The most valuable things I have learned in my fellowship thus far have been from MESA’s program participants, those going through our Agroecology Fellowship, Beekeeping Apprentice Program, or working on a partner farm. My takeaways have largely been intangible, I have learned a spirit and attitude of cooperation from our inspiring participants. Where MESA (Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture) is a nonprofit tasked with delivering this agroecology education, participants come with their backgrounds of working in communities, starting projects, and unbridled ambition. These folks are usually working professionals, just starting their agroecology journey, similar to myself. In MESA’s Agroecology Fellowship the idea of participatory education is made explicit, fellows are the ones leading the class and entrusted to teach their peers on a new topic each week.
The principles and content of the Agroecology Fellowship are guided by a tool called the Agroecology Flower, translated from Spanish, which emphasizes the social and political impacts of our food systems. The dynamic of a MESA classroom feels different than any institutional education course I have attended, these classes are offered for free (grant-funded by the USDA) and require buy-in from the cohort to function. I knew little about agroecology this time last year but have been motivated by MESA Fellows, Apprentices, and Interns — or what I call simply “program participants” — to examine the topic and how I learn.
Philosophizing over pedagogy isn’t what’s most important, though it is necessary when put into a role of facilitator of resources and access as I have been. I was tasked with the role of developing a grant application, tracking system, and promoting a “SPRIG mini-grant” for our Agroecology Fellows. This grant gives $200 directly to Fellows to host a transfer of knowledge event where they share their knowledge with their communities.
Whose knowledge is being extracted, shared, or furthered is put into perspective now that I’m in charge of deciding who gets funding to be able to share their knowledge.
In MESA’s Beekeeping Apprenticeship Program, delivered with EcoVillage Farm and Learning Center, this aspect of knowledge transfer is built into the program. This year long apprenticeship was started in 2021, before I joined the team but has become a focal point of my work. Seven apprentices meet at least once a month on the urban farm in Richmond, CA to learn hands-on the fundamentals of apiary, with access to tools and master beekeepers. This spring MESA and EcoVillage hosted hosting two public workshops where apprentices will share their knowledge with the community, which was a family friendly event over Easter weekend with activities for kids planned!
In planning the logistics for both the transfer of knowledge mini-grant and the beekeeping workshops, it’s easy to lose sight of why we want people to show up and attend. It’s not just for some grant deliverable, though that is a requirement, but to share knowledge. Successful community programs are participatory and do not keep their successes or failures in a silo. My role as a GrizzlyCorps fellow is to translate the implementation of the programming from the participant side to the administrative side. This type of role is what attracted me most to MESA and GrizzlyCorps. Even when I was ignorant of agroecology topics I knew that the impact and community development being done was a kind of work I wished to pursue. What this community work is depends on the day, the partner, and our organizational needs.
I view my work as anti-alienation efforts for myself and organization, a struggle that all nonprofits have as they battle for limited funds to implement programs in historically disadvantaged and exploited communities.
As a grounding question to this work, I ask myself how do I work to ensure that no harm is being done (unintentionally otherwise) while sincerely engaging and organizing around the specific programs that we are funded to operate? And how do we value the knowledge that already exists in these communities?
I was happy to learn that MESA is working with two established organizations in the East Bay (Center for Food Faith and Justice and EcoVillage) during my interview for this position. I knew that my work would span organizations and require trust to be built between myself and stakeholders. Building these relationships in my fellowship context has come with challenges, it’s hard to gain trust with a termed service commitment. Being flexible and allowed to make mistakes, bring ideas forward, and receive criticism is something that I’m grateful to my leaders and mentors for. This is what professional development looks like in this context, a knowledge that early-career workers need to develop to be successful.
Knowledge sometimes looks like knowing what you don’t know and seeking it out. What I came to know has been guided by my site supervisor, James Sarria, and MESA’s partners: EcoVillage, Center for Food Faith & Justice, Mission Resource Conservation District, Institute for Sustainability at CSU Northridge, and Empower School and Farm. Working across the state (and country in the case of Empower, located in Florida) with multiple partners to deliver programming has been an eye-opening experience to how nonprofits operate in this space.