Finding Peace, Purpose, and Promise in Anti-hunger Advocacy

I hear from so many people of all ages, especially those my age and younger, about their lack of direction, or purpose. They seem to aimlessly stagger through life, hitting standard milestones associated with potential fulfillment, but deeply unsure of “what to do with their life.” Is that not a common occurrence? To varying degrees, at some point, that uncertainty is a requisite for the vast majority of us. Now, this is a bit pompous and indeed privileged of me, but, at some point, it takes substantial effort not to throw my hands up in exasperated bewilderment in response to those who lack direction (a slight exaggeration). Indulge me by thinking about this for a moment.

The answer to their predicament couldn’t be more straightforward – be an advocate. Dedicate some time and energy to advocating for the causes you care most about. It could be personal and/or professional, but I primarily want to discuss professional opportunities. Before we dive in, it’s important to know there are countless reasons why advocacy or change-making might not be desirable or suitable for someone. By no means are all advocacy spaces inclusive, racially equitable, or accessible. At the same time, not all advocacy has to look the same. I encourage reflection to discern how it might appropriately manifest for you in your space, community, ambitions, and life.

In that spirit, please envision this piece as my personal and impassioned plea to a generation of young adults and those behind us to claim advocacy work as a worthy, admirable, and life-sustaining professional pursuit, if not a bonus personal endeavor.

Generation Z, a spot in which I proudly claim, is acutely aware of the challenges we face as quarrelsome people on a delicate planet. There are countless problems with seemingly few solutions. Though, I challenge that notion. Of course, your feelings are valid. It’s appropriate to feel like you’re in a hellscape, but doesn’t every problem present a possibility for progress? Yes! I call that job security. Now, I know I’ve been lucky. I was asked to find solutions to some of the world’s most wicked problems when I was steered in the direction of anti-hunger work ten years ago. Ever since, it has been a constant in my life. 

Since September of last year, I’ve been even luckier to get to know some incredible anti-hunger organizations and work with remarkable people who are making progress possible for those they serve. From Hunger Free Oklahoma in Tulsa and Oklahoma City to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service in Washington, D.C., and around the country, I’ve learned what it looks like to devote at least a portion of one’s life to solving poverty-related hunger. 

Take Jessica Dietrich, for example. As the Director of Government Relations and Public Policy at Hunger Free Oklahoma (HFO), she helps to lead the way in achieving effective policy for low-income Oklahomans. Jessica was just recognized as one of Oklahoma’s Achievers Under 40. She has a degree in music.

Look at Chris Bernard in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has helmed the leadership team of Hunger Free Oklahoma since its inception. On multiple occasions, he’s been named one of Oklahoma’s most admired CEOs. He has a law degree and a degree in anthropology. 

Then, there’s Calvin Moore. Formerly of Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa, Calvin now serves as CEO of the Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. He, too, has been a most admired CEO in Oklahoma. Calvin has political science, theology, and finance/organizational management degrees.

Katie Oatsvall, currently leading Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa, as a recent TulsaPeople profile put it, “…[has] dedicated her career to helping the older adult population live as comfortably and vibrantly as possible.” She has degrees in business management and public administration.

There are people like Stacy Dykstra, who, not long ago, was named one of fifty women making a difference in Oklahoma. She’s currently the CEO of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. Stacy has degrees in early childhood education, instructional leadership, and academic curriculum.

Bailey Perkins Wright, a social impact strategist, community investor, inclusive collaborator, and advocacy consultant, is almost indescribable in pushing for progress in every space she works her way into. From the U.S. Capitol to the Oklahoma Capitol and the communities it represents — Bailey is recognized as one of the best. She has degrees in political science, history, and public administration.

The list of Tulsans of the Year in 2022 included young nonprofit entrepreneurs and changemakers like Evan Dougoud. Tangentially related to anti-hunger work, he founded the BeHeard Movement in 2021 to make a positive change for unhoused folks in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

At USDA FNS, there are people like Susan Ponemon, a public servant who has dedicated decades of her career to uplifting and improving federal nutrition programs that help so many of our low-income neighbors access the food and nourishment they need.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers like Devany Howard and Madeleine Williams are (I presume) two of USDA’s youngest program analysts. Others, like Rachel Polon, Alice McKenney, Anne Fiala, Carolina Martinez, Mimi Wu, and Kevin Maskornick, lead the teams that uphold and push forward the mission of FNS, which is to “…lead America in ending hunger and improving nutrition and health.” Those teams are full of some of the other brightest, most capable, and most driven folks I’m lucky to know: Kenya Pennington, Crishna Hill, Courtney Neubauer, Brittany O’Brien, Tanuja Kulkarni, Eric Marshall, Jill Ladd, Nafisah Olusekun, Laura Roth, Veniqua Stewart. 

Take, for example, the dozens of caring, informed, and committed folks that work at Hunger Free Oklahoma. Day in and day out, they “[Leverage] the power of collaboration to solve hunger in Oklahoma by improving systems, policies, and practices.” I would list all their names, but I have a word limit, so I’ll include a helpful link:

I share these names and their accolades not to boast about my rad LinkedIn connections (okay, maybe a little) but to share the stories of those who perhaps didn’t start in the world of anti-poverty or anti-hunger work yet made their way to it for one reason or another — and have succeeded in their pursuits. With their help, alongside the impervious efforts of Gen Z, I’m confident we’ll be the generation that ends hunger in this country.

In whatever you choose to do with your life and time, I sincerely hope you can see your work through an anti-hunger lens. Everyone has a role to play. Whether direct service, relationship building, public relations, project or program analysis, monitoring and evaluation, research, communication, art, grant writing, finance, operations, leadership, policy, or politics, you have a place in advocacy. And suppose I’ve convinced even an ounce of your being to step into anti-poverty and anti-hunger work. In that case, the experienced leaders introduced in this post will welcome you with open arms into this diverse work that is undoubtedly worthy (and in need) of your talents. 

After all, as President Theodore Roosevelt (and I) believed, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” I’m convinced few actions or paths you can take in your life are more gratifying and fulfilling than helping others. It’s a simultaneously selfless and selfish act to do so. We all know how it feels to contribute to something bigger, better, and more positively impactful than any of us can as individuals. It feels good. That’s okay in my book — more than okay, even — it’s that innate combination that helps sustain the long and often arduous work required to solve the immoral, unjust, and wholly unnecessary existence of hunger in our country, and elsewhere.

If, however, you ever come to question your motives, direction, or ability to positively affect the lives of others, feel guided by the wise words of Toni Morrison: “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”

May you find peace and the utmost fulfillment in work and/or personal endeavors that call you and the purpose that drives you. And may we all, especially those with the living experience of poverty and/or hunger, be better off because of it. I’ll be rooting for you.

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