Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Angela McKee-Brown of The Edible Schoolyard Is Helping To Change…

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Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Angela McKee-Brown of The Edible Schoolyard Is Helping To Change Our World

Use your vacation days. You’ve literally earned them. Don’t push yourself to a point of breaking and then take time off. Schedule regular days off to take time for yourself and regroup. This will help prevent burnout and allow for you to stay happy at work.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Angela McKee-Brown.

Angela McKee-Brown brings a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector designing and building meaningful food experiences with communities. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the Edible Schoolyard Project, a non-profit based in Berkeley CA focused on providing hands-on learning experiences in school gardens, kitchens, and cafeterias that connect children to nature, food, and each other. She serves on the board of A Better Life Foundation USA and The Eastbay Stonewall Democratic Club. She lives in Oakland, CA with her wife, Annemarie.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Well, it all begins with a gopher. Not the animal… the candy. I graduated college as an Anthropology major in 2007 right as the financial crisis was just beginning. I couldn’t find a full-time job, but I did land an internship at an economic consulting firm writing financial reports. The internship turned into a salaried position, but I wasn’t very happy working in a tiny cube, focused on a topic that wasn’t bringing me much joy. During the holidays, a client sent us a gift basket from Savannah, Georgia, and inside there was a chocolate candy called a gopher. I took a bite while sitting in my cube, and I had a moment where I realized how much joy could be found in such a simple act. It felt like such a contrast to my day-to-day in that office that I knew I had to make a change — if I was going to work for the rest of my life, I needed to be doing something that I loved. The job market was still horrendous, so I took a moment to reflect on what my options were and decided to go to grad school at NYU to get a Master’s in Food Studies.

After I got out of school — and after two winters in New York — I decided it wasn’t the right place for my long-term happiness as a person born and raised in the heart of Houston, Texas, so I moved to California and landed a job at La Cocina, a non-profit kitchen incubator that supports women of color and immigrants in launching food businesses. One of the projects I worked on while I was there was a project with IDEO to understand if a tamale could be made at a price point the school district could buy. This is where it all started to fall into place. This introduced me to the concept of design thinking and opened my eyes to the idea that school cafeterias are restaurants. When a job opened up at the school district to lead a special initiative focused on redesigning the school food system, I jumped at the opportunity to lead it.

While there, I worked as part of a team focused on designing a student-centered dining experience and I got to pause and do a fellowship with Stanford University’s to dive deep into the design thinking process and practice. After five years working in school food, I was introduced to my current organization, The Edible Schoolyard Project. The year I joined the Edible Schoolyard Project, the organization had just launched an initiative focused on advocating for change in the school food system in California. So, long story short, a gopher, tamales, and school cafeterias led me to where I am today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I was promoted to Executive Director in May of 2020. The world was being transformed by the Covid-19 Crisis and the United States was in the midst of an ongoing racial justice reckoning. It was one hell of a moment to become Executive Director, but it was a powerful time for reflection and action. Since schools had closed and “normal” had begun to change, there were no “rails” so to speak to contain our work, and anything became possible.

During the last year and a half in my role, I’ve led the team in creating our first new curriculums in over 10 years, Cooking with Curiosity and Understanding Organic; we launched an organic food box program to support our farmers, kids, and communities — which has distributed over 270,000 pounds worth of fresh, organic produce since its inception; and we launched an online training program that has exponentially expanded our capacity to reach more educators and provide them with free resources for their classroom.

As I reflect on this success in a difficult time, I can pinpoint one conversation that was particularly transformational for me. After George Floyd’s murder, we released a resource to help parents talk with their children about what had taken place. It was a very simple resource and I was uncertain how it would be received. We got positive feedback, and we also got feedback that opened up a bigger team conversation that allowed us to reflect and ask deeper questions about our work. From this conversation, I understood that I needed to trust my instincts and also provide space for organizational change as we embarked upon the new reality of our world. I anchored myself and my team in this truth: we will keep doing better every day, by staying rooted in the community, and focused on doing the work necessary to confront injustice.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

For five years, I worked to redesign school cafeterias within San Francisco Unified School District in order to make them more joyful and meaningful for students. I led the redesign of 18 cafeterias during that time and learned a lot about space design and design thinking. In order to redesign the cafeterias, we leveraged grant funds, which was wonderful, but meant that we had a limited budget and had to make every dollar count. As we were working on our second cohort of redesigns, I thought I would save a few dollars by ordering the cafeteria chairs directly from an online vendor rather than use a local furniture vendor. No big difference, right? Well, I realized there was a huge difference when an 18-wheeler pulled up to the school campus and the driver hopped out and asked me where my forklift was located. Turns out, you have to pay to get cargo off the back of trucks and then pay for labor in order to move it into your space. I didn’t realize these charges were built into the bids I received from the local furniture vendor. I think the truck driver could see the shock and surprise on my face after he asked the question, and so he kindly agreed to move the two, 8-foot tall pallets of chairs off of his truck for me. BUT that then meant that I had two, 8-foot tall pallets of chairs blocking the school bus pick-up zone. I looked at the pallets, looked at my watch, and realized I had about 3 hours to move 2,000+ pounds of chairs inside the cafeteria before school let out. I got a pair of scissors, cut the plastic wrap off the first pallet, and then stood on a step stool so I could have enough height to knock the top layer off the pallet. Long story short, I moved chairs for most of the day and evening until a few members of the football team realized what was going on and helped me out. The lesson I learned from this experience is twofold. First, if you have the money, don’t be cheap. Second, the community will help you out, but sometimes you need to ask for help.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

For the last 25 years, the Edible Schoolyard Project has designed meaningful learning experiences in school gardens and kitchens that connect children to nature, food and each other. These experiences are transformational for many students. For some, learning at school becomes accessible for the first time — because they are learning in a hands-on way, with nature and food, rather than a textbook. Others build meaningful friendships while cooking and gardening — these foster a deeper sense of community both in and outside of the classroom. And others get to try new flavors and foods that expand their understanding of different cultures and nature. Our direct service work is based at one middle school with 1,000 students, but we support a network of more than 6,000 programs with free and adaptable resources, including our Cooking with Curiosity and Understanding Organic curriculums. We also provide online and in-person trainings for educators as they start programs or continue to expand their skill sets. Simply put, we facilitate experiences that help children fall in love with food, nature and learning.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We recently launched a new program in Stockton, CA and, as we were building the foundation of the program, we hosted a series of community dinners to get feedback. For the second dinner we hosted, we purchased Bronx Grapes from a local farm for the meal. If you haven’t had a Bronx grape before, it is a special and magnificent experience for your tastebuds. Because of how delicate they are, they are only sold in specialty stores and restaurants, so no one in attendance at the event had ever tried them before, even though they came from a farm down the road. We wanted to showcase beautiful organic produce from the region as we unveiled a new advocacy campaign to build a school food procurement pipeline that would bring organic food from the area to students who go to school near the farms.

We were in the process of setting up the event, and two young boys came over to check it out. One of the boys was not interested in joining us for dinner, so I started to talk to him and tell a few jokes hoping that getting him to laugh would make him feel more comfortable. Needless to say, I couldn’t even get him to crack a smile, but finally, I asked him, “Do you want to try the best grape of your life?” He hesitantly looked at me and then replied yes with a head nod so I ran inside and picked up a small bunch of grapes from the kitchen for him. He slowly took the grapes and put one into his mouth. In that moment, I could tell he was having a special experience with that grape. He was tasting a new flavor and it was having an impact on him. As he ate, he began to smile, and at that moment, I realized we had just provided him with food memory. A moment that he could always reference when food brought him joy. That is the type of impact we get to have every day in students’ lives as they learn about, grow, cook and eat food in our classrooms. We are providing food memories that will have a positive impact on their food choices and experiences throughout their lives.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  • Center joy.
  • Believe in justice.
  • Work towards liberation.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I believe you are successful as a leader when you are able to create a work environment that amplifies the talents of your team. An organization does not exist without the team, and the team is the organization. With this in mind, policies, practices and norms should be in support of the team and should provide a space that allows them to be their fullest and most joyful selves each day they come to work. By orienting projects and goals towards the skills, passions and talents of your team, you not only create better work outcomes, but you have happier people. As a leader, my primary role is to make sure that these conditions exist and that I provide my team with the support they need to thrive. Because again, I won’t be successful as a leader if my team isn’t successful. And they won’t be successful if they aren’t joyful.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • If you can, get an executive coach: It is extraordinarily lonely at the top, and having someone you can speak frankly and honestly with while also getting unbiased feedback from is invaluable.
  • Meditate daily: Meditation is part of my daily practice to find grounding and peace. I’m a fan of Headspace and, but you have to find the right resources that fit your needs.
  • Invest in Therapy: Investing in your mental health is paramount. As Civil Rights Activist Ms. Diane Nash said on a recent episode of GirlTrek’s Black History Bootcamp, “I believe in psychological therapy. I’ve been in it most of my adult life. I participate when I don’t have an immediate problem. Because just getting to spend an hour or two a week on working on myself, my situation and learning how to deal with the world and learning about myself, I find so important. … I’m grateful for the growth and changes. Because when you do realize thanks and work on yourself, life gets better. Much better.”
  • Don’t run away from difficult conversations. I’ve recently embraced the “do it now or regret it later” approach to difficult conversations. As a leader, you have to deal with a wide range of topics and issues on a regular basis. If you avoid the difficult ones and allow them to fester, they don’t go away. In fact, they tend to get worse. When there is a problem or need, address it immediately, even if it is an “I don’t know at this moment, but I will find an answer” response.
  • Use your vacation days. You’ve literally earned them. Don’t push yourself to a point of breaking and then take time off. Schedule regular days off to take time for yourself and regroup. This will help prevent burnout and allow you to stay happy at work.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Design everything to provoke and provide joy. Joy, as defined by the Oxford Companion to Emotion and the Affective Sciences, “involves a state of positive affect, in which one experiences feelings of freedom, safety, and ease.” How might experiences change if they were designed to provoke joy? How might policies and institutions be different if we aspired towards a joyful society? How might we see those for whom we are designing for differently if we understood their joy? What could become of the world if we centered joy when designing? We need to reframe how we value joy in our society and see joy as a source of power for our communities — a way to connect us to one another in order to create a more just society. To experience joy is a deeply personal and yet connective experience. We need to identify pathways for understanding the richness and texture of joy and also integrating joy into our daily practice. There is a great deal of power in joy.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My Grandmother used to always say, “If there is enough blue in the sky to knit a cat a pair of pants, it won’t rain.” These words have struck me throughout my life. Especially before big outdoor events when it looks like it might rain. My wife and I got married in Mexico on the beach, and right before the ceremony, massive rain clouds began to form in the sky, but I saw a patch of blue, and confidently said, “It won’t rain.” And sure enough, it didn’t rain. Though it may not be the most scientific or certain way to predict the weather, the saying is a good reminder to look up at the vast beauty that is our sky and to also hold on to hope. When you look up at the sky and realize how big it is, it really provides a new perspective to how big and complicated the issue you are dealing with maybe. It can provide an opening of awareness that leads to new solutions.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Prentis Hemphill would be incredible to meet. I think they are some of the most brilliant thinkers of our time and they have the most textured and beautiful conversations with other thought leaders on their podcast, Finding Our Way. The way they process, understand and exist in the world is inspiring.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram: @AngelaLMckeeBrown

Twitter: @AngelaLMcKee

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Angela McKee-Brown of The Edible Schoolyard Is Helping To Change… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.