I wrote this in 2008 about our work in New Orleans. The colleague from New Orleans was our dear departed Marilyn Yank.
You, me and Farmer McGee
Here I am at my second food conference in 2 weeks. Luckily for me, both were in areas I had not spent any time in: Chandler AZ, and Santa Fe NM. The first had over 550 food activists (the picture is of the living mural added to each day by an artist listening in on the discussions), and the second convening was for about 75 food people within the 4 Corners region.
Clearly, much effort is expended to have local foods represented at these things and to be held in locations that represent transformative work that others can learn from and can also support. For example, the first, in Chandler, is home to the Pima tribe, which has the sad measure of over 90 percent of their people diagnosed with diabetes. As they work desperately to turn that around, they finally have money via their recently-won 100-year legal battle to reclaim their water rights. The location of the conference was their new resort where they are recreating the Gila River basin in order to renew their agricultural traditions, even while they build partnerships and pilots to tell their story. This was a thoughtful conference that attempted to address underlying issues that successful local food systems need to address; racism, education gaps, long term poverty, and the other isms that have held our society back from being truly successful.
The second was put together with the wonderful folks from Farm to Table in New Mexico who have always inspired me with their work on food access, food culture and food sovereignty. I was asked to participate in 2 workshops around market issues and had the pleasure of listening to my fellow presenters who worked in the 4 corners region. Excellent, talented practitioners. All that and the natural world of Santa Fe. wow.
I came away with a renewed sense of purpose for integrating social justice issues into the food work, and also with a sense of gratitude for the fellow pilgrims on this road. Gratitude for people who have given most of their total energy and time and brain to the salvation of their food system, which will benefit all of us.
One of these folks appeared on the last day of the second event; a fellow New Orleanian who was in town for a related thing. She had been on silent retreat for many weeks and this was her first re-entry into the larger world via food system organizing. She was shaky after the first afternoon of meetings; physically so, and also seemed a bit taken aback at the swirl of ideas, people and decision.
Her physical reaction was not a surprise to me, as as she tends to be slow and deliberate and solidly intentional in her choices, small and large. To be honest, that has been a tension between us as peers, as I have almost no patience at all and am about action, action, action-absolutely to a fault. But I’m learning.
As we talked on the wooden stairs of the old hotel lobby that sits at the end of the Santa Fe trail, I suddenly saw her as if I was standing behind her on a hillside path, looking over her shoulder at the beautiful but deep canyon she was unwillingly climbing in to, while I could see my path farther along, quickly skirting the canyon to get to the other side. Funny, how visions come.
That vision came partly from the concern I heard in the words she voiced; concern about the missing pieces of the food organizing and also her wariness as to the scale and bureaucracy that was becoming evident in this field.
I understood it.
I understood it and have wondered too if we could withstand the big, fancy words at the dazzling conferences while we attend to the BIGGER work of literally saving the food system daily, weekly here, finding ways to save farmers and fishers and get good food to all. Still using the visionary language and fast ideas that come via these conferences that do seem necessary to build a system that is truly alternative while finding time and ways to comfort and cheer each other on in some authentic fashion.
Can we do both?
Can we hold back the urge to ramp up this work too fast to get to the “winning”, and instead build a regional movement that would be among the first of its kind in our large country? Hold back the glee at being invited to the table and instead insist on staying at the smaller table with more people represented directly- and insisting those decision makers join us there?
Are we brave enough to be truly at “scale” in our ideas and implementations and to have the type of thoughtful yet innovative movement that actually does shift the world. Shift it slightly globally- which is a massive shift locally and regionally, as it should be.
Can we afford to be slow and deliberate?
What are our principles?
Do we know where to stop; what is too big?
Can we truly learn from each other, or are we all just recreating ideas over and over again within a largely protected white activist world vision?
Does our work always translate to indigenous and immigrant communities or are we just coopting ideas and language to spread outwardly?
is this a frontier of new ideas or a unearthing of old ideas?