(Part of) My Story
I started working on farms when I was a young boy where on weekends I would go and visit my aunt and uncle’s beautiful 175 acre lot tucked away off the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Half Moon Bay (in Higgins Canyon) just south of San Francisco, CA. The soil there was as dark as volcano rock and very rich for vining plants – well, really just about anything you wanted to grow would – but wild berries thrived there with the ocean mist, fog, and cool weather. I say ‘work’ but it was more like play – we’d harvest berries, explore the canyon, pick weeds, build things, and run around in the dirt with my cousins. It wasn’t long into my professional career when I was offered an opportunity to work with food. After we survived the much anticipated computer meltdown on Jan 1, 2000, we started making plans to use the lot adjacent to the homeless shelter we operated to build an additional facility to address the growing affordable housing needs of Sacramento, CA.
I am a California native with roots in Thai culture.
But it was a long road to complete a capital campaign so what would we do with the lot in the meantime? I convinced the team that connecting the families in the shelter with nutritious home grown food would be a great benefit for the well-being and health of our residents. Of course, I was tasked with raising money to make it all happen – so we reached out to the Rotary Club, the Junior League, and Deloitte & Touche (at the time) and were able to secure enough resources to manage the garden for a couple of years. And once we got the kids involved, everything became much easier! I did not realize it at the time, but this would be a pivotal moment for me in terms of how I would relate to food and agriculture. We constructed a beautiful 1 acre community garden with the help of corporate sponsors, our families in the shelter, our administrative staff, and other volunteers in the community.
I studied agriculture resource economics at Davis (University of California).
Building the Oak Park Community Garden was a venture that sort of ‘fell’ in my lap – but I loved every moment of building that urban farm – and I learned through countless others about our food system, the affordability of our food, where it comes from, how it gets to us, what resilience truly means, and how other master gardeners struggled to establish their farms in other communities throughout Sacramento – and since then throughout the United States. I also found out how food could be a transformative path to change while at the same time a quiet place for our residents to take in nature when all they were surrounded by was cement and structure. There was a natural chaotic beauty to that garden which erupted every Spring and continues to do so to this very day. I am grateful to the Hmong community as well, since they have been the drivers of that garden space since the beginning – they showed up at the early meetings and contributed their energy, time, money, knowledge, and presence – all of which was needed.
I ordained as a Thai Buddhist Monk @ Wat Buddhanusorn.
Not long after moving to Washington, DC, my mother’s battle with Lupus grew more acute and she began an existential search herself. As an immigrant from the rice growing fields of Northeast Thailand, she turned to what was most culturally comfortable – Buddhism – to find peace for herself. And as a form of cultural tradition, she somehow thought that she could get her eldest son (my brother) to ordain in the Thai monastery – even though for over 25 years she had specifically accomplished everything she could to assimilate her children into Western society – leaving behind our language, our food, our agrarian livelihoods, our way of life. My brothers, both in CA at the time, declined her offer to be a part of the Thai Sangha, fulfill their cultural duty, and support her spiritual ascension to the next world. By the time she had asked me, I was in full swing at a new job and enjoying what Washington, DC had to offer. What she was asking of me was to give up my belongings, leave my new job, my new life in DC, the possibility of a future career there, and my friends. But the answer was clear to me: help shepherd my mom in her quest to find peace for herself and embrace a spiritual culture she had denied for so long – of course!
I lived in Washington, DC, twice.
My journey (or pilgrimage) to Isan with the monks was transformational. It helped me see what life was like where my mother came from and for countless peasant rice farmers in that region of the world. Seeing how hard rice farmers work, the problems they face with risks like changing weather patterns, theft, and outright corruption, and breaking ‘rice’ together – sharing everything that they had to offer, was very special. We would chant and meditate at 3:00am every morning, walk for alms at sunrise, eat once a day before noon, and then traverse the rice fields in search of another temple to visit before we repeated the cycle again. It was a laborious walk, over 2,000 km in all – over 700 walking. It also changed the way I looked at ‘work’ and how I would go about integrating my life interests with my work (see also David Whyte’s “Three Marriages“).
I built a 30-acre sustainable and organic demonstration farm in East Africa.
These experiences with existentialism, food and agriculture are what led me to the Youth Garden @ the National Arboretum in Washington, DC. I loved working with children in the garden and exposing them to the many learning possibilities which pop up at a garden when other kids are around – and there are many if you watch closely enough! Before long I was asked to help build an agriculture program for a non-profit working with children in Uganda that I helped establish. That is what led me to the shores of Lake Victoria and learning about an entirely different culture – the Bantu and Nilotic tribes of Equatorial Africa. I stayed in Africa for five years, both enjoying it and castigating my choices at the same time. It was another steep learning curve for me in a place where the experience took more from me than I gave to the continent. However we were able to build a demonstration site, hire a healthy team, and build out three cooperatives that were connected to a market in the urban center. We transformed an empty plot into a thriving community center used for education, training, commerce, and sharing company. I remember to this day the feelings of euphoria Sunday’s would bring me – the silence that surrounds and the calming nature of village life, at least for that day.
I started Capitol Food Ventures to continue my work in food/agriculture, business, and peace.
Of course my story continues and there will be many more to share with the exploration and adventure that comes with a new social venture aimed at transforming how we engage with food, business, and peace. To share this story with the world would not have been possible without the help of Strikingly, who has made it quite easy to build a website without all the extras, but still make it visually appealing. I encourage you to have a look at my blog (talkaboutfoodjb.com), which will focus on food issues through the lens of culture and economics.
About Me (Professional Version): http://johnbrittell.strikingly.com/