Lessons in Process: What we’ve learned supporting the development of an Anti-racist Toolkit for Farmers Markets

By: Rachael Ward, Nedra Deadwyler, and Sagdrina Jalal       Posted On: September 1, 2021

Vendor and shopper at The Market at Pepper Place in Birmingham, AL

Since January, FMC has been supporting a work group of 10 Black food systems experts to develop an anti-racist toolkit for farmers markets. Led by Sagdrina Jalal (Lead Technical Advisor/Facilitator) and Nedra Deadwyler (Lead Researcher & Content Builder), this work group has been meeting monthly to examine farmers markets at a high level, identifying the ways that policies and systems have contributed to make farmers markets predominately white spaces. Need a refresher? Read more about the beginnings of the toolkit and why we think this work is important. 

We’re excited by the progress of the work group and we could also tell early on that the process, co-designed with Sagdrina and Nedra, was going to create a ripple effect of learning opportunities beyond the toolkit itself. In addition to the external benefits we know this toolkit will bring to farmers market operators, there have been internal benefits for both FMC as an organization and for the food systems experts that make up the work group.

Here’s what FMC has learned: 

1. When Not to Lead

A desire to help create change is often what unites non-profit professionals. After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, racial justice issues gained a heightened level of awareness with market operators. FMC was eager to connect markets with resources, and as we began to compile toolkits, templates, and guides related to anti-racism and racial equity, it became clear that there wasn’t much out there that was tailored to farmers markets specifically. 

While our instinct at FMC is often to jump in and start creating tools and resources when we see a need in the market community, after conversations with several advisors and stakeholders we realized that our role was better served as a funder and supporter than the lead on the project. The importance of knowing when to step back and give up decision making power, especially to BIPOC experts, is a skill we continue to learn and refine. In the case of the anti-racist toolkit, we believe having folks who have lived experience with being Black managers, customers, and vendors at farmers markets lead the creation of this resource will help to bring the true issues to the surface, while centering the voices of those who have been often left out of farmers markets. 

As word spreads about the toolkit, we find ourselves needing to continually reinforce the fact that work group members are the ones creating the toolkit, while FMC is supporting with resources and capacity when needed. This continual acknowledgement and recognition is important not only for accurately attributing the work being done, but also for market operators to understand the expertise and knowledge that work group members bring to the farmers market field.

2. Step Back, Not Out

As we began the process of bringing together a work group of 10 Black food systems experts to create the toolkit, we learned to play the fine line between stepping back and stepping out completely. Stepping back looked like giving up control of the design of the application process to our lead consultants, Sagdrina and Nedra. However, it was also important to all parties involved that FMC not step out of the process completely. Instead, we found ways to use our capacity, power, infrastructure, and network to help accomplish the goals. This looked like FMC staff dedicating time to the nitty gritty details of designing an application, using our organizational access to GSuites, and promoting the application within our networks. 

This balance came up again as the work group was discussing where the toolkit would be hosted once it was completed. In our eagerness to make sure that FMC was seen as just a supporter and not creator of the toolkit, we told the work group that we didn’t want to host the toolkit on our website, so as to not create confusion. What we didn’t realize until later reflection and feedback from the work group was that by stepping out of the process so far we were putting undue burden and pressure on the work group and the respective organizations they represent to host and maintain the toolkit on their own sites, sometimes with far less resources and capacity than our own organization. This also wasn’t acknowledging that the main audience the toolkit hopes to reach, farmers market operators, is an audience that FMC has already built trust and relationships with.  

Often there is such a desire for white led organizations (and white folks in general) to give up leadership of projects to BIPOC folks because we’ve been told it’s the right thing to do. It is, and we also need to acknowledge how we can use the power, resources, and infrastructure we’ve been given to support projects led by Black folks. Stepping back means giving up control over leadership and decision making processes while still actively helping with needed resources and structures.  

Vendors at Chicago City Market

3. Pay People For Their Time, All the Time

You’ve probably heard this a lot by now, but BIPOC folks (and especially Black women) are often expected to educate white folks on the errors of our ways. And they’re often asked to do it for free or cheap. Asking BIPOC professionals to do work without adequate compensation doesn’t acknowledge the expertise and skills they bring and perpetuates systems of inequity. 

FMC has learned that offering compensation to BIPOC experts for any and all requests is a best practice and makes a difference in the ability to form strong relationships with communities of color. In addition to a regular stipend for work group members, FMC offers additional compensation for writing and speaking engagements, federal grant reviewer opportunities, and consultation on projects outside the scope of the toolkit. We have made an active effort to learn how to leverage our relationships with funders to find the funds to support BIPOC leaders.  

4. Slow Your Roll

We live in a land of the 24 hour news cycle. Many Americans are used to the ebb and flow of trends over a short period of time and there is often a sense of urgency created to address issues that arise, while the public’s attention is on them. We felt the pressure to create an anti-racist toolkit for farmers markets during the summer and fall of 2020, while the general public had heightened interest and awareness of racial equity issues. 

But responding quickly and responding thoughtfully don’t often go hand in hand. Creating meaningful resources that truly engage communities of color in positions of leadership takes time and a constant focus on slowing down when things don’t feel right. Many projects are rushed to completion in order to meet deadlines that are often self imposed. When things get difficult or sticky we have a tendency to want to just move them along rather than slowing down, backing up, and starting over. The way we go about creating resources is just as important as the end product. The level of thoughtfulness, intention, and engagement put in is reflected in a final product that ends up being more useful and relevant to the audience it was created for. 

We know that market operators are eager to start and continue their anti-racist work and we also know that the anti-racist toolkit for farmers markets will not be a holy grail to answer all of market operator’s questions. This is why FMC created a process with Sagdrina and Nedra that develops the toolkit over the course of a year, leaving the anticipated release date purposely vague and open to adjustment as the work group sees fit.

5. Take a Stand

As we’ve moved along in this process, reactions from market operators have ranged from excitement and encouragement to defensiveness and disengagement. A big part of FMC’s role as a supporter of the toolkit and the only national membership organization for farmers market operators is to take a stand against hateful language and to educate against harmful preconceptions. We love farmers markets and it is out of this deep love that we believe it is necessary to acknowledge and address the ways that markets have fallen short in supporting communities of color. 

In the past, FMC has largely remained silent on matters of race and injustice. However, as we began to promote and publicize the anti-racist toolkit for farmers markets, it became increasingly clear that we needed a unified understanding of how FMC would respond to negative reactions and criticism of our anti-racist work. Similar to many other organizations, we made a commitment to stand together against police brutality, racism, and all forms of injustice in our food system and our country in the summer of 2020. One way we have worked to back up this statement is getting our whole staff on board with prepared responses, resources, and evidence that create a common understanding around how farmers markets have contributed to and benefitted from systems of oppression. It is important to us that all of our staff feel well equipped to address pushback that arises from our food justice work.

Vendor at FRESHFARM in Washington, DC , Reana Kovalcik

FMC isn’t the only one who has learned and benefited from convening this group of Black food systems experts. Gathering in this way has also been useful to work group members themselves. Below Sagdrina and Nedra share some intentional and unintentional benefits to work group members that they’ve observed: 

  1. The creation of a healing space to validate and support the experiences of work group members at farmers markets.

    During each session, all of us working on this project acknowledge how meaningful coming together to build a tool to address more significant systemic issues within food systems availed our receiving of nurturing support from colleagues. Work group members face familiar situations no matter what part of the country they live and work in, at the hand of board members, volunteers, workers, community members, and beyond. The group is a space of caring, open and honest communication, and support from sharing resources, ideas, and strategies to offering time outside of the group, active listening, and engaged fellowship. An affinity network is something all BIPOC food systems folks need and deserve.

  2. Growth in leadership skills.

    The ten members who give shape to each work group session are experts in their work in and outside of the food system. The opportunity provided by FMC to build the tool kit prioritizes their experiences, knowledge, and expertise in a field defined by standards based on whiteness or standardized “American” culture. In this space created by the workgroup, each member speaks to their body of work, including cooking education and strategies, market management and design, or facilitating training and support programs. Leaders provide grounded knowledge of community-focused work that is culturally competent and relevant and informed by the diversity of regionalism, personal backgrounds, and vast bodies of work. This allows for organic exchanges to move beyond what they have done to new possibilities.

  3. Community building tools.

    Food is a community builder. And farmer’s markets are one place where people congregate and gather. Creating spaces of belonging for community members is essential, codified through mission work and alignment across organizations. Within the toolkit, members have identified what community-building practices they employ to build community within their markets; music, partnering with culture creators and curators, using history and storytelling, and using the power of food are just some ways. By adding the context of BIPOC and their contributions across the food system, the entire market is impacted and evolves to having relevance to another segment of society and becomes a shared space with increased value in its position within the community.

  4. Additional opportunities to share perspective with FMC’s national network.

    As stated by FMC staff members, the opportunity to engage with a national organization on farmer’s market policy and working across a national network raises the visibility of the role race plays in farmer’s markets. It also acknowledges the work group members themselves– their collective work designing the toolkit and their leadership. Additionally, this partnership will present opportunities towards building a just food system across the US.

Simultaneous to these lessons in process, sections of the toolkit are under construction by paired work group members. Contemplation of design has taken place, the work group has reviewed models and compared options. They have decided on priority elements to include and the group determined a format for how to engage with continued requests for consultation outside of the toolkit. 

The benefits and lessons learned throughout the process of bringing together 10 Black food systems experts to create an anti-racist toolkit for farmers markets continue to grow and ripple outward. Work group members look forward to continuing the relationships formed within their group and FMC is eager to strengthen our relationship with each of these food systems experts. The lessons that we continue to learn throughout this process can be applied to the broader way that farmers market organizations and their supporters approach food justice and anti-racism work. We can incorporate these learnings into the way our organizations are designed and run. For example, see this list of recommendations for funders and philanthropic institutions in Atlanta, also developed by a group of Black nonprofit experts. What has your farmers market learned as you’ve moved forward in your own equity and inclusion work?