Transcript: Combating Food Insecurity—One Meal at a Time: A Conversation with Dion Dawson

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Ami McReynolds:

So I am thrilled to have Dion Dawson, dreamer and founder of Dion’s Chicago Dream, here in our studio today. Welcome, Dion.

Dion Dawson:

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Ami McReynolds:

So I'd love for us to begin, if you could just tell us a little about who you are?

Dion Dawson:

I am Dion Dawson, founder and executive director of Dion’s Chicago Dream. South side native, born and raised Englewood, Navy veteran, father, husband, youngest of four boys, love tacos, crazy White Sox fan, and two years ago I started a nonprofit that has taken, just, my life and kind of just, it's been a whirlwind. So it's been pretty cool.

Ami McReynolds:

 

Dion Dawson:

So Dion’s Chicago Dream fights food insecurity, but we do it in a different way. So we actually don't take donated produce, we actually buy everything because what I've seen after, you know, kind of struggling, growing up in Englewood is the sector has been kind of stalling when it came to evolution. So we have a pantry model that was established in the ‘60s in Arizona. And from there, it's just been kind of the same way of attacking food insecurity. And so I said, “Hey, if we're gonna give people fresh options, let's make sure that we can anchor it in fresh”. And we started with the community fridge, and within a few months of, you know, doing that, we still do it, stock it every single day on the south side of Chicago, we launched the Dream Deliveries. And Dream Deliveries is, you know, our way of really focusing on the end user experience when we talk about philanthropy instead of the donor experience. And so right now we're delivering over 11,000 pounds a month to more than 1,300 residents per week and we're slated to hit about 40,000 pounds per month next year.

Ami McReynolds:

So Dion, let's talk about the fridge.

Dion Dawson

Yes.

Ami McReynolds

So the fridge is where it started.

Dion Dawson:

Yep, that's where it started.

Ami McReynolds:

So I have this vision, right?

Dion Dawson

Yes.

Ami McReynolds

Of a refrigerator.

Dion Dawson

Yes.

Ami McReynolds

Right, I've seen pictures, outside of a store.

Dion Dawson

Yes.

Ami McReynolds

Right. So you were sitting there at home, maybe talking with friends. What made you say, “This is how we need to start, right here in the community with this fridge.”?

Dion Dawson:

I think that the beautiful thing about not only our origin, but just even, you know, me to this day is that I really believe that anything is possible. And so, you know, when we're talking about the origins, it was a response from somebody, you know, one of younger brothers, so to speak, we grew up together and he just said, hey, after the murder of George Floyd, all of this unrest, there was a renewed importance when it came to Juneteenth that year, 2020. And he said, “What are you gonna do?” And initially I was like, you know, “Hey, I try to help out what I can” but after, you know, getting out of my own way, I said, “We're gonna feed a hundred people”. And so, started a GoFundMe, raised $2,500 in 25 hours. And on July 3, we actually fed 96 families. Happiest day of my life. Tiring, I had never done food operations. So getting 800 pounds of food to a place with no truck and, you know, no logistics, I learned the hard way.

Ami McReynolds:

First time.

Dion Dawson:

Oh yeah.

Ami McReynolds:

Yes.

Dion Dawson:

That day I was approached with a chance for $30,000 in funding. And I couldn't take it because I wasn't a nonprofit, I didn't have a fiscal sponsor and it just absolutely gutted me. I told myself that I would never, ever feel like that again. And so after a couple days, I talked to my wife and I said, “Hey, I'm going for it.” She said, “What's ‘it’?”. I said, “I have no idea, but I'm just gonna chase this feeling”. And so one day in August of 2020 after incorporating or starting the nonprofit, right before bed, I said, “Hey, I'm gonna hop on Instagram real quick”. And within two minutes I saw a community fridge. And I saw that they were popular in the UK and they grew in popularity here because of the pandemic. And I said, “I have to do this”. And so starting out, I got a fridge, talked to Love for Chicago about their sheds and how they covered it, talked to the liquor store in Englewood on 57th and Racine because, you know, I don't like or dislike liquor stores. You know what I mean? I think that when it came to the civil unrest, I picked that location because out of all of the things that were destroyed, that liquor store wasn't.

Ami McReynolds:

It remains.

Dion Dawson:

Exactly. Yeah. Because they've been more to the community than just, “Hey, get liquor here”. Not bad or good, just, you know, there. And so I talked to them, they supported it, never charged me for electricity. And on September 11, I dropped the fridge in the hood and, you know, it was, I still remember that day. It was hectic getting the shed there in the fridge and local artist Pugs Atomz, he's an artist. He painted the fridge ‘cause we wanted a local and neighborhood tie to it. And every week they, since the end, no matter the weather or holiday we've stocked that fridge.

Ami McReynolds:

Wow. How many people do you get coming to the fridge on average?

Dion Dawson:

I mean, I would say, you know, cause the fridge is, is empty within, you know, the work. Mm. You know what I mean? People know that, you know, I'm coming, and I think that's the beautiful thing is they've accepted that if I'm alive, I'm there.

Ami McReynolds:

Yeah.

Dion Dawson:

You know what I mean? My team is there, we're not playing.

Ami McReynolds:

They count on it.

Dion Dawson:

And so, you know, some days I could pull up and there's 15 people waiting. Some days, no people, but within a couple, you know, minutes, they'll either hear my music playing while I stock in the fridge or they'll look down the street and see, you know, our van with the rainbow on the side of it and they'll come around and they'll talk to me while I'm stocking it. But you know, that's the thing. I pride myself on really being a daily practitioner in this work because I think a lot of people in the sector are so far removed either from need or operations, that it's a slower pace when it comes to change, when it doesn't have to be like that. So yeah, we started it and that has become, you know, the qualitative piece of our organization that allows us to stay present and be around more people that we're helping than other people were in the work.

Ami McReynolds:

So what prompted the move from fridge to Dream Deliveries?

Dion Dawson:

So I would say heartbreak <laugh>.

Ami McReynolds:

That’s a little intriguing

Dion Dawson:

Yeah. I started, after a few months, we had enough money to apply for a brick-and-mortar location that was for sale and we didn't get it now. Thank God we didn't get it because there wasn't enough programming and focus in place to really justify having that location. But we didn't get it. And I'll never forget talking to one of my good friends that next morning. And she said, I was sad, you know what I mean? And she said, “Regardless of if you got the location or not, you would still be leading your organization.” And that's when everything changed. That's when I went from surviving to understanding that I'm actually running a business. And from there, I was like, “Okay, if we can't have a brick-and-mortar location, we need evergreen programming. We need programming that no matter what, no matter what day of the week, no matter what month, no matter what season, we always provided value. We always fed somebody. We always provided produce”. And from there I said, okay, because a lot of people think, you know, when it comes to breakthroughs in an industry, you need to recreate the wheel. But I said, “Okay, we have all of these technological advances outside of the sector. You know, what's working outside of philanthropy?”. And so I took the approach of Hello Fresh. And I took the logistics approach from Amazon. And I said, “You know, regardless of somebody believing in Amazon or not, you see proof of delivery, you see SMS or email notifications, you know, you see consistency with Hello Fresh”. And so I said, “We're going to change it so that this delivery program is not a ‘I hope it comes’, it's a ‘We're gonna come every week. We're gonna provide them with 4 or 5 days’ worth of brand new, fresh produce. And they're gonna know when the delivery is out, they're gonna know when the route has been dispatched, then we're gonna have proof of delivery to make sure that we're holding ourselves accountable’”. And in between that, the two major things was solidifying a wholesale grocer that can meet our demand and believe in our vision because this is before we really had any funding, and making sure that we drew a hard line with volunteerism.

Ami McReynolds:

What does that mean?

Dion Dawson:

So I don't wholeheartedly believe in volunteers. And because when you look at the society we're living in and with capitalism, there's a lot of toxic things ingrained in philanthropy. So for example, if you ask an organization about their demographic data of their volunteers, that's kind of a form of systemic racism, because if we're operating out of Englewood, none of our residents can afford to volunteer. So we're pretty much gonna take whatever volunteers we can get, but they won't look like our residents. Does that mean that our programming is not resonating in our community? No, it's just that our residents can't afford to work for free. And so, you know, I just realized that no, we're gonna pay people for their time because who am I to be a good story and be able to own a multi-million dollar organization off the backs of free labor. And then I'm just perpetuating the same thing that got us in this mess, which is, you know, in spite of being homeless and food insecure and hungry throughout my childhood, my mom volunteered at churches and food pantries and had nothing to show for it. And now here she is, 65 year old cancer survivor and can't qualify for retirement. And so, you know, it's just understanding that we can't get around paying people. And also when it comes to food insecurity, we can't get around buying food. You know, that is the one thing that is just really avoided when it comes to the sector. It's like, no, we have to buy, we have to set a hard line on quality so that a banana that's old in Streeterville, isn't taken to Englewood and treat it like it's new, it's still old. You know what I mean? And so with Dream Deliveries, that's where it came from. It just came from, you know, me wanting that regardless of me being black, regardless of me being from Englewood, regardless of me not being in the sector before, regardless of people looking at me with a fitted hat and Jordans on and debating whether or not I know about social entrepreneurship, we can lead with programming. And with Dream Deliveries it’s one of not only the most impactful programs in the country, but also, you know, we've been able to build a movement that really shows people what's really possible now.

Ami McReynolds:

So Dion, let's dig into this a little bit because you and I have talked about this idea of being a black man n philanthropy, and this sense of not belonging.

Dion Dawson:

Yes.

Ami McReynolds:

And feeling like you don't belong. So talk to me a little bit about, how that has been challenging and it is also your superpower

Dion Dawson:

Of course, challenging. It is a daily fight. It is actually one of the only things that give me emotional discomfort on a day-to-day basis. One of the only things in my life, you know what I mean? Other than that, I am good. But when it comes to being black in this sector, there's a lot of white voices talking about black and brown experiences. And when the conversation is had, it shifts to a tone of pity. And for me, it's one thing to say, you know, “I, as a white person couldn't possibly relate to this black kid’s experience in Englewood”, it's another to empower an organizational leader that's doing the work. And so here we have, you know, in the sector, organizations who are sitting at 15 million annually and have the ability to highlight the work and bring up partners and they don't, they just take where they are and do the same old thing because it got them to where they are. And so for me, you know, I know that I am not the only, you know, black voice that that needs to be heard in food. I am just supremely pissed off. And because of that, I am not going to hope and pray that I'm in rooms with other people that don't have the same line to dedication to integrity as me. And so in doing that, it became my superpower, which is why as an org, we communicate our own story. Because it is a fine line between stockpiling and gatekeeping. And I just decided that we're gonna tell our own story, and we're gonna show people that not only is anything possible, but you can start an organization with nothing and be on track to be a million dollar org in 2 years as a black man that has never been in the sector and show people that you can build a org off buying food, instead of just hoping that somebody is generous enough to give you something. And so, you know, when it comes to our wholesale grocery produce, we’re a customer, you know what I mean? We're a partner in the work. When it comes to my delivery crew, you know, they're paid, they're compensated, they're respected. And so for me, being in the sector, it is angering, but ecause I'm anchored in not believing that I'm any better than anybody else, I can reconcile my heart every night and wake up renewed and wanting to fight again. And I think that's the difference between, you know, allowing your heart to be hardened out on this road is that, you know, I don't have to code switch. I can be me. You know what I mean? I can be me, say how I feel, but it's also anchored in fact. Because you know, a lot of times as a black man, especially in this sector, a black leader, you're discredited because you didn't do it yet, but you never got a fair shot to do it. So now the powers that be feel like they don't have to listen to you because they don't know if you have proof of concept. And so I'm just lucky enough that, you know, this movement grew to the point where we could get proof of concept independent of anybody being our king maker.

Ami McReynolds:

Right. Anybody creating barriers to you being able to.

Dion Dawson:

Exactly. Yeah, exactly.

Ami McReynolds:

So one of the things I know about you, you are locally known.

Dion Dawson:

Yes

Ami McReynolds:

You are nationally known, you're internationally known! So tell me, you know, what are the leadership lessons that you have learned in this journey over the past couple of years in being a social entrepreneur, in being a black man in philanthropy? Tell me a little bit about what you've learned.

Dion Dawson:

I think the first thing is that you always are learning. You know, I think that I have a very balanced and nuanced approach when it comes to, you know, it's one thing to say, “I don't know”, but after I learn about it, you know, making sure I build up that part of the process. For example, I was talking, you know, months ago with Kimberley Rudd at Rudd Resources, a black founded and led public relations firm here in Chicago doing amazing work. And she inquired about if we were GATA certified and I did not know what that was.

Ami McReynolds:

I don't know what that is. I bet our listeners may not.

Dion Dawson:

So GATA certified is basically the certification you would need for county grants, city grants, federal grants. And so, you know, it's one of the prereqs for the ARPA funding that was just released.

Ami McReynolds:

I see.

Dion Dawson:

And when she asked me, I did not like not knowing. And so, you know, she said, “Just to let you know, this funding will be coming down in the coming months”. And for me, I think that, you know, there was-Because you have to earn respect, you know what I mean? And I take being a professional and being a leader serious. And so for her, I think that respect came when I told her, you know, 6 days later I was GATA pre-certified, I went and got it. You know what I mean? Which, you know, in turn allowed us to receive our first ARPA grant of 60,000 4 days ago.

Speaker1:

Congratulations.

Dion Dawson:

Thank you. And so, you know, the first thing is always learning, you know, and not thinking that I've learned enough. Because that is something that I see with, you know, this culture in Chicago is, “Okay, you've done it 30 years. That means that you deserve to lead or you deserve to be in this room? No”. You know what I mean? Like 10,000 hours to being an expert can be done in in 3 months or it could be done in 10 years. It's all on you. And so that's the first thing. The second thing is keeping people first, not only with my team I started, you know, kind of going at it lone ranger style, but, you know, building up my team, my logistic supervisor, building up my delivery crew and really empowering them and making sure that they know what we're doing while we're doing, and respecting and treating them like equals, you know what I mean? It's not just paying them, but really showing them why they're paid and what we're doing and the impact that we have. Other than that, you know, it kind of comes with ebbs and flows. And not for me, because this is what I was meant to do. You know what I mean? But, you know, with other leaders. And also making sure, one of my mentors, Angelique Power, who's at Skillman in Detroit. Now she said something early on where she kind of became my mentor. She said, “Make sure that you're giving yourself grace and space”. And it blew my mind because it sounds so simple, but it's so hard.

Ami McReynolds:

So difficult. So how do you give yourself grace and space?

Dion Dawson:

Well, I'm just understanding of myself. And I know that I maxed out that day. I know that from 4 a.m. to whatever time I went to sleep, I put it all on the line and I don't wait. And so, you know, in leadership, I'm also expressing that to other leaders. You know what I mean? It's like give yourself grace and space to not know, or you do know, but you know, like we'll mess up. I mean, but that's something that I have to, you know, keep at the forefront of not only my approach, but just the overall message that I want to, you know, be attributed to my leadership and this run that I'm kinda on, because I think that as leaders, we really underestimate time and how it's grouped together. So I would, my example would be the 2 Bulls championship runs.

Ami McReynolds:

Okay.

Dion Dawson:

That's kind of like leadership, you know, you're gonna have a moment where you just don't really know what's going on and you can't, you're not really tethered to the ground, but when you do, you kind of go on like a nice 2 year sprint where you're effective, you're impactful. You feel like you're doing what you want to do. And so I try to tell people, just remember that time, impact, leading, following, all of it is subjective. And the more you learn, the more you're you can look back and view something differently. So there's just a few things that I've kind of, you know, learned.

Ami McReynolds:

Oh, what along the way?

Dion Dawson:

Yeah. A few things. Yeah. <laugh>

Ami McReynolds:

I know that this month you are going to be delivering a Ted Talk.

 

Dion Dawson:

Yes.

Ami McReynolds:

Around this topic of rethinking the hypothesis. Right?

Dion Dawson:

Yes.

Ami McReynolds:

So when I look at, and as you've shared with us, how you're rethinking food insecurity here in the city of Chicago, what are some of the things that come to mind for you as you rethink the hypothesis?

Dion Dawson:

Oh, it's easy. This is easy. Actually, the only hard part is memorizing it.

Ami McReynolds:

<laugh>

Dion Dawson:

The talk is around making sure that there's dignity, respect inside a food distribution. And so, you know, I credit TEDx Wrigleyville because it allowed me to really tether my feelings to something tangible, which is just because an organization is not doing it exactly like me, how can they implement things to make it better for the end user? And the first thing of course is making sure that all of the technology and resources that we make available for donor relations, we do it for the recipient. You know what I mean? Like we have consistent touchpoints, we have Salesforce logistics and data. We have, you know, making sure we know where they work, what their favorite food is, how many kids they have, when they like to give during the year, how much they like to give. But then when you ask them about the recipient there's ambiguity. And then we wonder why there's hesitation when it comes to direct service orgs, and actually receiving funding. Well that’s because we're looking at people from the outside looking in at all of the lack of technology, that's being applied to the service. And so that is first and foremost, something that when we're talking about the hypothesis, we just have to get out of. Something else is meeting people where they are. We're living in a time where we're the least reliant on brick-and-mortar locations. And of course, some of this can be attributed to the pandemic, but also, you know, the technological advances that we're seeing. And so I don't like that helping a person has become reliant on them coming to us. That is not, you know, the only way to help people. Now, of course it is important to have that physical presence, but that shouldn't be the end all be all. You know what I mean? There's so many different barriers that can prevent somebody from coming to a location that is not their fault. You know, we should be built and nimble enough to have different ways of meeting that need, and that's what Dream Deliveries was built on. And so, you know, also meeting people where they are. And then I would also say for example, which is why I texted you, is even with Feeding America. You know, why is the membership only food banks? You know what I mean? When we've seen that there are different types of food orgs that could benefit from having that support, having that community, having that backend approach. And so, you know, just really challenging, why is this a thing? You know what I mean? And for the most part, my entire life, I have been told why something is impossible and I'm just not doing it anymore. You know what I mean? I don't care how big an organization is. You know, we have systems in place where we should be assessing impact. We should be assessing strategy and approach on a year to year or quarter to quarter or decades by decade basis. And I'm burning all the boats. I have nothing to lose. And you know, the one thing about social entrepreneurship that is like entrepreneurship is that if anybody took this from you, I'll just do it again. <laugh>

Ami McReynolds:

So start over.

Dion Dawson:

Yeah. Because, you know, I want my org and other orgs to be nimble enough to meet however unique the need is at that time. And the problem is we got so anchored in thinking we knew what the need would look like, that when the need evolved, nobody was there to meet it.

Ami McReynolds:

Yeah. You said earlier, right? Grace and space to not know.

Dion Dawson:

Yes. And live in it. And I get that it's hard as an org to live in the unknown, but when you're in direct services, you know what I mean? And when you're in feeding people, you gotta have a portion of that that is unknown because we just don't know. You know what I mean? And I think that's the beautiful part is if you woke up every day, just knowing that, there's no fun.

Ami McReynolds:

Driving curiosity.

Dion Dawson:

You know, I love waking up and I don't know what today's social media video is gonna be. You know what I mean? And I look up an hour later and I posted me dancing or something. It shouldn't be surprising. We have to get back to championing the people who love it. Not just are good at it, ‘cause “good” is subjective. You could be great at a job, but then if the market changes, you are now at the bottom. But if you love it, you'll love it enough to keep learning and keep applying and keep shifting with it.

Ami McReynolds:

Yeah. This is a new direction of leadership, right? You can't look back at your history for answers. You have to develop answers as we move forward.

Dion Dawson:

Exactly.

Ami McReynolds:

So thinking about moving forward.

Dion Dawson:

Yes.

Ami McReynolds:

I think I have asked you this question once before about Dion’s Chicago Dream, but I'm gonna ask it a little bit differently.

Dion Dawson:

Okay.

Ami McReynolds:

So 10 years from now, what would you like to see happening differently in the sector, such that it is impactful, meaningful, connected, and showing dignity and respect to residents and individuals who need support with food?

Dion Dawson:

I think the first thing is that I would want leadership to be diverse and reflect where society is, even in age, you know what I mean? It's like, I look at a lot of spaces and no matter the sector, no matter the problem, it's the same people in the same rooms receiving the same awards, giving the same speeches. And it's just like, no. So I would want, you know, diversity, not only in leadership, but you know, a more inclusive society and sector that reflects the people that they say they're helping. Dream Deliveries is but a vessel and a way to challenge the status quo at delivering services. So I would want the sector and organizations to know more about who they're helping, respect them and talk to them. And I want them to know why they're doing something and why they're not, I think that's very important. Because when you're that intentional, you don't have to waste time trying to prove you know what you're doing, you know what I mean? And I think that was something that when people talk to me, if they don't know me, they would think that I'm, you know, a fly by wire guy. I'm extremely intentional about what I communicate, who I talk to, who I spend my time around and what I release out into the world. But there's not that same intentionality behind everybody else's movements because once you're going at a certain pace and you're operating at a different frequency, you start to see it. And it's unfortunate, but it's also like again, grace and space and understanding that, okay, “This is today. How do we make sure that it's better tomorrow?”.

Ami McReynolds:

I'm also thinking about right over the past couple years, there's been this sense of “How do we disrupt?”. Sort of like this, rote approach, right. This sort of way that we do things. How do we disrupt? And, folks like you Dion help us disrupt.

Dion Dawson:

Of course.

Ami McReynolds:

Organizations like Dion’s Chicago Dream help us disrupt. So thank you for your leadership. I appreciate it. And your disruption. And thanks for joining me today.

Dion Dawson:

Of course, of course. I appreciate it. Thank you for having me. And we have a lot more disruption in us, you know what I mean? <laugh> And I would challenge anybody that's listening to, you know, disrupting doesn't have to be a negative thing. You know what I mean? I think that a lot of times, especially prior to this generation or this moment in time, a lot of people went against their gut. You know what I mean? And I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but it's just fact. And now we have people, you know, who are a bit more impulsive. But I think that, you know, that's how you kind of find out who you are. Okay, you might‘ve went against your gut this time, but having the freedom to kind of go with your gut this time and, you know, that's what is kind of prompting this new realm of leaders, you know what I mean? Who's, you know, fed up with being told what they can do when, we, regardless of age, they're on the ground, you know what I mean? And me knowing that one person can’t possibly run everything, you know what I mean? And, and I think that, you know, with philanthropy, we have to get back to not only loving and enjoying, because I think there's so many leaders I talk to that, just go through the motions, you know? But here I come walking in and I'm excited and they're like, you know, “Hey, I just got off 8 Zoom calls”.

Ami McReynolds:

<laugh>

Dion Dawson:

And it's funny, but also I don't feel bad because they purposely did it. If you don't want 8 Zoom calls, go against it. Nobody is telling you you have to do that. You know what I mean? There has to be more people, you know, standing on their power saying, “Okay, cool. If you don't wanna do it, how are you gonna be different?” Because right now I just see a lot of people doing what everybody else is doing. And at first it's fun for me, but now it's like, okay, let's figure out how we get more people to believe in themselves. So, yeah. I appreciate it.

 

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