FSLN Featured Leader: Sue Beckwith
The Food Systems Leadership Network’s Featured Leader is a new column on the Catalyst to share the personal stories of FSLN Members. We’re excited to kick this off with Sue Beckwith, the Executive Director at the Texas Center for Local Food in Elgin, Texas. Sue shared the idea for this column as a way for FSLN members to get to know each other, so we thought there'd be no better person to start with than her! If you would like to nominate someone, please submit their name to FSLNinfo@winrock.org.
Brief bio: Sue Beckwith has initiated and led a variety of breakthrough service projects during her 40+ year career: the “women in non-traditional jobs” program at the City of Austin, the first City of Austin web site, the non-profit Austin Free-Net to ensure that all people had access to the internet; she worked alongside lower income students in St. Louis to design a literacy program using technology. In 2006, she became a farmer and led startup of Coyote Creek Organic Feed Mill, the first commercial organic feed mill in Texas. Her current project is the Elgin Local Food Center, a shared use kitchen and local food education center in Elgin, Texas where she lives with her wife Jules.
- Who are you? (Beyond the job title!)
I sometimes call myself a functioning idealist. I’m a project manager by nature, training and experience. I thrive when I’m helping catalyze change - durable change. I’m married to my beloved Jules, the finest person I’ve ever met on so many levels. She is a key source of my strength and she’s ok with my failings. We live in a modest home in Elgin, a small town just east of Austin, Texas. In the 6 years we’ve lived in Elgin, we’ve found community we love. I ride my electric bike around town waving at folks and sometimes stopping to chat.
- What inspired you to get involved in food systems work?
I’ve spent my life in service and social justice work in the public and private sectors. In 2006, Jules and I decided to start a farm. I landed a job as the startup manager for Coyote Creek Organic Feed Mill and World’s Best Eggs. The founder, Jeremiah Cunningham (1937-2013), had a vision of a complete local agricultural economy to revive our rural areas. Jeremiah taught me the interdependence of nature and how we could build local and fair economies based on sustainable agriculture - what we now call the local food value chain. I was inspired by the intersectionality of this work and the potential to continue the social justice and service work I’d been doing my whole life.
- What is the source of your motivation and inspiration as you continue this work?
From the people I serve. My intention is to leave this place better than I found it and when I witness people who are doing work they love, with dignity and ample reward, I am inspired. When I see farmers loading organic feed at the feed mill I was honored to help start or when I meet students in the Sustainable Agriculture program I was privileged to help establish, I am inspired and motivated to keep doing this work. When I see young farmers paying attention to equity and fairness, I am inspired. I grew up in Florida during the Apollo space program. No one can tell me we can’t dream big and find the collective focus to achieve our goals.
- What does food systems leadership mean to you?
Food systems work requires us to work diligently and collaboratively - with integrity and competence - to create systems, infrastructure and scaffolding that enable people to achieve their aspirations. I am told I’m a leader and yet I think of myself as a follower. I’m a systems geek and a problem solver. So I listen, observe and study looking for leverage points that will catalyze durable new ways of “doing food”. I try to understand the impact of our actions down the road 5, 10, 20 years and I strive to work at the center of systems change, not the edges.
- 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?
My dear friend and collaborator Ana Sisnett had a tremendous impact on me as a leader. Ana’s strength, patience and grace far outweighed my own. She offered wise counsel on matters of social justice with the candor that only trusted friends can provide. She helped me understand barriers that she faced as a Black Panamanian woman that I, as a white woman would never experience. For 27 years we celebrated our triumphs, cried over losses and laughed at the ridiculous actions of those who opposed our work. Ana helped me see the difference between a manager and a leader. I was a natural manager. Ana was a natural leader. She helped me become a leader too. She left us too soon, passing on in 2009.
- What have you enjoyed the most as a member of the FSLN? What do you hope will happen through this network?
Food touches everything and these intersections are complex and can be overwhelming. We have to learn about food and also systems of injustice and oppression. The FSLN affords us opportunities find collaborators and educational opportunities, sure, but it also gives us access to a support network to validate or invalidate our strategies - to hear other points of view and to learn, learn, learn. The online system saves us tremendous amounts of time; it could take years to find each other without the FSLN. I hope the FSLN will mature into a solid resource for new folks coming to this work - to learn what has been tried - to hold the stories - and to continuously improve our collective effectiveness.
- What’s one thing you are most proud of?
Pride is a strange thing. Sure I’m proud of the contributions I’ve made. The thing is that none of the success I’ve been part of are only because of me. Yes, I’ve worked hard at developing deference and listening skills and people seem comfortable sharing with me their needs and challenges, giving me opportunities to help find solutions. Maybe some projects wouldn’t have succeeded without my leadership but my leadership alone did not cause success. None of us succeeds alone. I guess I’m most proud of my ability to stay open to learning.
- What’s one thing you’ve learned in the last month that you’d like to share with the network?
I struggle with fundraising. Experts tell me to gather a fundraising team of financially wealthy people. My judgmental self kicks in and I wonder…. Did those folks make their big money off the backs of the people they purportedly want to help? I don’t want to support vertical integration of exploitation and philanthropy. What I’ve learned (from an FSLN leadership seminar participant) is that, like me, people feel joy when they give and my job is to give them that opportunity. I appreciate that we each share what we can and it’s ok to ask. So here you go: http://texaslocalfood.org/donate
- What’s something about you (a fun fact) that not many of your colleagues know or that we wouldn’t expect from you?
I love crystal hunting. I’d heard about it from friends for decades but never took the time to go and in 2017, Jules discovered the mines in Arkansas while on a brief solo vacation. Since then we’ve been back 4 times. It’s so relaxing! You’re in this open dirt pit - you’re covered in dirt and maybe mud - it’s hot - your phone has no service and for hours you’re 100% focused on looking for shiny objects. Total relaxation!
- What’s your greatest leadership challenge now, and what are you looking for support for? Something fellow members could help with.
Capacity building and passing the baton. The Texas Center for Local Food is small and scrappy and results driven. We succeed through intense collaboration with others. Our core staff is just me and a part-time staffer. I have years of experience in community service and tons of leadership and management training so I’m pretty good at it by now. I’m already 64 years old although I think I’m still 35. For the work of TCLF is to continue beyond me, we must build capacity now to hire staff and give them time and resources to develop their leadership skills and establish credibility with the people we serve.
- Any words of encouragement or advice to share with your fellow food systems leaders?
I’m encouraged by our increasing recognition that food systems are inextricably tied to systemic exploitation and extraction. It’s important to make it personal - hold ourselves accountable. What do we eat? How do our choices support exploitation and extraction? What are our gifts and how do we share them?
Our best leaders are constantly learning - reading, listening, observing, following - and asking - What is there for me to learn here? How did I support genuine, durable change today? By working together, remembering to be humble and bringing our best selves to the work every day, we can achieve our goals and catalyze others achieving theirs.