Lisa King Oliver

Grand Rapids, MI

"I don't "do" charity. I just do what I'm supposed to do."

As a youngster, few things struck me so profoundly as the moments I joined my family around the kitchen table, just to talk. So many good, and difficult, and funny, and serious conversations happened around that “magic” table, topped with smoky glass. That hand-me-down now sits in the kitchen of the home I share with my husband and my daughters in Michigan on Grand Rapids’ southeast side.

Years after serving as a gathering place during my childhood days, the table continues to spawn ideas. It was there, over wine with a friend a few years ago, that I was challenged to amp up my commitment to environmental and social justice in my city.

I had worked in the public health sector well into my 40s, including jobs with the Kent County Health Department, the Michigan Public Health Institute and Hospice of Michigan. Eventually, I shifted into consulting work around public health and it was during that period that a girlfriend stopped me in my tracks during that table talk when she said: “Consulting is good. But you should do some real community engagement.”

I became intrigued with the problems around lead poisoning in our Michigan communities and how it was affecting human health and the environment. From that concern, I branched out to exploring strategies for mobilizing low-income families, mostly on Grand Rapids’ southeast side.

That’s how, in 2003, I founded Our Kitchen Table, to empower urban neighborhoods to improve their health and monitor sometimes life-threatening environments through education, advocacy and community organizing. Its overall goals include combating oppression, race and gender bias and disparities in wealth and power.

Banking on strong social networks, we developed tools to empower families to develop homegrown food, even on properties threatened by soils with suspected or actual high lead levels. Our Kitchen Table teaches residents how to grow crops in containers and take full advantage of the Southeast Area Farmers Market.

It’s there that OKT will continue partnering with the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council and the Kent County Health Department to host educational events and participate in the Bridge Card (SNAP), Michigan Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Project Fresh, Kent County Health Department coupons and DoubleUp Food Bucks programs.

We promote growing from a systemic lens and from understanding what is going on in the community and we look at the entire food landscape, everything from grocery stores and wild edibles to pantries and food-buying clubs and co-ops.

A big part of my motivation is that I really wanted to have my children understand the importance of giving back. My daughters know the power of communicating amongst ourselves around the magic table. But it was important that I talk to them about the value and effect of being part of a community.

I view my participation as a chance to immerse myself in community and make a difference with a program that meets basic human needs and lifts up families, with education as a core element.

I don’t “do” charity. I just do what I’m supposed to do. I’m my brother’s keeper, and I try to emphasize that. It’s the best way to use my gifts, to help people express kindness. It’s what we should be to each other.

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