The last time The Root checked in with former ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, it was to get her thoughts on what it takes for black women to make it in politics. She was, after all, the first black female senator in Congress, serving in Illinois from 1993 to 1999. She was also ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, and ran for president in the 2004 Democratic primary.
Now the 62-year-old Chicago resident seems to have borrowed a page from former Vice President Al Gore and is fighting to save the environment. And like Gore, she's making some money, except she's not caught in the media glare over questions about the veracity of global warming. And she's glad about that. She knows what it's like to be ensnared in the crosshairs of angry and vociferous political opponents. She calls herself a recovering politician (more about that later).
Three years ago, Moseley Braun became a founder and president of Ambassador Organics, a self-described sustainable beverage and spice company that sells organic coffee, tea, spices and olive oil.
"We specialize in products produced in the biodynamic organic function,'' she told The Root. "What that means is there are no pollutants on our products in any way. It's traditional agriculture. It's the way people have been farming for generations and centuries. One of our slogans is 'purity you can taste.'''
Essentially, Moseley Braun is using the old-style farming techniques, but with an organic twist. Unlike large industrial farmers, biodynamic organic farmers ban the use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. They rely on composted manure and use "cover crops" in between regular crop production in order to improve planting soil. Workers also handpick weeds and use insects such as ladybugs to control pests.
Farming is in Moseley Braun's blood, as it is for most African Americans whose ancestors were agrarian slaves and then sharecroppers. The political firebrand believes that is why she gravitated toward the work after leaving public life. Her mother's parents were farmers from Alabama, and her father's parents were grocers from New Orleans. The families — independent of one another — moved to Chicago in the early 1900s in search of upward mobility and a better life. They were a precursor to the great migration of African Americans from the South to the Midwest that began in 1910 and lasted to about 1930.
"As a result of my family background in farming, biodynamic organics was really familiar to me as an agricultural method,'' she said. "My concern for health and wellness, the sustainability of the planet and contributing to cleaning up the food supply made this feel like the right thing to do.''
Soon after her ambassadorship ended in 2001 in New Zealand, she planned to redevelop the family's land in Alabama as an organic pecan farm after it had been fallow for 50 years.
"That was to be my small contribution to helping provide healthy food for people,'' she recalled. "The New Zealand newspaper called it, 'The Ambassador's nutty idea.' I was going to raise pecans, which is what my great-grandmother used to raise on that property. But Sept. 11 derailed that particular plan because I was on the farm and separated from my loved ones. I tried to commute between Chicago and Alabama for eight months, but it made more sense for me to come back home to Chicago. That's what I did. I left the farm.''
She also came under fire when she and her former fiancé and her 1992 campaign manager spent tens of thousands of dollars in travel, clothes, jewelry and stereo equipment, the Times said. But the matter was dropped after the Federal Election Commission declined to investigate.
Nevertheless, she rebounded. In 2007 she became a founder of Ambassador Organics. She found the tea through friends, who have a biodynamic organic farm; the spices from friends in North Africa; and the coffee from another friend. Based on Chicago's South Side, the company's coffee flavors include French roast, mild roast and espresso dark. Tea varieties include hibiscus, green tea and Earl Grey. Right now, products are available for purchase on the company's Web site and Supervalu, a national grocery chain.
Ambassador Organics recently began turning a profit despite the recession, Moseley Braun said. She declined to discuss revenues or profits. The company has 14 workers, and there are six members on the board of directors, including Moseley Braun. Other board members include Ron Doetch, who is executive director of Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, a research and education institute for biodynamic, sustainable and organic agriculture, in East Troy, Wis.; and Lloyd Wright, a retired U.S. Dept. of Agriculture employee who grew up on a family-owned soybean, corn and wheat farm in southeast Virginia.
The company has won contracts with major grocery chains and food service corporations, including Aramark, and Moseley Braun said she is working to get the brand in Trader Joe's and Whole Foods.
Meanwhile, Moseley Braun, who is divorced and the mother of a 32-year-old son, is proud to be on her fourth career. She started her professional life as a lawyer, moved on to be an elected official and an ambassador, and now she's an entrepreneur.
"I try to follow my joy, my passion and to be of service in this world,'' she said. "That's my objective. Who knows where the road will lead you. You just don't know. The point is to do the best you can where you're planted, and the world will open up for you.''
Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.