In this Featured Leader piece, we are joined by Marcus Coleman, an FSLN member and Network Weaver, hailing from Baton Rouge, LA and gain insight into his personal and professional journeys his vision for an equitable food system, and words of advice for moving this work forward.
You and your journey
Who are you? (Beyond the job title!)
I consider myself as a person with a servant’s attitude. Serving my communities is very important to me. People in my communities and circles have invested a lot in me to get me where I am both personally and professionally. It is important to me to give to others in the same manner that people have given to me. Agriculture and the food system are my way to do so in a broader, community based context.
What inspired you to get involved in food systems work?
Growing up in Louisiana’s rural delta region, I understand the disproportionate nature of societal offerings regarding access to quality, affordable and healthful food options in rural settings. This understanding extends to urban settings and fuels my passion for agriculture and food systems engagement given the important role that food plays in the overall health, economic, and social prosperity of communities across the country and the world.
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?
An individual who has had the greatest impact on my career and my leadership perspective is Dave Weatherspoon, who was my major professor during my time at Michigan State University. Our relationship spanned beyond the classroom and is still strong. I think he is a person that places integrity and respect at the forefront of his work and has been a catalyst for Blacks working in agriculture and food systems in the academic space. He’s also a straight shooter in that he tells you what you need to hear and not what you want to hear.
What’s something about you (a fun fact) that not many of your colleagues know or that we wouldn’t expect from you?
I consider myself as somewhat of a foodie! I love traveling around Louisiana and trying out different “hole-in-the-wall” food joints in the rural towns. That’s where you can find the best food in the state. Also traveling around the country trying out local food joints and especially locally brewed craft beers.
Leadership and learnings
What does food systems leadership mean to you?
Bringing together individual talents for the collective good of creating a food system that is sustainable and equitable for all. To do so requires an engaging approach of bringing together a diverse and inclusive group of people, ideas and work to not only solve a common problem but also to ensure that information is disseminated to the wider community.
What are you most excited about in your work?
I’m just blessed to be involved and a change agent in food system space. More so than that, I’m excited to be a Black man in this work. Often times in this space, I enter rooms and Black men are not represented and do not have a voice in the decisions about the work that being done related to food systems. I’m excited to play a part in changing that cycle and narrative.
What’s your greatest leadership challenge now, and what are you looking for support for? Something fellow members could help with.
A consistent challenge for me in my role at a public university is being able to fully engage and understand the communities that will benefit from my work in agriculture and food systems the most. In addition to understanding and engaging the communities, a challenge arises in showcasing the value of food systems work to senior administrators who many not fully understand both the direct and indirect impacts that food, or the lack of access to quality, affordable and healthful food, has on socially disadvantaged communities.
What have you enjoyed the most as a member of the FSLN? What do you hope will happen through this network?
Engagement and continued engagement. A lot of folks around the country are doing great work in the food systems space, in a variety of arenas. I look forward to learning more about the great work that’s being done around the country to ensure equitable and sustainable food access for the communities that need it the most.
Reflections on the current environment
When you imagine an equitable and anti-racist food system, what do you envision?
An equitable and anti-racist food system is one where individuals, businesses and communities have equal and inclusive access to the knowledge and tools necessary to facilitate progressive and sustainable economic, political, environmental and social growth related to food. This space is occupied by a diverse collective of individuals that interact with the goal of sharing the knowledge and resources necessary to drive community sustainability and become productive locally, regionally, nationally and globally.
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??
One thing to be noted is that racism has always existed in this country. It’s now being exploited on a national level more than ever thanks to the connectivity of social media. The inequities that are being widely exposed on a social, political and economic level also translate to the needs related to equitable food access. It is up to those of us engaged in food systems work to also publicly expose and call attention to the inequities that we see across the food systems, especially for socially disadvantaged communities. Agriculture and food has historically been an arena where people of color, especially Black folks, have been exploited and mistreated due to acts of racism. In fact, the roots of racism in the Deep South have direct ties to agriculture. In many instances, those roots still have a strong hold today and we must continue to kill the roots of the issue via collective work and engagement.
There’s not a single community within the movement for equitable food systems that isn’t impacted by this 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 think at some point, all individuals involved have to begin the process of thinking strategically about the long-term and how to become more sustainable, economically, socially and politically. Often times we tend to be reactive rather than proactive. This is driven by immediate community needs and responses. Often, our reactive nature tends to limit our ability to strategize in solving problems for the long-term because we are consistently problem solving and putting out fires when necessary. What we are talking about here is systemic change, which requires a system of players and strategies to make the system wide changes necessary to put a dent in the problems we face. The way to start this process is by coming together, tackling our short-term issues and using that to strategize for the future. The same energy that is place on tackling short-term issues that are solved by our reactive nature has to be placed into long-term strategizing so that we can be proactive for long-term success.
Any words of encouragement or advice to share with your fellow food systems leaders?
Remember, slow, steady, and most of all, deliberate wins the race for food system equity. We’re in this thing together. Any only collectively will we create the systemic change needed related to food systems.