I started at Equal Exchange almost two years ago, as a sales rep in Philadelphia. The path that led me here to our co-op was not the most intentional. I went on a series of brutal interviews for a personal assistant job to try to get my foot in the door somewhere in the environmental and community building fields. I spent a year going through interviews, and felt the humanless nature of the whole process; I was a number or name on a piece of paper. I applied to Equal Exchange with little knowledge of Fair Trade and the cooperative movement, but was attracted to a line in the mission statement to work toward a “more equitable, democratic and sustainable world.”
Upon being hired I was warmly welcomed into a community that valued learning, autonomy and risk taking in order to learn. I quickly felt valued as a member of a bigger collective with a shared vision. I felt supported and encouraged. Not only did Equal Exchange value me as a worker and member, but my voice was heard and thoughts valued. During my time spent working in Equal Exchange’s sales department, I had a supervisor that consistently encouraged me to find spaces where I could nurture my skills and passions. The opportunity to work more closely with Equal Exchange’s mission came along through the Organizer position last year and I decided to go for it. With no community organizing experience, I had a team that was again willing to give me a shot.
The Equal Exchange Action Forum is a space within Equal Exchange for individuals to join a virtual and physical community to network, learn and challenge the injustices within our food system. It’s a vehicle to build an authentic and democratic community, and a tool to foster connections and relationships that will connect us to each other and our food. As an Organizer for the Action Forum I see myself as a dot connector to help facilitate building an even bigger community with our customers and allies. Despite the system’s power to commodify every aspect of our lives, including our abilities to connect with one another, here we have the opportunity to create something anew. That element is what truly inspires me to get up and do this work every day. Equal Exchange to me has always been about creating community and fostering connections to people.
Frankie Pondolph, center, with Equal Exchange Co-President Rob Everts, left, and Co-Organizer Danielle Robidoux at an Action Forum event in Jamaica Plain, MA. Photo by Alexander Novakovic, The Daily Free Press.
Today, our growing Action Forum community has around 400 members spanning three different time zones. Our membership is diverse in age, background and passions; each person has a different relationship to Equal Exchange or connection to the work we have been putting forth for 30 years. This, to me, is one of the most fascinating parts about creating the Action Forum: the space to build something organically together. It really is about showing up, having conversations with one another and slowly building something that gives everyone a seat at the table to create the future we’d like to see.
This June we are hosting the first-ever gathering of this growing community, bringing together Equal Exchange worker-owners, our farmer partners and Action Forum members for two days of planning, learning and sharing together. The People’s Food System Summit will include sessions on climate change and its affect on our producer partners, the corporatization of our food system, and alternative food distribution models. The second day is carved out specifically for planning with members on how we may mobilize around an action in the upcoming year.
In many ways this work feels like returning to our roots, 31 years in. The Action Forum creates a space to allow the humanness and relationship building to continue to be a part of what makes Equal Exchange so unique and special. A space where we can take risks, learn, and innovate together. To do this we need to hear your stories, your challenges and your vision.
I hope we can continue to grow the Action Forum community and to continue to use Equal Exchange as a vehicle to propel systematic change - for a more equitable, democratic and sustainable world.
“I salute the present generation. Hang on to one of your most precious parts of youth, laughter - don’t lose it as many of you have seem to have done, you need it. Together we may find some of what we are looking for - laughter, beauty, love and the chance to create.”
-- Saul Alinsky, community organizer