Power and Partnership with Nicole Robinson and Melvin Thompson

Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger
Ep 2: Power and Partnership with Melvin Thompson and Nicole Robinson


Ami McReynolds: Welcome to Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger. I'm Ami McReynolds, your host, and the chief equity and programs officer at Feeding America. 

Elevating voices, Ending hunger is a series of conversations with everyday leaders who are disrupting the systems of inequity that drive food insecurity across this country. We acknowledge that many of the systems that drive food insecurity are deeply rooted in inequity.

As solutions are developed to address food insecurity, we must listen and learn from people with lived experience to ensure that those solutions don't create additional harm and perpetuate injustice. On today's episode, we're focusing on the importance of sharing power and building equitable partnerships in ending hunger. 

Nicole Robinson is the chief partnership and programs officer at Greater Chicago Food Depository, and Melvin Thompson is the executive director of Endeleo Institute - a community development organization located in Chicago’s south-side neighborhood of Washington Heights.

Washington Heights is a historic neighborhood that originally built up around Chicago's railroads in the 1800s. Throughout the years, its community has stayed vibrant and strong. But, like many predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Chicago, years of discriminatory policies and systemic underfunding have hit hard. Its residents face documented health disparities and disproportionately high levels of unemployment. If you live in Washington Heights, you're statistically more likely to live a shorter life than the average Chicagoan. And this was true before the pandemic. As COVID-19 hit, Nicole and the Greater Chicago Food Depository approached Melvin about the possibility of creating a long-term partnership to meet the increased demand in the community.

Ami McReynolds: I think I'd like to kick off the conversation maybe with a question to you, Nicole. So Greater Chicago Food Depository has been serving the city for over 40 years. What are some of the unique challenges that you find in fighting hunger in Chicago?

Nicole Robinson: Hi Ami; thanks for having me today. Chicago is a unique community. We have been at this for over 40 years and we've grown tremendously in that timeframe. At one point, we were a food bank that distributed 500,000 pounds of food. And now, post pandemic, as we continue to navigate to pandemic, we’re at 120 million. That growth is a reflection of the need, a reflection of people that support this work. But it's also a reflection of some deeper complex problems in Chicago communities, including the food system where we have a legacy of racial injustice and policies that over time have shaped how much income and wealth people have. It's shaped agriculture, it's shaped whether or not we have grocery stores in communities. It’s left us with some unaddressed trauma.

Nicole Robinson: it's so complex and the disparities have just gotten deeper and wider in Chicago, where there's a 17-year life expectancy gap between Black and Brown communities and white neighborhoods. When I look at the data at the Food Depository, in some communities, there's rates of food insecurity in the 30 to 50 percent range. People don't have incomes that support the cost of living. There was double-digit unemployment before COVID. We talk about it now and we're shocked that there's double-digit unemployment, but there was really a silent pandemic before that. I heard economists say that the economic stress has been the leading indicator of what's happening in the pandemic, but, we've had a year of racial conversations about racism and some would say that's the leading cause. So, I love Chicago, but it's complicated, but I feel like those are a lot of the things that I see.


Ami McReynolds: Nicole, I'm listening to you and my jaw dropped just hearing some of the statistics that you just shared. About what's happening in the city of Chicago and why that creates such a unique landscape and challenge for people who are living in the city - Black and Brown people in particular who are living in the city. So I'm curious, I know that the Food Depository has been evolving its approach to working with communities that are experiencing food insecurity. And I think that also includes how you're engaging in community partnerships to address issues around food insecurity and racial inequity. Can you tell us a little bit more about what's happening there?


Nicole Robinson: Absolutely, Ami. And forgive me if I sounded a little sobering with that data, because that kind of rolls off my tongue.


Ami McReynolds: Please be sobering. I think it's important that those statistics are shared. So, thank you for bringing those to the conversation.


Nicole Robinson: Yeah. But, the silver lining in all of this - because there is, we may not all see it - but the silver lining I see is how it's all transformed us as individuals and institutions. And the set of values that the Food Depository brings to this work, that I personally bring to this work, that I think is going to get us to better is, one, centering on communities most impacted by the work. So I ran through a list of statistics, but those are people who live in neighborhoods, who live in homes and walk blocks and ride public transportation and gather together. I need to center the work on them. We need to center the work on them. We need to ground our partnerships and think about them differently and expand the definition of who can be a partner.

We’re a food bank and we have a legacy of partnering with a narrow list of organizations who serve as food pantry partners, but we know that there's a dynamic group of partners equally committed to a broader set of issues around justice. So not just food justice, but economic justice, housing justice, health justice -  and those partners care about this work too. 

So those values informed our work and what that led us to is a set of really interesting transformative commitments - things that the Food Depository had never done before in our history. And it was all in the spirit of creating, strengthening the food system. Because what we learned during the pandemic is kind of how fragile things can be, what can happen in the blink of an eye when our structures kind of don't support us in the way that we need them to.

So what that resulted in us doing is investing $2.6 million in 26 organizations across Chicago, all Black and Latino-led organizations, some of which would open new pantries. And Melvin is one of those partners that we're excited about. And I think that this part around shifting power, letting organizations lead, I think that was -- the investment is one thing, but that's the what, but the how was what was different, you know, trusting partners who know the community really well.

So when I talk about the blocks and the neighborhoods, they know Ms. Jefferson in the neighborhood and what she needs and what she's thinking about -- whether or not, you know, someone's checking on her. So I think we wanted to empower the organizations that have a level of wisdom and insight and have the know-how and just say: tell us your vision, tell us how you want to bring it to life and we will support you. And that's very different because we're an organization that’s, just structurally as an organization, built on policy, process, structure. That's our strength, actually. But if we had to sort of release that a little bit, a little bit in the spirit of honoring those values around power and trust, and how do we actually build up community in a way that there isn't a need for a pantry one day.


Ami McReynolds: Nicole, this question that you ask around tell us your vision is a very powerful one. And Melvin, maybe I can turn to you, sir. I would love it if you could first share with us a little bit about your community; tell me about Washington Heights. And then I'm also just curious if you can also share, do you feel like you're resonating with what Nicole is sharing?


Melvin Thompson: Wow. Well, thanks for having me here, Ami. This is a privilege and a pleasure. Everything she said, I was so busy trying to write notes; everything Nicole said resonates with me. Just a little bit about the Washington Heights community. It's located on the far south side of Chicago. You can find it roughly along the 95th Street Corridor, and it's a very strong, historically stable, middle-class, predominantly African-American community. It also contains a low-rise public housing development within that space. And one of the unfortunate parts of that is that that community is very much insulated from the rest of this middle-class, stable community and that in itself creates a real dynamic - even with people who reflect, you know, the same population. And so that's the dynamic that we deal with.

And so the complexities of our issues aren't all monolithic. I mean we have some of the highest home ownership rates in the entire city of Chicago. And when I discovered that a few years ago with this report that our regional planner put together for us, I said, wow. I mean, we need to be looking at our communities through the stronger lens, the asset rich, the asset that we can build, the anchors instead of looking at the lack all of the time. Right? And so, you know, that's the, kind of like, soap box that I perch myself on -- on the things that are positive in our community. Our organization, the Endeleo Institute, is birthed from a very strong African-American church that sits adjacent to that public housing development that I mentioned -- Trinity United Church of Christ. This month, since it's April, we're celebrating our 60th year in that community.

So we are rooted in social justice, social and economic and environmental justice. And so for us, to partner with an organization such as the Food Depository that’s been around 40 years, and to give us, and show us the kind of deference that they have -- no one asks the small organization, what your vision is. That is a rarity. But what I'm finding are organizations that are typically not found in those spaces changing their narrative to defer to organizations that are on the ground, because the structural systems that Nicole alluded to are what they're more comfortable with. But, in order to really move the needle, I think what the pandemic has done is really shown a light on the situation. 

It's commonly said in our communities that when the rest of the country catches a cold, ours catches pneumonia. And so in our community, we've got a severe case of pneumonia going on. And so what it has done from a silver lining perspective, is just illuminated how bad the patient is, right. It's really, and as strong as our community is, we're one paycheck away, we're one pandemic away from being, you know, into oblivion. And so the timing of this partnership to see that emergency food distribution is not going to outlast the need, the growing need that we're seeing across the country. So the permanency of food and healthy food is endemic to survival. Whatever potential we have to thrive in these communities has to be in a partnership.


Ami McReynolds: So, Melvin, let me ask you: you start talking about the partnership and I know when we spoke earlier, you talked about the fact that Washington Heights is considered a food desert, but you had been living there and you didn't even know it was officially considered a food desert. How does it feel to uncover it or learn about data or statistical proof of what I imagine you and others in your neighborhood must've been feeling for quite some time? 


Melvin Thompson: Yeah. I think Nicole mentioned the word sobering, sobering validation. That’s what I would categorize that as. I remember the researcher, a Chicago-based researcher here, Mary Gallagher, really popularizing that term, maybe around 2011, 12. And I had never heard of a food desert. I've never heard that term and then realizing that what we were getting ourselves accustomed to with grocery stores leaving our neighborhoods probably two decades ago, we were actually in the throws of this emerging food desert that had never been given a name because it had slowly become part of the fabric of our community. And so jumping in our cars and driving outside, you know, four or five, 10 miles to our favorite grocery store became the norm. So it wasn't until we placed the name and then we learned just a few years ago when we were applying for USDA grants to support our church’s farmers market, that we were in fact designated by the U.S. government as a food desert.

And I'm like, why didn't they tell us? Come share that information and tell us. Why do we have to apply for grant money? Just come give it to us because you know, better than we do, that we're, you know, experiencing a lack of access to the kind of sustenance that we need. And so then you get all of this followup research that starts to tell you as a result of these food deserts, we're living, our life spans are way far shorter than our counterparts in neighborhoods just 10 or 15 miles away from us. Right. And so it's just, it's more and more research about the gloom and doom about what's going on in these communities, but no solution-based research.


Ami McReynolds: Right. And Melvin, that reminds me, I mean, just to that point -  you talked about how the community is designated a food desert, but you had shared a story about dialysis centers.


Melvin Thompson: Oh my goodness. You know, one of the multiple partnerships that we have with health institutions and academic researchers is our partnership with Northwestern Medicine. And we were connected through the Center for Community Health to a fantastic doctor, Dr. Dinee Simpson, who is the lone African-American female kidney transplant surgeon in the state of Illinois. And we got connected because our partners at Northwestern would hear me ad nauseum talking about the need for a grocery store and healthy food. 

And the first time I had a chance to talk to Dr. Simpson, she shared with me this overlapping map that she created of low to moderate-income Black and Brown communities that are designated as food deserts. And then she overlays that with this preponderance of kidney dialysis centers that just are pervasive in those areas. So, low-income food deserts and kidney dialysis centers, all fitting like a glove in this map. And it completely blew me away. And when I asked her, well, what is the underlying reason for why that fits together? So, you know, to make that perfect storm. And she said: ‘It's lack of nutrition, Melvin, it's very easy.’ And that’s why the partnership with Dr. Simpson is so instructive, because she is a champion for nutrition education. We're trying to place healthy food in our community. And so rather than Melvin standing on a soap box alone, he's got the science to back it up.


Ami McReynolds: As you said earlier, right, another sobering validation in seeing that visual in that way. Nicole, I'd love to hear from you about your partnership with Melvin and Endeleo Institute. I know it's relatively new since the pandemic. So I'm curious, given the shift that's happening at the Food Depository, why Endeleo and Melvin, and why this community specifically?


Nicole Robinson: Well, Amy, it might be obvious after just listening to Melvin, ‘why Melvin, why Endeleo,’ but the reality is in Melvin’s center, right? Endeleo is connected to a great church community --  to Trinity United Church of Christ -- and they were one of several Black and Brown-led institutions that during the height of the pandemic -- so back to May 2020, when all of our heads were about to explode about what was happening and how we were going to respond to the need -- they stepped up. And I can remember calling people during the pandemic and saying, ‘Hey, I know you don't normally do this, but your institution is in a high-need community, of which Endeleo was, and we need help. We need help setting up these pop-up food distributions.’ And I can remember asking the church, you know, I just need you to do it for six weeks. Start this in May, do it for six weeks. Them, along with several other organizations, that's what I need. What wound up happening is a commitment that lasted through Thanksgiving of 2020 because the need was so great. But the commitment was there, and it was a selfless commitment because it was still during that time of shelter-in-place restrictions on where we could go.

Nicole Robinson: You know, communities were exposing themselves. So I think we were grateful for that [church]. I think what happened is sort of this inspiration between us and all of the partners, including Endeleo, and some of the values, the impact, that came out of that partnership inspired us to go forward with this idea of, you know, basically we had an RFP and we invited organizations like Endeleo to tell us your vision. What do you want it to look like? How do you want the community to be involved? Where do you want it to be? What architect do you want to use? How do you want young people engaged? What paint do you want on the wall? I mean, we, we said, tell us what you want.

And, you know, that is evolving. Endeleo is one of the partners who stepped up. And I think what's interesting about Endeleo and some of the other partners is they are a social justice institution. So before the pandemic, before George Floyd, they were all acutely aware of inequities, just as Melvin talked about. They were focused on public policies to help reduce the wealth divide. They were focused on how to connect the community to employment opportunities. And I think in a pre-pandemic world probably wouldn't have thought about a food pantry. And so I think we both had a moment where we said, you know what, we can work together. Um, and this is just the beginning.


Ami McReynolds: Yeah. So what did you think about this opportunity Melvin? Why did you decide to engage?


Melvin Thompson: Because the moment was a time for pivoting. It wasn't in our wheelhouse, if you'd asked me a few minutes ago about a food pantry, I would have given you a strange look, but, you know, you saw the need, the shelter-in-place. There had to be something different that we needed to do as an organization. I've told my staff many times over the last several months that there's no way we can still be the same organization we were before the pandemic. Right. So there's a different need now.

This is still connected to the health-conscious corridor, which is part of our mission, which is our vision. And so, it was something; it was an opportunity that actually presented itself ahead of schedule. But we were prepared and we had a backbone of a church with 10,000 members and 70 different ministries and an ongoing food share ministry that's been operational for at least 30 years, that already knew kind of like the lay of the land. And so it was something that we thought we needed to take on. And then when the idea rolled to expand this and create more permanency, I really thought that this could be a beacon. The first iteration of that access to healthy foods in our community. So, sometimes  you can plan a lot of things and then things that are unplanned come in just at the right time and actually bolster what you're already doing.


Ami McReynolds: Yes. And it sounds like you all had already done a lot of the groundwork and the foundation to evaluate this opportunity and see how it fit in.


Melvin Thompson: Yeah. Very much so. Yep. Very much so.


Ami McReynolds: So Melvin, I know, you know, sometimes, engaging with a new partner or a large funding partner can unintentionally bring harm to a community. So I'm curious, how do you involve community members in that process? I mean, you talked about Washington Heights, it's not a monolithic community. So how do you involve all the community members from different areas that need support in that process?


Melvin Thompson: Great question. We have engaged in a process called community-engaged research, which is nothing more than engaging as a community with health institutions, academic researchers and the community. And in that, sharing information, sharing the particulars of our particular community, that might be a little different from the neighboring community. And so  just bringing all of that together and then having Endeleo be kind of the liaison to that engagement. And then, most importantly, having researchers and health, academic, institutional people reflect the communities that they're coming into, because we focus in three areas at Endeleo: health, education and community development. There's a line that our pastor says. She used to say, ‘you can't be what you can't see.’ And so, to have research and epidemiologists that look and reflect the communities that they're serving, some of that is new to community members to even see people in these positions.

So there's a value-laden aspect to this that goes beyond the information. It's just having a researcher come in and be able to tell their story to communities that are very similar to theirs. And so I saw that opportunity to engage these health professionals. And I was very careful to let them know that the deference that you show to the community will garner you the trust that is missing from these communities and rightfully so. If you look at the history of medicine in Black and Brown communities, there's a distrust. And so, you know, who am I to bring researchers to the community, with the audacity to say, these people will at least listen and hear your stories and try to relate them to the science.

And so we've been extremely successful in bringing those kinds of partnerships - everything from prostate cancer among African-American men with the University of Illinois at Chicago, pharmacy deserts that now exist in our community at the University of Illinois at Chicago, mental health and racism and the impact on African Americans. I mean, just a whole litany of different issues that we typically have no voice in, right. We typically have no voice. And so what these researchers have thoughtfully done is not come in with an agenda, a top-down, here's what we think. Better than that is, this is what we think we heard from you. And so, based on what we thought we heard from you, here are some things for you to consider. And so we kind of act as a bridge, our community organization acts as a bridge to this population that has never been necessarily trusted. Over researched, overly researched, and underserved.

So lots of stuff on the shelf, but no solutions based on that research. And so I heard that initially, when we started to do this: ‘Well Melvin, is this going to be just another, you know, people swoop in, get all that information, then we never hear from them again.’ And so being cognizant of that, I was very careful to make sure that there were follow ups. So we all do a partnership, a grant with an entity, and then we'll follow that up with a research grant partnership to show the community: okay, this is what you told us and this is now what we'd like to research; what you told us. It starts to build that bridge, right? And then there may be young people that aspire to serve their own communities and are inspired by the people that they see from a UIC or Northwestern Medicine or a American Heart Association. And so it has a real, measurable impact than we actually know. And that's why community-engaged research undergirds all three of our programs.


Ami McReynolds: Mel, I heard so much in there. I heard, one, that representation matters. Having diverse folks who are representative of the populations living in communities is very important. And at the same time, building cultural sensitivity, building trust. What I heard you describe was a way to build partnership with the community, right? Not to come in and do to - but to learn from - and build with, and the transparency in that process. And it sounds like that's something that I hope we can see more communities engaging in, bringing that voice to the table. 

So you this question will be for both of you, Nicole and Melvin. Again, Greater Chicago Food Depository, more than a 40-year history, Endeleo Institute, rooted in 60 years of history in the community. I want you to close your eyes for a moment and imagine it's 10 years from now. So a decade from now, it's April 2031. What is it that you see happening in Washington Heights and the city of Chicago from an equity perspective? What's different? What's changed? What's happening? Or maybe what's not happening any longer? What do you see 10 years from now? What do you hope for?


Melvin Thompson: Wow. The vision is a health-conscious corridor. The mission is to revitalize our 95th Street Corridor. The two-mile stretch that, by the way, intersects with five different communities, four different wards, right? And so if we can create the kind of health-conscious corridor that is undergirded with health partners, then we're going to be doing something that I think is unprecedented on the south side of the city, and will contribute to a complete renaissance that is actually built around a major transit station that we've just had completed over the last two years. That is poised for an amazing $2.3 billion extension farther south. 

And so we're literally ground zero for development. And so we're excited to have strong, strong partners. And what I see along that corridor are other like-minded entities that also have the same kind of reverence and respect for those health partners and those organizations that contribute to the social good. They'll want to set up shop there, right? We're seeing a pandemic that is going to see a lot of businesses not reopen in the downtown central business district. Here's a wonderful opportunity that 10 years from now, some of those businesses have taken a chance and relocated it into the neighborhoods that they're seeing all of this revitalization. So I read somewhere if your vision doesn't scare you, then it's not big enough. And I'm scared every day because I see the impossible possible over the next 10 years. 


Ami McReynolds: Yes. Well, Melvin, I can tell you, I had my eyes closed and I have been on 95th, and I can imagine that corridor revitalized. Thank you for sharing that very clear vision. Nicole, what about you, as you think about the city of Chicago and the work that the Food Depository is doing, what do you see happening 10 years from now?


Nicole Robinson: Yeah, I mean, I hope for one, I'm placing my bets on Melvin's vision. I want his vision to come true. But there are 77 neighborhoods in Chicago and there are 40 of them that, the Food Depository, we look at the data around, you know, some of those statistics around unemployment and food insecurity, and they're at the top of our lists because they have the highest rates of disparity across all of those issues. And I want, I hope that their vision comes true too. And I think part of it is healing, like communities have experienced a lot of trauma. We take for granted some of those statistics and the trauma that comes from that. Experiencing microaggressions of racism when you go to the store, when you're at work, when you're at school. Feeling the weight of it, when you learn that your neighborhood is a food desert.

Some people call it food apartheid when there's a proliferation of fast-food restaurants. So you feel like people over time have felt like they didn't matter. So I think my hope for all of the communities is that they feel seen, they feel heard, that they get some sense of healing around that. You guys mentioned harm, so I hope that we are on a track where all of the policies that we develop that sort of create community, they’re not policies that take us in the wrong direction, right? They're the policies that move us forward. And that communities achieve economic justice. Cause when we think about why people are food insecure, it's rooted in economic justice, it's rooted in racial justice. So I know that's a lot to want for communities in 10 years, but I know that's what people need. Because just like the plan that Melvin described, all 40 of those communities, many of them have a vision similar.

It might be that they want farmers’ markets in their community. It might mean that they want a park where kids can play and there's no violence. There's not a crossfire from shots. They're all things that people want and I want them all to come true. And part of what institutions like the Food Depository can do is, again, support organizations like Melvin’s, support their quality-of-life plans that they have to improve their communities and really make all of their dreams come true. And then make our institutions accountable. Because again, part of why we're here is because of what we've been comfortable doing, what we've normalized around, how we engage with community and really just changing that, so that how we act now, this idea around trust, sharing power, let’s normalize that. So that we're not having this kind of conversation. 


Melvin Thompson: And can I add just one quick thing? Just if, if anything, we're not looked upon through the lens of a desert but as an oasis of fertile ground for opportunity in the whole belief system in our community, that you've got to get people to believe that things can change.


Ami McReynolds: Well, Melvin, I think you said it well. Melvin and Nicole, thank you so much for this conversation that has been both sobering about the realities of what's happening today, what has been happening and inspirational about new ways of sharing power and investing in communities. And to your point, Melvin, having a belief about what can be different and then acting on that belief, a vision around that. Thank you so much for this conversation today.


Melvin Thompson: Thank you so much for having us.


Nicole Robinson: Thank you, Melvin. Thank you, Ami.


Ami McReynolds: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger. If you enjoyed our conversation today and want to get involved in the work Feeding America is doing to address equity and food insecurity, visit feeding america.org/act. Don't forget, share the show with others and be sure to subscribe so that you can get new episodes as soon as they're available. I'm Ami McReynolds, and I look forward to continuing our equity journey together in the next episode.