On Being an Access Point for Economic Mobility: An Interview with Kim R. Ford

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Kim R. Ford, president and CEO of Martha’s Table, a nonprofit that supports Washingtonians by supporting strong children, strong families, and strong communities. Ford is the first Black woman to lead the human services organization in its 40-year history. Ford is a 2020 Urban One “Women Leading the Change” Honoree.

Congratulations on your newest award! When and why did you join Martha’s Table?

I joined Martha’s Table two years ago. It was like coming full circle for me because I volunteered at the organization as a teenager when I was in middle and upper school. I remember making sandwiches and meals. 

I’ve spent my career trying to make systemic change to affect the communities that I care about. Joining Martha’s Table seemed like a great place to do that, especially as we move into our next phase of work and growth.

Martha’s Table works in Ward 8 in Washington, DC, where 50% of children are growing up in poverty. I’ve also read that Ward 8 has 1 grocery store for 80,000 residents. Martha’s Table is well-known for its amazing direct service. Are you also thinking about creating structural changes in our community?

Martha’s Table has always been more than a food pantry. Ultimately, we want to put our model of being about food and clothing out of business. That’s why I’m so excited about our new strategic plan.

At the end of the day, it can’t just be about giving out food. Receiving food and clothing are economic stabilizers, in some ways, because that enables you to decrease your expenses. But in addition to that, we also have a huge focus on economic mobility. This isn’t about what we want. The community has told us that they would prefer to go buy their own food. 

We have a cash assistance program. To date, we have supported 137 Martha’s Table families with $9,000 in cash transfers plus $15 per day of grocery gift cards per child. This work led to a THRIVE East of the River Partnership with three other organizations in the city, including 11th Street Bridge Park, Bread for the City, and the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative. Collectively, we supported 500 additional families in Ward 8 with cash transfers.

But cash transfers can’t be the end either. To us, they are an emergency response, especially during a pandemic. For us, economic mobility also means workforce development so that people can be on a career path. It means looking at our assets and resources through an economic development lens, for example, by turning our commercial kitchen into a community kitchen with incubation space for entrepreneurs. 

Say you have a great cupcake company, but you can only make 100 cupcakes. In our ovens, you can make 1,000 cupcakes. What could that mean for your business?!

We’re also starting a food truck pilot program where we underwrite the cost of the business and support entrepreneurs in building their business and culinary skills. It’s a mobile incubator that will move around Wards 7 and 8, which are in a food desert. 

It’s a win, win, win. The entrepreneurs get skills, the community, which lacks restaurants, gains access to new foods, and Martha’s Table gets to stand alongside the communities we serve.

You’ve talked about your goals around diversifying your donors at Martha’s Table. Can you say more about that?

We have some mismatches among the stakeholders we serve – our volunteers, donors, and community members. So I’ve been very focused on diversifying everything.

One of the things that was so great about our COVID response is that we never closed. Never. We actually expanded by launching 10 additional community y pop-up spots. We went from delivering 500 bags of groceries per day to 2,000 bags of groceries because the need was so great. The Father McKenna Wagon, our mobile food service, went out every night with a hot meal EVEN when we had to cater it, because we put our team on mandatory telework with the choice to opt-in to ensure that our chefs weren’t forced to come in. 

The community really saw that and people would drive by and say, “I didn’t even know if I wanted Martha’s Table in this community but thank God for y’all.” 

Since then, we’ve had a massive increase in volunteers and donors from the community. We lost many of our volunteers when we went into lockdown because a big percentage of our volunteers are senior citizens who were mandated to stay at home. Community members and volunteers from other programs joined us.

We’re not trying to leave anyone out. Diversity is additive for us.

When you get down to brass tacks, diversity is practical. We receive a lot of donated clothes that are sizes 2, 4, and 6. But we also need the sizes 12 and 14.

That is such a great point. The need for diversity isn’t just an ethical issue, it’s a practical one. 

From a philanthropic perspective, Black and Brown people are highly generous but we don’t always know that. It’s important to me that folks know what we do and what we stand for. During COVID, we went from 5,000 individual donors to 15,000 individual donors and the diversification of our donor base has been great.

Also, at Martha’s Table, we are 100% rooted in our mission and values. We are only interested in working with those who share our values versus those who use their assets to dictate our behavior.

Is there anything else you want to add?

We know that your zip code dictates your educational, economic, and health outcomes. Quite frankly, money is the center of all of this. Until the economic status of the people whom we serve increases, we’re going to be in the same cycle. I want our donors, volunteers, and everybody to know that “Yes, we’re going to keep packing these bags of groceries, but we also have to look at and address the root causes of poverty.” 

Also, we have to benchmark our success by looking at and improving the lives of the people we are serving NOW. The displacement caused by gentrification, especially in D.C., can make us think that we are succeeding when employment and educational outcomes go up. But we’re not succeeding if the faces in our communities are changing and if everyone we are serving is getting pushed further out.

Finally, our recently approved strategic plan was nearly 100% community-led and informed by Black and Brown voices. It included over 1,000 touchpoints. We held focus groups in English, Spanish, and Amharic. We held focus groups with returning citizens, senior citizens, and youth. I’m proud of that.

Who are your BlackHer Sheroes?

My mother, Dietra L. Ford. She was a presidential appointee and first-generation college student who worked in Congress for many years. But more than anything, she was just an amazing person. There is a tribute to her in the Urban One Honors. 

In DC, you usually have the folks who are big-time feds or big-time locals. Somehow she was both. She knew everybody’s name and treated everyone the same. 

Let me ask you the miracle question. You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow, and a miracle has occurred for Black women. What happened?

Black women have stopped fighting each other and other people have stopped fighting and undervaluing us.