Edited for length and shared with permission from the original author, Janna Parker, former Policy Associate and National Farm to School Network
"If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it." - Zora Neal Hurston.
"I could not remain silent." - Janna Parker
Good Morning Partners,
I am writing to share that Friday, December 31st, 2021 will be my last official day with the National Farm to School Network. I wanted to share my gratitude and experience during my time with NFSN.
I have to be honest, standing in my truth and name, that what I have seen and experienced while at NFSN, has left me feeling concerned, hurt, and agitated. I have experienced microaggressions and racial biases directed towards myself as well as witnessed it against other staff of Color. I understand that there is a cost that comes with saying this as a Black woman in a white space, but I have committed myself to racial justice work- not the performative kind, but the real kind; the kind that involves truth in deeds and actions and that costs something to engage in.
I am going to share my truth and my experience in the hopes that someone in a position of power will care and act and move to change things so that other people of Color will not experience what I have or what I have seen others experience.
The majority of microaggressions I experienced and witnessed internally were at the hands of the Executive Director, Helen Dombalis. This experience was traumatic because I was being... asked to help prop up [performative equity work] as part of my job while directly experiencing microaggressions from the very person charged to carry out the work,... a white person [in leadership] was using [our] bodies, voices, and ideas to gain access to capital to do [performative] racial equity work when there are so many BIPOC-led organizations fighting for scraps of funding that are actually living and breathing the work in a real and authentic way.
[In the following, Ms. Parker refers to Helen Dombalis, then and current Executive Director of NFSN, Krystal O., former Senior Director of Policy and Programs and a woman of Color,
There is currently an open HR investigation around my experiences at NFSN, but I can share the following:
When a safe space for people of color (People of Color Caucus) was created by Krystal O., Helen recommended stopping the caucus meetings on an all-staff call.
Helen gave [negative] feedback to staff of Color in regards to their cameras being off during meetings even as... other [white] staff had their cameras off.
A staff member of Color was singled out on an all-staff call in regards to providing verbal input on a discussion when she had previously commented in the chat, a feature that was regularly used by all staff.
I consistently saw the work and effort of people of Color in leadership, white-washed and co-opted as if the person of Color had nothing to do with the content’s creation, at times in full view of the team.
Helen completed a partner call with me and immediately afterward gave me glowing and positive feedback about my performance on the call. After I spoke out against racially insensitive comments of a funder, Helen went back and changed her feedback to me about the call months later- giving feedback that wasn’t even relevant to the purpose of the call or my role on it. This altered feedback was later used again in another punitive manner.
Helen gave feedback that we did not properly vet and prep the student leaders from the Movement Meeting because they didn’t say only positive things and that would upset food service directors. Based on this feedback I believe she wanted us to pretend to create a space for elevating the voices of young leaders of Color while policing what those young leaders of Color would say.
I feel like nothing is being actively done to protect the staff of Color and other marginalized communities from additional harm and trauma internally and externally. The staff of Color are asked to be in spaces of continuous harm without knowing if they have the support of the leadership. In my short time at NFSN, here are a few things I have experienced/witnessed:
In a breakout room on a National call about food procurement, I listened...as a white woman condescended to an Indigenous woman, comparing her methods of farming and fishing as more “appropriate” in contrast to the traditional Indigenous farming and fishing within that community. In that exchange, the white woman raised her voice to the Indigenous woman and cut her off several times... During my time [at NFSN], I learned that this was a constant theme- people of Color speaking up and out...in an effort to regain food sovereignty only to be met with microaggressions, macroaggressions, subtle and blatant tones of racism.
A Partner had statements that were racially insensitive and homophobic on their website that was linked to the NFSN site.
On a project for the Camden School District [a school district consisting of predominantly families of Color], I experienced microaggressions from two of the funder's, Campbell Foundation, representatives, Kim F. and Kate B. Initially, Kim F. asked NFSN to include a racial equity lens within our work on the project, however as myself and Krystal O., were presenting this piece to the group, Kim F. stopped us and stated...that she didn’t think that this was necessary and that all partners had “skin in the game.” On a later call with Kate B. and other NFSN staff present, when I explained to Kim F. that I was uncomfortable with her phrase “skin in the game” in context to us presenting on racial equity as two Black women, she dismissed my statements saying that she had “spoken with her other Black friends and they said she was fine,” and “wasn’t on the call to address that.” On a subsequent call with [NFSN Executive Director] Helen D. and Krystal O., Helen stated that...Kim F. had told Helen she “understands what it is like to work with Black people, because [she] had a disabled sibling.” (Helen confirmed that Kim F. had made this statement again on a later call with her, myself, Jessica G. and Krystal O.) These initial comments made us very concerned about NFSN continuing to work on this project, given our own mission, vision, and call to action. Kim stated that she didn’t know if NFSN could move forward with Campbell on the project "if Parker doesn't trust me,” which implied that NFSN would be removed from the project and lose funding if I did not respond in a manner Kim felt was appropriate to her feelings on the subject. I felt frustrated and saddened, here was our organization- signed on to do work that would positively impact the community of Camden and it felt like we were being told that we would not be able to do that work on this project if the funder wasn’t satisfied with my response about my concerns about what I considered to be a racially insensitive comment. This funding was also much of the funding of my position on staff. So, like many other people of Color, I felt forced to stay silent and choose my position of employment and help out another community of Color over voicing my concerns and asking NFSN to pull out. I did point out to Kim F. that it made me uncomfortable that it seemed she was asking for assurances of trust in her based on my feelings of the racial harm her comments caused me in order for us to continue to work on the project initial comments caused. Kim F. along with Kate B. would later provide feedback to Helen D. directly, bypassing my direct supervisor as well as the Senior Director of Policies and Programs, another Black woman, about my engagement within the project in a manner that specifically out of context to NFSN’s reduced role on the project as well as not in alignment with the community norms and agreements that were in place. While other members of the collective joined by phone without a camera or had their cameras off entirely during meetings, I was singled out by Kim F. and Kate B. as being less engaged in meetings because my camera was off. Kim F. and Kate B. also made statements implying that I was not giving partner updates in regards to NFSN’s role, a role that required me to give distilled reports due to legal requirements related to confidentiality. Helen moved to take corrective action based on their words without even asking me or investigating their statements but thankfully my supervisor Krystal investigated the matter and looked into the comments made by Kim F. and Kate B. It was Krystal who altered Helen that Kim F. and Kate B. comments were not verified by other staff on the call. Once NFSN leadership spoke with other partners- their statements were refuted in relation to project norms and NFSN’s role, my participation as appropriate to NFSN’s role was affirmed and NFSN received direct correspondence from the main client on the project praising my work with her in NFSN’s role. During the investigation spearheaded by Krystal, there was a call with two white female partners in where I asked them directly about the statements from Kim F. and Kate B. in regards to my engagement. At this time, Helen had heard from myself and two other staff members that were not only my supervisors but one who was a part of the leadership team and yet still gave the impression on that call that she did not believe what we were saying. I felt extremely scared that these women would not validate what I knew to be true about my engagement on this project, because I felt like the only way Helen would believe me is if these white women validated my experience. I breathed an audible sigh of relief when they did and almost cried, partly out of being grateful to them for their honestly and partly out of shame and frustration at knowing that I needed it in order for Helen to believe me. On another call with the leadership team which included myself, Krystal, Jessica G, and Helen, Helen stated that she spoke to an advisory board member of the NFSN who was also working on the collective project and he confirmed to her my appropriate level of engagement on the calls. Although I worked on this project for several months, Kim F. and Kate B. never shared any feedback of this type with any of my supervisors until they were reminded of my transition from the project at the end of my time at NFSN. I felt that the feedback given to the Executive Director of NFSN at the time of my departure was done from a place of positionality, power, and privilege; in a manner and with the intent to cause harm to my professional reputation. After I made a statement to the collective about my experiences on the project in relation to Kim F. and Kate B., within that week Foodcorp sent out a letter to all partners expressing their support of me and concern in the matter. Helen D. is aware of all of these issues, comments, and experiences I endured during this Camden project and yet NFSN has still not sent a letter addressing the harm this situation has caused. I feel as though there is an attempt to “wait me out” in regards to my transition out of NFSN, before they address the issues I have brought up with their own narrative to protect the image of the funder as opposed to protecting their staff of Color.
Through all these experiences- I remained professional, courteous, and positive with Helen, all the members of our staff, and all of those I interacted with within the scope of my work with NFSN including those on the Camden project. Helen often publicly stated on all staff calls and to other partners that my work was exemplary and that she wished I could stay with NFSN as a part of full-time staff all while continuing to create a climate that is and was harmful to me and other staff of Color.
I honestly have little hope for change in regards to the HR investigation. I believe that this is not the first racial discrimination complaint against Helen and sadly this probably won't be the last. Her behavior was consistent and consistent behavior with multiple people will always have a history in relation to the source. I feel that even though there is an abundance of evidence from staff members in relation to Helen’s behavior, it will all go unanswered and the POC will just continue to move in and out of this organization at a rapid speed. I feel that Helen will continue to surround herself with POC that are willing to validate her actions so that she can use those POC to erase the experiences of other POC. So many of us have been trained to endure to survive. It is evident that currently NFSN has an issue hiring and retaining full-time staff of color, with three women of color no longer working under the organization, one of whom was the only person of color in leadership, all within Helen’s tenure as ED. And now, NFSN will go into the new year of 2022 speaking about racial equity without two more staff of Color and no person of Color in leadership.
I do also want to say that I did feel like some people on staff truly cared and wanted to see NFSN do better but what this moment has proved to me is that it doesn't matter how many people want to do better if the person in power wants things to stay the same. I want to take this moment to publicly state that Jessica G. and Krystal O., members of the leadership team, made me feel like they actually cared. Jessica as a white ally made me feel heard and seen in our conversations. But while hearing and seeing a person’s experience in the acknowledgment is important, we must require a change to come with the listening. I especially want to thank Krystal as my former supervisor and as the only POC on the leadership team for boldly and unapologetically working to create a safer work environment for staff of Color even when Helen publicly fought against it, and doing this while I witnessed her fighting micro-aggression directed at her as well from multiple staff members.
Leaving NFSN is bittersweet because I have grown to appreciate and have affection for many of my colleagues who I believe are greatly dedicated to this work, however, I will continue to remain concerned about whether NFSN truly embodies the mission, vision, and call to action that speaks to racial equity if it remains under its current leadership.
Before my time at NFSN, I was an educator for several years; spending my time teaching within my community and learning the needs of my students. In the classroom, I saw firsthand the need for proper sustainable nutritious whole foods for my students was vital to their social, emotional, and educational growth. I saw how good food affected the overall school community because often teachers and staff ate the same meals our students did and it was important for everyone to receive quality food while they were in school. I continued advocating for education on the local level after I transitioned out of teaching, reviewing local and state policy. I currently serve on a statewide board that reviews Racial Equity in education for black and brown students and have served on local taskforces for my county’s school board in regards to ending the school-to-prison pipeline and improving the English as Second Language program. I have and will continue to focus on creating change for my community, for those who look like me and other people of color, on the local, state, and national level, and hope this letter will cause some positive change in relation to how NFSN engages people of color in this food justice work and on staff.
We all live in a system that is filtered through the lens of white toxicity and that affects all of us in the space of our interactions, views, and perceptions unless we are in a consistent and deliberate space of detoxifying ourselves from that lens.
"Living in this system as a person of Color is an experience that is constantly one of exhaustion and resilience, with a sense of respite and gratitude when you are surrounded by like-minded people and true ally-ship.
It is tiring yet necessary to continually call out and speak against the effects of white toxicity upon one’s self and community as well as call out and speak against those who continue to practice it, no matter the person or the form.
Like Zora Neale Hurston, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
I could not remain silent. Nothing I have seen or experienced at NFSN represents shifting power, centering or differing to BIPOC-leaders or organizations, or racial justice. What I have seen is exploitative and performative white leadership built on the backs of leaders of color.
As a black woman speaking up in spaces like this, although I have already experienced the harm that comes with that, I know there may be additional costs to come with me refusing to be silent, I urge you not to let whatever cost I pay come in vain. I urge you to make conscious decisions that affect real and true change throughout your community and this food justice space for people of color, working to ensure no one else is harmed.
"I urge you not to let whatever cost I pay come in vain
Thank you for allowing me the space to speak my truth.
End Note (CHS): At the time of this publishing (January 28th, 2022) CHS has received no reply, personally or publicly, about Ms. Parker's email and our immediate request for more information from NFSN. We have gotten in touch with our state chapters of Farm to School and Farm to ECE and continue to try and get Ms. Parker's word out to the public. We strongly believe, as do our other partners, that pressure must be applied to NFSN to ensure change.
Please take a moment to email NFSN's Policy Director, Karen Spangler, and let her know what you think: email@example.com
You can find National Farm to School's response and updates here.