Aaron Johnson Shares his Passion for Social Impact Work

Aaron Johnson, who began working at RAFI-USA in the fall of 2021, is the Senior Program Manager for the Challenging Corporate Power program. Throughout his life, he has maintained a connection to agriculture starting as a child when he visited his Grandpa Lyle and Grandma Marge who were dairy and hog farmers in northern Illinois. Even after they retired from farming he loved to visit and help them pick fruits and vegetables and then can or juice them. 

Then there was Uncle Scott who ran a hog farm in central Illinois. Aaron spent summers there working from middle school through college. As the years went by, he honed his farming skills. “I started out just helping move pigs around between barns and doing feeding chores, but by college, I had learned how to conduct a lot more of the hog operations. I really enjoyed those times a lot, not only the farm elements but also getting close with my aunt and uncle and three younger cousins. Overall it’s an experience that was really formative for me and that I look back on fondly,” Aaron says.

Aaron grew up in Moline, IL, one of the Quad Cities on the Mississippi River. He lived with his father, a general surgeon, his mother, who worked as a physical therapist, and his younger sister Emily. He loved growing up on the river, especially when he was old enough to go duck hunting on the Mississippi.

As an undergraduate at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana he majored in philosophy and professional writing and admits that he “really didn’t quite know what I wanted to do yet in undergrad” and shares that he’s “always been the kind of person who would enjoy studying philosophy. It was through that degree that I really grappled with and started to grow through some of the beliefs I grew up with.”  

Following college, he attended Duke University’s Divinity School and received a Master of Theological Studies. Early on during his two-year program, he knew he wanted to find work in the social impact space. “Whether I was taking classes in religion, social psychology, sociology, or gender studies, the common thread was a focus on applying critical race theory and gender studies to issues in U.S. history and culture. I also worked on a diversified local farm while in Divinity school, and this was when I realized I’d love to find my way into food systems social impact work at some point,” he says.

While at Duke he started working on youth asset building with Partners for Youth Opportunity in Durham. He moved from an internship to a staff position. He has the utmost respect for the young people the organization was partnering with, and the staff did everything they could to get opportunities and unrestricted cash into the hands of these young people. He says, “The young people we partnered with were some of the smartest money-managers and entrepreneurs I’ve ever met, and it was really rewarding to see them prove that time and again.”

Aaron had known about RAFI-USA from his days at Duke and he kept an eye on the job listings. When he saw that the position of Program Manager for Challenging Corporate Power was available, he seized the opportunity. “There’s something really compelling and special about the feedback loop that RAFI is able to generate between its relationships with farmers and food system stakeholders — through our crisis and technical assistance work — and our policy advocacy. We’re able to both advocate for systemic change based on problems we observe in the real world and also advocate for policies and then actually check to see if they’re working out in the real world. And overall, I’m a huge nerd, specifically about agriculture policy, so it feels pretty crazy cool to actually get to focus so much of my time on issues I care about personally, in my career,” he shares.

Aaron believes that “truly transformative wins in the long term could include major antitrust actions that actually deconcentrate agricultural industry sectors and puts agribusiness more directly under the ownership of workers, farmers, and community stakeholders. In regards to the climate crisis, there are so many foundational policy structures that need to be reshaped to prioritize climate change mitigation and resilience as a first consideration.”

Aaron appreciates the culture of RAFI-USA. “I feel really grateful for the work that so many people have put into making RAFI such a thoughtful and strong organization internally before I got the opportunity to join the team. There is so much about RAFI’s culture and operating norms that are really well thought out, and I’m thankful for that,” he says.

Aaron shares a home with partner Arianne and their three year old kiddo Sophia, who was born in March of 2020, the night before the first COVID-19 lockdowns.  “We emerged from that experience into a different world. So it’s a little crazy thinking about what it’s like to be a parent because the parental experience that my partner and I have had has been so different from what we imagined in so many ways. And yeah, I’ve changed in a lot of ways as a result of the experiences we’ve had over the past two years, but that change is in response to so much more than parenthood, and yet also very much is in conversation with the experience of parenthood. It’s been such a privilege to get to figure out what parenting means alongside my partner Arianne. And it is so cool to get to know a new little person that grows and changes and learns so relentlessly,” he shares.

For fun, one of Aaron’s favorite pastimes is cooking. “It’s an outlet for me, and I can get pretty elaborate with it. And I love the science experiment nature of some food projects, so I’ve tried things like making my own vermouth or making my own cheese. It’s been quite a while since I went hunting but I enjoy that and hope to get back into that someday. I love trying new restaurants with my partner, and we love baking and exploring together. I love watching Cardinals baseball with Sophiamy daughter. My family and I love going to the beach, and that’s even more fun with a child toddler who is terrifyingly unafraid of running straight into the waves.”

Aaron is driven by a personal mission. “Ultimately, I see the food system as one of these core elements of our overall ecology that must become more equitable and sustainable if we want to live in a future worth living in. I see the work we’re engaged in not as an exercise in service provision or activism on behalf of a ‘them,’ but as a long term struggle of a very broad and solidaristic ‘us’ — because through the food system, every one of us is very tangibly tied into an ecology that is as expansive and stark as the planetary boundaries we must now find a way to stay within.”

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