Featured Leader: Rachael Reichenbach

In this Featured Leader piece we have the chance to learn more about FSLN member and Network Weaver Rachael Lee Reichenbach. We first met Rachael during a Leadership Retreat in New Orleans, LA in 2018 and have had the great opportunity to learn from and with her over the past few years, including during an FSLN Coffee Chat where, together with other FSLN members, she shared tips and tricks for becoming a facilitation wiz (seriously, these don’t ever get old – check out the notes here).

Rachael is joining us from Wild Hydrangea Intentional Community in Blountsville, Alabama, land of the Cherokee, Shawnee, and Yuchi where she is living in nature while also juggling being a Freelance Co-Creator at Resist Reimagine.

You and your journey

Who are you? (Beyond the job title!)
I feel grateful that who I am is so bound up with the work that I do in the world! I am a native Texan, recent Floridian, and current resident of Wild Hydrangea, an intentional community in northern Alabama. I am committed to living an undivided life, and thus find myself being and doing similarly in both my personal and professional lives – healing, contemplating, listening, facilitating, designing processes, keeping the vision. I deeply value fairness, community, integrity, wisdom, and adventure. I love trail running, fancy shmancy cocktails, singing, big earrings, and playing outside with friends. 

What inspired you to get involved in food systems work?
I planted my first garden and did my first on-farm volunteering in 2015 because it felt important to develop a survival skill for the apocalypse. As I have held different roles in the food system over the past five years, it has become clear that my role is to serve as a thinker and connector and facilitator rather than a (food) grower. I think food offers us the opportunity to heal our relationship with the Earth, with one another, and with ourselves. By reconnecting with our birthright wisdom – how to feed ourselves and our community and steward the earth – we reconnect with a sense of agency, power, and delight. 

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?
Joseph McIntyre! I am incredibly grateful to call Joseph a mentor, friend, and collaborator. Joseph has helped me tap into and embody the wisdom that I already possess and reflect on my blindspots, patterns, and the ways I hold myself back. Joseph nurtures my growth as a facilitator and systems changer and his enthusiasm and encouragement have been important sources of confidence as I continue to grow as a leader.  Joseph deeply and intentionally models what he teaches. I have seen Joseph grapple with his role as an elder, as a cis het white man in positions of influence & power, and his changing/evolving role as a leader. 

What’s something about you (a fun fact) that not many of your colleagues know or that we wouldn’t expect from you?
Shortly after college I spent two years backpacking, volunteering, and working in SE Asia. The countries where I spent the most time were Vietnam and the Philippines. In Vietnam, I was the co-director of an American-style English immersion summer camp. In the Philippines, I lived in a tent on the beach for six months while I opened and operated a snack shack that served American-style comfort foods: french toast, scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon, arnold palmers, and chocolate peanut butter pie. 

Leadership and learnings

What does food systems leadership mean to you?
It means leaning into and co-creating an irresistible vision for our food system, far beyond merely settling for the opposite of what we don’t want. It means having an analysis of why things are the way that they are and a clear understanding of why we’re doing the things that we’re doing. Some of us will work upstream addressing root causes, and some of us will work downstream, taking care of those who are impacted by the ripple effects created upstream. Everyone has a unique part to play. I think we are most powerful when we have a sense of what’s happening upstream and downstream from the position we are playing – even better if we are actually connecting, coordinating, or collaborating! 

What have you enjoyed the most as a member of the FSLN? What do you hope will happen through this network?  
I deeply value the relationships I have cultivated through participating in the FSLN. The leadership retreat in New Orleans and my mentorship with Miles Gordon have been highlights of my time as an FSLN member. I have also really enjoyed being a network weaver, connecting with an ever broadening circle of network members and working closely with the FSLN backbone team to grapple with the big questions and opportunities facing the network. I hope this network catalyzes more mutuality and connection in our food system; embodies new, tangible ways of doing our work to bring our visions to life; and shifts power in a way that fundamentally shifts how the larger food system works. 

What are you most excited about in your work?
I love collaborating and co-creating. I am most excited to work with like-spirited systems changers who are excited to dive deep, think big about what is possible, and co-create ways to move in that direction that embody core values of love, equity, dignity, trust, and justice. I am excited to continue exploring how to do this work in the South, and my particular part to play. I am excited that more and more people, organizations, and institutions are grappling with the work of shifting power & resources and operationalizing anti-racism. 

What’s one thing you’ve learned that you’d like to send forward to the network?
Go slow to go fast. I have seen a lot of resistance to doing the slower, up-front work that creates the scaffolding for our collaborative processes. Grappling with big questions like, Why are we actually doing this? How do we make decisions? How do we share power? How do we practice accountability & equity? Investing time in creating a solid foundation for collaborative work actually saves time in the long run when we inevitably experience road bumps. We set ourselves up for success when we take the time to develop shared understanding and develop transparent processes up front. 

What’s your greatest leadership challenge now, and what are you looking for support for? Something fellow members could help with.
I am struggling with how to support groups who say they want to collaborate to actually collaborate effectively. So often we say we’re collaborating just because we’re all sitting in the room together (or these days, we’re all on the email thread together). How do we shift cultures of collaboration from saying we’re doing it to actually doing it? This feels especially tricky in groups where folks in power have a sense that the way we’re doing things is working. AND, how to do this in a way that embodies systems leadership rather than superiority? 

Reflections on the current environment

When you imagine an equitable and anti-racist food system, what do you envision? 
I imagine a redistribution of land from white landowners to Black and indigenous land tenders. I imagine a world in which farmworkers and other food chain workers are paid appropriately, treated with dignity, and respected for the essential role they play in our food system. I imagine decentralized yet ideologically aligned community-based efforts to shift from food apartheid to food sovereignty (and enough money, technical assistance, thought partnership, and facilitation to ensure that community-based, collaborative efforts actually have a fighting chance at succeeding). 

Since May, 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? 
In this moment, scores of white people are waking up to the fact that we live in a white supremacist country, and for many this awakening is accompanied by feelings of embarrassment and guilt. White folks (and the organizations and institutions we lead) are grappling with, how did I not see this before? What can I possibly do to fix this? So, there is a lot of urgency in this moment. And, yes, we are past due to be waking up to this reality, joining this conversation, and rolling up our sleeves to play our part in our collective liberation (our part, as white people, is to dismantle white supremacy). At the same time, sense of urgency is a classic behavior or white supremacy. So, for white people, we have to constantly hold the tension that we don’t have time to waste, but we can’t keep taking action in a way that perpetuates white supremacy culture. We have to discern, am I rushing because I am trying to assuage my guilt? Am I rushing because I think I can “fix” this? Am I rushing to take action because I want  to prove that I am a good white person? In order to discern the next right step (rooted in wholehearted, thoughtful, BIPOC-informed analysis), we have to sit inside of some really big, uncomfortable questions for as long as we need to sit inside of them (likely much longer than we think). Questions like, Why was this organization or institution founded? For whose benefit was this organization built? Who founded it? Who did they start it for? Who’s at the table and why? Who’s not at the table and why? 

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 don’t know! This question feels beyond my reach, mainly because I don’t know what any given community needs. What does each community see that it needs? And once those needs are identified by the community, how can we meet those needs in a way that actualizes the values that we’re trying to bring into the new world? In a way that takes us through a transformative rather than transactional process? Like, sure, we can set up food distribution centers to ensure that people who are experiencing hunger have access to food. This is critically important. But is there a way to meet this need that also shifts power and grows stronger interdependence within communities? 

Let’s Get Real – under the iceberg

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? 
Oh yeah! Favorites include: not scheduling Zoom calls back-to-back; not checking email on the weekends or after 6pm; prioritizing starting the day with something nourishing and mindful (a 30-minute walk, 20-30 minutes of yoga, 15-20 minutes of mediation, reading something that connects me to what is most important to me); saying no to things that are not aligned with my purpose or that feel like they are mostly a distraction or an obligation; physically moving when I start to feel edginess creep in during the day – I will change position or location, something to bring me back into my body so I can feel more clearly what’s actually underneath the edginess; start all meetings with some sort of connection check-in.

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?
I want to lift up the analysis of Erica Christensen from Corbin Hill Food Project who recently spoke to me about the contradiction that so many of our organizations embody. On the one hand we are endeavoring to grow, create, facilitate, nurture sustainable food systems. And, at same time we aren’t providing sustainable livelihoods for our people. Specifically, many folks working in nonprofits aren’t earning competitive pay, don’t have benefits, and are often playing two or three roles under the umbrella of one job (and only being paid for one of these roles). Let’s get our people better paid and stretched less thin. 

Any words of encouragement or advice to pass along?

You’re doing great. You’re not alone. Rest when you need to – the rest of us are out here keeping the work moving forward when you need to take a minute. Leverage your power and operationalize your values. Invest in your relationships. If something doesn’t feel right, pay attention to that feeling. Bring your whole self and all of your ways of knowing and relating to the work – we all need all of you.

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