Regenerative Leaders On the Need to Work and the Need to Slow DownAugust 10 2021
At Alter Eco, our mission is to fight climate change and inequality by transitioning our organic, fair trade cacao farms to dynamic agroforestry systems, all while reducing carbon emissions and waste in our supply chain.
We are not alone.
All around the world there are regenerative leaders working hard in their communities towards a more just, sustainable food system. We asked a few of them to share about their journey, how they care for the planet and themselves, and their advice to others looking to do the same.
First, let’s introduce them:
Rishi Kumar - Farmer Rishi
Farmer Rishi (@farmerrishi) is a small-scale farmer, land-artist, writer, and teacher in Los Angeles. His work centers on the healing of people and Earth as one body. Rishi is the the Co-founder and Chief Gardening Officer of Healing Gardens Community (@healinggardens.co) and Executive Director of Sarvodaya Institute (@sarvodayafarms).
A Growing Culture
A Growing Culture is an organization on a mission to empower farmers to shape their own sustainable future through education, research, and connection.
The organization has decided to answer our questions as a collective, rather than just one individual, to emphasize their belief that the movement is stronger when acting as a whole.
Oliver is a chef, filmmaker and food advocate. As CEO of Common Table Creative, Oliver works to help farmers and sustainable food advocates tell their stories and form lasting connections across the food system.
Altair is a regenerative cacao farmer at Finca Tierra Negra (@tierranegradr) in the Dominican Republic, and an Alter Eco board member.
Tell us about the journey you took towards improving conditions for people and the planet. Have you always done work like this, or did you have an ‘Ah Ha’ moment?
“I started my journey in the world of gardening & farming when I was in college, working from the idea that humanity had strayed far from Nature and looking for a way to 'reconnect' with her and become more like her. My 'a-ha' moment came just a couple years ago, when after years of struggle and pain, I realized these ideas were spiritually divorcing me from our planet, and had been extremely damaging to me and my health (I'd also been spreading these toxic ideas to others through my teaching and advocacy).
Nature does not exist. Earth does, and we are all part of their body.
The constant reinforcement of the idea that we and our EarthBody are separate and in constant conflict, is extremely painful and damaging to all of us. Understanding that there is no separate, ideal, perfect 'Nature' out there that I need to become, allowed me to focus on who I am, who I want to be, and how in healing myself I am healing Earth. With this new understanding, the focus of my work has shifted significantly. I continue to be engaged in food, farming, and soil restoration, and I understand that simply growing healthy food and building carbon-rich soil is not enough to bring the significant healing that we need after 600 years of colonial cultural domination.
Through both projects I am involved with, @sarvodayafarms and @healinggardens.co, we are working to use forests, farms and gardens as spaces of community healing, learning, introspection, and fun, especially focusing on impacting communities of color who have experienced the deep trauma over generations. Without restoring health and wealth to these communities, our efforts to reverse climate change will fail. There is no regeneration with reparations.”
A Growing Culture
“A Growing Culture got its start ten years ago as a response to the inequity and structural injustice that small farmers face all over the world. It set out to support farmers in reclaiming their agency and sovereignty over their food systems.
We grew out of the idea that cultural erasure is at the root of environmental degradation; that if we want to have a thriving environment, we have to first address the exploitation of those who steward the land.
This really brought us to our first key realization: that sustainability is a byproduct of justice, not the other way around. We try to help people see food system issues through the lens of power.
It’s only through that lens that we can identify the roots of our problems today, and it’s only by confronting those roots that we can dismantle our current system and grow a fundamentally different one from the ground up.
Over the last year, we’ve been able to better understand how critical collective solidarity is in this movement; in the Global North, especially, we tend to favor individualistic solutions (e.g. vote with your fork, change your diet). While these things aren’t bad, they don’t fundamentally change power structures.
Radical change can only come by recognizing that we’re all bound within our current systems. And those systems have no borders. When we grasp how we’re connected with people around the world who we don’t know, and choose to stand in solidarity with them, we can begin to heal, build trust, and create a path forward. Our liberation is bound.”
“Growing up in the restaurant business, I was always connected to food. After studying hospitality at Cornell, I worked for a few restaurant groups on projects around the world. I would help design, develop, and then live in a country for several months to get the restaurants open. Honestly, I thought I knew a lot about food, and the world generally back then. I thought I was going to take over my family restaurant business and continue to open restaurants for the rest of my life.
Everything changed, however, five years ago when I was living and working in Abu Dhabi to open a new restaurant there. One night after I had finished training the staff, I was sitting at the bar and ordered a big spread - steak, a bunch of sides, salad, pasta and a big glass of wine. Clean shaven and suited up, I was feeling pretty good.
All of the sudden I cut into my steak and looked down and paused - and kind of fell back - I looked down at all of this food and thought to myself - wait a minute where did all of this food come from? I had been in the desert for 3 months and hadn’t seen a fresh body of water - or a farm for that matter. It suddenly occurred to me that I had never asked that question - where does our food come from? Which is crazy - looking back - since I grew up in the business and studied restaurants in school.
I asked our chef to come out and we had a several hour conversation about where each one of the ingredients came from - it ended up being 12 ingredients from 8 countries. I was shocked, to say the very least. I asked how everything got here and when it might have been harvested? I came to learn that many of the vegetables were harvested weeks ago, put in containers and shipped halfway around the world. I started to add everything up and it didnt square.
In that moment I realized that I was incredibly disconnected from food - which was incredibly ironic. And if I had been so disconnected - having grown up in the business - perhaps others in my generation had not been taught to ask those questions either. I told myself that I would learn everything I could about how our food is grown, what impact it has on the environment, and the role individuals, companies and governments play in the whole process. And specifically, with population growth, climate change, etc., how would we feed a growing population?
That was the spark. It led to me starting work on a feature documentary with my brother called Feeding Tomorrow, and eventually a full blown production company - Common Table Creative - dedicated to telling stories about the power and the future of food.”
“I studied Law because I always wanted to work towards a more just world. Both my grandfather and great-grandfather died fighting for democracy in my country, so since I was young I had a strong sense of seeking for a more just society.
Soon after beginning my career, I realized I had to start looking elsewhere. I specialized in human rights and then in development, trying to understand what we could possibly do to create a world with more equality, justice, democracy, and human rights. In my effort to discover the root cause of many of our social and political problems, I realized the importance of transforming our relationship to food and to the environment - the way we grow it and the way we damage nature to grow it and to satisfy our needs.
Transforming the way we grow food is essential in order to overcome many of the problems we face today. This understanding led me to decide to become a farmer, working to regenerate my family's old cacao farm, and promote regenerative agroforestry as a way to satisfy our nutrition needs at the same time we regenerate the soil, enhance biodiversity, reforest our farming lands and transform the social conditions in which food is grown.”
In a space that can be overwhelming (health & wellness, climate change, inequality), both mentally and physically, how do you slow down and ensure that you care for yourself?
“I'm laughing at this question because the honest answer is most of the time I don't. 30 years of living in a toxic culture that teaches you to value yourself based on your productivity & 'impact' has definitely taken a toll on me. Being deeply involved in the 'environmental' world for 10 years where you are constantly asked to sacrifice your own health for the health of Earth (because your health is not Earth's health...) only made that worse.
That being said, I'm learning to take care of myself and treat myself better. I've been going to therapy for 3 years and that process has helped me significantly. I'm trying to keep my weekends free for myself too, so my wife and I can go hiking, see friends, or go to the beach. Sometimes taking care of myself means parking my butt on the couch and watching movies all day because I'm truly exhausted.”
A Growing Culture
“Working towards systemic change can definitely be draining; it’s less measurable, and the structures we’re up against can seem impenetrable. We’ve found that our biggest strength has been supporting each other as a true collective.
At this point, we are a team of five supported by a network of volunteers. Since we’re so small, we all wear many hats. We all get the chance to try every aspect of our work, which keeps things fresh and allows us to understand our individual strengths and weaknesses. We’re always working to find a way to better coalesce and lean into those strengths, so that the work stays energizing. When we bring people onto the team, we give them space to really find their flow and support them in filling out a role that really fuels them.
We also don’t subscribe to the idea that there’s any “right” schedule or way to work. Figuring out what feels right is a conversation between our team that’s constantly evolving as we grow.
Because of this culture, we feel that we can truly show up as full human beings with our ebbs and flows in energy, and that the rest of the team will support us when we need time to rest.
This helps to counter that feeling of urgency present in a lot of social movements that can pretty easily lead to burnout.
It’s always a dance between wanting to get everything done and realizing our limits as a small organization. We operate with the mutual understanding that everyone here is fundamentally committed to the work. With that understanding, we’re open and honest about our boundaries and needs, and honor the fact that those look different for each person.”
“Self care is so incredibly important, and only something I've really started to appreciate over the past few years. As they say, you've got to put your own oxygen mask on first before you can help your neighbor. I think that is so immensely relevant when talking about committing to and making the changes we need to see in the world.
The mind, body and spirit connection is deep and profound. For me, self care starts with my morning routine. I make sure to move my body every day - running, weight training, yoga, surfing, or sometimes just going for a nice walk.. I also journal for 20 minutes or so, read and meditate. Journaling has become one of my most important and powerful tools for staying balanced, and happy. It's kind of like therapy sometimes, and allows me to get out any anxiety, frustrations, etc. right at the beginning of the day.
Credit: Oliver English
Self care for me is also about paying attention to the food I'm eating and where it is coming from. The more locally the food is sourced, the higher the nutrient quality - generally speaking. I try to support Organic and Regenerative farms as much as possible and put plants at the center of my plate, focusing on lots of different colors. Each color has different healthy properties, and the more you get the better you feel. The food that is grown in the healthiest soils, on the healthiest farms is usually better for both you and our planet.
Don't get me wrong, I still like a crispy chicken sandwich every once in a while - it’s not about torturing yourself - but finding a balance that works for you. For me that means plants 80% of the time, and 20% life - or whatever you feel like. Just by paying more attention, i've found a healthier, more clear perspective, and the energy I need to continue working on the big issues that matter to me, our community and society more broadly.
Finally, spend as much time as possible in nature. Not to say that we are separate from nature - we are indeed nature ourselves. But get out into the woods, to the beach, the garden - wherever you can spend more time with plants, trees and grasses. The Japanese call it “forest bathing” and it’s quite profound. So take some time to yourself, fill up your own cup and you will have the energy, space and time you need to be the change maker our world desperately needs.”
“Sometimes it can be a challenge to slow down. Usually I try to spend time in nature and with my family, also practicing meditation.”
Do you have any advice for people early in their journey to help people + planet on how to get started?
“Yes! You are your greatest and most important priority. Do not sacrifice yourself for any 'mission' or 'cause'. Your health and happiness is the Earth's health and happiness. Take a hot bath, go for a road trip, do what you enjoy. Earth isn't hurt by your joy. Just remember that this Earth is your body too, so treat yourself right. Where you see opportunities where you have time & energy to help, support, and stand-up for others, do it.”
A Growing Culture
“The first part of the journey always begins inwardly. If we want to address power within any system, we have to start by examining our own power and privilege as individuals, and how that privilege can be used in the service to a larger movement. Privilege isn’t something to feel guilty or ashamed about; it’s an opportunity to understand how you can strengthen a collective.
The first key is leaving space for your narrative to shift. Let go of the idea that you know the problems or the solutions. Let go of the idea that you’re the hero of the story, or that you need to do something alone. Take the lead of those who have been marginalized within our current systems. Listen to them, explore their work, educate yourself. Allow them to tell you what support is needed to grow the movement. Then, take your newfound insights regarding historical injustice, your privilege, and the path forward, and figure out how you can be of service.
We can’t afford to be complacent.”
“Just start. Whatever peaks your interest, whatever you are inspired to do more of - just start. That initial motion, energy and commitment will lead to new relationships, opportunities and ideas. You will attract the things you need. You don’t need a business plan or a fancy degree - you need to start. Start with the minimum viable product or idea - and go from there. Gain traction and don’t ever give up.
The challenges we face as a society are so immense that they will take all of us - everyone- working together to grow a more just and regenerative society. We don't have time to keep waiting frankly - when it comes to climate change, ecosystem destruction, etc. We must all start and do what we can in our own household, our own corner of the world.
You will mess up, you will make mistakes and fail. But do not give up. When you are passionate about something, you must have the determination to see it through. That is what our planet, and our society need more than ever. So be fearless and just start.”
“There is so much for us to change right now that it can be paralyzing. But the important thing is to start; whether that means growing our food, reforesting, helping to create resilient local communities, supporting small farmers and regenerative agriculture, composting, fighting for human rights, etc., etc.
In the end everything is connected. Start by making small steps, find what pressing issues move you the most and get engaged!”
We are incredibly grateful that these movers, shakers, and leaders of the regenerative movement took the time to share their experiences with us. The work they are doing is incredibly important in working towards reconnecting with and regenerating our planet. Yours is too! Take the inspiration from these leaders and simply begin. Creating healthy, vibrant communities through a healthy, vibrant planet will take all of us.