As is sometimes the case, Ana's job title just didn't fit in the space available, so we want to point out that while she is an Agroecology Educator, she works more specifically with students of the Bay Area Farmer Training and Certificate in Applied Agroecology, a new program offered by the Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture (MESA Program).
This minor graphic issue is a great metaphor for how hard it is to sum up all of Ana's parts into one brief and cohesive whole. As you'll soon learn, she is so many things to so many people, and ultimately that is what being an educator is all about.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
It was in 2004, more than 13 years ago. At that time, I was a young student getting my degree in biology at the Universidad de Antioquia, in Colombia. It was a complicated time, as I was wearing many hats - I was both a young student as well as a single mother of a 4-year-old boy. My training as a biologist was basically focused on molecular biology and biotechnology. Throughout my studies I wondered, "How could biotechnology serve my country and me? Will I be able to get a job in this country in biotechnology?" The answers to these questions were nebulous and uncertain.
One day I saw a small notice on one of the walls of the university saying that UC Berkeley Agroecology Professor Clara Nicholls was going to be giving a workshop on agroecology at the postgraduate school (in Colombia, graduate and undergraduate students usually do not mix). Luckily, I managed to enter the workshop. Hearing for the first time what agroecology is, and its potential to improve the quality of life for people like me in countries like mine, I immediately understood that I wanted to be an agroecologist. Agroecology, at its core, is a holistic science with a social commitment, which immediately resonated with me.
Since that day and without a pause I have been involved in agroecology, and for the last 12 years I have been a committed student, educator, researcher and activist in agroecology and food justice.
How did you get your current good food job?
I got my good food job with lots of hard work, dedication and with the collaboration and trust of my friends and colleagues. After meeting Dr. Clara Nicholls in Colombia, she helped me to become a visiting student at UC Berkeley. Since then I have worked continuously with her and her husband, the renowned Chilean agroecologist Miguel Altieri. Thanks to these connections, when I became an immigrant in the United States in 2008, I was able to meet a group of active people within the Food Justice Movement in the Bay Area, including my friend and former employee of the Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture (MESA), Natalia Pinzon.
While I was getting my Master's degree at UC Berkeley, I did a series of interviews with activists in the Food Justice Movement. Through that project I also had my first introduction to MESA when I interviewed one of its employees, my friend and colleague Leah Atwood, who is the Director of Partnerships here. In early 2016, MESA was hiring an educator in agroecology and food justice. They were looking for somebody who has skills to work with people from vulnerable backgrounds, especially the formerly incarcerated, immigrants and refugees. They wanted an agroecologist who had the tools in critical and multicultural pedagogy. They asked my teachers and tutors Clara Nicholls and Miguel Altieri for advice and my name appeared. Leah and Natalia already knew me, and after an interview with our partner organization Planting Justice, I got the job!
I am now one of two educators of the Bay Area Farmer Training Program (BAFTP) as well as our online training course, MESA's Certificate in Applied Agroecology (Our next cohort starts May 31st! Learn more.) Getting the job I have now was a balanced combination between having the right preparation and always pursuing my passion for this work, being at the right place at the right time and being part of a supportive and aligned network of people in the food movement.
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
I have been working in agroecology for over 12 years. For many of those years I have been a teacher of people in situations of vulnerability. Being Colombian, the granddaughter of farmers, a single mother, a migrant, a biologist and an agroecologist, has put me in the situation of continually questioning my own privileges and dismantling my own oppressions. I practice what I teach, which is crucial and key to my success in connecting with my students. I am a committed and passionate educator, and I am many other things as well. I make a living by educating, connecting ideas and people, building bridges in times of walls, sowing seeds of hope in the minds and bodies of my students, nurturing their creativity, and questioning the unquestionable. I feel profoundly blessed.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
Jobs like the one I have now are very difficult to get for people like me. I do not want to victimize myself - I am far from being a victim - but in my opinion, this is not said enough: it is not easy to be an immigrant in the USA. Immigrants here are very diverse. Many of us have professions when we arrive, but the system prevents or makes it very difficult for us to continue a career in our fields. This is how many of us, especially women, end up in the service sector taking care of children or elders, working in restaurants, cleaning, selling food, or in some cases teaching languages (Spanish in my case) or some other skill that we have. Nothing is wrong with any of these jobs, but the problem is when you have to do it because the possibilities of working in your desired profession have been closed to you. Language is a major constraint, as well as lack of connections, professional licenses, validations of titles - all are difficult and expensive procedures. I overcame all those obstacles. It has been a long process and a work in progress, and I have had a lot of collaboration, but it has been worth it.
Name one positive thing that a former employer taught you that you continue to appreciate?
With few exceptions, the people I work with become my friends and my community. Then I do not see any of them as "managers" or "bosses" - they are my community. I have received wonderful lessons from many people in my agro-ecological community.
I will mention some: I have received profound lessons of dignity, resistance and resilience from small farmers and peasants around the world, especially in Latin America. They have been victims of violence, abandonment of the state, globalization and predatory capitalism, but nevertheless when they open the doors of their home and their heart there is always good talk, good food and the underlying message saying, "We are here and here we will stay".
I have received deep lessons in diplomacy, creativity and negotiation from my professors and teachers in many educational institutions, who, despite working in organizations that reproduce the neoliberal and patriarchal status quo, seek their niche and do their work.
I have received powerful lessons from multiple social movements around the world, especially in the global south. They have taught me to be efficient and strategic in using my resources and time and to understand that the whole is more complex and more powerful than the sum of its parts.
I have received deep lessons of sisterhood from many women in many corners of the planet. They have taught me that in spite of all our differences, conflicts and contradictions we all experience, albeit differently and to varying degrees, the consequences of patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism, and that we must fight with all our strength to dismantle them inside and outside ourselves.
I have received deep lessons of love, patience and support from my family. They have taught me the most important lesson of my life: to believe in myself. Also, I have received deep and magical lessons from Mother Earth, of which I will not speak much because they are certainly evident for all.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
As humanity we have the opportunity to radically and definitively heal our food system. By food system I mean all the processes that occur from the time food is planted in the field until it is consumed, including elements related to education, politics and public health. We are now facing a profound, unprecedented civilizational crisis. Humans can live without Internet and without computers, but we would not survive without food, without water and without air. Food has the potential to give us life and health or death and illness. The current food system is killing us all at different levels but without exception, because it is killing the planet, and without a planet there is no humanity.
So, I see the future of food in agroecology. As humanity, we have the opportunity to build a system based on agro-ecological agriculture, working with nature and not against it; redistributing wealth, valuing diversity at all levels; and recovering natural resources. A food system based on liberation rather than the oppression of anything or anyone, I think it is how a truly sustainable food system should be.
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
You do not really make a lot of money doing what I do; however, I live with a lot of dignity. I am already compensated with many things more than money for my work. I work in an environment full of love and support, where there is dialogue and respect. My team works tirelessly to make this planet a better place; that is a great compensation. I work with great students, people who want to learn, who go to my class because they want to be in my class, not because they need the credits or the grades, people with fantastic ideas, wanting to make of their lives and this planet a better place. That is a great compensation. I am part of a vibrant and active social movement, the movement of Food Justice in the Americas, and with all our contradictions, we are a group of warm and passionate people who work tirelessly to make this planet a better place. That is a great compensation.