Lead NY is for committed leaders in the food, agriculture and natural resource sectors who wish to step up and make a difference in their community. In this article, Renee Ciardi, (NYFB - LeadNY Class 18), reflects on a LeadNY alumni trip, where 35 professionals from the agriculture, food, and natural resource sectors from the Northeast traveled to Puerto Rico to learn from local farmers and food industry experts. The group was hosted by non-profits and community organizers dedicated to working within local frameworks and using the island's natural ecology to evolve, thrive, and provide resources.
It feels impossible to showcase all we learned and experienced over our 10-days in Puerto Rico, tie that into my four-year journey in LeadNY, and to do so in just a few hundred words. The professional and personal growth I’ve undergone through this program is immeasurable and I will forever be grateful for the education and development of LeadNY. At our Syracuse session in January, we were asked to set professional and personal goals for the trip. I really benefitted from this task as I held myself accountable for reaching those goals and in doing so got the most out of this amazing opportunity.
A professional goal I set myself was to be present — seems simple enough. However, I have the tendency to always worry about the next step, focus on the future, rather than absorbing the moment. Our first few days were spent in Catano, facilitated by global service-learning provider Amizade, a non-profit that works with local community organizations to create social action. They introduced us to Caras con Causa, a local community development organization in this outskirt of San Juan. Here we did some service work for the community and met with Michael Fernandez, the Executive Director and Founder of Caras con Causa. He is very passionate and has been a driving force for his community. Their mission is to promote community development by coordinating projects that integrate different sectors of society to increase the resilience of all. He exposed us to the greed and corruption they deal with through Puerto Rican government, the barriers to the establishment of local, self-sustainable food systems, and how the communities are left to fend for themselves with little to no resources. Listening to Michael challenged me to stay on task of just being present and not jumping to “what’s next”; trying to solve the problem. Here we learned the value of “15% solutions” – trying to chip away at problems that we can’t possibly solve in one grand action, and that 15% is still progress.
I enjoyed all our visits throughout the trip but a few stops that I connected with the most were: Hacienda Tres Angeles, a “crop to cup” coffee operation on a mountainside in Adjuntas; Finka Hekiti, an agroforestry cocoa farm focused on preserving ecological diversity in Las Marias; and Martex Farms, a family-owned farm dedicated to growing, processing, packing, and shipping tropical fruits, mainly mangos and bananas in Santa Isabel. I felt most present and inspired by these farms, probably because I related to them and admired their way of life. Like our producers back home, they spoke passionately about what they do, the struggles they face, and their efforts to just keep pushing forward no matter the hurdle, simply because it’s what they love to do.
My family’s farm has been fortunate enough to have our seasonal workers come from Puerto Rico since the 50’s. One gentleman has been coming for over 25years. Felix is a leader in his community and from year to year would bring a son, son-in law or neighbor with him to work. One of my personal goals was to reach out to Felix while in Puerto Rico, hoping for the opportunity to visit where he lives and meet his family. I wanted to experience what he leaves behind year to year that makes this lifestyle worth it. I’ve known Felix for most my life but not on a deep, personal level. I know of his immediate family and he knows mine, we’d see each other almost every day during the season, but it rarely went further than talking about the weather or how the family at home was doing. I speak a little Spanish but there is a language barrier there that resulted in my lack of confidence to reach out to him. When we were asked to write down our goals in Syracuse, I knew I would have to follow through. How silly would it be to look back 10 years from now and have regret for an experience that I missed out on because I wasn’t fully confident in achieving it? Isn’t that the whole point of LeadNY, to grow from uncomfortable situations? Throughout the years several generations of my family have made the trip to Puerto Rico to visit the families that come to NY to work, to show them respect and appreciation. As the next generation how could I pass that up for fear of my own discomfort?
With help from my uncle, I communicated with Felix and learned that he lived in San Sebastian, a town near Rincon where we had our “free day”. He picked me up that Sunday and we spent the morning driving around his town. He was so proud to show me his community, where they get their groceries, his barber, the town center where they have farmers markets and live music, even where they take their animals to the vet. We visited the homes of other workers that have been at our farm, and he brought me into his home. But best of all, I met his wife. The immediate gratitude and love she had for me in the first minute of us meeting filled my heart. She took me in with open arms and didn’t let go until they dropped me off. It was in that moment that I fully understood, our families depend on each other.
At the beginning of the trip, our Amizade facilitator had us do an exercise to identify our “inner monsters”; something that worries us. My most daunting monster is related to having an off-farm career while still being capable of contributing to my family’s multi-generational farm and continuing that family history, while still being good stewards of our land. When standing in Felix’s home, I realized the next generation’s actions are not just for my family, but also for the families in Puerto Rico with ties to our farm, to continue living this beautiful lifestyle they’ve worked so hard to build.
Feeding people is a global issue, however, we were reminded that we need to “think globally and act locally”. Another quote my classmate Kim Feeney-London shared with us at the end of the trip better explains the feeling I have, not just from Puerto Rico, but in ending my time with LeadNY: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” – The Talmund. I am grateful that I was able to connect the “local” impact of my family’s farming operation to the communities in Puerto Rico we have important ties with.
Thank you to Larry, Andrea, the LeadNY board, alumni, and sponsors for continuing this program, it has changed my life. Thank you to my classmates for the forever bond we share and relationships we’ve built. You’re all going to do amazing things for this industry, and I am honored to witness it.
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