Kolu Zigbi, Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation

TITLE: Program Director for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems and EAT4Health

FOCUS AREAS: Sustainable farming and food systems; local food production, regional processing and distribution, just jobs, fair trade.

CONTACT: 212-684-6577 ext. 8401; kolu@igc.org

PROFILE: Zigbi is a 2015 Loeb Fellow and her Harvard profile shares:

Kolu Zigbi, program director for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems at the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, has spent 13 years working for a more vibrant, equitable and sustainable food system. She has supported organizations throughout the US to grow ecological farming, preserve land for low-income communities and spread urban agriculture. She has helped to link workers along the food supply chain, develop innovative distribution systems, popularize new ways of understanding food systems and diversify leadership.

Zigbi has used her platform as a funder to dismantle barriers to equitable food distribution through policy change and alternative models. She has collaborated with other funders on initiatives like Diversifying Leadership for Sustainable Food Policy, which built advocacy capacity in grassroots organizations, and EAT4Health, which united frontline community groups and national advocacy organizations. Zigbi also co-founded Community Food Funders, a philanthropic organizing project to inform, network and coordinate funders in New York City’s tri-state region.

Zigbi will use her Loeb Fellowship to explore food-oriented development that spans the rural-urban continuum and builds health and wealth within low-income communities internationally.

The Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development Initiative shares the following information about Zigbi:

Kolu Zigbi, the first child of Charlie and Ersilia Crawford, was born on April 30, 1962. Zigbi grew up in the Bronx, New York City, spending much of her childhood in a local park where her mother taught her about edible wild herbs and encouraged tree climbing. Similarly, her grandmother convinced her that God lived in trees.

While in high school Zigbi traveled to Bruyema, Liberia, the homeland of her paternal clan--for the first time. Her trip to Bruyema, a remote, mountainous region of the country, left a deep impression and she knew she would return. Later, as an undergraduate student at Stanford University majoring in rural development studies with a focus on West Africa, she returned to Bruyema to study indigenous knowledge systems, land use and decision-making practices. In particular, Zigbi documented road construction efforts and was struck by the challenges clan members faced in obtaining technical assistance. Access to external resources like those available through the World Bank was contingent on the growing of cash crops. In the case of timber companies, villagers were expected to relinquish their land and its resources in exchange for cash. According to Zigbi, the stories of how outside experts misled and even took advantage of people are too numerous to describe, but that convinced me that local people know best how to manage their environments and that national and international policies often create obstacles to achieving economic and environmental sustainability. This experience largely shaped Zigbis belief in collective action. My belief in collective action really came from what I saw in my clan where people had been able to build schools and clinics in the middle of the rainforest with very little help from outside agencies.

Although Zigbi dreamed of returning to Bruyema a third time to work with clan members, she also believed she could make a more valuable contribution by first gaining work experience in her hometown, New York City. In 1985 Zigbi returned to New York to work as a childcare worker in a residential drug treatment program. She was promoted to group therapist and later director of admissions, but she decided not to continue working with the program. The longer she stayed, the more critical she became of the program’s underlying ideology. Zigbi did not agree with the program’s exclusive focus on individual responsibility as the sole mechanism for change. She thought there should also be a focus on collective action as a vehicle for change at the community level. Shortly thereafter, Zigbi decided to enroll into graduate school to study regional planning so that she could enhance her understanding of how resources and polices dictated opportunities available to individuals and communities. She completed her master’s degree in city and regional planning at Cornell University in 1990. While she was pursing her graduate studies, villages in Bruyema were burned by political dissidents and the country disintegrated into chaos and horror. These events had a serious impact on her future career goals.

Zigbi decided to continue working in New York City. She wanted a job that would allow her to incorporate the values she had developed in Bruyema. In the early 1990’s she accepted her first official environmental position as an affordable housing advocate and organizer in New York City. She coordinated a peer-training network for tenant and community organizers, co-founded a Harlem-based tenant’s organization and advocated for affordable housing and the better enforcement of the city’s housing code.

While working as an organizer, Zigbi was invited to serve on the Community Funding Board of the North Star Fund. Through this position, she gained insight into grant making as well as social justice issues and groups in New York City. She used the skills gained from this experience to overhaul a small grants program for a citywide, non-profit training and technical assistance organization that helped neighborhood-based volunteer groups many of which addressed local environmental issues. Zigbi received a Revson Fellowship in 1999. The fellowship allowed her to take additional environmental courses at Columbia University. After this, Zigbi was hired as program officer at the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation. She is responsible for the foundation’s funding in New York City and of the sustainable agriculture and food systems grants.

Zigbi says that she never had a formal mentor with whom she touched bases with on a regular basis, but she does acknowledge many individuals who have been instrumental to her advancement. She names her grandfather, Leh Leh Crawford, who taught her the meaning of collective self-determination and the importance of respecting and understanding indigenous knowledge. Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman, the former president of the University of Liberia, helped develop her thinking about how indigenous knowledge systems and educational practices could be integrated with the dominant western systems to create a more meaningful experience for rural Liberians. Zigbi also acknowledges that Adisa Douglas, a program officer at the Public Welfare Foundation, sets an example for her as an African-American woman who has survived and advanced in philanthropy over the course of 30 years. The president of the Noyes Foundation, Vic DeLuca, and her other colleagues, Wilma Montanez and Millie Buchanan, are a tremendous resource for her because they are all former executive directors of grassroots organizations.

Zigbi does not maintain any formal mentee relationships, but she does take advantage of many opportunities to provide encouragement and support for people through the non-profit world and philanthropy. Over the last four years, Noyes has participated in the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) internship program for students of color interested in exploring philanthropy. Zigbi served as the co-chair of the People of Color Caucus of the National Network of Grantmakers (NNG) in 2003 and 2004. She continues to serve on the group’s steering committee and is particularly interested in ensuring that NNG play a leadership role in helping philanthropic organizations understand racial inequality and promote social justice through their grantmaking practices. Zigbi currently co-chairs the Steering committee of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders group, a working group of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. She hopes that through her involvement, the group will focus more on the strategic importance of issues facing people of color.

Zigbi continues to work for environmental justice, and includes what she calls “food justice” under that rubric. She feels that the concept of food justice extends the idea of environmentally sustainable production to encompass issues of economic justice for workers in the food system as well as access to food and nutritional health. She says people living in communities of color bear toxic burdens in their bodies and need and deserve to eat pesticide-and hormone-free foods rich in nutrients. Instead people of color communities are inundated with junk foods and fast foods. Rather than the foods we eat helping us survive they are contributing to chronic illness.

When Zigbi was prmoted to foundation director, Philanthropy New York shared:

Kolu Zigbi joined the Noyes Foundation in 2000 and is responsible for grants to bring about a more ecologically sustainable and socially just agriculture and food system. Zigbi has organized several programs for Philanthropy New York and is an active member of its Increasing Diversity in Philanthropy Committee. She is also a member of Sustainable Agriculture and Food System Funders, which she previously co-chaired, as well as the Environmental Grantmakers Association. She serves on the Leadership Committee of New York Blacks in Philanthropy and is part of the Steering Committee for a new affinity group she helped organize with the North Star Fund called Community Food Funders.

Zigbi is an innovative grantmaker dedicated to supporting the agency of affected people. Through a three-year partnership she developed between the Noyes and Kellogg foundations she helped build the advocacy capacity of ten people-of-color-led organizations addressing a wide range of food policy issues. Recently, she has developed and manages a new multi-funder partnership called EAT4Health to bring to the Washington policymaking table people of color and low-income communities who are normally excluded from national food and health policy debates. Zigbi also co-teaches a course on “Food Justice” for Just Food’s Farm School, which is entering its second year.

To learn more about Zigbi’s perspective, check out Growing Food and Justice’s Kolu Zigbi: A Funder’s Perspective.