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Storytelling Fundamentals with Frank Sesno

February 24, 2021

By Stu Lourey, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student

This blog is part of a series from the December Arizona Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students virtually toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff and non-profit leaders.

Frank Sesno starts with the fundamentals.

And that’s striking to see from someone with as accomplished and storied a career.

“How many Presidents have you interviewed?,” Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director at the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, asked him near the start of our time together.

“Five. But not Obama and Trump . . . I did interview Chris Wallace.”

When Frank spoke to our cohort, he quickly took the opportunity to share the heart of what he wanted us to understand about working with and in the media: tell good stories.

That’s a seemingly simple edict. But through our conversation, I realized that I too often miss opportunities to build momentum behind good policy ideas through thoughtfully constructing a narrative. From his career serving as Whitehouse correspondent, Washington Bureau Chief, hosting other shows on CNN, and now teaching and directing strategic initiatives at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Frank understands this well. Storytelling isn’t a skill that can be taken for granted.

So he broke it down for us.

Good stories have “compelling characters overcoming obstacles to achieve a worthy outcome,” he explained. The character facing obstacles, and the creative tension that brings, “is the difference between PR and a story.”

This reminded me of the people we’d met via Zoom during our immersive earlier that week. And how we could best tell their story. Wesley Kerr stands out.

Wesley is a dynamic, fourth generation dairy farmer who cares deeply about his family, their cattle, and their farm’s future on the land. A compelling character.

Answering a question during our conversation, Wesley explained that, where others might see a threat, he’s finding opportunity. While he could be concerned about loss of market share, he’s talking with a manufacturer of an oat-based beverage about blending it with milk to make a new product, hopefully expanding Wesley’s market share. Overcoming obstacles.

With this innovation, Wesley thinks he’ll be able to both deliver a drink with a unique nutrition profile to consumers as well as diversify his products in order to better secure the future of his family’s farm. To achieve a worthy outcome.

This certainly wasn’t the only story you could tell about Wesley, even just from our hour-long conversation. But pulling it out reflects the way Frank describes storytelling. We don’t just need to find good stories, we need to “make” and “construct” them from the facts that people present to us about their lived reality, their hopes for the future, and relationships with others.

And I don’t use the word “need” lightly. I’m sure Frank would agree. Storytelling is urgent.

Weaved throughout his answers to students’ questions were Frank’s reflections about climate change and the challenges facing a free and fair press. What I came to understand more deeply through our conversation was that we need more than good data to take on the collective project of averting the worst effects of climate change. We need stories that help us see ourselves in the solutions—stories that make us want to join in and do the hard work of co-creating a better future.

Despite great challenges like climate change, though, you can’t help but feel hopeful talking to Frank. Even over Zoom, he’s magnetic. His passion for not only his own craft, but also helping others develop theirs is clear. He warmly coached us through practical scenarios we encounter in our own careers and encouraged us to sign up for his email list, Planet Forward, a student-driven story telling platform about climate change.

Frank was making an investment in us, as he does with all his students—and you could tell he believed in it.

At the end of an hour, he left us with a final thought: tell stories, talk about people. Urgent now as much as ever.

Conservation Districts: Arizona's Best Kept Secret!

February 17, 2021

By Eric Hemphill, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student

This blog is part of a series from the December Arizona Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students virtually toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff and non-profit leaders.

This past December, my fellow Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership cohort members and I had the chance to hear from Sharma Torrens, Conservation Education Director for the Arizona Association of Conservation Districts. Torrens took us through the work that AACD does to educate, create partnerships, and implement best practices for conservation work in Arizona. 

The AACD is a 501c3 nonprofit organization that is operated by Arizona’s 42 Natural Resource Conservation Districts (NRCD). The AACD serves as the support system for these NRCDs, 32 of which are political subdivisions of the state overseen by the Arizona Bureau of Land Management, and 10 are tribal districts overseen by tribal governance. Each of these 42 NRDCs are governed by 5-7 “supervisors” who are elected or appointed. These farmers, ranchers, and other land owners promote and advance conservation in their district.

“(These supervisors are) volunteering their time… to conserve farms, ranches, our food supply, but also our wildlife habitat, our wildlife migratory corridors, open spaces, water, soil, and more,” said Torrens. The cohort had the chance to meet with many of these supervisors during our immersive experience.  

The AACD was created in 1944 to repair and improve Arizona’s soils in reaction to the devastation of the dust bowl over the previous decade. AACD was a continuation of various federal policies around soil conservation, including the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, and model legislation introduced by President Roosevelt in 1937. Today, there are 3,000 NRDCs across the country working on land, soil, water, and wildlife conversation issues.

The AACD interacts with NRCDs in three prominent ways: 

Connecting with Landowners

Because the supervisors of each NRCD are farmers/ranchers themselves, it is more effective for them to approach other landowners in the district from the perspective of colleagues in similar fields. This allows them to grow the network of landowners following principles of conservation without outside entities being involved. 

Educating the Public

AACD oversees the creation and oversight of education centers in each district. These centers teach about the importance of agriculture and best management practices. Torrens said education and awareness raising about conversation practices are of the utmost importance to the success and expansion of conservation work in the state.

Children learn about water conservation at the Natural Resource Conservation Center of Pinal county

Establishing and Maintaining Partnerships 

AACD acts a liaison to various nonprofit, governmental, and educational organizations throughout the state and region. Some of these partnerships result in conservation dollars coming to the state. In 2019, NRCDs secured $42 million for Arizona conservation work. Some of the partners that AACD works with are the Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, The US Forestry Service, the Bureau of Land Management, AZ Dept. of Agriculture, AZ Dept. of Environmental Quality, and more. 

Torrens' role within the organization is to spread awareness of the NRCDs throughout the state. “I like to say that NRCDs are Arizona’s best kept secret. The public doesn’t really know they exist, which is a tragedy,” Torrens said. 

Conservation is at the heart of what many farmers and ranchers do on a daily basis. So many of the farmers and ranchers the cohort met with this semester considered themselves to be soil farmers first and foremost. They realized that the health of the soil would ultimately affect the health of their produce and livestock, as well as the downstream health of the consumers of their products. Proper conservation practices do not thrive in a vacuum. Much like the livestock and plants that benefit from them, conversation practices proliferate when there is cross-pollination of ideas and best practices; when neighbors share their successes and let others learn from their failures. This is what makes the work of the AACD so vital.

On behalf of my cohort, I’d like to thank the AACD for the work they do each day, and hope that we can do our part to spread the word so that NRCDs cease to be Arizona’s best kept secret.

 

Baking bread during the pandemic? Time to try heritage flour

February 10, 2021

By Dory Cooper, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student 

This blog is part of a series from the December Arizona Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students virtually toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff and non-profit leaders. 

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Arizona Food Bank Network and their fight against food insecurity

February 4, 2021

By Marcus Miller, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student 

This blog is part of a series from the December Arizona Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students virtually toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff and non-profit leaders. 

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Gather Film and Panel

January 20, 2021

Written by Jane Coghlan; Edited by Gabriel Sheppard

“When you have food sovereignty, you’re free to be self-reliant, to grow your own food, to choose the foods you want to eat, choose the foods you want to put in school systems, and really be self-sustaining or sustainable.”

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Wednesday from Washington: Tackling advocacy with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

June 17, 2020

This blog post was written by Arizona State University graduate student Liz Broussard. In addition to studying Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership at ASU, Liz serves as a project coordinator at the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), where she supports the Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative, a network of organizations working to improve access to healthy food and transform Mississippi food systems.

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Wednesdays from Washington: Agricultural research with Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young

June 10, 2020

This blog post was written by Arizona State University graduate student Dr. Angel Cruz. In addition to studying Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership at ASU, Angel is the academic and extension initiatives manager at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) at NC State University where she champions sustainable ag education and career development across North Carolina. 

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Wednesdays from Washington: Talking science with Dr. Mike Stebbins

May 27, 2020

This blog post was written by Arizona State University graduate student Alaine Janosy. In addition to studying Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership at ASU, Alaine works as an independent sustainability consultant specializing in agricultural production systems and procurement. Through this work Alaine engages with companies to create, enable and expand strategies that drive adoption of regenerative farming practices.

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Think you know lettuce, think again: Revelations from a visit to the winter salad bowl

May 1, 2020

As we enter our first stretch of 100 degree days, we here at the Swette Center are reminiscing back to the cool, crisp mornings of the winter.  On one of those mornings the ASU grad leadership cohort had the pleasure of visiting several farms in the Yuma area.  While many of these operations have packed up for their yearly transition to the summer season in Salinas, CA we can’t help but notice the stark contrast between our present COVID-19 reality and the relative calm of December. 

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