Above: Gabe Hafemann (right) with colleagues at Boston’s TD Garden, January 2023.
This past fall, I had the distinct pleasure of being the debutante Emerson Fellow at the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) in Boston, Massachusetts. GBFB has embraced the bold mission to “end hunger in Eastern Massachusetts.” The food bank provides food to more than 600 partner agencies, mobile markets, and Commodity Food Surplus Program drop sites. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic demand for emergency food programs in Eastern Mass has skyrocketed. GBFB has distributed more than 95 million pounds of food in the past year to meet the need.
If you ask GBFB’s vice presidents or CEO Catherine D’Amato, GBFB’s core competency is food distribution. Those last numbers prove that to be true. They get food in the hands of people who need it. But beyond that, GBFB has put huge effort into advocacy at the state level. The team collaborates closely with other organizations (like Emerson host organization Project Bread, another incredible leader in the anti-hunger space) to fight for hunger solutions statewide and locally. With strong internal executive and senior leadership backing for the advocacy program, the public affairs team is an incredible place to learn and grow as a young professional. GBFB leverages its prominence and brand recognition to build strong working groups and political relationships. The government relations team leads the MA Hunger-Free Campus Coalition (an issue I’d previously worked on in Minnesota and was delighted to revisit), for example. They work closely with other food banks to strengthen and expand The Emergency Food Access Program (TEFAP), a core line of federal funding for emergency food distribution and direct service programs, and MEFAP – the parallel Massachusetts state-level program – to ensure food banks and pantries statewide can continue meeting demand. The team is deeply entrenched in the state and Boston-area advocacy spaces. They’re poised to increase their impact even more over time as the team expands its capacity.
Eager to jump into the influential milieu, my first week, I told my team (half-jokingly, mostly seriously), “put me in, coach!” And that they did. Within the public affairs department – the place where government relations and public relations meet – I dove deep into researching legislative opportunities to advance GBFB’s cause. The 2023-2024 biennium is a rich opportunity for anti-hunger advocacy in the state. My supervisor, Kate Adams, and I triaged a swathe of legislative opportunities, ranging from expanding TEFAP/MEFAP, to Food is Medicine – making medically tailored foods available to low-income folks – to the ASSET Act, to the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit. These measures mean to cover the spectrum of making working households more financially flexible and move closer to addressing the root causes of hunger, to expanding food banks’ ability to provide for the immediate need for food. It was an incredible exercise in identifying movement and political opportunity in the legislative and coalition spheres.
I was also afforded the chance to dive into research I’m passionate about: strategizing innovative ways to empower people with lived experience of hunger and poverty to advocate for solutions that work for them. My Hunger-Free Community Report titled, “Feeding Equity: Contextualizing Policy Advocacy at the Greater Boston Food Bank,” is a reflection of the leeway afforded to me to bridge the space between my interests and GBFB’s needs in an effort to expand the public affairs team’s capacity and embed a deep intentional focus on honoring those most impacted.
Beyond the strictly legislative, I jumped into our larger team, too. The public affairs team is couched in the larger advancement team (they don’t call it the A-Team for nothing!) – a group of two dozen experts across marketing, fundraising and development, graphic design, donor relations, partnership development, and communications. These fine folks welcomed me in with open arms and made good use of my communications background. I wrote copy for the GBFB blog, touching on issues like Transgender Day of Remembrance and the disproportionate hunger and housing insecurity Trans people face. I joined A-Team staff at events all over the city! I covered social media for the GBFB debrief on the historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. I tabled at Fenway Park (a check off of my Boston bucket list!), shook hands with Governors Baker and Healey (and of clear, equal cultural salience, Wally the Red Sox’ Mascot) when I ran the livestream of the kickoff to the Hunger-Free Holidays fundraising campaign. I attended Governor Healey’s inauguration celebration at TD Garden (another check!) and met WWE Superstars as they donated time and money to GBFB’s cause.
The six months I spent in Boston were a professional whirlwind! The campaigns I worked on and projects into which I dove set me up for success at my policy placement with RESULTS Educational Fund, Inc., a federal grassroots anti-poverty advocacy organization and longtime Emerson Fellow host organization. It’s my distinct honor to be continuing the work of 28th class Emerson Fellow Blake Turpin, who laid an incredible foundation for RESULTS’ current Renter Tax Credit campaign. My projects here expand on my political research projects from Boston and are enabling me to build my portfolio of organizational analyses and recommendations for grassroots-centric, lived experience-driven campaigns going forward. I’m building a series of position papers in the housing space, too, to ensure RESULTS can be nimble and prepared when political opportunity arises.
The chance to work for these two incredible organizations in two different physical places and policy spaces alongside a cohort of 17 other brilliant Emerson Fellows and our massive network of supporters has been indispensable for my personal and professional growth. I’ve cultivated a much deeper understanding of what it means to succeed in the policy space. For me, that means bringing authenticity, thoughtfulness, relationality, and emphasis on those most impacted. It also means developing a sustainable path forward for myself in this work such that I can continue to pursue solutions to our most fundamental quotidian problems. I look forward to the last few months of my fellowship and seeing where this beautiful opportunity takes me next!