Pieces Of A Puzzle

Q: Can you talk about your path into what you're doing now at the food center?

Cristina: There are three co-founders of the organization. Early on, we began striving to practice a  shared-leadership model. We now have a four-woman leadership team that is the next iteration of shared leadership for us. There were three people at first; we were friends and got to know each other working at another nonprofit, developing community gardens with youth in a couple of the communities in Anthony and near Anthony. I guess I'm having a hard time saying, "Oh, this is the beginning of it," because the whole theme is that there's all these puzzle pieces, and it's hard to ever say, "This is the very beginning, and this is where it came from," because we're building off of work that had been happening in the region and then our own interests as well.

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La Semilla Staff

When I started working in the community garden with youth, I fell in love with that age group, that transformation, the way that food was this tool to talk about so many other social issues and issues of inequity. It’s a really empowering, nourishing, and healing thing.

As for me, I grew up in this region and then left for college and then for a year of AmeriCorps. And then I moved back home, more homesick than I'd ever been in my life and really trying to get healthy again, and started working at an organization that was doing grassroots food systems development work. At the time I was working to make myself better and in the process learning all about this framework for food sovereignty and food justice, so the personal and the professional kind of coalesced.

When I started working in the community garden with youth, I fell in love with that age group, that transformation, the way that food was this tool to talk about so many other social issues and issues of inequity. It's a really empowering, nourishing, and healing thing.The farm is really central for me, literally having hands in the soil, but as we grow this work and our own capacities it's always kind of a split between how much do I get to be out there directly growing seeds and then how much it's creating opportunities for others.

Krysten: I moved to the area nine years ago to pursue my master's degree in cultural anthropology with a minor in food studies, not really sure exactly what I wanted to do and never really thinking, "Hey, I'm going into nonprofit work and food systems."

But my advisor was the advisor of one of the other co-founders of the organization, and I started doing contract work with La Semilla to research food hubs and what that looks like here in Dona Ana County, and then I came on as the food planning and policy advocacy coordinator in early 2012.

In that time it's really grown. I was the fourth full-time person hired on, and our organization has grown, from three co-founders in 2010 to we have 12 full-time staff, two part-time staff, and two Food Corps service members now.

We have four co-directors. We share those big picture responsibilities, and then we each have our own purviews.

Photo of Krysten Aguilar

Photo of Krysten Aguilar

Q: Can you tell us more about how you're building this shared leadership structure, and more about the mission and goals behind it?

Cristina: Part of what's informing that is, one, when we first started that was the intent, but we're also trying to do work around systems transformation and justice — and so that always involves an analysis of power and how power is shared and if we're practicing power with, not power over. It's aspirational. It doesn't mean we do it well all the time, but part of that is, if we want to create this new systems change, and we're part of this national movement that's trying to cultivate equity and food justice, then how do we do that within our own organization and how do we share that power and decision-making as we're implementing programs?

There are some things that have informed our thinking around that lately ... talking about shared leadership and representation regarding women and people of color in leading nonprofit organizations, or the lack thereof. And so we're constantly asking ourselves, what does it mean to be a nonprofit? What is the current system and how do we transform that as we're trying to create this community transformation? How do we not replicate the systems that we're trying to change?

There's this food systems change, and the intellectual work we're trying to do around that to inform our work, but we're also looking at what kind of nonprofit structure do we want to have, or innovate around? And so that's informing this shared leadership model.

The mission is essentially to foster sustainable and local food systems in the Paso del Norte region. So when people ask, "What do you do?" we say we have these five major program areas: One is La Semilla Community Farm, and at the farm we have programs for a range of ages that happen there. Then there's Farm Fresh, which in its current iteration is a mobile market school bus that goes to different communities. Then there's Edible Education, which involves working in 22 schools with different teachers and administrators throughout the region. We also have our food planning and policy program, which is currently working on a Healthy Food Financing Initiative. Our Youth and Community Education program facilitates programs for teens, children (summer camps), apprenticeships, and La Cosecha, our promotora gardening and cooking program. Additionally, we currently are conducting focus groups for a feasibility study regarding a commercial kitchen and incubator.

La Semilla has been working on food systems change since 2010, leading to healthier people, healthier communities, and healthier environments. We continue to offer programming that uses the food system as a tool to address inequity and as a means to foster racial and gender healing.


Q: What has been the most empowering or rewarding moment or one of them within the work that you do? And what has been the most challenging?

Krysten: One of the things that's most rewarding overall is seeing ... we have two staff members who actually started out in our youth program four or five years ago, four years at least, when they were in high school. They transitioned into apprentices on the farm and then through our Mobile Market, and they're both part-time staff members now. There's a lot of deeper things that go along with that to make that incredibly rewarding, including really focusing on creating capacity in our community and investing in our community and understanding what it means to cultivate and open doors that are sometimes closed for a lot of youth and young people in our communities, especially youth of color and youth from low-income backgrounds, and all of these strictures and boundaries that have been put up. Being able to play some small role in helping to pave those roads is just incredibly rewarding.

And also, as far as policy goes, to see some of these things come to fruition. We're really focused on systems change, and a big part of the policy work is seeing city and county level policies — even some state level polices — get passed and be championed by elected officials also is incredibly rewarding.

It’s getting policies like that, that are the first steps in putting these building blocks into place that can address really huge issues, and that’s very rewarding as well.

On the flip side of that, one of the difficulties of it is the pace of policy and how long it takes. But that goes hand in hand with spending the time to cultivate relationships and do this kind of deeper education for elected officials and other people who are interested in this work. Being able to cultivate that is really rewarding. We try to find the silver lining of these things that take two, two-and-a-half years to get passed. For example, the City of Las Cruces recently agreed to draft and fund a Healthy Food Financing initiative, which is basically a revolving low-interest loan fund and grant fund for small businesses or individuals that will get healthy food access into underserved areas — and pairing that with business planning services and marketing services for those people as well. That's just one policy, but it's also something that's getting resources back into communities that have traditionally been cut off from resources and capital because of race, because of class, because of all these other things.

We're a really high-poverty area down here in the south, and then of course in the state as well, so it's really investing at the community level and in a grassroots way to start shifting the tide of these really huge issues that have this incredible generational impact on people. It's getting policies like that, that are the first steps in putting these building blocks into place that can address really huge issues, and that’s very rewarding as well.

Cristina: These are challenges of poverty, but we also really invest in the wealth or the social capital that already exists here in our communities. So that means advocating for spaces where the people that are participating in our programs, whatever takes their interest they can pursue. So maybe they started in gardening and doing cooking workshops and through our La Cosecha program, but then maybe it becomes political leadership and advocacy or speaking at city council meetings or having our youth go up to Food and Farms Day at the legislature and also being a part of that conversation.

We're trying to also value the space that we're in and not just focus on the poverty in terms of income disparity, but also on how the challenges our communities here face and navigate creatively and brilliantly and with a lot of grit are also assets.

I would say our cooking workshops are these really powerful tools for valuing things or skills or stories that have been passed down and starting to value those as just as important as being able to speak at the state legislature, being able to nourish our families and our communities.

And then who does that nourishing and how is a lot of times then seen as effeminate work or effeminate qualities, and how we've devalued that instead of elevated it just as much as any other kind of work, those are pieces of conversation that we have, even with our youth..

The name La Semilla, which means the seed, also is just this really powerful and appropriate metaphor for a lot of the work we're trying to do. Sometimes you put a lot of seeds out, and you don't know which ones are going to take, or which ones to cross-pollinate to turn into some other project or idea. So, the name of the organization has proven quite appropriate and powerful.

Photo of Cristina Domingues-Eshelman. Image by Jen Lucero

Photo of Cristina Domingues-Eshelman. Image by Jen Lucero

Q: Who or what has been your biggest inspiration along the way that really influenced the work you’re doing today?

Cristina: Kristin touched a little bit on it earlier, talking about these two youths that are now young adults. We can name people that we follow and that we read or see in documentaries, and those are inspiring once in a while. But the people that we're engaged with every day that are taking on new initiatives or growing stuff at home or talking with their families about this, that's the inspiring stuff that we try to make sure to remind each other of. Because it's really easy I think to feel defeated by the work. If you're trying to do systems change, that's not a one-year or one-program endeavor, and so it's important to remind ourselves of the longevity of it. So it's different stories that are our inspiration.

Like we have youths who have to do mandated community service hours. They come to the farm and have to do a few hours of work, and so we have one shot to hook them in. The emphasis isn't on getting as much work productivity as we can from them, but trying to hook them in. And when the evaluation sheet at the end of it says, "We should have to do more hours here," that's inspiring. It's like, OK, we're doing something right here that they want to come back.

I would say that a lot the people we work with, and all of their capacities that they bring with them — not that we created, but they already have and then found a space that wants to nurture that seed, whatever seed they're holding — that's inspiring

Krysten: Adding to that, I think that's one piece, and then the other piece to me for sure is our staff. I think because we take the time to invest in each other and to lift each other up, and just the way that we function with shared leadership, this is why we spend the time doing shared leadership, even though it's a messy and time-consuming process sometimes, because we share it throughout the organization. We have a staff of 16 people, all working with this amazing tenacity and passion and ability. It's really inspiring to see our staff and all of the things that they do day in and day out.


Q: What advice would you offer other people, especially those wanting to help with systems change or wanting to get into shared leadership, that you wish you had known or learned along the way that you would pass forward now?

Cristina: You can't do it alone. You have to build relationships. And once you've built it, it doesn't mean that you've built it and you can leave it alone. It's a lot of work and communication, and it's ongoing.

We've been taught you're supposed to have your separate professional concerns and your personal concerns, but there's always this intersection. I think the work we're doing is very personal, because everybody's going home and eating, making food choices and trying to make good food choices. We talk about how challenging it is. We're obsessed with food systems change, but how hard is it to nourish yourself and your family on a daily basis, while also trying to provide income and opportunity and all of those things? You need a community to do that kind of transformational change.

Krysten mentioned our staff — and I totally agree with that — and I would also say the people we get to partner with outside of our staff too can make these changes happen. That requires a lot of communication and not honing into our little territories, but remembering that greater shift and that we're pieces of this puzzle that we're all trying to figure out. There's a reason the farm doesn't exist outside of the organization; it's part of a larger conversation.

And you are going to have to talk about race, class, and gender. And that makes things messy and uncomfortable and challenging — and you're going to fail at times because it's aspirational.

Krysten: Taking the time to invest in relationships is I think one thing that is undervalued in our society. And I think it's one of the most important ways to be able to create change, because it's difficult. It's really difficult, but it's one of the most important things.

Cristina: And again if you're talking about building relationships, I think some of that relates to the feminization of work and devaluing it instead of elevating it so that it's just as important as any other skill.

La Semilla Farm. Image by Olivia Dominguez.

La Semilla Farm. Image by Olivia Dominguez.

La Semilla’s mission is to foster a healthy, self-reliant, fair, and sustainable food system in the Paso del Norte region of southern New Mexico and El Paso, Texas. Established in 2010. La Semilla's work is community based, not simply community placed. It operates on the understanding that communities have the wisdom and ability to determine their own food and economic destinies. La Semilla's organizational strategies are informed by engaging with the community's wisdom to cultivate a food system based on shared values — dignity, beauty, supporting and celebrating local food, community involvement, cultural traditions and innovations, and ensuring safe, healthy (for people and ecosystems), and affordable food for everyone. La Semilla is led by a four-woman leadership team, driving the mission of creating a fair and sustainable local food system and riding on the frontier of nonprofit development with an innovative leadership model, holistic programming, and using food systems work as a tool for racial and gender healing.

Recipe: Ceviche de Coliflor

Words: Cristina Dominguez-Eshelman and Krysten Aguilar

Tricia English