Erica Williams is the Founder and Executive Director of A Red Circle, serving the North St. Louis County Region and a leader of an FSLN Peer Learning Circle for Executive Directors of Color. In this article, Erica shares a Mutual Aid program, which she describes as “… a system built on trust that says, if you say you have a need, we believe you. And, when you are able to give back, we will be here. That type of system has been so beneficial. It creates less of a charity model or colonized philanthropy but, meets people where they are.”
Thank you, Erica, for taking the time to share more about you, your efforts at creating a more equitable society, and your take on how COVID has impacted the food system.
Tell us, who are you? (beyond the job title!)
When not working for A Red Circle, I’m on the executive board committee as treasurer for Missouri Health Care for All. I also hold a BA in Paralegal Studies and an MBA, both from Maryville University, and am working on my PhD in Public Policy and Administration from Walden University, with a concentration on policy analysis.
What inspired you to get involved in food systems work?
While planning A Red Circle’s programming and focus areas, I began spending time in North County, outside of my neighborhood in Florissant which is not a food desert. (For some background reference, I worked in Clayton, Missouri, which is very affluent so, my drive between Florissant and Clayton shielded me from realizing how much the rest of North St. Louis County, outside of Florissant and Ferguson, lacked healthy food.) My earlier intentions were to educate community members on cooking and eating healthy; however, nutrition and recipes fall on deaf ears when the closest grocery store is over two miles away and the corner stores only sell processed food. As such, I realized that our work needed to focus on improving healthy food access.
What’s one thing you’re most proud of?
I am most proud of the network I have built around increasing healthy food access in North St. Louis County. A huge misnomer in my work is that St. Louis County, since it is in the suburbs, does not have a food problem; only St. Louis City does. As a result, traditional philanthropic dollars have been directed to St. Louis City specifically and not to St. Louis County. I have been able to highlight the need in North St. Louis County and to assemble partners from academia, corporate, community, churches, and other nonprofits, to create effective programming.
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?
The person who comes to mind for this question is Julia Ho, the Founder of Solidarity Economy Stl. Julia and I met in 2017 right when I was launching A Red Circle and she a dynamic leader. She is a young person but she is an influencer, a doer, has the highest integrity of anyone I have known and I trust her guidance implicitly. She grows food, directs programs, procures funding, and elicits genuine support from many sectors.
Why did you decide to join the FSLN? What has this been like so far?
I actually joined the FSLN to expand my base in food systems. I did not know much about The Wallace Center but, when I discovered it, it looked like a connection that would be beneficial. As a new nonprofit leader, I am always looking for ways to learn and to share about A Red Circle.
After joining, I learned about the FSLN’s Peer Learning Circles, which was a great way to connect with other leaders and share what I had learned and experienced as a nonprofit leader. I led a Peer Circle for Executive Directors of Color, which consisted of people from all over the country. We had members from Oregon, Chicago, New York, Arkansas, Maine, Missouri, and New Jersey. It was great hearing the various perspectives of the members!
That experience was very beneficial. Having a safe space to discuss our challenges in terms of nonprofit infrastructure, funding, and leadership issues was invaluable. It definitely increased my knowledge of issues and processes within the ‘of Color’ community of nonprofit leaders. Participation in this group also helped to increase my interaction with a colleague from another St. Louis nonprofit. (A Red Circle is single staffed.) Having a village of leaders made a huge difference and impact in my leadership.
Reflections on COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted individuals, communities, and organizations across the world. How has COVID-19 impacted your community and how has A Red Circle responded?
Because of Covid-19, we had to shift our programming in many ways. The grand opening of our North County Agricultural Education Center has been delayed. The Healthy Community Market will now become a place for pantry patrons to receive free produce every month along with handouts on cooking and eating healthy, rather than a farmer’s market with nutrition education, exercise activities, and cooking demos. Nevertheless, we persist in working towards our mission statement, “The holistic betterment of our community; reversing the effects of racism one person and cause at a time.” We teamed up with Solidarity Economy Stl to begin Stl Mutual Aid, which is a format where we can meet the immediate needs of community members impacted by Covid-19. It has been beneficial to spearhead this format, where neighbors are helping neighbors with food, diapers, cleaning supplies, hygiene products, resources, and more. A Red Circle has been very successful and doing this new work has introduced us to many new community members! Anyone interested can learn more about Stl Mutual Aid and donate here.
The pandemic has caused many regulations to be loosened and new partnerships to be formed. Of the changes you have seen and made in response to COVID-19, which would you like to maintain moving forward?
Going back to Stl Mutual Aid, in addition to securing supplies for people, there is also a financial application that people can submit for help with rent, bills, medicine, etc. The process is extremely simplified and does not require proof of need. It’s a system built on trust that says, if you say you have a need, we believe you. And, when you are able to give back, we will be here. That type of system has been so beneficial. It creates less of a charity model or colonized philanthropy but, meets people where they are. I would love to see that model going forward, even in nonprofit funding.