Sunday, September 3, 2017
Ken Patterson sits behind his desk in a modest office in a well-loved, well-worn building on South Locust Street, just off the downtown Fayetteville square. The building, once a church, is now home to Feed Communities, a nonprofit with a mission to help eradicate food insecurity and increase healthy food access in Northwest Arkansas. Patterson has served as the executive director since 2015.
Patterson is soft-spoken and eloquent. He laughs frequently. He looks like what he is: a family man, running a nonprofit and trying to make the community of Northwest Arkansas a better place for all to live and thrive. But scratch the surface of this mild-mannered man, and you'll find a human rights superhero who has made substantial, life-altering improvements in places that the rest of us have only read about in newspaper stories.
Through Others’ Eyes
“He started a program in Bosnia to rescue young women who had been trafficked for sex. It quickly gathered attention from all corners of the globe and, I think, is still in progress today.” — Kelly Patterson
“My first impression of Ken was ‘What a good guy!’ While a simplistic beginning description, with each interaction, my admiration deepened and grew.” — Thomas Carmody
You won't scratch the surface with much help from Patterson himself, however. He runs quickly through his resume, which includes 15 years of work in international refugee relief services. Though he is happy to answer questions and give more detail, he is modest in his recounting. It isn't until some close friends and family are consulted that the full scope of his accomplishments become clear.
Some significant information that Patterson left out of his retelling : For two years, he was president of the Kosovo Enterprise Program -- a microfinance institution that provided funds and training for new businesses in the region. He created a program in Bosnia that rescued women kidnapped into sex trafficking (and he was interviewed by Christine Amanpour on 60 Minutes as a result). His international jobs were often dangerous and resulted in encounters during which Patterson sometimes found himself at the wrong end of a gun.
But Patterson is much more Clark Kent than Superman, satisfied to keep the "S" on his chest hidden beneath his blue button-down oxford shirt.
A history of giving
Patterson's brother, Kelly Patterson, thinks his family's long history of advocacy has a bearing on why Patterson's resume is so packed with altruism.
"A direct line could be drawn from our ancestors working on the Underground Railroad to Ken dedicating himself to international refugee crises," he says.
Patterson says he had plenty of examples of public service from more recent members of his family, as well.
"My mother was a teacher, and she and my dad were public service-minded," he says. "I think they always impressed upon me that jobs like policemen and teachers were valuable jobs. They always let me know that those were the people they respected."
And then there was his grandmother.
"I don't think it's an overstatement to say that my grandmother was famous in Joplin [Mo.] for being 'the crazy helper lady,'" he says with a smile. "She had an old hearse that she painted yellow [with] 'Sunshine Wagon' on it. She would go around and deliver food to blind people -- crazy, eccentric things like that. In Joplin, in the 1960s, she was a pioneer of getting black and white kids together at parks and swimming pools."
Patterson moved from Dallas to Joplin with his family when he was young.
"My dad was from Joplin originally, and I remember him really getting frustrated that we were growing up in Dallas," says Patterson. "I remember at the mall in Dallas at Christmastime, they had a game where you could fish, and he was so quiet on the way home. I remember him yelling to my mother, 'My boys were fishing at this trough in the mall!' And we don't even fish! We're not a big outdoorsy family. It was just a metaphor. I guess he thought we should at least be throwing rocks into a real river. So soon after that, we left."
Patterson and his two younger brothers would soon realize the value of having extended family around when their mother lost her long battle with cancer. Patterson was just 14.
"It changes everything," Patterson says simply. "But I feel like I hit a good lottery number on family. We had a support base in Joplin."
Patterson took a break from law school at the University of Arkansas -- where he had also earned his undergraduate degree -- to volunteer for a year. He had an idea that he might want to focus on human rights law eventually, so he narrowed his search to refugee relief agencies.
"I went down to the [UA] Union Book Store, and they had a book there," says Patterson. "It was 'Volunteer!' with an exclamation point. It had all these volunteer opportunities, mostly in Europe. I wanted to travel for free, basically. I applied to [a refugee agency in the United Kingdom], and they wrote back and said, 'We don't support international volunteers, these are for British volunteers.' So I kept writing these handwritten letters and making these phone calls that I couldn't afford, and, finally, they relented. At one point, I got a letter that said, 'Come on, then.'"
Patterson's job was, essentially, manual labor -- helping refugees relocate to housing south of London.
"It was really an intensive, great experience for me, and by the time I got back, I knew that working with refugees was something I wanted to do," he says. "Not to be overly dramatic about it, but that was really a life-changing moment for me."
After a detour or two, in 1997 Patterson accepted a position with the International Catholic Migration Committee (ICMC), and his life course was set for the next 15 years.
His first post was in Croatia.
"There were a lot of people in Croatia that were displaced," recalls Patterson. "They were on their way out. But I started getting hungry, thinking, 'If I'm going down this route of working with refugees, I want to dive into it.' So I started going on field trips, really, in Africa and other places. I started being exposed to the idea of a long-term refugee camp, and I really wanted to be in one. So I shifted, and that first shift was in Albania, when the Kosovo conflict first started."
Patterson's friend Thomas Carmody met Patterson in Albania, where he, too, was serving as an international aid worker.
"While everyone else was providing a more classic humanitarian assistance package -- food, water, shelter -- Ken assisted the refugees no one else could handle: trafficked women and disabled individuals," says Carmody. "Every single person Ken and ICMC assisted required unique and customized attention -- very challenging and time consuming.
"[It was] amazing to watch him, in the span of a single five-minute interaction, strategize with his drivers escorting trafficked women to safe houses how to evade gun-carrying mobsters who wanted their 'property' returned and, then, turn to convince a reluctant international donor that an additional $1 million was needed to get the job done."
"He has had his life threatened and has been held at gunpoint since some of his efforts interrupted large crime organizations," says Kelly, who notes that Patterson's family back in the states worried about his dangerous work on a daily basis. "We dealt with it by reminding ourselves of the good work he was doing. There isn't a person better at navigating dangerous situations than Ken."
Albania would have a permanent place in Patterson's heart for a personal reason, too: He met his wife, Renee, while at this post.
"She's a grants person, that's what she was doing when we met," says Patterson, clearly smitten by his wife. "They called them 'umbrella grants'. She was the administrator, and she made sure things were on track. There were nine of us who had a contract that she was administering, and she had a reputation for being mean, but I kind of liked that. There was a soft part underneath."
Time to come home
In August 2001, Patterson had just returned from Albania and was scheduled to report to the new post of country director in Pakistan on Sept. 15, 2001. The events of Sept. 11 would shift the mission, and three months later, Patterson found himself in Afghanistan, overseeing an enormous project.
"In Afghanistan, we had four camps with a combined population of 120,000," says Patterson. "The camps along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border were probably the most depressing and dangerous ones that I had been exposed to for any length of time. They were particularly rough and felt long-term and hopeless. I'm sure some of [the same refugees] are still there right now."
Over the course of his time in the international refugee relief arena, Patterson would become very good at his job.
"I always took it as, 'Hey, I'm a 'B' student who has never had any specific overwhelming talent in anything, but yet I've gotten to be right here playing a pretty good part," he says, with characteristic modesty. "I was really proud of the programs we were running. We were doing a good job at using money effectively. We were developing a good reputation as being lean and effective in how we spent funds for people. The State Department and the United Nations started looking to us to run these programs because of our reputation. I felt super proud about that."
For 15 years, Patterson worked to help people driven from their homes by conflict and war, those who were often poverty stricken, sometimes ill, sometimes dying. It was his job to do what he could to find solutions to their insurmountable problems. Such grueling, heartbreaking work takes a toll.
"In Malawi, Bosnia, Croatia or any other number of countries, Ken was able to juggle managing an international office, as well as refugee camps with tens of thousands of suffering people," says Kelly. "He has seen things that would horrify most people. In many ways, the worse the situation, the more Ken was drawn to it.
"But it requires a pace that is unsustainable as a lifelong career."
"I always tried to focus on what the professional aspects of our job were supposed to be, what we were supposed to be getting done, and tried not to let emotion get in the way of doing it effectively," says Patterson. "The people I looked up to were very compassionate people that separated the emotion out. They might get upset that night over drinks, they might get upset the next morning, but, at work, it was work. I looked at it as an opportunity to be good at something that was really having a direct impact."
One thing he learned from watching his co-workers that had been at the work longer than he had: When to get out.
"I started seeing some patterns in their lives that were a result of being out there for too long and not really building anything," he says. "They started hating wherever they were.
"And my dad was getting older, everyone was getting older, and I had a couple of friends die, people getting divorced ... I just started realizing, at one point, that I needed to make a decision."
His decision was to withdraw from international work -- slowly. From 2008 through 2014, Patterson would take on small assignments. He was based in Fayetteville, but he would spend around six months a year overseas. In 2015, Patterson and Renee had a daughter, and he took his last international assignment shortly after he assumed the position of executive director at Feed Communities. Renee continues to take short-term overseas assignments.
"We've made a commitment to see how these things will keep working out, even with our little girl here, and maybe at some point she can go with us," says Patterson.
Right back to work
Feed Communities was founded in 2012 with the goal of "supporting and expanding local food systems as a means of facilitating durable solutions for food security." Patterson is animated when talking about his current mission, clearly excited about his work here.
"After a national search, we found what we needed in our own backyard," says Denise Garner, Feed Communities co-founder and board member. "[Ken] has been integral in forming and maintaining relationships with partner organizations, developing numerous hunger-related projects with diverse populations in multiple locations and finding the funds to make them happen. It's like coordinating numerous, consecutive and concurrent start-ups, with all the strategic, operational and development plans necessary for each."
"I've been surprised at the hunger challenges here, really surprised at how severe things are," he says. "Arkansas is always in the top five -- usually the top two -- of food insecurity. Washington and Benton counties are at the top of that, which seems crazy. In terms of the number of kids that are insecure, we have the highest of the highest in the state. Not a good place to be. I think what the original purpose of Feed Communities was -- and still is -- is that we want to help the people here that have food and produce to give, and for sure a willingness to do it. We want to make it easy for them to find a way to do it."
"Making it easy to contribute" is critical to the organization's ethos, as is community involvement. Patterson cites the "Plant a Row" initiative as a simple but effective way for the community to contribute. Gardeners were asked to plant one extra row while they were plotting out their seasonal gardens and donate the food from that row to a local pantry.
"It's crazy, the response we got, we're still getting," he says.
Another simple yet successful initiative was the pilot program Feed Communities ran at the Washington County Women's Jail: Inmates planted and tended a garden on the grounds of the jail, and the harvest was split between the women's shelter and the homes of the inmates who worked on the garden. Feed Communities was asked to replicate the project next year at the Juvenile Detention Center.
"One thing we always want to emphasize as a central part of our work is our partnerships," says Patterson. "Our role is to initiate and pilot these programs and then to really try and step back. We have 28 community and church gardens, some tiny, some large, and, with each of those, we have a group that is going to take over."
Another facet of the organization Patterson is focusing on is generating streams of revenue that will prevent the budget from being wholly dependent on grants and donations. Feed Communities recently received a grant to produce vermicompost.
"The food that comes in that's not edible, that can't go to animals, can go to this churning machine, and it turns it into this black plant crack," says Patterson. "I'm not saying we'll make bunches of money with worm casings, but we'll make some." Patterson is also working on an idea that would find Feed Communities helping to facilitate the purchase of produce at the local level -- generating revenue for the organization, as well as the farmers. "Harps wants to buy local, they're committed to it, and by being able to create that hub, we feel like that could be an attraction and help support those farmers." And, says Patterson, the organization is exploring the possibility of establishing a community-supported agriculture project in which community members could "buy in" to the organization in exchange for weekly boxes of fresh, locally grown produce.
If Patterson thought that his new position would be less challenging -- or less rewarding -- than his international work, he was quickly disabused of that notion.
"This is every bit as challenging, and I am every bit as excited about these projects out of anything I've done," he says. "I'm really excited to be a part of it."
"He has always wanted to work in a capacity in Northwest Arkansas that Feed Communities allows him to do," says Kelly. "Working for Feed Communities allows him to carry on his passion for helping others and live in an area that he loves."
NAN Profiles on 09/03/2017
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