Powerful Women Let's Talk - 020: Lisa Oliver-King

Nov 2, 2020

Lisa Oliver-King

This week’s Powerful Woman Is Lisa Oliver-King.  She’s the founder and Executive Director of Our Kitchen Table or OKT for short.  She, leading the way for OKT, seeks to promote social justice while empowering neighbors to improve their health and environment through information, community organizing and advocacy.  Our Kitchen Table is a grass roots, non-profit organization serving Grand Rapids.  Lisa Oliver-King also seeks to mobilize women with income and health challenges. She’s this week’s Powerful Woman. She’s this week’s Powerful Woman.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:

Powerful women, Let's Talk is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real. Produced by women about women, Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who have helped shape our community and transform who we are and how we live.

Hello everyone and greetings, thanks so much for joining us today. I'm Jennifer Moss, and we're excited because it is time for yet another edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk. Today I would like to introduce you to today's powerful woman Lisa Oliver King. Lisa is the founder and Executive director of Our Kitchen Table which is a grassroots nonprofit organization serving Grand Rapids. Our Kitchen Table or OKT for short seeks to promote social justice while empowering our neighbors to improve their health and environment through information, community, organizing and advocacy. Lisa welcome to you, so glad to have you here today.

Thank you for having me Jennifer I am excited about being here and talking to you.

Yes, so let's talk about our kitchen table. I have a lot of questions, but first want to delve in a bit more into Our Kitchen Table all that it does for our community. So, first of all you established OKT in 2003. What is it you know that got you started? I know in part to mobilize women with income and health challenges so what is it that got you going with this?

You know that’s an interesting question-actually a girlfriend of mine, we were drinking wine and she said you need to start up a women's leadership organization in Grand Rapids. So, it started with a grant that became available through the EPA, Environmental Protection Agency. It’s an environmental justice plan. And I don't think we have had one here on the West side of the state. Grants have been awarded on the East Side. And she said I will help you write a grant focused on women dealing with the issue of childhood lead poisoning and helping women to address that issue and partner with the environmental group which was the West Michigan Environmental Action Group which is still here in this community. And she helped me write that grant and it was awarded. It was the beginnings of our kitchen table mobilizing women, particularly women of color to address an issue that was impacting our children and from there it just evolved and um I was clueless about environmental issues, of course I knew about the polar bears and other things that people know about but it really opened an area that I was really very ignorant of. And the lack of folks of color being involved- I shouldn’t say lack I should say I was unaware of folks of color being involved. So, once I learned more about childhood lead poisoning and what actions were being taken around that are across the nation and other issues that related to environmental concerns and environmental stewardship and environmental racism, that was the opening for me launching Our Kitchen Table with support of a mentor.

So of course, a lot of what you do is, as you mentioned, you try to provide knowledge about issues like healthy living including growing your own food, addressing lead poisoning, water safety, and the like and those issues are still being addressed today?  Started in 2003 that’s17 years now, congratulations!

My goodness can you believe it.

I know when you put it in numbers it seems like a long time. So those issues are still relevant today- we had the flint water crisis. And when you talk about West Michigan those issues are still on the table today?

Yes. Our kitchen table has primarily evolved into a food justice organization with our roots starting at looking at environmental health.

What is food justice? what is that?

Food justice is folks having a say in what a food system should look like in our community, what kind of grocery stores do we have, and what kind of green space do we have for growing our own food. Do we want to raise chickens and be able to have chickens for eggs as well as for meat? Having our say around that and making sure that our public policy reflects what are say is. And so that's what food justice would be we look at it through the lens of how do we make a difference as it relates to public policy. Because pal public policy impacts all.

So again, those issues are still important today.

Yes, and we have some wonderful organizations that are addressing more of the environmental issues. But the reality is issues intersect -you can't really deal with food without dealing with economic justice without dealing with environmental justice without dealing with the women's rights- they're all connected to each other and so we have some wonderful organizations here -healthy homes coalition does a lot of work around lead poisoning. We have as I said the West Michigan environmental action, they do a lot of work around air and water. And our kitchen table blending in that conversation around food justice- we do a lot of work around folks having a food system that supports them and them having a say so in that food system and what does that look like.

Absolutely and making sure it's a healthy food system

And making sure that it's healthy- because now I will admit when our families grow tomatoes, We don't say grow tomatoes, so you can have too many to choose the tomatoes, or so you can have a really good hamburger with delicious tomato on it and what is the benefit of that?  You can, healthy doesn't mean an absence of or a limitation. Healthy means being informed about what it is that we're eating. How it's grown, who grew it, how do we support that. Into we need to love our farmers, know your farmer know your food that is to come to terms with that. But the closer you are to growing your own food, the more power and control you have over what it is that you're choosing to take in and so understanding that having power over that influencing what that is all lends itself to being a healthier being.

Absolutely and so in 2010 OKT's, food diversity project was born as you're speaking of food and again this addressed those disparities that exist in a number of our communities and you went into your neighborhoods. East town, Garfield Park, Baxter let me know if I’m missing anything. But expand on that a bit about OKT food diversity project that kicked off in 2010.

So, 2010 that was our main project- which is our food growing entity, we have, 17 years later. We have evolved into having the strategies along with some additional programming. One is called program for growth where we are working with local schools and helping them to grow their own food, not only at the school site but also helping those families grow their own food. So we have to educate to elevate working with women who are pregnant, nursing or have children a year younger challenged to providing them with healthy food and what does that look like. And then our 3rd strategy is called a Sense of place.  OKT is fortunate enough to run a small base farmers market and so we're growing that farmers market. Under each one of those strategies we've now added the food diversity project which is our growing piece. We also do cook, eat and talk and that is our meals preparation and planning piece basically cooking demos and what does that look like. And again, with in our farmers market we are hoping to support like having breast feeding support groups to come to the market, have story time at the market, along with our cooking demos and our food growers. The farmers and the homegrown community garden backyard garden growers and being a part of our farmer’s market. So, in 2010 we learned from Detroit and we modeled an issue from them- they had a program called The Greening of Detroit- we tried to replicate that here. So basically, with our food diversity project we are providing schools and families with plant seeds, soil, a basis for growing their food. Our house family says get a container  and they get ten five-gallon buckets for us to grow between a 175 to 225 pounds of food. With their schools, we give them option to raise a bed which is basically a demonstration garden and along with that I think what makes this unique that we learned from greening of Detroit is we provide them with what we call a food garden coach and a cooking coach now, that was added on several years later. So, with our food garden coach just think of visiting nurses and that person visits to every week to help you with starting your garden, planting your garden, maintain your garden giving them the basis of good growing practices so to speak. We also do soil testing we teach them how to water; we teach them about pest management all of that good stuff. And we see folks go from growing their own garden for the first time to you know it's just a tomato today and in 3 weeks later becomes time to turn the tomato they've named the tomato and attached a bond and to it. They have fun with it and then we're able to. You're growing your own garden, but what does the food system look like in your neighborhood, you know  do you do you have local stores you can go to buy fresh produce, what does it mean to have the gas station to sell apples, and what does it mean that Meijer’s is on the outskirts of your community and you don't have anything in between in terms of going to buy fresh fruit. Do we believe that you live in a food desert, Our Kitchen Table does not support that the reason for that being said? There are a lot of food that's growing in a community that are really unaware and that's something that's called urban foraging where folks are able to identify food that is naturally growing and food means your fruits and vegetable, but it doesn't means your herbs and your edible flowers. Like for example, sunflowers are a food because that's where your sunflower seeds- they come from the brown part. And so, do we have wildlife in the community. Not so much squirrels although they are wildlife, but do we have butterflies do we have bees. Our nation has been going through a disappearance of bees and why is it happening because we need bees to pollinate flowers and flowers turned into fruit. And so the food diversity project teaches all of those skills. It starts with what about me and show me how to grow to I'm a part of a bigger food system and so there are food gardens in my neighborhood if I look.  If I go beyond my neighborhood blocks over do, we have more food gardens, what or where what's food retail and where can we buy that. For those who were buying food with food subsidies where can I use my EBT card, the bridge card. Where if I'm a senior and I receive senior project, fresh which is just another food subsidy where can I go and do that. So, it's looking at the bigger picture and making sure that the bigger picture not only works in me and my family but works for us all because really, we're all better with each other, were healthier together.

How do you feel being a part of that as a powerful woman looking at that because you started this process and now people are actually looking and they're getting educated about so many aspects about food. I don’t think a lot of people sit and think about the community response or you know some of the areas of what you're talking about, what’s the reaction that you get and how do you feel about knowing you know this is a good thing we have,  really from 2003 to 2020

Yes,

you have seen the growth of this -what does that make you feel to see where you've come from to now and people are really sustaining themselves through these gardens that you have.

Well, you know it, it's overwhelming to think about that. I am only as good as the community I serve. I stand on the shoulders of many to do the work that I do and it's so funny, I started this and I can't even cook -actually I’m going to say I'm not a good cook. So, when I say I cook my family looks to me and say why are you choosing to do that. And you know the reality would be there are others that do it better than you, like your excellent Cook so I would much rather eat your food than mine

Very kind

But when I look back at that in terms of I see that transformation, I have made in terms of being connected with others to make this work important and to make this work move and to make this work the transformative I'm just overwhelmed.  I know, I'm not doing a very good job of describing this, but I have met so many wonderful people who are already growing it's really not something new. I hate it when they describe in urban communities let's get people to grow -the reality is that people are already growing and they grow every year and they're able to recognize the importance of growing their own and being able and to go from garden to table so to speak that's important to them. And they know who is providing, like we have a vendor the Tolberts. Robert and Jenny Tolbert, they are the greens and people and they have wonderful collard greens. People come far just to make sure that they have their greens because they know how delicious they are. We have a vendor by the name of Mrs. Harris her and her husband Tim and they provide us with Cranberries- people know that and to be able to learn from them. How do you make that more available in the community? How does food make a difference? They've taught me the importance of leadership in this area and making sure to think about the many and not the few.

So, as you look at this and all the accomplishments and learning and knowing and meeting these people what perhaps are some of the barriers you may have encountered as you have moved from 2003 to 2020.

I think the biggest barrier I've had to overcome and I wouldn't say that I overcome it, that when it comes to growing food, it's usually seen as a white man being the leaders in this conversation, it's not true. It's women of color, predominantly women thinking about food not to say that men aren’t, don't get me wrong -because I know my husband, Anthony is a much better cook, well he is a cook then I am-and his food is delicious when he prepares it. But women are really the predominant leaders in this conversation and bringing about this transformation and so still we're dealing with men as the dominant voice and so that's been challenging in this sense. Not that we want to exclude men in any kind of way but we do want to recognize that it's women, women of color leading this effort- leading the change.

What has it taken for you to find your own voice in all of this to own it to be comfortable in your own skin? Because you meet in front of boards, you're applying for grants, you're talking to people in the neighborhoods, but otherwise also talking to people who are head of the various organizations that you encounter and that perhaps lend a hand. What does it take to find your own voice in this and to be happy in your own skin?

I am happy in my own skin, I love to eat, I love the importance of this work being assertive and not being afraid to stand up for what is right and not being afraid to learn that I don't have all the answers. I turn and lean on other people to and help me with my voice. But being able to stand steadfast in what I believe in- I'm a person that likes to be behind the scenes I don't want to be a you are Our kitchen table. No there are many of us that a make up Our kitchen table from the communications coordinator to food garden coaches to the cooking coaches. We collectively make up Our kitchen table -I have a fantastic Grant writer that works for me I can give her that content and she makes it out to be fancy and pretty with the with graphs and staff, you know, that's a hard question because I really do like to be behind the scenes because there's so many before me that set the path for me to be able to do this but

That could lead to your voice.

It does but I don’t know how to say this but my voice resonates with humor and with like you know I have these things I invest in. I am comfortable with who I am, I understand what it is that I need to do I understand my path and that my faith is strong in guiding, he will guide me and I know that when I fall I’ll get back up and continue and will learn and do better.

And you know Lisa they say laughter is good for the soul so what is it that makes you laugh?

What makes me laugh, I’m a Saturday night live fan and a Dave Chappelle fan. And I'm a I can't think of the name Wanda

Oh Wanda Sykes

Yes, a Wand Sykes fan. I love humor and I love and talking with my girlfriends and just reflecting back on some funny times that we've experienced together. I love sitting at the family table and “you knocked the chip off”. “No, you knocked the chip off” where were all able to laugh about. And I love the fact that we can look at some difficult situations and be able to find humor in it.

Absolutely

But I think the biggest joy and laughter if I could say that comes to me is watching my daughters grow and seeing them evolve into the young women, they're becoming into it. Us reflecting back remember when she couldn't tie her tennis shoe and we would do that for her. And just being able to look at the contributions I’ve made with them where they gave back to community as they have been taught by both me and Anthony.

And you surely, surely give a lot. So as we get ready to wrap this up do you by chance no pressure, do you have a favorite saying or model that you like to use to encourage anyone that around whether it's your kids or OKT the growing aspect of what you do.

You know, I always said I'm a fan of the Boondocks and I love it that this, I will never forget “game recognizes game and you looking pretty unfamiliar”. So, when I go and I start my conversation about growing we talk about what we’re unfamiliar with and how do we change that to where we're much more in a knowing position. So, the game is taking advantage of us were controlling the game

Wonderful. Thank you so much Lisa Oliver King for joining us today and of course we wish you all the best as well as to stay healthy and safe and a big thank you to all of our listeners for joining us for this edition of powerful women, let's talk I'm Jennifer Moss.

Thank you, Jennifer, for having me.

Produced by women about women, these powerful podcasts 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 podcasts these rate and subscribe Powerful Women, Let's Talk is produced by WGBH you 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.

Powerful women is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real.