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Picture of Kayla Nichols

Kayla Nichols

Community building: Difficult but worth it

I am a person who uses the space where one year fades into the next as a time for reflection and anticipation. I am an analyzer and a planner—using lists to compartmentalize my thoughts into manageable, bite-sized pieces. And I write down my reflections for the past year and consider my intentions for the coming year.

Last year encompassed celebration and grief and was a year full of growth and change. I made hard decisions to release things I cared deeply about in order to make room for necessary growth. There was a big job change—joining PAN after leaving an organization that felt like my family. This also meant diving into fully remote work, which was a bigger adjustment than I anticipated. As an introvert, I didn’t expect to miss breakroom chats and office banter as much as I do. But it helps to have online discussion areas to share pet photos and book recommendations and I also save space for virtual lunch-and-learns.

My personal reflections of the year are an interesting parallel to PAN’s 2023. The year was filled with accomplishments, challenges, growth, and change. Reflecting on our organizational accomplishments and challenges from the previous year allows us to take stock of where we are and plan for future work.

Though I have only been at PAN since mid-October, one of my main tasks as the new Communications Director has been to get up to speed with PAN’s work. As I have done this, I have consistently been inspired by the work my colleagues do, with their passion, with their drive, and, most of all, with their refusal to stand by in the face of injustice.

In a world marred by compassion fatigue and collective languishing, I am inspired by those resilient few who continue to show up. These people wear their values emblazoned on their chests like neon signs. They staunchly refuse to allow injustice to permeate the line they hold, and they use their voices until their vocal chords ache. These resilient leaders, activists, and coalition builders deserve our gratitude.

PAN is comprised of many such humans: scientists who work tirelessly to research the effects of pesticides; organizers who work at the local, state, national, and international levels to advocate for agroecological practices, farmworker justice, and legislative action; communications folks who tell the story of this work to our readers and supporters; administrative folks who keep the cogs oiled and the lights on behind the scenes; and a board of directors whose ceaseless support and guidance keeps all of that aligned. It is truly community in action, and I’m grateful that I get to tell the stories of this work.

At the beginning of 2023, my intention for the year was to “build community.” At the time, it felt very simple. I wanted to dig my roots deeper into my community. My goals were to make more friends, grow my network, and spend intentional time deepening relationships. What I learned over the course of the year is that this simple concept is hard. Community building takes effort, sacrifice, and a very deep well of patience.

Community building also forces you to fight through some of your own challenges. I had not considered that making friends in your thirties was going to be so difficult. I’ve decided that people in their thirties are just going through a second tweenhood. We’re all awkward! We’re embracing our true interests, binging sitcoms on weeknights, trying to eat better because suddenly cholesterol is a THING, managing new problems like hip pain (?!), figuring out how we’re supposed to save for retirement when we still have student loans, treating acne AND wrinkles, deciding if we want to become PARENTS—but then we also want to make new friends and grow our circles. I was left asking myself how exactly all of that is supposed to happen with precious few free hours in a day.

I found that making friends and building community is possible, but it’s hard and requires some resistance to rejection. People will hurt you. Plans will get canceled, trips will get ruined, friend groups will dissolve, once-active group threads will become wastelands littered with occasional memes, and grown adults might even ghost you. But people will also surprise you and they’ll do things that bring a smile to your face. They’ll send you a deep dive review of the book you can’t stop talking about after you read it, or share a new dairy-free cookie recipe they tried and loved, or you’ll fall into a delightful pattern of alternating who picks up the biweekly coffee date tab. You’ll share vulnerable emotions. You’ll lift one another up when things are hard and you’ll celebrate each other’s little wins every chance you get.

Building adult friendships is brutal, but it also has the potential to be incredibly fulfilling. I see these same patterns in PAN’s coalition building efforts. It’s hard to build working relationships between organizations that benefit everyone equitably without overtaxing anyone. It takes thoughtfulness, patience, and a thick skin. There’s a give and a take in network building, and everyone involved must leave their egos at the door in service to the collective mission.

One thing that has been proven to me again and again in my short tenure at PAN is that my colleagues are really incredible at elevating the work of our partners. Everyone celebrates when someone else has a win. Because when it comes down to it, we’re all working toward the same goal of building food systems that are safe, just, and equitable.

It doesn’t matter whose name is tied to which win—we’re all eating from the same global food system after all. I don’t think I’ll change my intention for 2024—I think I’ll keep focusing on community building. I have a whole new community of people to build relationships with now, and my heart soars at that prospect.

Picture of Kayla Nichols

Kayla Nichols

Kayla was born and raised in rural Northeast Tennessee, and is committed to building community around antifragile food systems. Kayla believes that access to healthy, culturally appropriate food is a human right. Prior to joining PAN in 2023, Kayla led marketing and communications for a nonprofit in Johnson City, TN, focused on creating strong food systems, beginning farmer education, and conservation for five years where she spearheaded the creation of the first food policy council to ever serve the Northeast Tennessee region. She is also passionate about reproductive justice and serves as the Board Vice President of A Step Ahead Tri-Cities, which provides comprehensive sex education and free access to birth control in Northeast Tennessee. Outside of work, Kayla writes and performs poetry and is an avid powerlifter.

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