Gideon Burdick; Marketing and Development Associate; Red Tomato

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The National Wildlife Federation EcoLeaders Career Center is celebrating the motivating stories and career accomplishments of young professionals making their names (and a difference) in the sustainability movement. We’re calling this group of change-makers and rising stars “The EcoLeaders Top 50 Inspirations.”

Interviewee: Gideon Burdick
Marketing and Development Associate
Red Tomato

Interviewer: David Corsar, NWF

Gideon is a Marketing and Development Associate at Red Tomato, a 19 year old nonprofit that helps mid-sized farmers connect to wholesale markets. As a 2009-2010 NWF Fellow, Gideon attempted to provide 10 residence halls with web-based feedback utility consumption to promote resource conservation.

David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as a Fellow help shape your career path?
Gideon Burdick:
I think that in addition to giving me experience with the project work itself, it also gave me a fair amount of experience with grant-writing, reporting and networking, et cetera, which I’m not sure I would have gotten elsewhere in my undergraduate career. I think all of those skills – whether it’s figuring out how to fill out a successful grant application or how to solder a component onto a circuit board – were skills that I was able to use later in my career and in my professional development. Right now, part of my job right now is grant writing. So, it’s definitely helped provide me with a set of skills that I’ve been able to take forward and utilize and capitalize on.

DC: You called out grant writing a couple times; would you say that’s the top professional skill that you obtained in your professional development at NWF or would you identify something else?
No, I think that the biggest skill that I got out of it was learning how to “fail” – how to continue moving forward despite things not proceeding according to plan. I can remember in the final throes of my project and time at Warren Wilson College trying everything to make it work – things I thought we could do in house or I could learn –nope! It was hard, but once I exhausted all options I learned to pause and take a step back to see the bigger picture. Just because part of my project wasn’t working doesn’t mean that some of the infrastructure that I could purchase and help install couldn’t help the college’s bigger picture. Failing is a huge ego check (laughs), especially when you’re 18, 19, 20. I think it’s an important lesson for all of us to learn and talk about. Failing gracefully and how to re-visualize a project is important as we work to be more resilient and creative in the future, especially when things aren’t going according to plan.

DC: What are you up to these days? What can you tell me about Red Tomato, and why did you choose to work there?
I’m slowly accepting that I’m just going to immerse myself in agriculture and food (laughs). Red Tomato is a 19 year old nonprofit that works with mid-sized farmers in New England to connect them to wholesale markets. Essentially we’re the farms’ marketing and logistics firm. My role at Red Tomato is twofold, both helping with grant-writing, which we talked about, and also assisting with marketing. Because RT only works with wholesale buyers, marketing for us is pretty wide ranging – it could be anything from our social media, business-to-business, and also to consumer-facing outreach. It’s pretty wide and varied and based on the needs of relatively small but ferocious organizations - it’s a lot of fun.

DC: What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability? One of the steps in the EcoLeader process, which seeks to assist students and young professionals in obtaining project-based leadership experience, is to think about one’s interests, skills, where they see themselves making a difference for the planet and for people and then distilling that down to a statement of one’s mission.
GB: I think one of my struggles that I often voice is that we’re often to slow to move, to act, and progress, but over the course of working here for a year and a half and in my previous employment, I’ve seen how connected everything is and that sometimes changing part of a larger system requires time. I’m not entirely certain how to articulate my personal mission for sustainability, but it lies somewhere between the marriage of the ‘Seven Generations’ principle of the Native Americans, and working to challenge both my beliefs, and others, and share what I’ve learned.

DC: What motivated you to begin this path?
I had always been interested in the environment, and I was searching for where I was going to tap into that. I did 2 years of AmeriCorps work with the City of Flagstaff Sustainability and Environmental Management Section. After that, I was incredibly lucky to spend three months at Spannocchia which is an agriturismo in Italy. In addition to being able to vacation there, they have an internship program where you go and work for 3 months with 7 other people. You’re divided into teams with 1 or 2 others and are responsible for either working with the livestock, garden or the vineyards and olive trees. I was fortunate in that my fellow interns and I got along really well, and with so many shared experiences around food and agriculture, well, it pushed me along the path toward agriculture.

I can remember one afternoon where we were visiting a local cheesemaker’s farm, and he just whipped out this card table, a great vat of wine and just cut the most generous slices of cheese. He took such pride in his livelihood. This is what this guy lives for, and he has such respect for his animals, his process and even the mold that helps make the cheese. It sounds silly, but the generosity and appreciation nearly brought me to tears. Later, when I was trying to figure out my next steps after Spannocchia I couldn’t help but wonder, “How can I come back to the states and bring that attitude and that sentiment and elevate the work of people who we don’t often think about?” It was the whole spell of being there with great people and seeing respect, honor and pride and thinking to myself let’s go back to the U.S. and figure out how to replicate that.

DC: Who are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainability movement?
It’s really easy for me to tunnel down just into agriculture or the “food movement.” The easy answer is my team here at Red Tomato: Michael, Angel, Sue, Laura… they’ve all been working at this for decades. Red Tomato has been around for 19 years, and learning from their experiences, successes, lessons learned - it’s a pretty dynamic environment to be a part of.

And then looking a bit farther afield, one of the advantages of this work is proximity. So I’m pretty fortunate to have been able to interact with Dennis Derryck, the founder of Corbin Hill, and I’ve also been able to hear Leah Penniman and Karen Washington speak about food access, equity and equality - their voices are super important in the food movement and have caused me to listen, think, and question.

DC: Have you had any mentors or career coaches that have helped you in shaping your career pathway?
I’ve been so lucky to work with great teams of people – the folks with the Flagstaff Sustainability Program, previous employers, and now at Red Tomato – they’re all very incredibly dedicated, smart and passionate people, and I think all that rubs off.

Stephanie Smith, who continues to work with the City of Flagstaff, comes to mind. She taught me a lot about work-life balance, professionalism, and friendship, all by example. I remember sitting in her office – early in my time at the City of Flagstaff – and I noticed a quote from Edward Abbey framed beside her desk. I remember reading it and something about it just resonated. Our work is important, but we also need to get out and enjoy - be present in the larger world. The reference is the reluctant enthusiast from Edward Abbey. It’s worth reading if you haven’t, and now hangs on the wall behind me at my desk.

DC: How would you describe that relationship? What made that mentorship relationship work?
I think part of it was leading by example, and another part of it was getting to know me – we talked with each other on a personal level as friends. When you’re able to spend time with someone outside of work, whether you’re cleaning apartments or sharing drinks, successes and sorrows - all that stuff, it changes how you communicate, how you relate. And I think that allows for a more frank discussion without the hesitation and censoring that can occur in a more formal workplace environment.
Challenging people and ideas, including your own – communication is hard, and I think that with Steph and with others, when you have a larger framework and basis for understanding, it helps relate and share a common language. It leads to being able to question things openly and not be afraid to be judged or be reprimanded or question your own convictions. You can ask questions about their career, and they can ask them back of you. Whether it’s a pre-work coffee or post-work drinks; for me it’s really important to know people outside of an office and to get to know someone personally, and that’s even more important if I’m looking for a more ‘formal’ mentorship role.
DC: Do you plan to seek out opportunities to be a mentee again or to be a mentor yourself?
Steph and I still talk; we’re still good friends. Part of what makes me tick is constantly learning and exploring, both intellectually and physically. If I’m able to work with people and find those that would be willing to fill a more formal mentorship role, then of course – but whether it’s formal or informal having different views or backgrounds is important! As far as being a mentor myself; not yet. I think I’ve still got some things to learn and do before I can offer that up, but yes someday!

DC: What would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability either in food and agriculture specifically or perhaps more broadly?
It’s easiest to talk about food and ag, but this might apply more broadly. I have friends who work throughout the system, either at, well, a nonprofit food hub or who help run a teaching kitchen at the Y and those who are starting farms. I think this whole movement has a lot of different areas where people can plug in. It’s important to take internships – to just write a cover letter and send your resume to someone.
Really, I just think it’s important to talk to people. I haven’t met someone in the food movement who wasn’t willing to talk, share their experiences, and hear about yours. I think finding the right time – so maybe not right in the middle of produce season (laughs) – but I’ve yet to find someone who won’t respond to an e-mail or chat for a while. Find those that you respect and learn from them. Making the offer to engage can go a long way.
Specifically in food, I’d also suggest that you get your hands in the soil. My time raising pigs in Italy is laughable compared to some of the farming that my coworkers have done, but I think having even a basic understanding of production makes someone much more appreciative of the larger system and better equipped when working towards a better food system for all.

Food & Agriculture

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Date Added: May 15, 2017
Date Last Modified: May 15, 2017