Food and Thought
Martha’s Table head Kim R. Ford ’99 is dedicated to service, listening, and equality. Just look at her org chart.
Kim R. Ford ’99 can’t quite see Sidwell Friends School from the garden at the Anacostia location of Martha’s Table, where she has served as CEO since April 2019. But she can see the tower of the National Cathedral, marking just how close the Wisconsin Avenue campus is. It’s a full-circle moment: She started cutting vegetables for the nonprofit and volunteer group when she was in Middle School at Sidwell Friends.
“The Quaker values of Sidwell teach you to listen and respect and understand, and that is really related to what we do here, because we believe that everything starts with listening,” she says. “If you have respect for folks, the first thing you’ll do is truly listen to them.”
Martha’s Table has a longstanding relationship with Sidwell Friends. When Ford attended the School, Martha’s Table was more of a food bank, but now it is so much more. The newest of the nonprofit’s three locations, which was built in 2018, houses a lobby market that’s similar to a grocery store, complete with nonperishable items and fresh fruits and vegetables. Patrons can use a special debit card to shop at Martha’s Outfitters for clothing and supplies. The organization also runs pop-up monthly markets in Wards 7 and 8; a food truck that serves sandwiches and hot meals to people experiencing housing insecurity; a store that provides free clothing and baby supplies to people with young children; educational programs, including an accredited preschool for children from 6 weeks to 3 years old; as well as simply being a gathering place for the surrounding community.
“This is a place that can help people achieve their dreams and not just [hand out] food,” Ford says. “It’s an intentional and systematic way of saying, ‘We believe in you, you believe in you, and how do we work together so that you can achieve your dream?’”
Prior to leading Martha’s Table, Ford, who grew up in DC’s Shepherd Park neighborhood, was the dean of workforce development and lifelong learning at the University of the District of Columbia. Before that, she served in the Obama administration as the deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary in the US Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education; she also helped run the White House’s Recovery Implementation Office, which produced the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
This lifelong commitment to bringing quality education and assistance to others started at Sidwell Friends. “Sidwell taught us that everybody does have potential, everybody does have the ability to achieve their dream, and one of the things we should do is try to stand and support them in doing that,” she says. “I was at the White House. And there are so many people just two blocks away from there who are far more talented, far smarter than I am, but whatever happened—whether it was the expectations, the systems, whatever—they weren’t able to do what they wanted to do.”
Ford’s view of ethical leadership is one of egalitarianism, and you can see that in her relationships with both Martha’s Table patrons and employees. She greets community members by name, asks about their parents, and hugs children, some of whom she’s known since they were toddlers. When it comes to employees, the importance of equality hangs in the bright, sunny lobby for all to see. There are the expected names of donors, of course, but on another wall there’s also a brand-new sign listing all of the employees—just not in the order that one might expect. Instead of starting at the CEO and moving its way down, this sign is organized by tenure. The longest-serving employee, who has spent 21 years at Martha’s Table, is at the top; Ford is two-thirds of the way down the third of the four columns. “At Sidwell, there was no ranking,” she says. “We never had a valedictorian or a salutatorian. Everybody was equal there, regardless of your background or your circumstance. It wasn’t as if somebody’s voice was valued more than others. To me, if we’re going to rank anything here, it’s got to be by tenure.”
It wasn’t just the students who seemed equal at Sidwell Friends. When Ford talks about her time at the School, some of the memories that stick with her the most are the discussions she had with her English teachers. “We would get into these back-and-forth conversations,” she says. “And it wasn’t ‘I’m the teacher, therefore I don’t have to debate you’—though they probably were actually right.”
Of course, Ford also remembers service at Sidwell Friends. “There are some things that are unique to Sidwell and Martha’s Table, which is why the partnership is so strong and it makes so much sense,” she says. When young people at the School make a sandwich and then somebody gets that sandwich, the whole operation is imbued with meaning: “It means more for the person who gets the sandwich, and it means more for the young person who makes it.” In the end, it was never just about the food.
There are some things that are unique to Sidwell and Martha’s Table, which is why the partnership is so strong and it makes so much sense.”
Ford finds that same meaning now, even though she’s probably no longer making sandwiches (though it’s entirely possible you’d find her doing that, too). After all, given her career background, she could have easily landed in a corner office. “I could go sit somewhere, go to all the galas and dinners and everything,” she says. “But I would rather spend all day in the lobby market or walking around the community listening to people and figuring out how Martha’s Table can support them in their path to success.”
So, yes, Ford can almost see the Sidwell Friends School in the distance—but she also sees the School every day at Martha’s Table. “There’s something there that just links these two organizations in a really special way,” she says. “Even if we can’t specifically pinpoint what it is, I think we all know it’s there.”
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