Daniella Lewis; Farm Stand Manager; ​Plant It Forward

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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: Daniella Lewis
Farm Stand Manager
Plant It Forward

Interviewer: David Corsar, NWF

Daniella is a Farm Stand Manager at Plant It Forward, which helps refugees earn income as small, urban farmers in the Houston, TX area. As an NWF Fellow, Daniella developed an urban community garden on the University of Texas campus in Austin, TX.

David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as a fellow help shape your career path?
Daniella Lewis:
When I was a fellow, the project that I worked on was creating a community garden on my college campus. It was extremely memorable. As a fellow, I got to go to a national conference in Washington DC and meet other fellows and participants from the National Wildlife Federation. It makes a big difference to be aware of what’s going on around the country, around the world, because there’s always a lot to learn from other projects. It was neat to have that experience when I was younger, when I was in college, and it was a great time to become aware of the greater movement.

DC: What was the top thing that you learned in your professional development as an NWF Fellow?
It was very useful to me, first of all, just to write out the application for the fellowship, and then all of the follow up that was part of being a fellow. It was a useful exercise to help think through what exactly I was going to do and then to follow up and report on whether I did what I said I would do. I think that there are steps that are easy to skip sometimes when there’s always so much going on. The whole experience was essentially a tailored opportunity to help me become more mindful of what I was trying to achieve and how I could thoughtfully actualize my goals.

DC: Yes, it’s tempting to just jump into the implementation part of the project cycle when you know what you want to do, but taking the time to plan out how, how you’re going to make it happen, and then to communicate your results and ensure that your project will continue after you are really important steps that we emphasize for our fellows and our EcoLeader community. So, what are you up to these days? Where are you working, and why did you choose to work there?
Like I mentioned, my fellowship entailed starting a community garden. Little did I know then that it would become very much a part of my career. So, I currently work at a nonprofit organization called Plant It Forward. Plant It Forward provides refugees with the tools, training, and business skills needed to become successful urban farmers. It’s a small nonprofit; we work with just 9 individual farmers currently. Today I spent all morning on the farm; I’m still farming! The UT Concho Community Garden – and every community garden, usually – has an aspect to it that is community-building. And it’s for a good cause; and it’s about education and camaraderie, and I find all of those things in my job – plus added layers to do with economic empowerment and cultural acclimation. So, it turns out that I’m still very much immersed in farming (and the richness that is urban farming), and little did I know at the time that the fellowship would be one of the initiators.

DC: What is your role at Plant It Forward?
It’s a very small staff, and I had been a volunteer at this organization for years before I came on staff. I have several focuses, one of which is implementing our Neighborhood Farm Stand initiative. We have a grant from the USDA to establish a farm stand at each of our farms. We have four farms in Houston, and the Farm Stand is an economic generator of supplemental income for our farmers, as well as a “welcome center” to our farms. The way I spend the rest of my time – well, there’s always an abundance of things that need to be done. I’m super busy helping however I can, whether it’s on the farm, or research, or thinking about ways that we can improve our practices. I’m all over the place. I enjoy this job, it’s something new every day. There’s a lot of action and excitement and problems to be solved, and a lot of what seems like new territory to be forged.

DC: What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability?
I think for true sustainability to take hold in our society – to truly get there – is a humongous challenge. I struggle with it myself, and then of course that impact escalates when you think of a whole city, or even a larger scale.
I try to make good decisions; I try to be really conscious, and I guess my personal mission is to act the way that I think is right. I’m not here to tell others what to do, but I’d like to live in a way that is peaceful and progressive, that I can hopefully become a worthy role model.

DC: What motivated you to begin this path?
Even as a young teenager, I was already environmentally minded. I do have a fond relationship with an animal, a parrot (laughs). I really believe that having that experience as a child inspires a lot of compassion. I cherish living things, and I care about my health, and I care about the health of other people. And I think that nature is beautiful and holds intrinsic value; you can feel it. I’ve always worked in the urban environment because that’s what I know, and I’m always trying to bring more nature into the city.

DC: Who are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainability movement or in the local foods movement?
I am proud of Bill McKibben’s work – not that I’ve been super involved with 350.org. But, I stay updated with his campaign, and I’m really impressed with the way that he uses words, language, communication... He’s a really talented communicator, and I like to think that maybe I can absorb some of that skill by paying attention. And also just the fact that 350.org argues against and sees beyond what is unfortunately the norm in how our economy is fueled, and how people are dependent on fossil fuels in daily life, myself entirely included. I live in Houston, Texas, and it’s hard to get around. So, I think it’s very impressive the way he and his organization continue to move forward and build partnerships and spread information and do the work on the ground, on an international scale. They are engaging in important work. I also admire the capacity of 350.org to create a venue that gives voice to participants all around the world.

DC: Have you had any professional mentors or career coaches assist you in developing your career path?
Looking back I have to say, I really got started in this at my university. I didn’t go to college to become a gardener or a farmer, but that’s precisely what happened. I had a lot of support within my university, specifically within our tiny, campus environmental center. Karen Blaney was our advisor, and she made it possible for students like myself to pursue projects and feel like I could make a difference on campus. As part of the university administration, Karen helped students access a seat at the table with campus executives and decision makers. Even with a community garden, there was initially a lot of resistance from the administration. Despite Austin being a liberal town, the university is still pretty conservative. It actually took a couple years for the institutional climate to change around how such a project could be positively perceived. But then, once something gets done physically, it’s like you never look back. I haven’t thought about this for a while, and I almost forgot how hard it was to get this garden started and to have all of these collaborations come about! And now the community garden and the microfarm are totally cherished and loved by students, faculty, and staff. They’re part of UT now. It’s interesting once you make a breakthrough how it stays, usually.

DC: You kind of answered this already, but if you want to add more, I’d like to ask how would you describe the relationship with your mentor, Karen Blaney? What made it work?
She was actually the woman who brought this fellowship to my attention. It was not on my radar whatsoever; Karen was the kind of person who would share opportunities and encourage you to keep doing what you’re doing. And I really needed that as a young university student. I hadn’t entirely taken ownership of my capabilities. It made a huge difference to have a mentor, especially at that transitional stage.

DC: Do you plan to seek out opportunities to act as a mentor or mentee again?
Yes, absolutely, I think that mentorships are great, some of the best relationships. I do continue to seek mentors; I still have a lot to learn, and I hope that I can be of mentorship service to other people as well. I do feel like I’ve already played that role a little bit in terms of my involvement in the gardens at UT because in my senior year, I was gardening with others and telling them about how it all got started and how not to feel dejected if the administration is stifling and whatnot – telling the whole story, so I could let other generations know what’s possible. I felt kind of like an elder in that role (laughs). I really value those kinds of opportunities to share my experience.

DC: The NWF EcoLeaders program emphasizes acquiring project-based leadership and project management experience. Individuals across the country are working on various projects that align with their skills and interests, and we provide resources for best practices in project design and management and give them a platform to communicate and support each other. And then they can apply for and receive a certification of their leadership development and project management experience. If you were looking to hire someone, and you came across an interviewee with an NWF leadership certification, what would you ask or say to that potential hire?
Some questions about leadership that I would ask would be: “what are some strategies that you would employ to make sure that the voices of the group are heard;” “what’s your decision making style;” “how do you weigh when it’s appropriate to take an executive decision-making route versus trying to reach a consensus with whatever group of people you’re working with?” I guess I would ask about ways they would make sure to have a leadership style that’s very attuned to the people that they’re working with.

DC: What would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability perhaps in the food and agriculture sector?
Based on the experience that I had, the way that it unfolded, is that if you have an idea, and it’s a good idea, there’s got to be one person at the university – either administration or faculty – that can be your ally and your mentor and give legitimacy to your idea and also help you access the resources needed to make it a reality.
I would say to craft your own experience at your university; I think that that’s a very valuable thing, and that’s what you’re there to do. You’re not there just to get routed through the system; you’re there to grow and to make the world a better place, so why not start?

Food & Agriculture

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