A Natural Progression

By Taylor West

Three months ago I walked into a Food Justice class at Willamette University to invite students to attend the 2018 Mid-Valley Food Summit event that I planned as one of my primary RARE AmeriCorps projects. Although it was a brief and informal encounter, I was struck by the self-reflection it prompted about the factors leading up to that moment.

Tracing back to childhood, my father’s chronic illness first sparked an awareness of the connection between food, body, and mind. This gave me a powerful taste of culinary consciousness, and as I grew I was inspired to dig deeper into issues of health, sustainable agriculture, food security, and social justice. Throughout college, my focus in Environmental Studies deepened my understanding of the inextricable linkages between humans and their environments, and allowed me to explore these concepts in tangible ways. As light was shed on the raw truths about humanity, quite frankly I felt disheartened and baffled by what my role should be in ameliorating the injustices that ruthlessly plague society.

In my subsequent position as Undergraduate Coordinator for the very program that simultaneously invoked fire and fear into me, I helped students navigate the murky waters of channeling their care and concern for the state of the world into a meaningful career path. A feeling of hope always washed over me as I watched these students pursue their passions, temporarily tempering the sting of pessimism. As the wave subsided, feelings of uncertainty about my place in the larger picture rocked in its wake. Only when another student would sit down to discuss their future or the printer inevitably malfunctioned would I jolt back from my spiraling descent down Anxiety Avenue.

In my final year with the Environmental Studies Program, a cascade of events (but fortunately not the Cascadia event)  prompted me to re-evaluate whether this tiny desk was really where I was meant to sit the rest of my life, churning out an impressive group of fierce leaders, but nonetheless remaining glued to my meshy vinyl throne. I engaged in various opportunities to support the implementation of a Food Studies minor, develop a Food Security Working Group and plan the first campus FEAST event at the University of Oregon, provide food pantry clients with tasty recipes, and demonstrate how to make fresh raspberry vinaigrette salad at the Eugene Farmer’s Market. With a rumble in my stomach and flutter in my heart, I realized that the common thread that pulled my sleepy, introverted, and caffeine sensitive self out of bed every morning was food… (quite literally, my obsession with berry-bursting overnight oats gave me enough reason to rejoice upon waking).

Being catapulted into work that emphasized community food security illuminated a way for me to find greater purpose in the midst of social, political, and ecological chaos. Despite being comfortable in my job, I knew the time had come for me to take the advice I had offered to thousands of students over the years, and embark on a new path of my own. The seeds that had been planted throughout my life were burgeoning and beckoning me to take a leap of faith into the unknown world of RARE AmeriCorps.

I knew my placement was a good fit when I stepped in and saw my new work space speckled with posters proclaiming the joys of asparagus, brimming with banana boxes of food to be delivered to local pantries, and bustling with people diligently working to eradicate hunger in Marion and Polk Counties. I now find myself fully immersed in food systems work, permeating the principle that ensuring equitable access to fresh, affordable, and culturally appropriate food is an inherent human right and an integral part of building a sustainable local food system. Although this position is a sharp diversion from my previous job in many ways, I can see how it is a natural progression of my personal and professional journey to finding fulfillment in my life’s work.

As I shared my enthusiasm for the Food Summit with the Willamette University students that drizzly November day, I felt comforted by the familiarity of the classroom, inspired by their budding commitment to promoting food justice, and confident that I’m heading in a direction that resonates with my core values. It is often the obstacles overcome, the gripping fears faced, and the raggedy spaces of discomfort that stimulate significant personal growth. However, it is the seemingly trivial moments in between that offer a chance to recognize where we are and reflect on how far we have come. Appreciating the trials and triumphs leading up to the present moment may even provide unexpected insights for the future.

While I don’t exactly know what my next steps entail, this RARE opportunity has undoubtedly solidified my interests in addressing the root causes of hunger and empowering people to grow healthy, vibrant, and resilient communities. Each day I am gaining a better understanding of the history, challenges, assets, and opportunities rooted in the place I have always called home, but apparently know so little about. I am also learning to let go of the daunting uncertainty of the future by trusting that the pieces will continue to fall into place, much like the ingredients for my elaborate pizza creations that fuel these endeavors.

Standing at the podium to commence the official Food Summit event, my excruciating dread of public speaking briefly subsided as I focused my eyes on the vivacious vegetable centerpieces planted between guests, and contemplated the countless details that culminated in that moment. Looking back over approximately one to twenty-five years, I am overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunities that propelled me forward and the people that nourished my spirits along the way. As I careen down my career path, this awareness empowers me to dive into the sea of wicked problems with tenacity, patience, and self-assurance going forward.

A bit about Taylor West:

  • Currently serving as a Community Food Systems Coordinator with Marion-Polk Food Share.
  • Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies with Minors in Economics and Anthropology, University of Oregon, Spring 2014
  • People may be surprised… “I enjoy spending time listening to rap music and learning from hip hop as a powerful form of cultural expression. “

Does community development work interest you?  Are you looking for a life changing experience in rural Oregon?  Learn more about serving with the RARE AmeriCorps Program via our website: https://rare.uoregon.edu/application-process/member-application-proces

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