Reconnecting with Myself through Connecting with Community

For the majority of my life, I have existed in predominantly white spaces, as I mostly grew up in a wealthy town in California and then moved east to attend an Ivy League university. Despite having roommates, friends, family, and peers with varying identities and experiences, the people inhabiting these spaces tend to still share specific traits. These traits, including that we generally all have the privilege to choose these places to exist in, greatly shape the social environment.

In many ways, occupying these spaces drew out my insecurities: in my ability to lead despite being a rather reserved person, but also about my ethnic identity as a Mexican American. I experience many privileges associated with whiteness and, by existing in these predominantly white areas, lack certain experiences central to Latinidad. Even while understanding that Latinidad is a diverse identity in and of itself, as a pale-skinned, privileged Mexican American who has never visited Mexico and does not actively speak Spanish, I grew up questioning my right to my own identity.

In being able to express myself through my identities and my personality, I was able to discover and embrace my own personal leadership style.

In moving to Boston for the FAO Schwarz Fellowship, I did not necessarily expect to find comfort with myself and my identities. My main intention was to find a community through The Food Project’s work and help it increase its own food sovereignty. However, my first summer in the Fellowship has been a warm welcome into a community unlike any I have experienced before. The summer program at The Food Project, a six-week work preparation program for high school students involving farmwork and workshops on identity and social justice, also focuses on establishing positive, supportive relationships across the large group of students and their college-aged leaders.

Refreshingly, building my own relationships with my summer co-workers and the youth felt natural and comfortable compared to doing so in the competitive and often misunderstanding worlds I have inhabited before. The diversity across the group — not only in terms of culture, race, and experiences, but also in terms of interests and personalities — gave me the opportunity to find different ways of connecting with each person. The general sense of care for others in the group, despite such differences, allowed me to feel comfortable in my own skin. I could still be my natural, more reserved self at times, and I could make jokes and friendships with the youth in my group, all even as I led them. I could connect with the other leaders through an identity I had been so unsure of previously, as I often chatted with one of the other group leaders about shared experiences from our Mexican American culture.

In being able to express myself through my identities and my personality, I was able to discover and embrace my own personal leadership style. Moreover, being able to implement that leadership style, rather than a traditional notion of leadership socially constructed around the traits of cisgender, extroverted, white men, I gained immense confidence in myself.

Having a community of support and care which embraced my individuality allowed me to become a stronger support for it in return, while also helping heal personal challenges of my own. Through this first summer as the FAO Schwarz Fellow at The Food Project, I have already learned more about how reciprocal relationships of empowerment can benefit everyone involved, and I hope to continue embracing and sharing that lesson as I continue my time with the Fellowship.


Vanessa Barragán

Vanessa Barragán

Vanessa (she/her) is the Build-a-Garden Manager and FAO Schwarz Fellow at The Food Project in Boston.