On Leadership & Letting Go

It is every founder’s dream that someday the organization they launch will be strong and stable enough to survive — and thrive — without them. That day has come for this founder.

Last night, at the annual Capitol Food Fight, I announced that after 25 years of leading DCCK, the time has come for me to move on.

When I launched DCCK in 1988, it was the first program of its kind. Before us, only a handful of programs recovered food from restaurants, hotels and colleges. NOBODY used that food to empower people to own their own lives again. To most, food was just gasoline for the body. WE wanted to feed the soul of the city. And we did just that. Now, dozens of cities have “community kitchens” based on our model.

When we launched Fresh Start Catering in 1996, we were one of the very first social enterprises. Now, our $10 million dollar a year, self-sustaining organization (with its commitment to good wages and benefits) is a national model.

When we launched The Campus Kitchen Project in 2002, we were one of the very first programs to empower students and challenge them to redefine charity. Now, with last week’s launch of our 33rd program at the University of Georgia (focusing on engaging older citizens in Athens), you can bet that Campus Kitchens will soon be in many, many more schools.

When we signed our latest school food contracts, we are once again leading the way, showing skeptics that students will enjoy and eat locally sourced, made from scratch meals, prepared and served to them by graduates of our training program.

And, outside of the kitchen, I believe that my book, Begging For Change, and my work on behalf of the nonprofit sector has demonstrated what real leadership looks like. It isn’t sitting back. It isn’t worrying about risk. It’s about constantly pushing yourself and the organization to stand up, speak out and do what’s right….including flipping off Rush Limbaugh.

But leadership isn’t about followers; it’s about empowering others to lead. That’s one of the reasons I am confident about moving on.

DCCK’s amazing leadership team (led by CEO Mike Curtin) and our dynamic, engaged Board of Directors have ably demonstrated that they have both the sophistication to keep DCCK growing, but also the depth of understanding to realize that NO nonprofit, no matter how innovative or powerful, can solve the problem—it can only lead people to greater truths about who we are as a people, and the role ALL must play in moving the American experiment forward.

But it gets better. I am not only leaving DCCK….I will also be leaving DC.

You heard right. I will be returning to the city of my roots—Los Angeles—to launch the L.A. Kitchen in 2013.

The L.A. Kitchen will roar into an incredible vacuum in America. Our first goal is to recovery millions of pounds of California’s abundant fruits and vegetables. The traditional model moves perishable foods through the system (from farm to food bank/kitchens to pantry to people) at a brisk pace to avoid spoilage. We want and use these precious commodities to fuel a job training program that will produce nutritionally dense salads, snacks and vegetarian / vegan meals. But we also want to develop inter-generational volunteer opportunities so that, working side by side, we can prep, package and freeze millions of pounds of produce and fruit, which will allow our partners to distribute portion controlled product that can be used in a more purposeful way, at a more focused pace.

We will also explore social enterprise; through a new business we will launch named Strong Food. Like the name says….it isn’t about sustenance, it’s about helping people stay strong, vital and engaged.

We will also explore large scale urban composting, showing how every part of a plant can be used to build stronger bodies and healthier communities.

Most of all, I want to delve deeply into the issue of aging in America.

L.A. Kitchen will be at the very forefront of supporting a new era of inclusion and health for our elders. I don’t want to feed to old; I want to help redefine aging in America. And I want to show the role that food and a dynamic nonprofit organization can play in keeping our elders engaged, healthy, vital and active.

BUT…do not think that my work speaking about the role that nonprofits must play in the local and national economic recovery will falter. I have only begun to push that envelope. CForward will still be part of my day-to-day work…and it will never stop until the role of nonprofits is intelligently discussed in every election in America. Until that happens, programs like DCCK, and most social enterprise programs in America will remain a novelty. It’ll take new leaders, who aren’t incumbered by old notions of the way things “work”…and I mean elected leaders as well as new leaders within the sector itself.

There’s a BIG difference between a leader and a boss, a door-opener and a gate-keeper and a talker and a doer. I plan on illustrating those stark differences for the rest of my life. I’ve got a long way to go before I’d suggest anybody follow my example…I am, after all, just a recovering hypocrite. But the next leg of that journey begins today.

Stay tuned….I’ll try to keep it interesting.