What do you do when business as usual no longer proffers? I’ve posed this question to myself, and to friends and colleagues, regarding personal relationships, jobs, careers, nonprofits, and policies. I have found myself asking this question a lot throughout my life, and most recently I’ve asked myself and many others this question since I’ve taken on a leadership role for the Gardening and Cooking Program (here on referred to as the Program) at the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD). This is a particularly important question to revisit as an opportunity for growth and success. I struggle with it, coming to terms with the fact that things no longer work the way I thought they should and that there’s a role I may play in supporting positive change.
At the point where the end and the beginning intersect is when decisions could be made, when adaptability begets possibility. Consider the importance of timing and trending next steps to drive change. The only thing constant in life is change. The alternative is often stagnation or disintegration. Knowing when the ripe moment for change is and how to mobilize a sensitive transition is key, and not always successful.
I was shown a TED talk recently at a management retreat, where the speaker describes change as uncomfortable, rather than as hard. He offers examples of what is hard, saying that raising children as a single parent in poverty is hard, being a foot soldier in war is hard. We so often coddle change as being something incredibly hard, when really it’s something that gets us out of our comfort zone and forces us to be unnatural for a little while.
I’ve struggled with spearheading change to rethink our modes of operation within the Program. The Program was broke. Ongoing funding of over $1.9 million from a federal grant was gone. Our pockets were empty and we had secured contracts and staff positions, and we had developed habits of how we engaged with the District, parents, students, and the Berkeley community. As a governing body, a school district has responsibilities that a private or nonprofit organization does not have. When describing this anecdotally to colleagues, they respond with their own experiences with loosing funding sources or quickly transitioning without the same political and institutional stronghold and responsibility. Being an institution with authority and accountability is both a hindrance and a necessary framework for counterbalancing influences with a system for regulating how we provide a public good. The fact that we can’t just lay off a whole staff and debunk a beloved program because we had lost funding forced us to get creative and be a responsible community member.
The California Nutrition Network (CNN), the state-granting branch within the California Department of Public Health, wasn’t getting the same amount of funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Education budget. Once the new farm bill was finally signed in 2014, after more than five years of heated debate, nutrition assistance and education programs got cut across the board. This affected all nutrition education programs throughout the country, not just the one at BUSD. City and County Public Health Departments were now receiving the dwindling federal grant funds that had previously generously funded our Program for about twelve years.
Change, it is sometimes more than a drag and often affects more than just those directly involved.
How do you tell the story of loss in a way that inspires people? I had to engage in a lot of challenging conversations, often many times over in different ways, and in repetition with the same people. The quicksand of reality isn’t always as fast sinking and being steadfast is a slow and steady race. However, the Program didn’t have that much time. I had to make a lot of difficult decisions and some people are still holding onto what once was and what could have been if we had more than a million dollars and operated more like a non-governmental organization. My heart aches for those that have worked with such commitment and passion to grow this program at each school. There’s a mourning process that we have to allow for, because the Program is more than an educational opportunity in Berkeley. In condolence, I offer that what is and what will be is equally exciting, though uncomfortable, and important to BUSD’s educational goals and Berkeley’s community, it will just look different. This is not always well received.
Some of the most uncomfortable changes that were made last school year were beyond the dire state of funding, though not divorced from it. The Program used to fit under BUSD’s Nutrition Services Department, the same department that runs the cafeterias. The Program also used to strictly instruct students from early child education to high school on the value of eating healthy and seasonally. Students and parents rallied with strong affection for the instructional specialists (the formal title of those that hold either the position of gardening instructional specialist or cooking instructional specialist at BUSD, which is different than a teaching title), some of whom were laid off or who’s instructional time got cut. Many schools had two instructional specialist, one for cooking and one for gardening, most of who established senior positions within the District and some started as AmeriCorps instructing gardening at one or two schools in support of parent lead efforts. We now support only gardening instructional specialists at all schools, except the high school.
The continual grant was a fortunate opportunity that afforded the District a Program that was outside of the District’s budgeting process and allowed for a lot of autonomy. In response to these changes, the Program was placed under Education Services and was charged to support District efforts to teach the standards, such as science, math, and language arts, if it was to continue to be part of the instructional day and not be part of afterschool projects.
Sometimes change feels sudden, regardless of how long the change had been talked about. The funding cuts were rumored for a couple years before the federal and state decisions were made, though fingers were crossed and false promises of fundraising for a public school district’s staff salaries and benefits were made. When the fingers uncrossed and the promises faced reality, the Program came head on with many questions about its future. Now that we lost our funding and focus: Who were we? What were we? Who did we serve, and how? The answers to these questions needed to also think about: What are our guidelines and who manages us? How did we afford it, and who would take ownership? The list of questions went on, sometimes in a furry, and sometimes with not enough furry and too late.
These are disruptive questions that can cause a panic, and they did. They made people feel distressed and sometimes alone in the situation. They ask people to look at themselves and their work. This is emotional and self-effacing, and yes, uncomfortable. I commend those that took on these questions. I admire those that tried to answer them honestly and with perspective and foresight. I am not sure I was able to fully answer them in this way, but that was my intention.
The Program may have been at a tipping point. I grappled with what would happen if it all fell down, because that was a very real possibility, and whether Program staff could be uncomfortable with something new and entertain the struggle towards reconstruction. At the end of last school year, the Berkeley School Board made an unprecedented move to fund the Program for another year in 2014-2015, and approved a Program proposal that committed to piloting a new garden-based learning curriculum that connected student learning of science and English language arts to the school garden with lessons co-taught by classroom teachers and garden instructional specialists. This School Board’s approval demonstrated thoughtful leadership and commitment to being a world-class model for whole child education. This has never happened before in any other school district.
I needed to choose the right moment with foresight and stress the importance of perseverance to repair the situation. I spent last year going to a lot of meetings and listening to what was important to the many different stakeholders: students, parents, PTA, the School Board, principals, teachers, educators, community-based organizations and institutions working to improve the food system and affect education, and local businesses and restaurants that were invested in connecting youth to where their food comes from. I had a better understanding of the commitment from Program staff and the school community. Students were often attached to their garden or cooking instructor, they had formed personal relationships with them over the years and the instructors had added value and connectivity to individual school gardens.
I also talked with many people about our Program that where from the City, County, State, and nonprofits with programs providing a similar education. The Program at BUSD was often confused with the Edible Schoolyard Project (ESY), which is hosted at King Middle School within the District and prospers with successful fundraising efforts by Alice Waters, a nationally celebrated chef and good food advocate. The ESY team consists of fantastic educators and they are national leaders in this type of work. I worked in close collaboration with Kyle Cornforth, the Director of the ESY Berkeley, to develop our new garden-based curriculum and training—the garden-based curriculum will be published and piloted in September 2014. We are lucky to have the ESY team in our backyard and we’re establishing a true partnership; however, our struggles are different and this needs to be better communicated as part of our Program change.
The Program has an opportunity to continue to impact many stakeholders, with our collective focus on student growth and education. This year, the Program is providing a rich gardening-based education to eleven elementary schools, three early childhood education centers, two middle schools—not counting the middle school that ESY resides at—and one transitional high school. We have a lifeline for another year. We’re going to focus on what we do and how we do it and consistently do it really well across the many schools as the first and only District-wide Program of this kind. We’re not going to stretch ourselves too thin or take on more than we can chew, but we are going to say yes as much as possible. We’re going to say yes to trying new things and yes to tackling the challenging questions. We’re going to be flexible to better-fit teacher’s needs and still reach students with invaluable lessons that foster relationships with students and families and provide guidance on good food systems.
Practicing this kind of change is going to take us out of our comfort zone, but I am confident that we can align our efforts and collaborate with the expansive school community to work towards common goals in educating our youth and building community.