By Meghan Johnson
I sat down with founders Rebecca Nemec and Oni Tongo to learn more about how Justice, Equity & Food at Friedman (JEFF) came to be and what they’re accomplishing at Friedman.
What was the impetus for starting this student group?
Last year a group of students noticed that Friedman Symposium was almost entirety made up of white speakers. So that was the first event that got us thinking about racial and ethnic diversity at our school.
It was also fairly obvious that the Friedman student body is composed of predominantly white women. Many students want to work in diverse and disadvantaged communities, so we felt it was important to have representation from different backgrounds at the school to prepare students for that kind of work. We wrote an op-ed to the Tufts Daily about this noticeable lack of diversity and suggested the school should start doing something about it. That’s really how it began.
We officially became a student group in spring 2010.
What do you want Friedman students to know about Justice, Equity & Food at Friedman?
There are two main things that we’re focused on. First, increasing diversity of students, faculty and administration at the Friedman School. We recognize that this is a huge task, but we think it’s critical to what we’re trying to do. And second, bringing themes of discrimination, social justice, and race into the Friedman curriculum and throughout the academic community. That includes symposiums, seminars and other campus-sponsored events. We also are creating our own events to fill this void!
What has your student group accomplished so far?
Aside from starting the student group, which was a feat in itself, we’ve organized several other events. Last year we had a speaker for the Friedman weekly seminar series, Glynn Lloyd from City Fresh Foods, who talked about growing food in low-income, urban areas in the Dorchester neighborhood in Boston.
We also hosted a walking tour of Chinatown, thanks to Student Council funding. The tour covered the historical origins of Chinatown, physical and social transformations of the neighborhood over time, current social issues, the community’s relationship with Tufts University, and development plans for the future. Youth organizers from the Asian Community Development Corporation led the tour for less than $8 per person. We hope to be able to include this tour as an event for orientation, or to offer the tour more frequently throughout the year so that students may become better acquainted with the neighborhood.
We also recently co-sponsored a book signing for Cultivating Food Justice (edited by Alison Alkon and Julian Agyeman). The book describes communities’ efforts to envision and create environmentally sustainable and socially-just alternatives to the current food system. The event was hosted at the Asian Community Development Corporation to further incorporate the diversity of the Chinatown Community.
I’ve heard your group offers a directed study. Tell me more about this.
We do! Our directed study currently has 15 students participating. Molly McCullagh (Third year, AFE/UEP) and Lauren Parks (Second year FPAN/MPH) were really the drivers of the directed study. It wouldn’t have happened without them. Jen Obadia is the faculty instructor, so if students are interested in this directed study next year, they should talk to her.
For the first five weeks of the course, the YWCA facilitated an anti-racism training, which provided students with tools and skills to understand and confront institutional racism. The second component of the course is focused on social justice in the food system. We’re discussing everything from labor rights for migrant workers, slavery in U.S. agriculture, indigenous agriculture, health disparities that result from diet and nutrition, access to healthy foods, and traditional food cultures. Our final project will be working with Friedman faculty, offering suggestions on how to incorporate these topics into their lectures and course readings.
What are your goals for the coming year?
Our main goal is to create a more sustained dialogue among students, faculty and staff about issues of discrimination, oppression and racism that affect the food system and all the issues that we study in the classroom. We realize that racism and discrimination are issues that affect our society broadly – they are not unique to Tufts! But we want to engage students in discussing these topics so that they are thinking about how to address the issues when they leave school.
We are hopeful, too. Tufts’ new President, Anthony Monaco, has convened a diversity committee to address these same issues at the University level. Oni Tongo (Second year FPAN) will be representing the Friedman School at a University-wide Diversity Council.
*This interview was edited and condensed.
Meghan is a second-year dual Master’s student studying Food Policy, Nutrition and Public Health. She is passionate about preventing chronic disease through behavioral, policy, and communications interventions or campaigns.