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Inside Oregon Food Bank: A Conversation with C. Nathan Harris

Nathan was born in Cowlitz County — raised in Cowlitz and Clatsop Counties — and calls the Pacific Northwest home. Around four years old, Nathan remembers sitting at the kitchen counter in their childhood home, watching their mother take the remainder of the food in their kitchen, from the refrigerator and cupboards, and shape it into a casserole to put in the oven. “The next thing I remember is smoke billowing out from the oven,” Nathan says, “and my mother throwing open the oven door, pulling out the smoking casserole dish. I know now that the heating element in the oven had broken. It had scorched the casserole — it had scorched the rest of the food we had in the house.”

“I remember my mother leaning on the countertop and crying,” Nathan shares, “... And then there was a knock on the door.”

Nathan’s mom opened the door to a woman in a terry cloth bathrobe with a bag of groceries in her arms. “These are for you, and there are more in the car,” she told Nathan’s mom. She said they were from an anonymous person who didn’t want the family to go hungry.

“Who was this woman in pink, fluffy bunny slippers, bringing groceries to our home? And how did she know we needed them?”

“Still to this day, my mom believes that this woman was an angel,” Nathan shares. “I think the question here for any of us, regardless of one's political or religious beliefs, is, why should any mother have to rely on angelic intervention to feed her children? Why should a family have to rely on miracles to feed themselves — especially in a nation with this kind of wealth?”

C. Nathan Harris is the Director of Community Philanthropy at Oregon Food Bank. Nathan is a social justice leader with two decades in philanthropy, helping to expand national civil liberties, relieve hunger and poverty, increase access to education and healthcare and shift public opinion toward fairness.

“What is exciting to me about Oregon Food Bank is a shared understanding that our neighbors should not experience hunger — that it is, in fact, immoral for our neighbors to experience hunger. And on that common ground, in an otherwise highly polarized political climate, we can come together for community dialogue about the root causes of hunger.”

In addition to Nathan’s own lived experience with hunger, they note that the communities that Oregon Food Bank serves are close to Nathan’s heart:

"I identify as gender expansive. My husband’s parents immigrated from the Philippines and he is a Green Card holder. To live, my mom relies on SNAP, HUD subsidies, Medicare and Medicaid, social security and disability benefits. So the communities that Oregon Food Bank works alongside and within, the communities impacted by hunger and systemic inequity, and campaigns like Food for All Oregonians — these communities are my family by birth and choice. They are the people with whom I'm in closest relationship. They are us."

Before coming to Oregon Food Bank in 2019, Nathan served as Chief Development Officer at Freedom for All Americans, an organization dedicated to securing nationwide LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination protections. And before that, Nathan led initiatives at ACLU of Northern California and Transgender Law Center.

To Nathan, these causes are inextricably linked. “I don't see much distinction between food justice, economic justice, gender justice, racial justice and social justice,” Nathan says. “They're intersected, they're interdependent. The same conditions that create employment discrimination, criminalize and incarcerate immigrant and BIPOC communities, push transgender and gender expansive youth into houselessness and street economies — these same conditions are the drivers of hunger. If we can solve hunger’s root causes, we can solve the greatest societal challenges we face.”

Personal experiences of systemic injustice paved Nathan’s path to this work, and their lived experience guides their passion for the causes Nathan works for today. As a gender expansive person, Nathan shares, early experiences told them that they did not fit into society’s norms. As early as kindergarten, they remember being teased on the playground for being perceived as too feminine and preferring games and toys stereotypically for girls. In their undergraduate career, they endured violence and threats of violence for their authentic gender presentation and self-expression.

These early experiences fueled Nathan’s desire to go to law school and litigate for human rights to change the world. As the first person in their family to earn an undergraduate degree, Nathan believed that if they showed aptitude and achieved scholastically, they could become an attorney.

But even though they matriculated into a top-tier law school with a $20,000 scholarship, they could not afford the tuition. To make it work, Nathan went back ‘into the closet’ to fully finance their law school education through Army ROTC. “For many people who cannot afford education, military service remains one of a few paths to opportunity,” they stated. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was the prevailing policy concerning LGBTQ military service at the time, causing Nathan to leave law school without a degree, uncertain of their future.

“It was a ‘dream deferred’ moment for me,” Nathan shares. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, I had no home or job – mutual aid from friends and family got me by,” Nathan shared. “I was confused and I was hurt. Although I’m grateful in hindsight for having learned firsthand the very hard lesson: Meritocracy as the bedrock of the ‘American Dream’ is a total fallacy — instead, we have systemic inequity.”

Within a few months, they took a temporary position in alumni relations at their alma mater. That began Nathan’s long career in philanthropy.

Nathan believes ending hunger’s root causes will require a more just approach to philanthropy for everyone involved. “If we are less focused on financial outcomes and more focused on the unique contributions that every individual can make,” Nathan says, “philanthropy becomes more accessible. Our movements will then become more powerful and democratized with support from those most impacted by the issues we’re trying to solve.”

At the heart of Nathan’s work in social justice is the belief that we can create communities that are not solely focused on survival, but that can flourish and thrive.

“I often think about, in philanthropy, the amount of resource channeled into correcting the injustices of society,” they share. “I imagine a point at which reparations have been made to Native Nations and Black Americans, and constitutional liberties have been extended to and preserved for every person. At that point, philanthropic capital could be channeled into our wellness, our vitality; into cultural celebrations of who we are; into scientific and medical advancement, democratic participation, environmental justice, and education. Communities that don’t know hunger are communities that don't languish, communities that don't struggle just to survive — they are communities that thrive.”

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