By Tracey Starkovich, NFSN Operations & Events Manager, and Simone Washington, Lawyers for Children and NFSN Advisory Board Member

The current state of the country, in the midst of the COVID-19 public health crisis and blatant racial inequities and police brutality, highlights the critical need for real leadership. While illness, stress and racial justice movements rise, the opportunity is ripe for developing and supporting authentic leaders who are focused on the values that will move our country, and our food system, forward. These values include:

  • Abolishing racism,
  • Environmentally regenerative, sustainable, and just local agriculture,
  • Equitable food production, distribution and service at all levels,
  • Just pay and healthy working conditions for farmworkers, and
  • Safe and justice-based school systems.

There is a lot of work to be done and we need to examine our leadership development methods to move us beyond the status quo.

As the farm to school movement joins others who have already been doing this work, and we organize and mobilize action, what approaches to leadership and leadership development will make the most impact? What can we learn from other movements and our nation’s history about raising up effective leaders?

One path towards leadership development throughout the farm to school movement and broader food system is to examine six leadership approaches and how they can impact change and move us towards justice, building a stronger and more equitable society for us all. Each approach has its own set of benefits and goals, but share strong similarities rooted in a set of core values - collaboration, cooperation, and shared accountability -  that will help us create a new way forward together.  

The heart of National Farm to School Network is the Collective Impact approach - we continuously aim to build a system where all of us are stronger together than any one of us can be apart. This approach is more likely to solve complex problems than if a single entity or stakeholder were to approach the same problem(s) on its own. The diversity of the stakeholders allows for multiple perspectives to be explored and for resources shared to address the issue. This approach really creates accountability and mutuality, and therefore stakeholders must depend on the strengths of one another and the commitment to achieving a goal to be successful. This is the epitome of the “there is no ‘I’ in Team’” mantra. We must band together to make the necessary impact if we want to make real sustainable change in our communities.

Farm to school work also lends itself to a Diffused Leadership (or Distributed Leadership) approach, which holds every stakeholder as a valued co-producer and change agent. Farm to school work requires partnerships and collaboration, and there are benefits to not having a single leader - it is a shift from a traditional “power over” dynamic to a “power with” paradigm.

This type of leadership empowers people to own and act on issues rather than simply be followers and allows for emerging leaders to develop their skills. Many of the state networks and alliances that have been formed around the country ascribe to this leadership style, one example would be the New Mexico Farm to School Alliance. The New Mexico Alliance shares leadership across many BIPOC individuals and organizations, working to elevate significant involvement from the communities most impacted by the local food system and its inequities.

If farm to school seeks to be a truly justice focused movement, we need to implement Nontraditional Inclusive Leadership, which uplifts the voices of those with lived experience, with a focus on the unheard voice. It is equity in practice - creating space for people who historically not been included in high-stake decision-making processes. This approach moves away from assumptive solutions towards those that are rooted in reality, while also increases cultural competency beyond just the theoretical. The centering of whose voice is heard and who is seen as a leader shifts away from the expected and toward the experienced. This leadership style can be seen in work of the Native Youth Food Sovereignty Alliance, which is led by and created for Tribal youth. In addition to their own Alliance they have also created this partnership alongside Intertribal Agriculture Council and in conjunction with a youth voice. They show us that youth participation should not be an afterthought or an accommodation to be made, but stands front and center as its own leadership power - when we allow that power to be shifted to others.

For the past year, the National Farm to School Network has been engaged in a strategic planning process for the future of the movement that follows Adaptive Leadership, recognizing that there are many levers of change at all levels - with an emphasis on non-linear. This style generates innovation and fosters learning while allowing for creative problem solving and testing out ideas. It highlights everyone’s strengths and champions diversity while viewing challenges as an opportunity for evolution and sometimes revolution. The key to this approach is buy-in from various stakeholders as it’s an ongoing process and requires various lift points to keep the work moving forward. Vermont Farm to School has implemented this leadership style through its strategic mapping project – you can learn more about that here.

The work of the Native American Agriculture Fund, led by Janie Hipp, NFSN Advisory Board Member, shows us Ecosystem Leadership, keeping the focus on a larger purpose and motivation to achieve a common goal, working across communities and breaking down silos. This approach is not transactional, it’s transformational in that it's not just focused on addressing a problem, but it’s focused on creating a positive environment to support lasting change. It recognizes the intersectional nature of complex problems and seeks to find solutions that are generative. It also disrupts ineffective and/or structural biased systems. NAAF works across Tribal communities, Tribal needs, and Tribal support organizations to assist existing and aspiring Native farmers and ranchers. Its focus is not limited, it’s intentionally broad to create an entirely different environment for success.

Glyen Holmes, founder of the New North Florida Cooperative, farmer hero and a true father of farm to school has been a shining example of Asset-Based Leadership for decades. Glyen, and this leadership style, sees the potential for change, looking carefully at what is currently working and what could work. It includes the ability to reframe challenges as opportunities for evolution and progress. If people can see a light at the end of the tunnel they will remain engaged in the process of pursuing change. When you decrease your focus on what is wrong (deficit-based thinking) and increase your focus on what is right (Asset-Based Thinking), you build enthusiasm and energy, strengthen relationships, and move people and productivity to the next level.

The current state of our country is giving us the opportunity to pause and really reassess our leadership styles and development approaches – what is working and what is possible? What ways can you shift your approach to build a more equitable and inclusive system? Who are the potential leaders in your community whose voices have been muffled? If 2020 is teaching us anything, it’s that our old ways of thinking and doing haven’t been advancing justice and health for all communities, so what will we do now to create the future we all dream of? Now is the time to shift the power to create a new equitable reality – let’s get working.

If you’re interested in digging in deeper on any of these leadership approaches we suggest the following resources:

Collective Impact:
Collective Impact (Stanford Social Innovation Review-SSIR)
The Dawn of Systems Leadership (SSIR)
The Collective Impact Forum
What is Collective Impact (Community Resource Toolbox)

Diffused/Distributed Leadership:
Diffused Leadership (Positive Mindful Leader)
Distributed Leadership in a Nutshell (Youtube video)

Nontraditional Leadership:
Nontraditional Approaches to Developing Nontraditional Leadership (Leadership Learning Community)
Investing in Community Leaders (Youtube Video)
Inclusive Leadership Matters (Youtube Video)

Adaptive Leadership:
Adaptive Leadership- Introduction (YouTube Video)
Adaptive Leadership (toolshero)
Adaptive Leadership Resource Page (Tamarack Institute)

Ecosystem Leadership:
What is Ecosystem Leadership? (Medium)
Ecosystem Leader (Learning as Leadership)

Asset-Based Leadership:
Asset-Based Leadership (LinkedIn SlideShare)
Leading from the Bottom-Up: Lessons Learnt in Asset-Based Leadership (Church Urban Fund)