Emily Schwing: Building a Collective Food System

In the heart of East San Jose, next to the Hwy 101 and I-680 interchange, sits a vibrant urban oasis where rows of lush, green vegetables flourish under the California sun. This is Veggielution, a 6-acre community farm that provides fresh, affordable food for underserved communities.

The acting executive director of this nonprofit, food-justice based organization is Emily Schwing, a 2018 graduate of the Green Foothills Leadership Program. In 2018, Emily was working in a communications manager role and was about to move up into a director level position. She signed up for the Leadership Program because she wanted to learn more about environmental advocacy, networking, and campaigns, and she wanted to connect with others who were also interested in that type of work. Veggielution was growing, and she wanted to grow with it.

“Our organization was starting to lean more into public affairs, advocacy work, and policy work,” Emily said. “We were building out new director positions and I was able to move into public affairs. Then we built an advocacy team and I was able to help create that team, and plan how that new area of focus could help in our work, moving beyond providing direct services to also advocating for government policy changes to help make fresh, healthy, locally grown food more accessible.”

Participating in the Leadership Program helped as she had hoped it would, training her in the tactics and strategy needed for successful advocacy. “The program was extremely thorough,” she said, with training provided by “a very diverse group of instructors and mentors. The classes themselves were helpful, and being able to meet other individuals who were on a similar trajectory in their career path and in similar fields to mine, was also helpful.”

“One of the most useful things I learned was that when you’re planning an advocacy campaign, you don’t have to go through it alone,” she added. “Lean on the network that you have and think about who in your network you already know that can help make connections or facilitate the connections that you need. You don’t need to solve the problem by yourself. Include as many people as possible in the process of getting something done….Participating in the program helped me enlarge my own network. I actually recently reached out to one of my cohorts from the program to help Veggielution with a policy issue here in Santa Clara County.”

After moving from her communications manager position into a director-level role, Emily is now Veggielution’s Acting Executive Director. She’s been putting her advocacy expertise to good use.

“We’ve been doing direct services work since 2008 and now we’re taking the next step around systems change. We’re advocating for higher-level policy changes at a government level so that we don’t have to do direct service so much. Our advocacy is around food system work, sustainable agriculture practices, access to infrastructure or land for small farms … we work with a large cohort of small food entrepreneurs, around home food businesses, food truck vending,” she said.

“There’s a larger conversation around what does that mean for food access,” she added. “How are we addressing larger issues around food policy such as poverty, which is a root cause of food access issues…. Everyone deserves the right to have access to food that’s culturally relevant and that they want to be eating, and to a livelihood – if they’re passionate about farming or the food industry, they deserve to be able to excel and grow. Food is the ultimate connector and it’s something everyone can relate to. I want to make it easier to access those (food-providing) professions. We could hand out farm boxes all day, but if we are addressing the root cause for why barriers to food exist, then we’re making a real change.”

Asked what advice she has for others who are considering signing up for the Leadership Program, Emily says she highly recommends it. “At Veggielution we have an advocacy staff member who’s going through the Green Foothills Leadership Program right now. I absolutely recommend it. My advice to those who are considering it is, you get out what you put in. Show up, be present, and make sure you’ve done your homework because it’s a short, intense period for that one day the class meets each month. It’s a valuable opportunity to participate and learn through doing.”

The Green Foothills Leadership Program is offered in English and Spanish, and is tuition-free thanks to support from generous donors. Applications are due in the fall. To learn more, see greenfoothills.org/lead.

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