Earlier this month, the NFSN Racial Equity Learning Lab team and the 2023 cohort members met in-person in New Orleans. The meeting was held in the historic New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and concluded the day at an Edible Schoolyard New Orleans school site, Arthur Ashe Charter School. This in-person session was carefully situated half way through the Lab sessions to further ground participants in the work and cultivate strong relationships with one another. 

The 2023 Racial Equity Learning Lab Cohort in New Orleans, along with NFSN staff members.

The Lab roadmap (curriculum) follows the pattern of seasons. The collective journey began with winter in mind, where cohort members reflected on the historical inequities in the food system and how it may intersect with farm to school activities through pre-work materials. Winter is a time of retreating back–this entails reflection that honors the spirit and mind as part of the collective work in advancing equity in the food system. This shows up in the Lab through the reflections from pre-work materials and collective analysis of how history and social constructs may show up in the current farm to school landscape. Cohort members and NFSN staff delved into the significance of having shared language when doing equity work in the food system through discussions. 

In the second session, they channeled the spring season, where they collectively re-imagined the food system through storytelling activities. For the Lab, spring is all about the headspace and development of foundations where a lot of the re-imagination takes place. Cohort members contemplated a time when their farm to school activity both positively and negatively impacted historically marginalized communities. The collective challenged themselves and participated in story circles (also referred to as sharing or talking circles) which can be traced back to Indigenous practices for sharing knowledge and narratives. 

In addition to the virtual meetings leading up to the in-person meeting, cohort members and the NFSN team also interact with each other through Howspace, which is a digital learning platform. Howspace has been a powerful tool that serves as a continuum between virtual sessions and space for cohort members to engage in various learning materials as well as discussion forums.

The Racial Equity Learning Lab is grounded in the concepts of emergence and non-linear collaboration through the lens of co-creation and co-learning. The in-person session allowed for these theoretical underpinnings to come to life. It was remarkable to see co-creation and co-learning at play in real-time as the collective engaged in individual and group reflections and activities. This in-person meeting focused on channeling the summer season—a time for deepening and strengthening the equity journey through individual and collective work.

One of the cohort members, Pantaleon Florez III, led a group discussion on protecting and uplifting dignity for Indigenous data and how this can be used to promote equitable data collection that is not extractive of communities and promote meaningful program implementation across diverse communities. At the core of this discussion was the CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance, which stands for Collective benefit, Authority to control, Responsibility, and Ethics. Prior to meeting in-person, cohort members were invited to read the article, Applying the CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance to Ecology and Biodiversity Research. The discussion was robust and the collective shared current practices they utilize that upholds data transparency and accountability as well as some of the existing challenges they may see out in the field. 

Moreover, cohort members used their minds and hands as they crafted a collage to express their dream food system then engaged in Appreciative Inquiry as part of action planning. Appreciative Inquiry encourages individuals to ground their thinking in assets and strengths instead of focusing on negative problem identification. The approach begs to ask for the “gifts” that exist and how the solution can be built upon it. The time and space together allowed for the NFSN team and cohort members to get to know each other, share what it means to be committed in the work of building resilient and equitable food systems through farm to school, and share delicious food in New Orleans together. 

The day ended with a brief site visit at Arthur Ashe Charter School where the collective met with the Edible Schoolyard NOLA team to learn about the ways in which they engage the school community through the garden. Zach, Lou, and Liliana talked about all the ways they make the school garden experience inclusive and community oriented, and they even shared the American Sign Language for “watermelon” with the group. 

A sense of community and belonging was cultivated in the in-person meeting. The “gratitude board” included little moments throughout the day that made individuals in the space feel welcome. An individual included their gratitude for one of the cohort members, Stormy Soza, for bringing delicious local treats from Hawaii. The cohort and NFSN team look forward to continuing the rest of the Lab sessions and are energized by the thought of having another meeting like this for the second cohort next fall.