Above: Alexandrea Wilson, 28th Class Emerson Fellow.
As a first-generation college student I sought out academia as a way to legitimize my experiences with food insecurity and growing up in a low-income household. I recall sharing my personal stories in the classroom and emphasizing that my lived experience informed my decisions to pursue an advanced social work degree and my passion for promoting racial equity within food access. It has been through higher education I have been able to build a skill set that will allow me to effectively work on hunger and poverty issues. As a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow I have been able to continue my role as learner. One way that I’ve done this is through creating a personal and professional network of individuals who are dedicated to the work of promoting racial equity within the anti-hunger and anti-poverty movement. In a recent conversation with Dr. Felisa Gonzales, a local evaluation professional in Denver, I was reminded of the importance of different types of knowledge. I shared my thoughts with her about pursuing a PhD as a way to continue my work in the anti-hunger and anti-poverty realm. Dr. Gonzalez reminded me that there are a number of ways to gain credibility, and that spending time working within communities and with those most impacted by hunger is just as important. I began to reflect on my academic journey and how my tendency to prioritize academia as a primary source of knowledge also leaned into White supremacy. Although higher education has taught me how to be an effective advocate, my lived experience has provided me with just as much authority and knowledge on the issues of hunger and poverty.
I ultimately decided to apply to the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship because of the opportunity to continue learning more about anti-hunger and anti-poverty efforts while strengthening my project management and research skills. I’ve come to realize that in this field an openness to learning is essential. My work at Warren Village, a transitional housing program in Denver, Colorado, has challenged me to be open to learning new ways of approaching projects. My project at Warren Village includes leading an evaluation on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and creating a strategic implementation plan for incorporating residents and alumni in decision-making and programmatic changes. A significant portion of my project is ensuring that resident and alumni voices are at the center of change and that there is a participant-led channel in which Warren Village is able to sustain long-term participant engagement. As an organization Warren Village is working toward centering racial equity, and one way to achieve this is through engaging residents and alumni who are predominantly people of color as partners in decision-making. Top-down decision-making can be harmful as it often creates missed opportunities for participants to provide valuable feedback and for organizations to foster relationships with participants. Participants should be situated as stakeholders alongside board members, donors, and other critical partners that contribute to organizations.
To inform the strategic plan portion of my project I have met with local organizations that have created structures for equitable and sustainable participant engagement. These interviews have helped to create of something similar at Warren Village. A recurring theme throughout my conversations with these organizations is radical inclusivity. Radical inclusivity as I’ve come to understand it means that participants are included throughout the fabric of the organization, beyond the typical level of engagement limited by assumptions of what participants are capable of. There are many obstacles to being inclusive of participants in decision-making, especially when those participants are from marginalized communities. These participants may have a wealth of lived experience and insight, but it often can be difficult to engage them without taking into account the accommodations and incentives they will need to ensure they are able to fully participate. Radical inclusivity says that expecting them to simply show up when it is decided that their input is needed is not equitable. Participants who are experiencing hunger and poverty, and/or identify as people of color, face daily challenges that do not always allow them to fully be engaged in organizational functions outside of receiving services. Radical inclusivity suggests that organizations have to be willing to put in the work to include participants by ensuring that they have access to resources such as Wi-Fi and childcare to participate, finding meeting times that may fall outside of regular hours, and most importantly supporting leadership among participants.
Radical inclusivity means shifting power to participants as experts on their own lives. Participants are embedded in organizational power structures and their input is not lost in feedback loops but rather actively used to further the organization’s mission. Radical inclusivity takes time and collaboration, but its long-term impacts can be seen through the mutually beneficial outcomes of participants and the organizations that serve them. Whitney Leeds, Advocacy and Community Organizing Manager at Growing Home in Colorado, shared with me that their Program Advisory Committee not only helped to inform needed programmatic changes, but it also helped participants to develop advocacy skills that supported their personal aspirations. The methods they used to create this committee were rooted in radical inclusivity, including compensating committee members for their time.
As my time with Warren Village comes to a close, I look forward to carrying the many lessons I have gained with me. In my continued advocacy for racial equity within the anti-hunger and anti-poverty movement I aim to lean into knowledge and credibility that fall outside of institutions and within community and lived experience. I believe that through this I will be able to keep racial equity at the forefront and continue to challenge White supremacy as it exists within anti-hunger and anti-poverty policy. Radical inclusivity has taught me that there needs to be a conscious effort towards creating inclusive environments so that everyone can be engaged in this work. It is not enough to ask for feedback but to eradicate barriers for the most marginalized to participate in systems as partners. This is how we create a movement rooted in accessibility and an appreciation for community knowledge.