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CAGJ Activist Profile: Sara Lavenhar

Sara stands in front of a cream colored door, smiling wryly at the cameraFor the month of January, we are highlighting the work of Sara Lavenhar. Sara first joined CAGJ as an intern in 2011, volunteered for the SLEE dinner for several years, and coordinated the 2020 SLEE Dinner. She is currently supporting CAGJ operations and organizational development. When not working, Sara focuses on writing and crafting, and hopes to expand writing into a career over the next few years.

What led you to working with CAGJ? In 2011 I spent the summer in Seattle while I was studying environmental science and sustainable development at undergrad. I’d begun focusing my studies around sustainable food systems, and I got myself a job at Subway that crystallized for me many of the problems of our current system in a way a classroom couldn’t. I knew I needed to find something to balance learning from a fast-food empire, and a bit of searching led me to CAGJ internships. I applied at one of the busiest times of the year for CAGJ – right before SLEE! I had the pleasure of volunteering at SLEE that year and later in the summer organizing a Teach-out at Clean Greens Farm. A few years after I graduated and moved to Seattle, I began working with a nonprofit that shared an office with CAGJ, so I continued to volunteer for SLEE and got to see the ongoing hard work of everyone involved at CAGJ. Once I left my position at that nonprofit, I wanted to get more involved with CAGJ again and was hired as the SLEE Coordinator in 2020. Since then I’ve been supporting CAGJ in an operational capacity.

What does food sovereignty mean to you? For me, food sovereignty is about not only the right to participate in food systems, but the act of participation itself. Communities come together to both create a food system that is healthy and equitable, and to manage it for the generations to come. Sometimes when I see statements about the future of sustainable food, there is this implied idea that once we reach some nebulous vision of “sustainable,” that’s it. That’s the end of the story. We’ve fixed it for our grandkids. Hooray!

If only it were so simple. This planet, in all its glorious complexity, is a living system. To paraphrase my favorite author Victoria Goddard, a thing must change and grow to be alive. Creating that new world in which we’ve achieved global food sovereignty is an enormous undertaking, as is stewarding us through whatever next steps we may take. For all that that sounds daunting, the fact that everyone eats, and therefore everyone has a vested interest in food systems, is a great point of joy for me. There are so many ways for individuals to engage and support this forward vision in their community, and that gives me hope.

Where do you see CAGJ in 5-10 years? The word ‘alliance’ is in our name, and although it’s maybe not as obvious an element of our work as some things, CAGJ’s coalition work is an undercurrent to almost everything we do. In 5-10 years I can see this being even more important – we need to address multifaceted challenges with multifaceted solutions. I see us broadening and deepening our partnerships with different stakeholders, and together achieving campaign successes large and small.

Can you tell us one favorite aspect of your work with CAGJ? I frequently bring up how much I love CAGJ’s organizational culture, and how clear it is to me that it was developed intentionally. My previous nonprofit experience left me severely burned out and doubting my own ability, and chronic health issues have made it so I can only work part-time. Working at CAGJ is a gift and a breath of fresh air. We celebrate each other and the little day-to-day victories as well as the big wins. We give and ask for feedback all the time. And we support each other when we’re struggling. Due to my health issues, it’s really hard for me to go out to actions and events most of the time. In my role, I get to do operational work so our organizers and activists can focus on what they do best instead of having to learn how to wrangle systems they’re not always familiar with. I’m not just seen as The Technical Person (I am, however, fondly referred to by Heather as the Tech Goddess, and I’ll accept that lovely title!) – I’m valued for every contribution I make, even if it isn’t program work.

What is one growing edge you think CAGJ can work on? A big challenge for nonprofits like CAGJ is how to preserve institutional knowledge – things that individuals know, relationships they have which need to be nurtured even after they’ve moved to other work, their skill sets, and so on. We’ve started considering and implementing ways to preserve some of that institutional knowledge for the organization as a whole in a few areas, and I would love to see that work become part of our regular processes. CAGJ has a rich history, and a rich present; I want as much of that retained for us to celebrate, reflect on, and learn from as we can.

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