At Home With Foodbank CEO Ruth Jones Nichols
By Angela Blue
Photography by Jim Pile
Dr. Ruth Jones Nichols stands at her kitchen counter, slicing strawberries and apples for a summer salad. She places the fruit on a bed of fresh spinach, sprinkles on some raw almonds and drizzles with raspberry vinaigrette.
Food has taken on a deeper meaning for her in the last two years, both in her personal life and in her career. At home, she uses cooking as a way to bond with her stepdaughter. As CEO of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, she’s at the helm of feeding hungry families throughout Coastal Virginia.
Inside her home in Chesapeake’s Great Bridge, Jones Nichols is surrounded by spectrum of warm tones: rich, wooden cabinets and black granite countertops in the kitchen, dark wood table, chairs and vases in the adjacent dining room and orange-and-red-hued décor purposefully placed throughout the living room.
Beside the dining room, a three-season room featuring floor-to-ceiling windows provides a gracious view of the lush, tree-lined backyard. “It’s amazing in terms of just being able to enjoy the outdoors,” she says.
Jones Nichols and her family have only lived here since October, but already they’re enjoying the neighborhood’s convenient location, diversity and family feel. And along with living in a brand-new house, Nichols is settling into new family roles. She and her husband, Breon, were married in 2015, and she now shares a life with her 12-year-old stepdaughter and 10-year-old stepson.
Jones Nichols takes the opportunity to wear art as often as she can. Her necklace was created by D.C. based friend, Nakia Fisher, who designs jewelry for the brand Ai’kan (pronounced Icon but also Nakia’s name spelled backward). Fisher inspired her to begin making her own beaded jewelry as well.
An Artful Home
A prominent feature in the Nichols home is a vast collection of art. This passion began for Jones Nichols in college. In the dining room and in her home office are mixed media masks representing womanhood by a Washington, D.C.-based artist, Deirdre Bell. “Typically, the art that I choose will have some type of womanhood focus, and I really love African American art,” she says.
Womanhood mask from D.C.-based artist Deirdre Bell.
She typically finds art during her travels, whether it’s the Maryland-based Serengeti Gallery, featuring art from both African and African American artists, or going right to the source: Africa. “I traveled to Ghana, West Africa, and I anticipated that I would bring a lot of art back—and I did,” she says. “But I found that for some of the pieces, I seemed to know more about the place of origin than the folks who were selling it.”
Her interests have expanded throughout the years, progressing from limited edition pieces to clay to etched art. “I love textured pieces, so if something has wood or metal in addition to acrylic paint, I find myself drawn to it,” Jones Nichols says. She’s owned some of the pieces in her collection for 20 years.
Painting by Yvette Crocker.
One piece in particular speaks to her in a significant way: a painting of a woman with natural hair, bright red lips and a butterfly hovering beside her. It was painted by Yvette Croker, a self-taught, D.C.-based visual artist, illustrator and jewelry designer. Jones Nichols first saw Crocker’s art on a wall of a friend’s home and knew right away that she had to have one of her pieces. “This one is my alter ego,” she says.” “Big hair, big earrings, red lipstick, just enjoying nature and being free spirited.”
Upstairs, contemporary jazz music drifts from Breon’s media room, a comfortable space, flowing with natural sunlight, where he can watch TV and relax.
A canvas photomontage portrays significant moments in the Nichols’ family journey.
Next door is a loft-style family space where the kids enjoy spending time watching TV or playing games. On the wall above the couch is a collage of family pictures. “Because we are a blended family and I was looking for ways to bring us together in this new house, I decided to take several pictures and then convert them into canvas art,” Jones Nichols says. The photomontage depicts some of the kids’ hobbies (her stepson loves hapkido, and her stepdaughter runs track), the wedding day when they officially became a family, and the day that they said yes to their new home. “It was important that we all say yes, so we took a picture in front of the lot.”
On the opposite side of the room, a gallery wall features a vibrant painting of an elephant in the center. “You’ll see elephants throughout,” Jones Nichols notes. “One because it’s a symbol for my sorority [Delta Sigma Theta] but also because the elephant is a symbol for strength, wisdom, patience. Those are things you want for your family in terms of values.”
Reclaiming Her Past
One of Jones Nichols’ most important values is her faith. “Faith is a strong part of who I am, and it has been that way since I grew up,” she says. She attends church with her family on Sundays and often relates the sermons to her own life.
Photo by Heather Wynn. For her wedding bouquet, Jones Nichols asked the florists at The New Leaf in Norfolk to create a West African Adinkra symbol called Sankofa, meaning importance of learning from the past.
“Breon and I were in church yesterday with the family, and the minister was talking about how a lot of things in life don’t make sense,” she explains. “Sometimes when it’s really great, it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes when it’s not so great, it doesn’t make sense. But then he talked about how it’s important for your faith to be unwavering in those times, good and bad.”
Jones Nichols has relied on her faith throughout the years as she faced some of life’s toughest challenges and changes. The most recent shift came in the form of a career change that no one—not even Jones herself—was expecting.
From 2012–2015, she served as the executive director of the YWCA South Hampton Roads, a job that brought back her back to this area from a career in Washington, D.C. In many ways, she was the perfect candidate for the executive director position, not only because of her background in social work and her leadership skills, but because of a personal connection she had to the organization. When she was a child, her family sought refuge at the YMCA’s domestic violence shelter after her mother had become a victim of domestic violence.
Though she struggled with the decision to return to Hampton Roads and face domestic violence head on, she determined that she would use her own experience to help others. “I thought coming back home to accept the position at the YWCA was an opportunity to see my life come full circle and give back to an organization that supported my family,” she says. “I thought it was [the perfect fit], and I feel like I did really great things during my time there, but I also felt like there was more I was supposed to do in the community and in this community in particular.”
Looking To The Future
In September 2015, she made the decision to leave the YMCA. She completed her dissertation that December and earned her Ph.D. the next spring. In January 2016, she began a new journey with the Foodbank. “I had to focus on completing something that’s been out there for a long time and just try to begin to understand what it means to be a wife and a stepmom and part of a family that’s kind of already packaged,” she says.
“When I’m not doing Foodbank stuff or sorority things, I’ve been in the garden,” she says.
Now that she’s settled into her position with the Foodbank, she’s beginning to explore other ways in which the organization can help people. “We’ve built our model on feeding people, and we do that really well,” she says. “Feeding people alone is not going to eliminate hunger or transform their lives. When we think about how to best serve children and seniors and working families, there are so many things that we can do with the resources and the capacity that we have now as an organization. Getting to the point where we can distribute 15 million meals—great. What are we going to do with that influence and that power?”
Jones Nichols feels that her life experiences are a part of what helps her connect with people. “People are coming to us oftentimes after having experienced something very difficult or living in difficult circumstances,” she says. “I went through all of this in addition to my education and professional experiences, to really be able to shift the conversation and do it in a way that resonates with folks.”
Today, Jones Nichols can look back with positive insight. “There were a lot of things that didn’t make sense about my life, especially growing up and coming back here,” she says. “I had to come back in order to meet my husband, and now I understand how to experience the type of life that I wanted. You’ve got to go back and reclaim your past in order to move forward into the future.”