Ma'raj Sheikh
Grassroots Director 

Organization: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
Location: Chicago, IL

Social Media: @maerajsheikh 

Current work in response to COVID-19:  Ma’raj Sheikh is working with the Chicago Food Policy Council to respond to this moment by helping coordinate a regional food systems response focused on strengthening local network with a commitment to equity.

I’m excited to be a Castanea Fellow because… I will be connected to a learning community of change-makers who are transforming themselves and transforming the world.

What is the challenge your work addresses?

My work focuses on food systems equity and access through working with community gardens, creating collaborative farms, and addressing issues of access and land tenure. I aim to connect people to land and one another with the goal of creating an impact that is in alignment with my values. My personal experiences inform my values deeply. My family’s history is one of displacement. My father, a member of a small religious sect called Ahmadiyya, came to the U.S.
seeking asylum. Through the course of my life, I have experienced homelessness and food insecurity.

What strategies are you using to address the challenge?

I see myself as having a unique kind of privilege - the privilege of perspective through having had a breadth of life experiences. I am college educated but didn’t go to high school. I obtained my G.E.D. as a homeless youth and have also been a National Science Foundation Fellow. I’ve lived in the U.S. and in war-torn regions abroad. I’ve experienced food insecurity but have also witnessed extreme global poverty. With all of these experiences, I now have the privilege of working on systems of land access and tenure for communities experiencing displacement and landlessness towards creating a thriving social ecology that works for everyone.

My hope is to connect deeply with the cohort. I think magic happens in the space between us. Structural change requires interpersonal trust and transformation. There is immense power in being connected to a learning community of people who are also seeking to transform and work towards achieving racial equity, inclusion, and diversity for a world that works for everyone. My strategy is to continue deepening my roots and creating deep ties with those around me towards community level transformation that will create systemic change.

What does success look like to you?

Success is a process, there is no having arrived. I’m continuing to evolve and develop day by day. To me success is the process of continually integrating my values and lifestyle towards community level change that will challenge current paradigms and create systemic change. For instance, I am fortunate to live on a community land trust as part of an intentional community that is helping lower barriers of entry for home ownership. Our community views the land underneath our homes as a community asset. As a community asset, this land provides many community services. We have an urban farm, that feeds over 200 families annually, 327 community garden plots, garden and farm-based education programs, a children’s sensory garden, an edible food forest with walking trails, and jobs that help connect people to one another and the land. We utilize an integrated economic, social, and environmental lens to create value for the broader community. This is one model. There are many more.

Success is doing my best to create an equitable and sustainable world that works for everyone and inspiring those around me to do the same. Success is the journey, it is the process by which we weave together and lift one another.

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