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Staff Profile: Tee Turner

Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, Tee Turner knew from an early age that she wanted to devote her time to helping people. That drive has guided her career journey from serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer, to working in the food bank industry, to her current role as the Climate Smart Project Manager at RAFI.

As a communications major at Coastal Carolina University, Tee originally planned on becoming a journalist and reporting on social justice issues. But after becoming involved as a volunteer at a local soup kitchen, Tee realized that rather than reporting on problems, she wanted her career to focus on actively implementing solutions.

After college, Tee served as an AmeriCorps VISTA member at Newberry College in South Carolina, where she worked to mobilize student volunteers to engage in the community to develop deeper connections between the town and the university. One of her projects involved conducting initial research and landscape analyses to place a community resource center — a project that will soon culminate when the center opens later this year.

Tee went on to serve a second year as a VISTA Leader, training and mentoring VISTA members at campuses across South Carolina, and also as an AmeriCorps Programs Manager for Catholic Charities. She also managed federal food assistance program implementation at food banks in Virginia and Maryland. “I found that my natural interest was in the food space,” she recalls being drawn particularly to the connections between food quality, access, and health.

At the food banks, Tee oversaw the purchase and distribution of food products under The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), a USDA program that provides no-cost emergency food assistance to low-income U.S. citizens whose grocery needs may not be fully met by other food assistance programs like SNAP. She learned to traverse the often-complex landscape of food procurement, navigating challenging stakeholder relationships. Negotiations over prices and contract requirements could cause tensions between food banks and the farmers they sourced from. Noticing the lack of empathy towards farmers in some food programming circles, Tee sought to learn more about the wider food system and the challenges that producers face, wondering, “What else is happening behind this curtain?”

Joining RAFI as the Climate Smart Project Manager in September 2023 transformed her perspective. “I feel like I’ve learned so much about food systems on a level that I never could’ve learned by just working within food programming,” she says. Working with the small and underserved farmers in RAFI’s network enlightened her about the many tradeoffs farmers must make to balance nurturing the environment, feeding their communities, and safeguarding their livelihoods. Whereas the food banking world tended to emphasize quick solutions to address immediate-term needs, “I feel like my work with RAFI is more so going deep into the roots of food systems, figuring out issues that farmers are facing, what are issues that they may have with commercial channels, and how that impacts those that are impoverished.” Engaging for the first time on climate solutions has led her to emphasize the need for proactive approaches to support healthy environments, healthy food, and healthy people.

Tee serves as the implementation manager for the Climate Smart Project and has led the design of processes for enrolling farmers, collecting farm data, meeting reporting requirements, and distributing resources and payments for participants. “We just got done doing a heavy push for recruiting farmers, and in the summertime, we’re going to move into doing actual farm visits. So I’m excited to see what the project looks like in practice.” She expresses amazement and appreciation for how much she’s been able to learn in her first few months at RAFI: “I feel like I’m a sponge right now. . . I feel like the last three to four months, everything has just been clicking into place.”

Tee credits her mother as one of the most influential people in her life who has shaped where she is today. “When I was in college and I was trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to do with my life, and I was deciding I’m not going to be a journalist, and she was just telling me — the greatest piece of advice I think she’s ever given me — to do what you’re passionate about and money and everything else will fall in line. And I think that’s so true because, working for RAFI, and working in nonprofit spaces, it never really feels like work.” Tee appreciates that working with RAFI means getting to be around “very genuine and intentional” people who “walk the walk and talk the talk.”

Outside of work, most of Tee’s time is devoted to spending time with her daughter, who was born last summer. “It’s very interesting to see life through somebody else’s eyes or the beginning of them, the beginning of their lives! So I spend a lot of time just stalking my baby around.” She also enjoys listening to audiobooks and working on her DJing skills.

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