As an aspiring librarian, Nionni Permelia ’22 knows much of her job one day will involve community engagement.
“You have to know so much about literature, but you have to know so much about your community as well,” said Permelia, an English major from Battle Creek. “People might come in to a library for résumé help or to learn how to print and fax. They also might come in because they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They might ask, ‘I don’t know where I can go to get fresh food. Can you help me?’ Being a librarian means you have to know a lot about everything around you so you can give people those resources.”
That idea made a Community Building Internship (CBI) this summer an ideal opportunity for her. Permelia was among the K students who worked at local organizations from AACORN Farms to the YWCA of Kalamazoo in CBIs through the Center for Civic Engagement and the Center for Career and Professional Development. The positions, offered each year, last about six to eight weeks, and interns are on the job for 30 to 40 hours a week while earning a stipend.
Permelia worked for Zoo City Farm and Food Network, a nonprofit organization founded and operated by Black women, that centers Black women’s voices and experiences while designing a comprehensive, responsible and sustainable food-industry ecosystem that is beneficial for everyone. In other words, they want everyone to have access to fresh, healthful food regardless of who they are and their economic status.
“Fresh food should be a human right for everyone,” Permelia said.
On a regional level, the organization nurtures food sovereignty by expanding food systems literacy in communities that have little to no education on the food ecosystem, primarily in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. Outside Michigan, Zoo City wants to make its model accessible for communities across the country. While its model is designed with Kalamazoo and Battle Creek in mind, the organization welcomes partnerships with cities around the U.S. that could benefit from initiatives that champion food sovereignty.
“In the inner city of Battle Creek, there are no grocery stores. Battle Creek sits in a food desert,” Permelia said. “My work with Zoo City and their Food and Farm Network helps them create a framework for how places like Battle Creek could eliminate their droughts in food systems.”
Permelia used her writing skills to develop email templates for Zoo City that will allow the organization to approach volunteers about its initiatives and how they can help. One of those initiatives helps farmers and small businesses sell the food they make at a farmer’s market in Kalamazoo.
“Zoo City purchases the booth, and local businesses who might not be able to pay for their own booth take it over,” Permelia said. “The community gets access to fresh food that way, and hopefully, the businesses and farmers will have more people visiting them outside the booth.”
Permelia also performed research for the organization’s Zoo Syndicate, a visual editorial that will show local residents how food is connected to everything.
“I helped them do research on graffiti art and urban interventionism, which are very different to, yet very similar to Zoo City’s core values,” she said. “Graffiti art connects to their initiative of urban farming because it usually happens on vacant property. The idea is that even vacant parking lots can become safe places for neighborhood activities. Instead of figuring out how we can make money off of it by developing houses the neighborhood can’t afford, why not grow food there? It might prevent higher taxes and living costs that make the neighborhood unlivable because people can’t afford it anymore.”
As a result, in addition to the job experience relatable to her future career and the opportunity to be involved in the community, Permelia learned about the administrative roles of people such as Zoo City co-founder Remi Harrington, making the internship beneficial on multiple levels.
“I thought I might be gardening and growing food, but I got to see the admin side of things,” she said. “That inspired me. I saw how people’s ideas to help others can actually come to life. It was amazing to see people like Remi writing all of her plans on a board, before I got to go to a farmer’s market or neighborhood event to see it happen. It was amazing to see it come to fruition.”
She adds, “I’d never worked for an organization owned by Black women before, which is really sad, yet this showed that I could have an opportunity to do it. Getting to see a Black-women led organization helped me to realize that I am also able to bring my writings and ideas to life. Not only that, but it’s possible for me to lead. It’s possible for all Black women to lead and see their imagination become reality. Remi has so many beautiful ideas for Zoo City. I am so happy we all get to witness her work and continue to see her vision unfold.”