Transcript: Changing the Narrative to Nourish Communities with WANDA

Ami McReynolds | Chief Equity Officer, Feeding America: What does it look like 10 years from now? What does this new world look like?

Tambra Raye Stevenson | Founder and president, WANDA: This new world is about creating a new crop of food sheroes really across the African diaspora, that are countering the rise of diabetes and heart disease and stress and working to end food apartheid that has caused these structural inequities in our communities that have far too long become nutritionally divested. Yes, we need to invest in nutrition, but we need to invest in the women.

Ami McReynolds: That’s Tambra Raye Stevenson, founder and president of WANDA: Women Advancing Nutrition, Dietetics and Agriculture. Join us today as we talk with leaders from WANDA about reclaiming our history, writing a new narrative and redreaming a healthy future where everyday superpowers are activated to nourish communities—mind, body and spirit.

Welcome to Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger. I’m Ami McReynolds, your host and chief equity officer at Feeding America. Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger is a series of conversations with individuals who are disrupting the status quo and building more equitable futures to improve food security across this country.

On today’s episode, we are in conversation with WANDA, an organization working to transform systems by dreaming about a world and taking action to make those dreams a reality. WANDA is focused on building a movement of women and girls of African descent who educate, advocate and innovate to change the trajectory of their communities. Can you tell us a little bit about WANDA and what really inspired the founding of WANDA?

Tambra Raye Stevenson: Yeah. Great question. I think for me, you know, being that only Black student in nutrition at Oklahoma State and just going through that journey of then becoming a mom and living in Washington, D.C. with children who don’t have access to nutrition and garden education in the schools, seeing the importance of it to our health and even culture and all of that together, just brewed this idea. Having worked, you know, in government, in NGOs, looking at, you know, research reports on Africa and chronic disease and just seeing the shared connection as I’m reconnecting to my own cultural identity of like, I’m—it’s like what Sweet Honey in the Rock said, I’m the one we’ve been waiting for. And so for me, WANDA was like a battle cry of how as women, Black women in particular, that we’re no longer simply consumers, but we’re producers.

And we can produce not only the foods in our communities, but also transform ourselves into these food sheroes that can save and heal and feed our communities. And it really was important to acknowledge ancestors before us who were these hidden figures in the food system that never got their flowers, but how do we build on their shoulders and say that we will continue to carry the torch of culinary legacy and see the currency and the work they have done and share that knowledge, not only in the form of just educating ourselves about food, but also advocating for the changes that we want to see.

And so, yes, it is definitely a battle cry to women across not only our communities, but abroad, that we are the fierce food freedom fighters on the front line. And the pandemic has only accentuated this idea even more, whether we’ve seen ourselves as food sheroes, I’m letting you know, you are the food sheroes in our communities that we need.

Ami McReynolds: Franciel, what was your connection into this work?

Franciel Ikeji | Nutrition Advisor, WANDA: Tambra and I got together actually through an introduction, through my boss at the time, Nancy Chapman, who is huge in nutrition policy in D.C. and knew Tambra and I and thought there could be great synergies in our interests. So we actually met in D.C. and, you know, just took it from there. Great sister-friends, family at this point, have been working with each other for a long time through marriage and kids. And so it’s really been great to not only do our nutrition work together, but really life as well.

And the way I see WANDA is a reflection of what Tambra and I did not see in our nutrition education and for me in my food science education and our agriculture education, and we didn’t see number one lots of Black women, and if they were depicted or discussed or talked about it was not framed in a positive or glowing light.

And so that is a really important part of what we do. When we say Black women in food, or anyone says it, we want the images, the visual images that come to your mind to be one of beautiful women that have power, that have worth of themselves, not just in preparing food for others, not just in the kitchen. The terminology was, back in the day, slaving over the stove, right? It had deeper meaning. But women in food is not just about being in the kitchen. There’s nutrition research, there’s food science there, food and media. And we really wanted to broaden what we think about when we say Black women in food and reframe the conversation and the imagery as well.

Ami McReynolds: Right. You know, I noticed on the WANDA website, I thought this was interesting. You have a Chief Inspiration Officer for WANDA. Can you tell us a little bit about who the Chief Inspiration Officer is?

Tambra Raye Stevenson: Ruby was the inspiration when she was 4 and had her first cavity in pre-K. I, you know, discussed what happened with that in terms of junk food in the classroom being a reward. I didn’t see any change from the teacher and she did not do this to her or see this in her own schools for her own kids, but thought it was appropriate at our schools. And she’s another Black mom. And so for me, I began dress my daughter as a Doctor Foodie, and I would buy plush vegetables. And I just started—at the time she was really into Doc McStuffins and I was just like, wow, well, how can I create not only an organization, but a character that resonates from a 4-year-old to a 40-year-old, because we all have this little girl inside of us, at least I did. We wanted to make children’s books and just dream in the world, the world I was not existing in.

And so we call that in sociology, imagine communities. And so I reimagined a world of Black women owning and producing and nourishing their communities. And so I knew that a word that would resonate is a word that can be like, dada, mama, WANDA. And so therefore it was a word that can connect to the 4-year-old, like Ruby who ultimately inspired because wanted her and her friends and other kids in the community to be able to resonate with WANDA, just as much as grown women around the kitchen table.

Ami McReynolds: Yes, yes. This multi-generational approach that you’ve talked about, Tambra, right, is so evident as you learn more about WANDA. If you go on your website, you hear about your programs. And WANDA has this mission of building a movement of women and girls of African descent who are leading as food sheroes.

So you talked about being a food shero earlier. So, you know, tell me a little bit about that. You started talking about the history and the legacy and the shoulders that we stand on. And then I’m also curious, how are you seeing food sheros show up in everyday life today?

Tambra Raye Stevenson: Yeah. So in, during this pandemic, we’ve had, you know, moms, aunties, nanas, sister-friends, become these everyday food sheroes who have had to transform from the lunch lady from the cafeteria to inside of our homes, making meals for our kids. And for those who may not have children, for themselves and for their spouses, their partners. Ultimately, you know, they’re part of this care economy that we have not always given much attention to, but is vital to the fabric and making of any society.

And food is a cultural identity. It’s a material culture. It’s something that we know from archeology. It’s that discovery of like a time capsule of how did people survive in turbulent times, like now? And so we sometimes neglect those who are behind the food, and we know that to be true when we think about the colonial taxes of the past, of erasure, extraction and exploitation of labor in the food system.

And we did not want to perpetuate that by simply promoting like Black food ways. But what about the Black women behind the food that—like Georgia Gilmore that helped to feed Dr. King during the movement, like Dooky Chase, Leah Chase of New Orleans, like Lena Richard of New Orleans who became famous sharing her love and passion for food in the media as a Black woman, and Harriet Tubman, who was a cook that many people may not know during the time of the Civil War, and Fannie Lou Hamer, who used pigs as a way to feed families.

And so I think it’s so important to acknowledge that these women are food sheroes, whether they got a degree in nutrition or agriculture or not. The fact that you in your DNA, because your ancestors were brought to this country, because they had Indigenous knowledge to help build this food system, is within you. And so unlocking that inner food shero, turning your aprons into capes is what we do. So we acknowledge that we have this lineage within us of these unsung food sheroes. And for us, we cultivate and empower and say, "All you need is already within."

Ami McReynolds: I just wrote down "these aprons into capes," right. Franciel, is there anything you’d add to that as you think about food sheroes that you’re seeing in your everyday life and everyday community?

Franciel Ikeji: Sure, sure. Just as Tambra shared, the rich legacy of Black women in our DNA and in our lineage, you could add your name to that list and that’s really what we are emphasizing in the community. So to that list would be, you know, Franciel Ikeji, Tambra Stevenson. I think about my grandma, Franciel Tooks and Joanne King and Myrtle Dies, who had a huge farm and orchard in Florida. And, you know, in the summers, I used to watch her slaughter the goats, so we could have goat head soup, ‘cause that’s the Jamaican delicacy.

I mean, that’s really back to this reframing, it’s not just the women who are great in history and have a books written about them. You yourself have that superpower as well. And then what do we want our children to see, right? What do we want the little Wandas to see? Tambra talked about Ruby, and passing that on to the next generation is really important and empowering our young girls.

And even teaching older generations. I talk a lot about my grandma who was born and raised in D.C. And when I told her I wanted to be a chef, she said, "Oh no, that is not happening. You are going to the sciences." And in her mind at the time, "I can’t let my granddaughter have the same domestic opportunities that I had or my mother had. She needs to go farther," right? And so back to that reframing, Black women in food, food sheroes should be an empowering term in rightful place for us. And we should own that and we should, you know, hold our heads up with pride, and the fact that we’re able to nourish ourselves, our families and our community, and that’s where, you know, our healing powers come from.

Tambra Raye Stevenson: Yeah. And I just wanna revisit that, because I think sometimes when we’re in the midst of being in our Wandas world, we, I may lose sight of why this work matters in terms of remembering being that nutrition educator at Harriet Tubman Elementary, working with young people, third graders, and having other kids pass by and calling them slaves. And make me realize that even as I’m teaching them, them not making the connection to the altruistic qualities, what it means to like treat the little baby greens by humanizing them and seeing that their life force will become your life force.

And I recall, you know, as we brought women to, through the WANDA Academy to local farms of them not seeing, you know, swiss chard or in jama jama or bitter leaf or kale grow for the first time, that these sites, from farms to kitchens, have been sites of trauma.

And so I, in my belief of just using imagination and creativity would say, what if these truly were sites of resiliency, how would we label and change the narrative? And so I said, you know, I, like Franciel, though I never had a grandma who told me, you know, not to be a chef, I told myself that. And why I pursued the science of food and nutrition, because I did not want to be an ain’t-your-mama. I said, she’s not my mama. So I had to revisit that like, what is within me and what has been reinforced in society that makes me feel this disconnection to food in this visceral way.

And I realized it’s because of this greater narrative of understanding that media and stories is a form of soft power that can enforce internalized oppression in, where we dehumanize our own full lived experience and devalue. And so I had to revisit that. And it started from just reconnecting to my own lineage, to the Fulanis and traveling to Nigeria and looking and interviewing relatives to know who is the last surviving relative who’s connected to Henrietta who was enslaved by a banker’s family in Texas and hearing their stories, taking on the role of a reporter in my own family to collect that history and to say, Roots may not be my narrative. For Alex Haley it was, but, so, what is my Roots story? And so how does my Roots story connect to my food story?

And so I tell, you know, part of the work of WANDA, which started with Native Soul Kitchen, and the book the Cooking Gene, written by Michael Twitty, that most know, because I realized in our field of nutrition, we do not get the opportunity to understand the cultural, social, political context of food in a deep way beyond the biochemicals and the clinical aspects of food. And I think it’s a missed opportunity for anyone who says that they’re a community nutritionist or public health nutritionist not to have that understanding is very critical.

Ami McReynolds: Yep. Yep. I hear you both talk a lot of, I’m gonna call ‘em the "re"s, right? The reframing, the reclaiming, the redefining in your work. And I think about this pandemic that we’re in. What are some of the lessons that you are learning that have been catalyzed by this pandemic?

Tambra Raye Stevenson: I learned two key words for me during the pandemic. One was grace, acknowledging that during this time that it was a moment of pause, stop, reflect, and how do I wish to kind of like change the next chapter of my life, if this pandemic—’cause it came at a time where we’re changing literally a decade. And I have to acknowledge that, you know, in the midst of the UN had declared, this is as decade of action on nutrition, as well as the remembrance of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. This history fact does not escape me.

And so because of that, I began looking at, well, how am I giving my full self range of freedom. We may be physically free, but are we mentally and emotionally free? Can we be mad and angry and sad all at the same time?

And I realized I was not giving myself the grace to be angry if I felt justified given all that has happened in society and in life. But then the other part was also giving myself the ability to pivot; that whatever path I’ve may have been on does not mean that that is my lot in life. And so how do I decide to see the COVID as a cocoon to metamorphasize as a beautiful black butterfly?

And so that’s the imagination I’ve chosen to see this time and to be able to turn these burdens into a blessing. Alchemist comes to mind. Moya Bailey talks about digital alchemy as the ability to use tech tools and turn them into tools of social justice, but for me, I choose to use times like COVID and transform it into a moment of transformational change. And so I hope and pray that others can see that as the opportunity and not as the burden.

Ami McReynolds: Yes. Franciel, what about you?

Franciel Ikeji: Sure. Near the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, we actually launched our WANDA Academy, but one of the important components—we always focus on cultural nutrition education. We really think the culture piece is vital. And the other piece that became even more important was self-care. And I know in popular press and media, you know, often we think about, bubble baths or, you know, relaxing with a book, and those things are great. But I really learned from, our WANDA women in the academy that it goes further than that. We in WANDA, we really focus on co-creation of our programming and really heard from the women what they wanted and needed in this time. Again, you know, folks were really still on lockdown and home with their kids all day and all of that. And so we had a session with a therapist to talk about grief.

There was a lot of loss going on at the time, and loss of life, loss of, you know, our former ways of life, social structures—sisterhood was another thing that just rose to the top in terms of like priorities in WANDA, but also for me personally. So I really learned on the self-care front that again, it’s okay to not be okay, you know, at the time. It’s okay to let those emotions play out. We had an ecotherapist come as well. It’s okay to spend some time in nature and that reconnection, we talked about soil and how important that is and the energy there. And so it just I learned so much from the women about caring for myself. And I don’t call myself type A, but like an A-minus personality.

I like things to be in place, but I don’t always hit the mark and hey, I can’t beat myself up about that. Right? I need to care for myself so I can continue to care for others. I need to care for myself so I can enjoy life. I need to care for myself so I can carry out the purpose that God gave me. And that self-care is so, it can just play out in so many ways. A couple months ago I realized, oh, one of my things of self-care is like, hey, I might have to give my daughter like the organic boxed mac and cheese one night instead of making it from scratch, with like, with adding butternut squash to the sauce and all these healthy things that I do. Like, hey, I might not be able to hit that mark every time.

And it is okay. And just giving yourself permission. I think self-care is a lot about giving yourself permission and that grace. And I really learned that from the women in the WANDA Academy, not coming at it from like a didactic perspective of like, "Hey, we’re gonna stand up here and lecture to you about nutrition and how you can take care of your body." But like, "Hey, I’ve studied nutrition for many years, 10 years plus, right. I’m a dietician. And I know a lot in this space, but the community has assets to share too." You know, the grandmas in our WANDA Academy had great knowledge to share, too. And just being open to hearing that and learning from them really taught me a lot.

Ami McReynolds: Yes. Yes. And talking about self-care, Tambra, earlier you talked about so many folks being part of a care economy, and here we have this opportunity to pivot, to really think about self-care and how are we serving ourselves? I’m curious your thoughts about, what does it mean to serve yourself?

Tambra Raye Stevenson: It goes back to our values, because the framework and how we guide our lives matter, and we see the world in those around us. And this is where I say our values, you know, I like alliterations. And so, you know, one being like this commitment, commitment to this power of changing the narrative within my own life and the narrative that has been placed upon our communities. That’s not serving us. And so how do we wish to serve differently? Caring enough to empower ourselves and families.

So many times in a moment of depressed times like this, we can choose to own that depression. That’s not serving us. So how do we care about us enough to believe that have a life force still within us to make the change that we want to see being conscious of how we can, we can perpetuate colonial tactics that were used against our ancestors and that we can reinforce in our own communities.

That’s not serving us. And so how do we raise our awareness and cultivating the power of healing? That is what serves us when we change the culture of health in our community, from the culture of death. When we think about the kind of businesses that set up shop, of diabetic desserts and liquor stores more than grocery stores. That is not serving us. And so I think about the connection to sisterhood, how been disconnected for too long, neglecting the relationships between families and devaluing the importance of friendships, of deep, meaningful relationships. That is medicine to the soul. That is what serves us.

And I think about how do we contribute to this positive impact and how cooking can be an expression of that, and recipes these forms of resiliency. That is what marks our time of living on this earth. That is what feeds our souls. That is what feeds our bellies. That is what serves us versus going to the restaurants on the weekend and having the mindless, eating with gossipy talk. So how can we transform that into the soul food Sunday again, where we’re gathered around the kitchen table, whether it’s virtual or in person in a time like now, but have conversations of how do we strategize like Dr. King did at Black restaurants across the South and reimagine this community-building effort through the power of food. That is what serves us.

Ami McReynolds: Hmm. Very powerful. I mean, I just, I’m just really inspired as you both speak about changing, right? Transformation, changing the narrative. If it’s not serving us, how do we change it? We have the power to do it.

And, you know, I think one of the narratives that we had talked about earlier is just this idea of valuing, particularly Black women, valuing Black women for their productivity. And again, what does that mean as it relates to the work that WANDA is doing?

Tambra Raye Stevenson: Yeah. I need Black women to value Black women.

Ami McReynolds: Hmm.

Tambra Raye Stevenson: And I say that, we can talk about it from our own personal experiences that we know privately in our homes, in the chats on social media and how we reconnect or disconnect from one another. But I think in the context of us being and navigating in a Western space, everything has to be contextualized and qualified of how would we thrive differently if we were just in a world of just us. And when we are not, how do we move differently in our conversations, in our actions? And so, yes, just as we had an underground railroad and Harriet Tubman led folks to the promised land, we still have to navigate in some ways like that today. And so I think about Black women valuing ourselves is more important than how anybody else chooses to value us, because once we begin feeding ourselves with healthy conversations and imagery, that’s empowering.

And yes, we have a range of expression how we choose to see ourselves in the world. But I think I still wanna raise a deeper question of like, what legacy do you want to live, lead, live and leave behind on this planet? And what would your, what will the future generations say if they were to see the lasting pieces that represent you and your journey?

And I don’t think we always see and think that, because again, even thinking of legacy is a privilege, but I want to say that if we, like many Americans, Black Americans, we may not have money to pass down to the next generation, but we do have our wisdom, our knowledge, our values and traditions. And if none of those things are serving us, this is a moment and an opportunity to remix and recreate a new set of traditions that do serve us. And we first must see how it’s serving ourselves and then begin to express that outwardly to others.

And yes, it can be challenging. And that is why we saw the need to build something very practical in the sense of the academy and be able to begin having those conversations through this sisterhood challenge of how we can leverage concepts around food and the traditions built around it as a starting place.

Franciel Ikeji: Yeah. And I just wanted to add, I think Tambra mentioned earlier, it’s one of our hallmarks in WANDA. We say, "All we need is already within"; "All you need is already within." But that can only be true if you see value in yourself and what, you know, what’s contained in your, again, lineage, heritage, all of that. And so as Tambra says, not always easy depending on where you grew up and the influences you had, that might have been pushed down as like, okay, there’s no value there. You need to learn this set of ways to do things. You need to eat the Mediterranean diet instead of an African heritage diet, right? There’s, there’s plenty out there that tells you, yeah, that what you have is not good enough and a Eurocentric way is better and that’s what you should be doing.

And so, again, when we talk about value, sometimes we are facilitating, really bringing that out in the women and the girls that we work with, because their environment may be telling them something different, right? And so again, we might need to be catalysts for those changes to take place. And we’ve seen in the work that we do, that when that change happens, it is just amazing. The creativity that comes, just the—honestly like a rebirth, that we’ve seen in some of the women that we work with.

And really, it’s just the need of a spark. It’s just the need again, to see that value, and to give them permission to change that narrative. And so I just wanted to say that in terms of like self-value and self-worth, we really do have to get at the root of maybe why that’s not the case for someone. And, you know, do whatever we can to help support them, bring that out.

Ami McReynolds: That’s right. I mean, it sounds like programs like the academy and these Sunday soul food suppers, these opportunities to be in community with one another and support one another, is the opportunity to really center African women, women of African descent, to center ourselves, to center and remind each other of the value that we have.

And I love, Tambra, how you talked about, right—like, we know that the racial wealth gap is real in this country, but there are valuable assets. There is a valuable legacy that can be passed down. Doesn’t mean we don’t need to address the racial wealth gap, but also recognize that we have these legacies to share with future generations.

Tambra Raye Stevenson: Most definitely.

Ami McReynolds: Yeah. Speaking of future generations, I’m curious as we come to the close here of our discussion, you know, if I think about 10 years from now, you know, we’ve talked a lot about the work that WANDA’s doing to redream a new future. So if you think about, what does it look like to bring this movement of a million women and girls from across the globe? What does it look like 10 years from now? What does this new world look like?

Tambra Raye Stevenson: This new world is about creating a new crop of food sheroes really across the African diaspora that are countering the rise of diabetes and heart disease and stress, and working to end food apartheid that has caused these structural inequities in our communities that have far too long become nutritionally divested. And so by doing that, we are unlocking that inner food shero. And for us, those tangible ways that we’ve worked towards that aim is setting up the Food Shero Freedom Fund and having those who are friends of WANDA, whether they’re organizations or individuals invest in this idea that yes, we need to invest in nutrition, but we need to invest in the women. And being able to do that by funding education in the area of agriculture, nutrition, and at the same time, knowing that some of these educational systems will not serve you culture on a plate.

So how do we continue to invest in, and the creation of our own educational systems, which is why the WANDA Academy matters and our own educational products, why we’ve made the WANDA children’s books bilingual and available in African language, as well as Western language. Those are the dynamics, pathways on top of leveraging technology can help scale this idea and make it a reality.

Franciel Ikeji: From what we want the world to look like, you know, success in our mission, it’s from the education standpoint, not being the only one in a nutrition degree program or an ag degree program. It’s Black dieticians, I would say, on every corner. Having access, having the community have access to Black dieticians that understand their cultural food ways and understand their culture period, and how culture is such a integral part of, you know, how we eat and what we eat. And understanding the ways to honor that, in a healthful way, instead of just saying, "Oh, no, you cannot have fufu and egusi, and no, you can’t have plantain." You know, we need to have practitioners that can honor that heritage.

And then also policies that support those practitioners. There’s lots of loan repayment programs for health care professionals, from nurses to doctors, to psychologists, to pharmacists—dieticians are left out of that. So we need policies that support this next generation of practitioners coming into the field.

Ami McReynolds: What is—I know it’s some ridiculous single-digit number, right? The number of Black registered dieticians out there.

Franciel Ikeji: Oh, yes. 2.6%. 2.6% Black dieticians, you know, that are part of our professional, let’s say association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. So even if we wanted to expand and give an optimistic estimate, we’re still talking less than 5% nationwide for sure. And that number has not been increasing. And so, yeah, success would obviously be an increase in that number, and then having the community have access to, and having those dieticians, you know, or even students, see dietetics and nutrition and food policy and nutrition policy as worthwhile and sustainable career path, Black women owning and leading and producing and having the capital to start those entrepreneurial businesses with, you know, a social change mindset. I mean, all of these things that I’ve discussed are what we would like to see and what we’re working towards.

And so we thank everyone that’s been supportive of the work that we’re doing that have contributed to our Freedom Fund for scholarships or fellowships. Tambra and I really relish the opportunity to work with students and really give them, again, some of what they’re not getting in their formal education. Having a Black woman who can mentor you is really a privilege at this point. And another part of success is like, hey, that shouldn’t be privilege. You shouldn’t have to search high and low for that. And so if we really wanna grow this next generation of food sheroes, we’ve gotta have these supports in place. And that’s what WANDA has been doing and is working to continue and scale.

Ami McReynolds: And how can folks who want to join in the movement, WANDA, and or support WANDA, how can people get more information?

Tambra Raye Stevenson: Yep. They can go to IAmWANDA.org and sign up to our newsletter and be able to get updates that way, and also connect to us across social media. We’re on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And we look forward to having you become a friend of WANDA or see yourselves as a WANDA woman who’s making the change that we need in our communities.

Ami McReynolds: Tambra, Franciel, I can’t thank you enough for making time to spend with me and our listeners today, sharing about the movement that WANDA is building, sharing the dreams that you all are reaming. I know I am inspired and you will hear more from me. I wanna connect. I wanna be a WANDA woman. I don’t know why I wouldn’t be. What wonderful support and opportunity to really think about how to create a new future. I just, I thank you all so much for joining us today.

Franciel Ikeji: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

Ami McReynolds: Thanks for joining us on this episode of Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger, to learn more about WANDA and to get involved, go to IAmWANDA.org. And to learn about the work that Feeding America is doing to address equity and food insecurity, visit FeedingAmerica.org/Act.

Don’t forget to share this 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 on our next episode.

 

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