Voices that Make a Difference: Kolu Zigbi

An interview with Kolu Zigbi – this interview is part of the original “Voices that Make a Difference” series written by Andrea King Collier for the Food Security Learning Center’s Race in the Food System topic.

Kolu Zigbi, a program officer at the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, based in New York City, understands the importance of equity in a sustainable food system. “Food is the ‘mother’ of all consumer issues,” Zigbi says. “Everybody eats and therefore we need everyone’s interests represented in the food policy process.  However, when you think about the facts that people of color disproportionately suffer from land-loss, food industry labor abuses and nutrition-related illness and obesity, then you realize that it is especially important that their voices be heard at policy making tables. The problem is, we are not at those tables, and, as Winona LaDuke says, “If you’re not at the table you’re on the menu.”

“As a funder, I see that people tend to think of diversity work as providing outreach and services to more communities,” she says. “For them, it often means simply getting a person of color to be outreach coordinator, but a truly inclusive process means openness to having new views inform and shift goals, objectives, and even mission.” Pointing to the recent Farm Bill, she emphasized that an agenda inclusive of communities of color can be more politically viable than one which fails to explicitly address the needs of communities of color.  “Some of the greatest Farm Bill wins this year came in the form of set-asides championed by the Diversity Initiative.” One result of those wins which Zigbi foresees will be more people of color benefiting from USDA programs and vested in the advocacy process around future Farm Bills.  Zigbi believes the Food Justice movement can apply the lessons of this Farm Bill to future advocacy efforts.  “As we move forward an advocacy agenda around urban food systems and their ability to deliver access to healthy food, jobs and opportunities for community building, I expect to see more funders supporting participation by community leaders of color in state and federal food-related policy making processes.”

Zigbi says that some funders have been supporting conversations and analysis around race and social justice in the food system, but she believes they should be more vocal in asking tough questions. “There is often a colorblind approach to the work—supporting communities of “need” without being specific about the roles of race and cultural diversity,” she says. “As foundations, we can push groups to explain how they talk about and explore issues of race. We can ask why their senior staff and board of directors may not reflect the communities they serve.” Zigbi says that grantees often site real difficulties in trying to diversify boards and staff.  Qualified people of color are often too busy for board service or aren’t attracted to the pay-scales offered by non-profits. “As funders, we can say ‘how do you know that your analysis of the problem is correct and if so, what’s your plan to address it?’ Beyond that, we also have a responsibility to look at the issue of diversity not just at the organizational level but sector-wide.” For example, she would like to work with other funders to explore ways to support development of a pipeline for non-profit leaders of color in this field of work. 

When looking at the sustainability of food systems, Zigbi says “we need to start looking at what’s fair and equitable at every point in the food cycle from seed to waste.” Zigbi says there is variability in the way that sustainable agriculture and food systems funders talk about race, as well.  “We have to ask ourselves, what it means to have a race lens in the work,” she says. “While I want to see funders deepen their awareness of the ways racism, diversity and cultural competency impact the fields which they support, a lack of familiarity with those lenses does not have to preclude grants to non-profits engaged in racial equity work.” To get the grants, Zigbi says that non-profits need to be able to make their case in multiple ways, not hiding their race analysis but accompanying it with other relevant analysis, such as describing the strategic role of food sector workers in reformation of the dominant food system, or the political efficacy of building leadership by affected people.”

According to Zigbi, some funder affinity groups are moving diversity concerns to the fore, in part in response to a study by the Greenlining Institute which found that the larger California foundations’ have given very little support for work in communities of color, despite the fact that those communities now make up a statistical majority of the population. As a result of that study, regional associations of grantmakers in California, Michigan and New York are undertaking their own research studies, in partnership with the Foundation Center, to better understand the diversity of foundation boards, staffs and grants. Along with Noyes President, Vic DeLuca, Zigbi is a member of the Inclusiveness and Diversity in Philanthropy Committee of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers.  Working within funder affinity groups, according to Zigbi, is important because it helps keep issues of racial equity and diversity in the spotlight and creates opportunities to share learning.

Zigbi sees the next step in a meaningful discussion on race and the food system as needing to focus in on the inequities faced by those who work within the agriculture and food sector. This year, the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders annual forum, co-chaired by Zigbi and Bill Buchanan of USDA Risk Management Community Outreach, will meet in Greensboro, North Carolina offering an opportunity to visit a meat processing plant and general focus on issues of race, class and food. “This forum will build upon the previous one which included a powerful site-visit led by Oregon farm workers.” Zigbi says. 

Zigbi, who is African-American, believes that slowly the numbers of funders coming from communities of color is increasing.  “Our task is advance understanding and support for a food system that builds equity for all and thus contributes to a more sustainable society.”  That means supporting efforts to rebuild local food systems, promoting reforms within the conventional food system including fair trade and food sovereignty within the globalized food system.  Her perspective has been informed by her roots. Her grandfather, Leh Leh Crawford, a rice farmer and traditional town chief, organized clan members to take control over the local development process rather than allow outside investors to dictate land use decisions.

The Noyes Foundation, in partnership with the Kellogg Foundation, funded a three-year, $1.7 million initiative that is providing close to $100,000 each to ten people of color led organizations across the U.S. representing farmers, farm workers, food micro-entrepreneurs, and environmental justice activists.  The initiative involves parents in Harlem, Hmong farmers in northern California, fourth-generation Mississippi farmers and first generation Mvskoke gardeners in Oklahoma, all learning to be more powerful advocates on behalf of their communities on food and agriculture policies at local, regional and national levels. Zigbi hopes that this investment will serve high need urban and rural areas while cultivating new leaders who will help forge a more sustainable, just and economically viable food system.

Our thanks to Andrea King Collier for writing and sharing these powerful stories. For more information about Andrea’s work, visit www.andreacollier.com.