Justine Post: Champion for Rural North Carolina

Justine Post became RAFI-USA’s Come to the Table program director in mid-January 2022. Her educational background, work experience, and passion for equity and justice in the food system have merged into a perfect trifecta for her role in leading the Come to the Table program. 

Justine grew up in a small town in central Michigan and lived what she calls a “very midwestern and middle-class childhood.” During summers, she biked all over town, hiked and camped, and fondly remembers driving to 7-11 for Slurpees when she was old enough to get behind the wheel. “We always felt like there wasn’t much to do, but we somehow kept busy,” she says.

In elementary school, she dreamed of being an author and illustrator and loved writing, reading, and playing sports. In high school, she was her soccer team’s goalie and explains that she tried out for that role because she had a pretty good vertical jump and “loved the pressure and excitement of being the last woman on the field to stop the ball.”

Justine studied Religion and Art Studio at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, a small four-year liberal arts college. At the time, she had no idea where this would lead but she knew she “was interested in working with adolescents in mental health, teaching, or in ministry,” she shares.

Her first job out of college was at Seattle Children’s Hospital as a Pediatric Mental Health Specialist in the psychiatric inpatient unit. She worked with children ages 5-18 leading therapeutic groups and teaching healthy coping and self-care skills. “My work in Seattle was the most difficult and invaluable time in my career. My job was to care for the children and adolescents who were there for a mental or behavioral health crisis. What that meant was that I had to be an expert in my own emotional regulation so that I could teach it to others. It was incredibly taxing, but I don’t think there is a job I have valued more for what I learned and what I was able to provide,” she shares.

After that experience, she attended Duke Divinity School and UNC’s School of Social Work. “In my years spent in and out of the church, I understood social justice and advocacy as inherent Christian values, even when I witnessed the opposite at times. It felt like a natural career to pursue, and I also understood that trained social workers can work in many different fields. Becoming a social worker was a pursuit that was always connected to my faith,” she shares in describing her path. “I wanted to continue my career in mental health at the time, while also learning how the church could be a safer and more inclusive space for healing, justice, and advocacy,” she says. 

She served as a Social Work Intern in UNC Hospital’s Pediatric Oncology unit while finishing up her graduate degree. “It wasn’t until I worked at UNC that I truly understood the devastating nature of poverty in the U.S. Cancer can affect people of any race or class, and I witnessed how the cost of treatment, travel, and time off of work devastated families’ bank accounts. Many of the children were there for the same reasons, yet handfuls of families needed significantly more financial and logistical support than others,” she says. She saw first-hand how many families are just one crisis away from debilitating debt. “This realization revealed a lot to me about the lack of any financial safety net in the U.S. and how we must do better for children and parents,” she adds.

Once Justine received her master’s degree, she was offered a position at The Conservation Fund with its Resourceful Communities program. While she actively applied for jobs in mental and behavioral health, nothing was landing for her. She accepted this job on a bit of a whim but after six years there, she says she couldn’t imagine working anywhere else but in and for rural North Carolina. Her work at Resourceful Communities fed directly into the work she now does with RAFI-USA, engaging with rural faith communities by providing small grants, technical assistance, and connections to those who want to improve their food ministries. “At Resourceful Communities, I learned a host of things that have informed much of what I do now at RAFI-USA: the vitality and challenges that rural communities hold, the opportunity that churches have to step more authentically into acts of social justice, and the beauty and resilience of North Carolina. 

While Justine was at The Conservation Fund she partnered with RAFI-USA’s Come to the Table program on many occasions, and when the position became available, she jumped at the opportunity. “I was most enthusiastic about working explicitly for a farmer advocacy organization that had a policy advocacy component to it. Part of my job during the past six years had been to assist faith communities in addressing root causes of hunger, and I don’t think you can adequately address root causes of hunger without advocating for policies that address income inequality, access to healthy food, and more,” she says.

She’s excited to continue digging deeper into her work with RAFI-USA and believes it’s important to understand the history of our economy and the state of farmers in order to engage in the work of meaningfully supporting farmers of color, an important focus of RAFI-USA’s work. She explains:  “After having these conversations, many white faith communities ask ‘what’s next?’ or ‘what can we do to right this wrong?’ I believe one of the most meaningful and impactful opportunities is the work of our Farm & Faith Partnership Project which connects faith communities to members of our Farmers of Color Network. We’ve seen a lot of success in these budding partnerships, as they allow faith communities to use their dollars in just and equitable ways, all while purchasing high-quality produce, meat, or dairy.” 

If Justine could wave a magic wand she says she would “eliminate the expression ‘working poor,’ as the term should not even exist. Access to healthcare, childcare, housing, and livable wages are human rights, and we should start treating those things as such. If people are working, their wages should be able to cover their cost of living. It’s not enough to help citizens move out of ‘low wage jobs,’ because as long as those jobs exist, we will view people as expendable enough to keep them there. No one wants to spend half or the majority of their paycheck on childcare, housing, or healthcare coverage, but so many people in the U.S. do.” 

For fun, Justine enjoys hiking, often with her husband, two daughters, and their dog. She also enjoys baking and since 2021 has baked more than 70 pies, trying new recipes and recreating old ones. When she had access to a pottery wheel and kiln, she enjoyed making bowls, mugs, and plates, but baking has allowed her to channel her creativity in a similar way. 

Justine often comments about the joy her two daughters bring to her. “They are both gifts that I didn’t deserve and they’ve been incredibly resilient beings during this time. As a mother I live in a hope that this world can be a better place for them,” she says.

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