Katie Brimm – Food Sovereignty Tours Program Director at Food First and Activist

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Katie Brimm, Food Sovereignty Tours Program Director at Food First and Activist, is well-spoken, thoughtful, and passionate about her work. From studying Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to leading an international education program building food sovereignty, Katie works hard every day to end the injustices that cause hunger. Katie encourages young people to “keep asking questions” and to travel “alone at least once in your life.”

Read on to learn more about what a day in Katie’s life looks like, her top three travel tips, and how traveling around the world has influenced her.

Name: Katie Brimm
Education: B.A. in Global and International Studies from University of California, Santa Barbara
Follow: foodfirst.org
Location: Oakland, California

Carpe Juvenis: How do you define ‘Seizing Your Youth’?

Katie Brimm: Doesn’t youth seize you?

CJ: You majored in Global and International Studies from University of California, Santa Barbara. How did you decide what to major in?

KB: I’ve never been a linear person, so choosing a major was complicated. I allowed myself the first year to take lots of different courses, though mostly I was interested in social and environmental science. Honestly, I started looking at the course book and read the descriptions of each class and paid attention to those that made me light up, intellectually and emotionally, and realized that Global Studies allowed me not only to take those courses with incredible professors, but also to craft my own learning and leverage my education to fit the needs of communities and issues I wanted to serve.

I don’t think anyone should be in positions of influence (from politicians, scientists and writers to engineers) without a broad understanding of the interdisciplinary effects of their decisions on our world – ecologically, socially, politically, and culturally. Global Studies demanded that type of nexus thinking that is so central to what I do in my work now.

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CJ: You worked as a communications intern at Un Techo Para Mi País (A Roof for my Country) in Santiago, Chile, and collaborated on a project to create Chile’s first recycling program in slums (Campamientos). That’s amazing! What were your biggest takeaways from this experience?

KB: That experience gave me a deep look into relationships of power and foreign interests, no matter how well intentioned they may be. I quickly realized that the rhetoric I had for environmentalism was very US-centric – “Green” didn’t even make sense there at that time. Our first proposals came from our own desires that prioritized more of an environmentalist development agenda, and we had little support. It wasn’t until we gave over decision-making to the matriarchs in the community that the project started to take root – while the communities were not excited about “green living,” what they were excited about was meeting their actual needs: clean water and clean streets.

It was decided that money from the recycling program would go towards building water towers under the direction of these women leaders and the nonprofit would help with logistical concerns. Without meaning to, I got my first induction into the complexities of community-based development.

CJ: You have also had experiences as a 5Point Film Festival Dream Project Coordinator and interning as a policy analyst for Food First. What skills did you learn from these experiences and how do they apply to your work now?

KB: Through both of those experiences I learned a lot of about setting my own deadlines, the importance of creating my own work-plans and goals, and how to work independently while also part of an overarching team. I learned the value of being organized to the point where a third party can easily follow your work and know what they need to do to fill in. I learned how to stand up for the interest and mission of the programs I was in charge of first and foremost.

Most importantly, I learned how to zero in on what inspired me most in the work and let it illuminate the rest of the tasks – all work is going to have parts of it you find tedious or boring so it’s important to sustain yourself with the passion you hopefully feel for the mission. At 5Point, I loved working directly with the young students – their dreams and energy helped fuel me in making the program stronger.

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CJ: You now work as the Program Director at Food Sovereignty Tours, Food First’s first educational travel program. Please tell us more about this great travel program and what your role as Program Director entails.

KB: In 2010, on the heels of a global food, financial and climate crisis, Food First launched Food Sovereignty Tours (FST), an educational program focused on helping activists, researchers and concerned citizens to understand an increasingly complex global food system and engage in informed activism upon their return home, while also magnifying the voices of those struggling to carve out alternative, people-centered food systems around the world.

With a firm commitment to sustainability and justice, the tours connect participants to the farmers, consumers, NGOs, policy-makers and experts working to transform the global food system. On each tour, local hosts also provide an overview of their country’s history, culture, politics, ecology and agriculture. We now go to Bolivia, Cuba, Italy, Mexico, South Korea, Hawaii, and the Basque Country. Drawing lessons from the benefits and pitfalls of ecotourism, agritourism and justice tourism, our program works to emphasize and strengthen social movements as the main force for transformative change.

I work with a team that shifts throughout the year depending on the region I’m working with, so my role is to act as the US “headquarters” for this program: I design our public interface, market and promote each tour to potential participants, handle communications with participants, fundraise for the scholarship program, collaborate to create educational content published through our newsletter, oversee the development of the tour with our in-country Tour Operators, coordinate with Food First Researchers who create the tour focus, itinerary, and act as guides, and I occasionally help lead different delegations. Each tour has a focus that relates to food sovereignty (a social movement centered on people’s right to define their own food systems). For instance, we take delegations to Cuba to learn how the nation converted almost exclusively and successfully to organic agriculture, or to Bolivia to look at how the US demand for quinoa has impacted traditional farming.

We believe that alternative, educational travel is a way to replace feelings of apathy and hopelessness with deeper understanding and empowerment, and we hope that leads to action post-tour.

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CJ: Food First is an organization that works hard to end the injustices that cause hunger. Why does this issue matter to you and what can young people who are interested in this cause do to make a difference?

KB: At Food First, we believe food is political, so something as quotidian as lunch can actually be seen as a political act that has broad implications. So just by asking questions about the food, the people who make/serve/pick/produce your food, and where it’s coming from, young people can already be on the verge of making big differences. Keep asking questions, and sharing what you learn. That’s a lot of what we do at Food First!

It’s important to remember though that along with small acts and questioning, what we need is larger, systemic transformation, which takes time and people power! What we do as individuals in this lifetime needs to be seen as part of a historic movement and future trajectory – many small radical acts done by many people working together may someday change everything for the better.

Everyone needs food to survive – yet it is treated just like any other commodity traded on the free market. Food and agriculture are a part of every single person’s life, and by using it as a lens at Food First, we are able to also connect to many other important issues from climate change to racism. Working to understand the complexity behind our food system is liberating – change the rules, and we might just end hunger and injustice. Continue with our current system? Well, we can see that’s just not an option.

CJ: You have traveled extensively throughout Europe and Latin America. How has traveling around the world influenced you?

KB: Travel is a complicated beast. On one hand, I feel critical of tourism in general, though my current work is a form of it. On the other hand, traveling at a young age undid my little structured box of reality, making me realize that those walls were made up of assumptions and myths about how the world can work and how people have to relate to each other. I don’t know if I would be doing the same work I am today had I not had those experiences.

This world is also so highly globalized, and so many of our actions (and our governments’ actions) affect communities across the globe. Meals shared with people outside your worldview have the chance to be revolutionary – they can foster a deep connection beyond your own life that can also contribute to solidarity.

Of course, I should note that on a personal/professional level, travel also taught me independence, courage, strength and stick-to-itiveness. But more selfishly and simply, travel has always just brought a lot of joy, rejuvenation, and a deep richness to my life that goes beyond any words.

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CJ: What are your top three traveling tips?

KB: 1.) Take public transportation as much as possible. Not only is it cheaper, you can also tell a lot about a place by its transportation, and you end up seeing what life is really like in the region for the people who actually live there. You also end up seeing parts of the city/region you wouldn’t normally have access to. It always took away my ‘traveler fear’ once I’d figured out how to get myself places on public transportation.

2.) Before you go, learn about the history and culture of the region, and chart out at least a skeletal idea of where you’d like to be and things you want to see. Once you’re there, don’t check your social media or emails, don’t search the internet or use an app to get you around. Just ask. If you don’t know the language (which, if you’re going to travel somewhere, at least learn a few words!) use props and pantomime – you’ll get a whole different experience.

3.) Try traveling alone at least once in your life.

CJ: Every day in your life must look different depending on your projects and the time of year, but what does a Monday look like for you?

KB: I usually get treated to a beautiful breakfast from my partner early on Monday, even though he is in a Ph.D. program (I’m very lucky, but it’s also a good reminder that work-life balance can be achieved in small ways).

Then, I try to do some writing and reading to start off to keep me informed of the different issues we work on as well as give me fodder for social media or future blogs. I’m working on a piece now about food justice and militarization in Hawai’i, so I have to carve out time in the mornings to write. I also always create a work plan on Monday for the week to keep me focused and moving on different projects despite the ‘fires’ that might rear themselves that I can’t plan for.

Then I check and respond to urgent emails. I’ll usually have a Skype call with someone in another country to go over itineraries or updates about anything from logistical to political changes in-country that might affect the tour. At the Food First office we have a garden and a kitchen, so depending on the week I may cook lunch for staff and interns, but we trade off.

I will then prep marketing materials and content to go out Tuesday morning (press releases, flyers, contact sheets). Afternoons are usually meetings and participant communications. Evenings we often have local events – the Oakland community is alive with community actions and events around the issues we focus on, and we do our best to help facilitate by co-hosting, organizing, or just showing up in support.

CJ: How do you stay organized and manage your time?

KB: I find it helpful to always imagine someone else will be looking at my work – even if it’s just my to-do list, calendar, or Dropbox folders. That way, I have to keep things logically organized. I also try to make daily plans that will be down to the hour and minute with tasks, then weekly work plans to keep me on track, and monthly days devoted to certain aspects of my job.

I wear many hats in my position, as many people do in small nonprofits, so I actually set days like “be an accountant, be a marketer, be a researcher” so that I can shift to different areas of my brain rather than try to keep jumping around all day. It doesn’t always happen that way, but it helps to keep me focused.

I have been also working to understand the difference between ‘important’ and ‘urgent.’ I prioritize things that are both, but make sure that I carve time out for work that may not have a deadline attached to it or can be checked of a list, but that relates to our overall mission. This helps decrease the feeling of being too busy or always putting out fires, and helps keep me moving forward on larger goals for the program, like building our scholarship program for young activists, people of color, and farmers.

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CJ: What are some books, resources, and websites that have influenced you – either personally or professionally (or both)?

KB: Well, of course Food First’s website and many of our publications – most notably Food Rebellions. I’m currently reading Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver and am so impressed how she weaves critical analysis, creative voice, and ecology into her stories – I’d love to write like that! I’m a part of many different LISTSERVs as well – comfood (through Tufts University) being one of them – it always helps bring to attention what others are working on or concerned/excited about it my field. There are so many awesome people and organizations working on important issues with resources – too many to list here!

CJ: When you’re having a bad day, what do you do to reset?

KB: I go for a walk around the block and try to find a dog to pet. But really, everyone has bad days, and I think rather than focus on resetting, it’s better to just accept that you’re having a bad day and leave it at that, or name what it is that made it bad, voice it (to yourself or to your people), and then let it go and move forward.

CJ: What are you working to improve upon – either personally or professionally – and how are you doing so?

KB: Not to be a perfectionist. There is something to be said about attention to detail, drive, and producing brilliant work. But there is a sinister side to perfectionism that I think is tied to so much of the stress and anxiety and self-exploitation I see in young professionals. I’m working on this more through making sure I practice self-care and listening to the advice of “don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

KB: You are enough.

Katie Brimm Qs

Images by Katie Brimm

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