Michelle Osborne grew up in a suburban environment outside of Nashville, TN. For fun she played Quiz Bowl (think the minor leagues for Jeopardy), was on the soccer team, and sang in the choir at school. The journey that led her to her current position as Senior Program Director for RAFI-USA’s Come to the Table program began while she was in college at Trevecca Nazarene University. One summer she took an internship in Southeast Washington, DC working with children and families who lived in public housing. After graduating and joining Americorps she returned to DC and worked with the same organization for three years as a math and reading program coordinator. “Through that experience, the disparities in housing, food access, and educational opportunities for students of color became illuminated for me. My time in DC was definitely eye-opening and set me on a path of engaging in justice and advocacy work,” she shares.
Her work in DC was a combination of ministry and social work, and it led her to apply for and complete a dual degree program between Duke Divinity School and UNC-CH’s School of Social Work. During her studies she explored a variety of directions via a number of internships. One summer in Phoenix, AZ she worked with undocumented teens and college students who were conducting voter registration drives in response to SB-1070. “I was there when President Obama announced DACA, a policy which changed the lives of so many of the young people that I was working with that summer. Getting involved in voter registration work was meaningful for me because up to that point my work had been very charity-driven. That work began to shift the lens to attacking injustice from more of a systems perspective,” she says. She also enjoyed working in a community garden that summer, helping to provide fresh, local food to community members.
After receiving her Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School and a Master of Social Work from the UNC-CH School of Social Work, Michelle served as a pastor at several churches: one for a year in Durham and two others, also for a year, in the more rural Granville County. “While I realized that pastoral ministry was not where I was being called, I was grateful for the opportunity, particularly because I had not lived in a rural area before,” she shares. She says that she learned a lot that year about rural life. She recalls: “One of the churches that I pastored had a ministry to farmworkers. We would set up a tent in the Wal-mart parking lot, where the workers would come on Friday evenings to get their supplies for the week. We would have chicken and a soccer ball. It was a great time to relax and spend time with these farmworkers who might not always feel like they are welcome community members. We would also have a welcome dinner for them when they came to town in the spring and a send-off for them in November. We wanted them to know that we were glad that they were there.”
Michelle landed at RAFI-USA in July 2017. “RAFI is a very collaborative organization,” she says, “and I’m grateful to partner with staff across different programs on various projects. I really enjoy the people I work with. We are a dedicated (and sometimes) goofy group.”
As the Senior Program Manager for the Come to the Table program, she oversees multifaceted projects that connect faith communities with farmers, farmers market managers, and other community leaders engaged in food access work to increase capacity and promote equity. “We focus on systemic solutions to food access that at the same time strengthen just and sustainable agriculture,” she says. The program delivers conferences and events, technical assistance, training focused on building equity in the food system, and collaborative networks and resources. “I am grateful for the opportunity to help churches think and act more systemically in their food ministries and to build connections between the farming and church worlds,” MIchelle says.
Michelle’s personal mission statement is “be kind, have fun.” Her advice to faith communities: “Buy from local farmers as much as you can and take action — call your elected officials and tell them what you want out of your food system.”