNDC as the Program Manager of the Healthy Corner Store Coalition. Shelley is also a home cook, avid gardener and yoga instructor. She graduated from Spelman College with a Bachelor’s in Anthropology and Sociology and received a Master’s in Early Childhood Education from Georgia State University. She also received her yoga teaching certification at Yogendra Ecoashram in Cali, Colombia. Shelley enjoys serving her community as a Steering Committee Member on both the Shape Up SF Coalition and HOPE Collaborative.
Your Leadership Journey:
Who are you? (Beyond the job title!)
My mother always noticed that I am full of joy when serving people. I am passionate about building relationships and known as a people connector within my communities. My upbringing in Arkansas instilled the community focused values that drive me today. I live my life and have shaped my career by inviting my passions and heart for social justice lead the way. I’m so grateful for each day and truly love life.
What inspired you to get involved in food systems work?
I love all things food and cooking. I also recognize that food—something that I find pure joy in everyday is so many people’s biggest worry. I was raised in Little Rock, Arkansas in a neighborhood that was a food swamp. During the week, my parents would drive about 20 minutes to shop at the grocery stores in West Little Rock where there was fresh produce and a variety of healthy foods. Many of our neighbors did not have the means to travel outside of our community for groceries, and I recognized this injustice even as a child. We also spent many Saturdays shopping at the Little Rock Farmers Market that was in our neighborhood. However, the farmers market vibe simply didn't resonate with many of the people from our community. I got involved in food systems work because I know that it’s possible to reshape the challenges of the food system in the U.S. I want to be a part of the solution.
What does food systems leadership mean to you?
Food systems leadership means to me that I prioritize centering the voices of people who are directly impacted by injustices. This requires that I engage across a variety of spaces working to promote change including task forces, grassroots organizations, government agencies, and businesses. A couple of the centering questions that I often reflect on are, “Who do I want to be in this situation, and who is not at this table that I could learn from?”
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?
I have some amazing mentors, it’s tough to choose just one. Dr. Daryl White who was the Anthropology Department Chair at Spelman College had a profound impact on my life. I took his Food and Culture class during my sophomore year and it changed my whole life trajectory. We studied food history, cookbook excerpts, food in film, the impacts of the industrialization of food, food rituals across continents and so much more. Dr. White mentored me and shared his wisdom on the career pathways available in food. I graduated in 2010 but have kept in touch with Dr. White over the years.
What’s one thing you’ve learned that you’d like to send forward to the network?
It’s normal to be uncomfortable having tough conversations. Getting out of my comfort zone in terms of the types of conversations I’m willing to entice has been an effective way to promote change, or at a minimum create some fodder. We all have a voice. I’ve learned how important it is to speak up and use my voice, fearlessly.
What are you most excited about in your work?
I transitioned into my role as Quality Assurance Manager just as Shelter in Place Orders went into effect. The priorities of my work shifted to project manage COVID-19 Food Response efforts for TNDC. I love both cooking and dining at restaurants and I have made so many wonderful connections in the Bay Area restaurant industry. Through relationships that I had already built, I secured vendors to provide meals to TNDC tenants. I love that because of the work we’re doing as an organization, people are being fed. I should also highlight that I work very behind the scenes on this project, and that there are many food distributors on the ground daily serving this food to people. Food workers play such an important role in the food system, and I’d be remiss not to take a moment to uplift all the contributions that they make.
What’s your greatest leadership challenge now, and what are you looking for support for? Something fellow members could help with.
I’m really ingrained in my work in the Bay Area. One pre-COVID activity that I miss is going to conferences and building connections with people in person. I’m excited to continue to connect with people doing food systems work across the U.S., and excited to meet more FSLN members.
What’s something about you that not many of your colleagues know or that we wouldn’t expect from you?
I love to travel and plan to visit all 7 continents. So far, the only 2 continents that I haven't traveled to are Antarctica and Australia. I have always had a connection to place, and enjoy connecting with people wherever I am. Some of my favorite places are Cali, Colombia; Mexico City; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Koh Lanta, Thailand. I also spent 2 years teaching abroad in Abu Dhabi and would love to work abroad again in the future.
What have you enjoyed the most as a member of the FSLN? What do you hope will happen through this network?
I enjoyed participating in the Community Food Systems Mentorship Program. This provided me the experience to work closely with Anupuma Joshi to get guidance on professional development, and to strengthen my approach to program management. At the time of our mentorship, the program I managed was scaling to another neighborhood. Anupuma is an expert in scaling programs on a national level, so her wisdom was hyper relevant, and I learned so much from her. We keep in touch, and even got to meet for coffee a few months ago when she visited San Francisco!
When you imagine an equitable and anti-racist food system, what do you envision?
An equitable and anti-racist food system would be one where all people have access to healthy, affordable food that resonates with them culturally and all food workers are paid a living wage. Governments provide access to vacant plots of land for people to grow food, and no person goes hungry. Descendants of the African Diaspora on a global level would receive reparations for land lost and centuries of generational trauma. I’ve been following recent dialogue in the U.S. around reparations, and I’m looking forward to seeing things move from conversations to policies.
In recent months, the country has seen ongoing protests around systemic anti-Black racism, sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Discussions around systemic racism are now happening across all sectors and at the local, regional and national levels. How might those involved in the “good food movement” ride this momentum to create a more equitable and explicitly anti-racist food system?
America’s industrial food system was created through the labor of enslaved Africans and now much of that labor rests on migrant workers, namely from Mexico and other Latinx communities. I encourage those involved in the good food movement to support minority owned food businesses, support Black farmers and vote for policies that support worker’s rights. Scope out your local food scape, and find specific products that can become a part of your regular household items. I do not have children yet, but I think it’s important for parents to engage kids in conversations around anti-racism from a young age. I also find it key to remember that everyone's activism looks different. I believe that we as individuals should determine how to incorporate fighting injustices into our daily lives in the ways that are sustainable for us.
There’s not a single community within the movement for equitable food systems that isn’t impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, which presents serious challenges on every level and has particular and immediate impact on frontline communities, farmers and farmworkers, food business owners, and food service workers. Given your experience and perspective in the food system, what do communities need now, and how might we collectively and intentionally respond in a way that catalyzes deep transformation and systems change?
I believe that every community has different needs. The people who are negatively impacted by inequities are the experts on their needs. In order to catalyze deep transformation and systems change, I believe the answer is to always seek out community voices and support communities in taking ownership of the change they want to see.
Burn out. It’s a thing, and social change is a long game. Have you found ways to balance taking care of yourself with your commitment to creating more equitable food and social systems?
Yes! Self-care is key for me to live a happy, balanced life. It’s important for me to stay in the routine of exercising. I both practice and teach yoga. I have recently committed to getting at least 2 super sweaty workouts in a week. I also journal, meditate, practice breath work, and prioritize regularly eating foods that give me energy.
What is one change would you like to see that might encourage more folks to enter and stay in this work for the long haul?
When I share about my career’s focus on food justice with people who work outside of that arena, I often hear that they’re not familiar with this type of work as a career. I hope that more awareness is brought to the amazing work that so many people are doing, and that more opportunities are developed for people to engage in this work across sectors. Everyone can play a part in healing our food system.
Any words of encouragement or advice to share with your fellow food systems leaders?
Nourish yourself, connect with people you can build with, remember to rejuvenate, and remind yourself of your “why” every day. Dismantling takes time, and I’m constantly finding the balance between being both eager about my work and gentle with myself.
Thanks, Shelley for sharing your time and words with us!