2014 JBF Leadership Award Honoree Navina Khanna
Emily CarrusEmily Carrus
October 28, 2014
Fellow, Movement Strategy Center
There’s the work, and then there’s the spirit behind it: with Navina Khanna, it’s one and the same. “Navina is a catalyzer and activator who puts others first and leads through hard work and service…and calls all of this ‘love,’” says Ricardo Salvador, himself a 2013 JBF Leadership Award recipient. “She is one of the few people who can act on that word meaningfully in the real world by making the lives of others better because of knowing and working with her.”
Indeed, Khanna is led by her heart. Touched at an early age by the marvels of nature, active in environmental initiatives as a teen, and horrified by the negative impact of the Green Revolution and corporate influence over the food system in her family’s native India, Khanna commenced early in the pursuit of more just, equitable, and sustainable food and agricultural practices.
After embarking on that pursuit, she began planting the seeds for others to take a similar path. While working on her master’s degree in international agricultural development at the University of California at Davis, Khanna helped develop the first undergraduate major in sustainable agriculture at a land-grant university. “But there, and at sustainable agriculture conferences, I found too often that I was the only brown person and the only person talking about social justice as it related to food systems,” she recalls.
Khanna turned that frustration into action. After graduating, she moved to Oakland to work with other people of color committed to food systems change and helped launch the HOPE Collaborative (Health for Oakland’s People and Environment), organizing to engage more than 500 residents of the Oakland flatlands to increase the community’s economic ownership and access to healthy, affordable food.
During that time, Khanna met others who were doing similar work elsewhere around the country, and her view of the big picture came into better focus. In 2010 she cofounded the organization Live Real to tighten cohesion among the many nationwide movements attempting to restore respectability to both food—real food—and farm. She linked up with the Movement Strategy Center, an Oakland-based organization that gives strategic assistance to the unification of measures into a movement, where she is now an innovation fellow.
“Through her curiosity, energy, multiple collaborations, and quick eye for pattern, Navina is at the forefront of a small handful of food leaders who are cracking the difficult question of how the movement can acquire visibility, effectiveness, and political power,” says Salvador, director and senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who was introduced to Khanna during her work with HOPE.
Certainly Khanna brought many issues to the forefront of visibility during the Food & Freedom Rides that she coordinated in 2011. Inspired by the pursuit of civil rights and the tackling of change at both local and global levels, the campaign honored the 50th anniversary of the civil rights Freedom Rides: Khanna and 25 young activists traversed 3,000 miles of the country to expose food-related injustices, honor community-based endeavors, and educate youth on food policies and practices.
“The trip was deeply impactful for all of us,” says Khanna, who says the journey shaped her ongoing work. “It renewed my commitment to dismantling systems that put profit over people and the planet.”
The 2014 James Beard Leadership Award recipients were honored at a ceremony co-hosted by Good Housekeeping on October 27. Khanna also spoke on the first day of the JBF Food Conference, which took place October 27–28 in New York City. Watch video archives of all conference speakers and panels.