Featured Leader: Winona Bynum

In this month’s Featured Leader, we have the chance to learn more about Winona Bynum, FSLN member, Network Weaver, and the Executive Director of the Detroit Food Policy Council, to hear more about her journey into food systems work, what leadership means to her, and how she makes time to step back from her work.

Winona is the first person to serve in this role of the DFPC Executive Director (prior to 2015 the organization was led by the council chair and supported by a coordinator and program manager). She is a registered dietitian/nutritionist graduating from Wayne State University’s Coordinated Program in Dietetics and studied public health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health.  Before switching careers, she worked in information technology (IT).  She enjoys reading, cooking, gardening, watching films, travel and spending time with her family and friends. Read on!

You and your journey

Who are you? (Beyond the job title!)
I am the oldest of four and, because of that, found early on that I am comfortable taking on added responsibilities and taking on a leadership role if needed. I think my role as a big sister gave me the opportunity to mentor and teach my siblings which carried over into the way that I move through the world.  I also had a supportive mother and father who challenged me to think about things deeply, look at how my actions affect others, do my best, and also take time to care for myself.  I’ve attempted to pass those things along to my children and others.  My parents’ lessons mean even more to me now that they have both passed away. 

What inspired you to get involved in food systems work?
The building blocks for my interest in the food system started early and simply.  I was hooked by the power of food from the time I grew my first tomato plant in first grade and then took my first cooking class in second grade.  I watched my grandmother and aunts can produce for the winter.  I, like  so many Black people in the United States, have roots in the South.  My mom’s family is from Kentucky and my dad’s family is from Mississippi;  as a result, many of my early summers were spent on my great-grandparents’ farm in Mississippi.  My mother cooked from scratch and healthy meals were the norm in my home growing up.  My mother also nurtured my interest in food by letting me bake and cook with her.  As time passed, I followed a career path that didn’t involve food or food systems work but, eventually came back to one of my first loves.  My plan was to help people learn how to eat in ways that support health as a dietitian; however, as the reality set in that too many people lacked access to healthy and/or culturally appropriate foods, my work turned to working on systems level changes. 

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?
Beyond the early influences, I am fortunate to have had many people who have helped, supported and continue to help and support me. I can’t name just one so I’ll narrow it down to a few: There is  Dr. Jess Daniel Hart who gave me my first paid food-systems job.  Dr. Kami Pothukuchi whom I met while taking her lecture series “Cities and Food” who challenged me to find the connection between Dietetics and food systems work.  Then there is Meredith Freeman who gave me opportunities to grow and helped me apply the skills I’d gained from my first career in IT to my food systems career. Finally, last but not least, DeWayne Wells whom I worked very closely with during the time that our organizations were co-located. He was very generous with sharing his vast food system and nonprofit leadership knowledge and network with me.   

It was really hard to narrow down my list. There are many who have had a tremendous impact on my work, whose work I admire and have influenced me.  

What’s something about you (a fun fact) that not many of your colleagues know or that we wouldn’t expect from you?
There was a time that I was an avid artist and was a part of a local artist collective.  I also once danced to Beyonce in a nightclub in Eskisehir Turkey. 

Leadership and learnings

What does food systems leadership mean to you?
We are all food system leaders. We make choices every day that help to influence the food system. However, beyond that, leaderships means being an advocate and also an educator. 

What are you most excited about in your work?
I am excited about the energy that I’m seeing around the work and that more people are beginning to see the need for systems level changes.  I’m seeing much more interest in looking at how policies, practices and system level biases have created the conditions that leave so many in the community food-insecure and without a say in what their food system looks like. 

What’s one thing you’ve learned that you’d like to send forward to the network?
There is value in working collaboratively.  The way we can improve the food system is to talk across disciplines and work collectively on goals, whether they are short, medium or long-term. So much of getting things done is about your network of colleagues, and having trusted relationships. 

What’s your greatest leadership challenge now, and what are you looking for support for? Something fellow members could help with.
I hope we all work together to change the narrative that keeps us in the charity mindset and away from long-term solutions. We have to make sure everyone gets the food they need today; however, collectively,  we also need to shift attention to the conditions that cause food insecurity so that they can be addressed. 

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 I envision one where the voices and rewards mirror the make-up of our society. The ideal food system doesn’t have victors and victims but benefits everyone who eats and the planet. 

Over the past few 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?  
Now that more people are beginning to see the unfairness of the systems that we’ve inherited and maintain, people are thinking more about systemic change. Those of us in the good food movement can use this new awareness to garner support for policies and systemic changes that support an equitable, anti-racist food system. 

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?
Frontline workers need a safe working environment that pays a living wage and benefits. Communities need a resilient food system and a larger voice in how that food system looks and serves them. We need to use this time to highlight what works and what doesn’t and concentrate on creating more of what works. An estimated five of the eight worst paid jobs are related to food. Every full-time job should make a living wage; yet, when you consider that food is a basic need to live, the compensation of food system workers is really disconnected from its true value to us as a society. 

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? 
I celebrate the small wins. I take breaks. I have times when I completely focus on something else – a book, a movie, a good conversation – which restores me.  I also remember that while I need to do my part, I’m not in this work alone. 

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?
There are a growing number of networks and mentorship programs. I’d like to see them increase, strengthen and expand to support people through their food systems career journeys. 

Any words of encouragement or advice to pass along?

Keep up the great work, pace yourself and know that you’re not alone. 

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