Lifting Up Leadership with the Southwest Georgia Project
In the final episode of this summer’s “Lifting Up Leadership” videos, a series that highlights leaders of influential food systems organizations across the country, we travel down to Albany, Georgia and visit with our friends at Southwest Georgia Project: Shirley Sherrod, co-founder and Executive Director, and Amber Bell, Program Director. Mrs. Sherrod and Amber share their personal journeys into the food system, discuss the tremendous value of intergenerational knowledge exchange, and describe their dreams for the future of southwest Georgia’s food system. Every leader’s lived experience and personal story about how they got into this field of work is unique; Mrs. Sherrod’s is extraordinary. As a youth growing up in the brutally racist and oppressive Jim Crow South, Mrs. Sherrod vowed to never work in agriculture and instead move to the north. But in 1965, when her father was murdered by a white farmer who was never prosecuted, she made a commitment to “not leave the South and devote [her] life to working for change.” One of the many ways that commitment manifested was through the establishment of the Southwest Georgia Project in 1966 (http://www.swgaproject.com/), an organization working in 14 southwest Georgia counties that educates, engages, and empowers communities through advocacy, grassroots organizing and technical assistance. In the six decades that the organization has been in operation, SWGP has successfully addressed school segregation, welfare rights, voter rights and education, housing, land loss, economic development and unfair policies affecting school children and families. For Amber Bell, SWGP’s Program Director, her desire to reduce health disparities between communities of color and white people led her to the Southwest Georgia Project. She sees “food as an avenue to go from one place to the next,” and an ideal way to address the disparities that communities of color are experiencing in rural communities. She breaks it down in simple terms: “if you have farm and farmland, you can make money. This is something we can change in a generation.” While the reasons that motivated Shirley Sherrod and Amber Bell to enter this work are different, they were brought together by their deep personal commitment to improving the lives of their neighbors and community members. Strengthening farmer viability, increasing access to healthy food, and advancing human rights, SWGP’s three core focus areas, is hard work that won’t be achieved overnight - it takes dedication, it takes drive, and it takes the sharing of knowledge, ideas, and experiences, characteristics abundantly present in both Mrs. Sherrod and Amber. From all of us at the Wallace Center, we want to thank Mrs. Sherrod and Amber for their continued and tireless work to create a more equitable food system, and for taking the time to share your knowledge, wisdom, and thoughts with the rest of us! We all have our own stories of how we became food systems leaders. What inspired you to get involved in food systems work? Has your career trajectory changed over time? Add a comment below and tell us your story!