Powerful Women Let's Talk - 110: Lisa Oliver-King
Lisa Oliver-King, founder of Our Kitchen Table and new Kent County Commissioner speaks with WGVU’s Jennifer Moss.
Lisa Oliver-King returns to Powerful Women: Let’s Talk. Lisa is the founder and Executive Director of Our Kitchen Table (OKT). OKT promotes social justice while empowering neighbors to improve their health and environment through information, community organizing and advocacy. She is also a newly elected Kent County Commissioner, representing the 15th district. We welcome Lisa Oliver-King back to the Powerful Women: Let’s Talk podcast.
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Narr: Produced by women, about women. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world, transforming who we are and how we live.
Jennifer Moss: Hello, everyone, time for Powerful Women: Let's Talk, thanks so much for joining us today. I'm Jennifer Moss. It is a pleasure to bring you today's powerful woman: Lisa Oliver-King. She's the founder and executive director of Our Kitchen Table, a grassroots nonprofit organization serving Grand Rapids, Our Kitchen Table, or OKT, for short, promotes social justice while empowering our neighbors, to improve their health and environment through information community, organizing, and advocacy. Lisa is also a newly elected Kent County commissioner, representing Kent County's 15th district. She’s also an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and Theta Chi Omega chapter and serves on the City of Grand Rapids Urban Agriculture Committee. Lisa Oliver-King, we welcome you. Actually, we welcome you back to Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.
Lisa Oliver-King: Thank you, Jennifer.
JM: It is a pleasure to have you. Again, a newly elected county commissioner. You were actually one of my first guests on Powerful Women when we were just doing the radio podcast, of course. And now we’ve moved to videos. We wanted to have you back because a lot has happened in the last couple of years. We've been doing this now. I think what, 3 years or so. So we've taken it to the video format. For starters, you are the Kent County Commission in the 15th district, recently taking the oath of office at the start of the New Year. Congratulations on that!
LK: Thank you again.
JM: So we're going to start with the politics, then we will talk about OKC, Our Kitchen Table, in just a moment. But tell me what prompted you to decide to run for office as a commissioner?
LK: Yeah, that's a loaded question. I mean, many things prompted me to do this. First, I was asked. It was an opportunity, I’m an empty nester and small children. My husband was OK with it, and with the work that I've done with Our Kitchen Table, I wanted to demonstrate that when we talk to people, we step up and serve, and let me be an example of that. I want to be an example to my daughter: that women, particularly women of color, we get involved and we do. And cultivating all those things together. I said, “I think this is a good time and I'm going to try.” And I won my election!
JM: Congratulations again. And how does that kind of merge with Our Kitchen Table’s, mission, and goals? Because they kind of do align at advocacy and community. Tell me about that.
LK: Like I said, I'm one of the reasons that I ran was to be an example and practice what I preach in terms of what we do in Our Kitchen Table, which is get involved, understand government, make sure that we're acting, not only in their individual interests, but in our collective interest and so, running for county commissioner to me, set the tone for yes, get involved, know what's happening, understand the resources that are available to us. Understand that our vote matters. Understand that we need to work as a collective and so that participants in Our Kitchen Table can now call me Lisa, but County commissioner is okay. And we're going to learn what we're going to learn and we're going to make a difference moving to the next level.
JM: And creating that voice. Just like I did with OKT, just having a voice in the community as well. I would imagine. So, let's talk about Our Kitchen Table, OKT, as we said for short. You started this in 2003 and to me, that means my math is adding up that this is 20 years for you.
LK: That's right. Yeah, I am amazed at how much we've evolved and all the work that we've done in the Grand Rapids community and beyond the Grand Rapids community. I think OKT has built credibility where we make a difference as it relates to quality of life issues. And I work with wonderful women and some men, too, but wonder women, particularly women of color, to move our agenda and improve the landscape, particularly the food landscape, that we work in, and understanding the work that we do and, how do we do it better and how do we gain more ground.
JM: And when we talk about Our Kitchen Table, for those who may not understand or know exactly what it is that you do, what is your grass roots philosophy? What are you doing when you say your inspiring other women to have a voice in the community but also, it’s sustainable, it's about food, it’s about equity. Tell me the purpose of OKT.
LK: I should be better at my elevator speech, but I'm not good. Our Kitchen Table. We help families to learn and grow their own food. But more importantly, than growing their own food, also to look at their own neighborhood. Look at a city, look at the state. Look beyond that. And really understand how that is working in our best interests. Again, individually as well as collectively. So, through planting a seed to grow a tomato that lends itself to looking at what just a green environment look like around us. What does the food landscape look like and what is available to us. Whether we're taking through charitable or free access or going to retail or going to the grocery store. What’s our availability and our access, in terms of being able to do meal planning and meal preparation and making a different like eating good, nutritious food. We have a wonderful registered dietician that works with us, Tracy Booth, who runs lifestyle nutrition. And she has been teaching us how to read food labels, understanding ingredients. She was so instrumental in understanding food through the lens of COVID. You know, what is it that we can eat that would build up by immune system? You know, just understanding how we make a difference. Not only in our pantry, but the pantry of others.
At Our Kitchen Table, we normally have between 35 to maybe 43 families that were working with throughout the year. During the time of COVID, we were working with 175 families. Now, in terms of teaching them how to grow, some families only grew or gardened one herb. And with some families, we were actually able to create a system with growing outside in a way that they grow between 175 to 225 pounds of food with the support of a food garden coach and a collective village, which is what Our Kitchen Tables offers. When we grow together, we learn together, we make a collective difference and that rolls over into understanding public policy. You know, for those who are interested in how to obtain land in the city, because I want to not only grow in my yard, but I want to expand my growing. What is that process that we do? What is it that we need to understand? And so, when we begin to look at it again, the food landscape, our own individual growing, we have to also look at public policy and how that is working in our interest. So that meant getting to know our city, county, state, and federal representatives. What's been their voting practices? Is it in our interest, or is not in our interests? Getting to know our representatives and ensuring that they know them as community citizens, but also as members of Our Kitchen Table. And here’s the agenda that we have to push. So, Our Kitchen Table has grown in so many ways, not only with participants, but the funders also that have supported Our Kitchen Table, politicians that have supported Our Kitchen Table. Not only do we do our food growing program. We also been a small-time farmers market. Farmer's markets have grown so much here on the West side of the state. And we also now do an online cooking demonstration program where we have a chef and a registered dietician. But now we have a more of our peer educators, our growers demonstrating recipes that includes food items that have been grown in the garden as well as looking at what are healthy, dry goods and what are healthy juices. And talk to families about different kind of oils and nuts. I mean, we've expanded in lot of ways.
JM: You have a vast array of things that you cover and in turn help the community within. So for 20 years now, you've been doing this and each year additional growth. Additional recognition. Additional people understanding what you do and how to do that, because that's important and learning how to access that land yet so that they can expand their growing opportunities because you've had some tremendous gardens over the years.
LK: Not just land in gardening, but we talk about trees, you know, maple trees, peach trees, walnut, I mean, oak trees. The more and more that we grow and learn, the more and more that's included in our conversation. Like I said, growing food garden to understated food landscape, including tress, too what is urban wildlife? Why do we want butterflies? Why do we want, bees? I mean, and again, also making sure that we connect that to a public policy and what's going on with that local, county and state government.
JM: Absolutely. And so, it what are your goals now as we hit this 20th year? This anniversary of 20 years, what are your goals? You’ve tackled a lot, truly a lot of things, over the last number of years. Any new goals that you have for this year ahead?
LK: Ah, new goals. Well, one of the things that we've been able to do, with things that we've learned. we have an excellent grant writer that works with us. So, making that kind of resource available to other small grassroots organization center, trying to start up and learn and make their way through the community. Our Kitchen Table has served as a fiduciary for those organizations and it's way of giving back and paying it forward, as well as just being able to share the bumps in the road, and simply learned over the 20 years to try to make it easier, as well as build capacity, as well as be a resource and to those that we see are coming along and who will make a huge difference. We look at the community like a puzzle and puzzle pieces fit together. And when there's a new puzzle piece coming along, how does it fit in to help with filling that void that we see here in the community? How do we compare and contrast to make sure that we’re doing our work for the greater good for all? And again, moving us closer and closer to a better society. That includes us doing not only the best we can, but better, then we can. And we're looking out for each other, and we understand the strength in having a voice around making a difference. So, the new thing for us is being a fiduciary and seeing how we can help other groups.
But our ultimate goal is within the next 5 years, we’re hoping to be a think tank. We can be that entity to encourage in strengthen others in doing great grassroots community work.
JM: Sounds like you're well on your way to doing that and as you empower women and mobilize women to take control of these various issues from health issues to food issues to environmental. You've been on this journey, now again, for 20 years and you've got some new things going on. Are you enjoying the journey?
LK: I am. I am. I feel like I grow every day. Every day when I look in the mirror, I say to myself, after I brush my teeth and all of that kind of stuff, “What are we going to accomplish today? Who are we going to make a difference for today? How are we going to do that one individual thing that makes me happy and how do I share that?
JM: Absolutely. So on the first go around of powerful women, we talked about barriers, you know, with all that has gone on since our first conversation: the pandemic, the economy. Have you faced any new barriers that you know, in your quest to help the community, specifically with empowering women in the community? Are there any new barriers that you might have faced over the last couple of years?
LK: I don't know if I would call them barriers. I called them more as learning curves. And we’re always faced with learning curves, in terms of learning new information and how can we be a part of and what is the difference that we can make. There is intensity and community, particularly when you look at law enforcement and community, when you look at access to basic resources that are more challenging to obtain. When we look at what Our Kitchen Table, we are fortunate that we did receive some COVID funding to help us around and addressing the issue of food. But also included being able to help support our families with issues around transportation and education. And we paid for tutoring services for many of our families whose children were doing schooling online.
JM: So you're attacking the barriers, like you said, learning curves, but also putting a stop gap in there for any barriers that you might encounter.
LK: We’re attempting to do that and education, it's not our area of strength, as it relates to school and all of that, but the tutoring services made such a huge difference. And when I hear them talk on the news about how far behind our children are, as it relates, for example, with the reading, I could see it up close and personal with that particular grant. And we work with Mosaic Mindset, and it was such a needed resource, to help those children deal with that lack of in-person schooling that was happening at that time. So that was definitely a barrier that our families were experiencing, and we were fortunate enough to receive funding and to recognize that these issues are intersectional. There is no, “Oh, I'm only dealing with food.” “I'm only dealing with housing.” “I'm only dealing with education.” It's all connected. And even though we're helping families with access and availability and growing their own food, we also recognize that we had families that were challenged around their housing situation. We had families, like I said, that were dealing with the schooling. So, when that funding went away, in those other areas that we were able to help in, we had to figure out how do we continue to do that in some kind of way beyond referring people to 211, and so as a collective, we came together and we're figuring it out.
JM: And you came up with some of your own resources for the community?
Lk: We had to. And one of the challenges, I will say, with Our Kitchen Table is that, for example, we are English only speaking organization. We have not incorporated, for example, Spanish speaking and that is because right now we do not have constituents that are interested in becoming a team member, not interested but available, to being a team member. If we can't do it 120% better, we don't do it. So we definitely make sure that we have the resources in place where we can refer others to those excellent resources that are out there in the community. Like, again, for the Spanish speaking community, but incorporating that into Our Kitchen Table. We need to figure out how can we do that job and not work against the resources that are already available but be value added.
JM: Kind of compliment them.
LK: Yes. And so that would be an example. It's definitely not a barrier because we definitely get, I was just contacted 2 weeks ago from a school interested in our resources and the number one question they asked was, do you offer this also in Spanish? And I had to say no, but I was also able to offer 3 resources that we knew could fulfill that.
JM: Let's talk again about leadership. Has your leadership style changed at all with the addition of politics?
LK: Ha-ha! Not with the addition of politics yet… I don't think. (JM: It’s early you were just sworn in) And yeah, just so I'm still Lisa. I am not quite comfortable with being called commissioner yet. I'm learning what does that mean? And that's because I'm a new commissioner, I have to earn being a commissioner. It's nice to that I won my race, but I want my constituents. I'm sure every politician would say that too, but I need to build credibility with my constituents that I'm a good commissioner and that I will follow through and I will get those resources available to communities. So, for example, the county has awarded ARPA funds to several organizations out in our community. I'm hoping that I can be a resource to help those entities be successful at the programming that they're doing and sharing what I've learned through Our Kitchen Table and looking at it. Are there additional resources from the county that I can bring to that landscape that will help them? Our Kitchen Table. I built credibility. I build credibility with wonderful women and men that I work with, wonderful constituents that I work, with county commissioner, I got to earn it.
JM: People wouldn’t have elected you, though, if they didn't want you to do the job.
LK: You know, people are giving me a chance, as far as I'm concerned, being a new commissioner and I'm going to earn that and be a very good commissioner.
JM: So, favorite question, everyone knows that I have to ask this question. What makes you laugh in this day in age of so many things going on? What makes you laugh?
LK: This is probably gonna sound crazy, but good television programming. So I love the show that just won, Abbott Elementary. And so I look again, and it reminds me of schools that we work with and reminds me of family and teachers that we work with. They have a garden at Abbott Elementary.
JM: Yeah, it all lines up!
LK: Yes, yes, it all lines up. And I'm so looking for shows like that that I can just sit down, not think about much and laugh but also connects to what I believe in.
JM: It has that sense of purpose, in addition to the laughter. And so final question for you, What moto or words to live by kind of thing. Do you have anything that you like to share that inspires and or encourages others that maybe you use in your day to day, or when you'd like you say you wake up, you look at the mirror. Is there a favorite quote or mantra are something that you have for yourself?
LK: I wake up and my favorite is remembering that God is good. And that, you know, he's always on time. And I always sing to myself, “He keeps on making a way. He keeps on making a way.” That's my motto.
JM: I love it. And look, I've known you all these years and I never knew that you had a beautiful voice.
LK: I do not. I do not, it’s just showing up right now. And so that's what I wake up. And I'm thankful for God’s blessings and any challenges that I'm faced with, you know, he's going make a way.
JM: Absolutely. And we will end on that good word. Lisa Oliver-King, I really enjoyed this conversation once again. Glad to have you back. Thanks for joining us!
LK: Thank you. Thank you. I enjoy talking to you, Jennifer. And I'm with a powerful woman. So you make it very easy.
JM: You’re very kind. This powerful woman, we want to thank you all for joining us to today and we'll see you next time on Powerful Women: Let's Talk. I'm Jennifer Moss. Do enjoy your day.
Narr: Produced by women, about women. These powerful podcast focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women: Let's Talk? Get additional interviews at wgvu.org or wherever you get your podcast, please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters, or Grand Valley State University.