Making space

I’m always trying to figure out how to be “disciplined with my time.”

There’s real value in this. I’ve been realizing over the past several months that I’m always talking about wanting to have time to do the things that keep me healthy, but saying that I can’t find the time. And then I realize: well, I just spent two hours browsing Facebook. I’m pretty sure I could have used that time to write, or exercise, or cook, or any of the things I’m always saying I don’t have time for.

So when I got back from my leadership retreat last week, I was very serious about calendaring. I was very rigorous about allocating time to the things I kept saying were important: for prayer, for writing, for spending time with family and friends, for sleep. It felt a little weird to schedule my sleep and my chill time, but it also felt comforting to know that I had actually set aside that time and that I wasn’t just leaving those things to the whims of however my day went.

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Who am I, and what am I doing?

Isn’t that the $64,000 question?  (And also, how ridiculous is it that $64,000 doesn’t feel like it’s worth much any more?)

I went to a very good conference on building a transformative, just, sustainable economy over the weekend.  I had wonderful conversations, listened to amazing speakers, and I was moved and challenged and inspired.  Oddly, though, when a colleague asked me how the conference was, my response was, “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.  Sometimes I think it would be easier to just give all this up and sit somewhere and eat pizza.”  He reminded me that I’m probably not going to get paid for sitting around eating pizza.

But that sense of frustration and confusion has persisted over the last few days.  It came out again in a conversation with another colleague, where I was expressing how frustrated I felt with all the energy food movement organizations expend to try and shift national policies like the Farm Bill or the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act – not because those bills don’t have an important influence on our food policy or that the people working to change them aren’t absolutely amazing, but because all their passion and work seems to result in such small gains that don’t reach the level of the kind of transformation we are all hoping for.  And I feel like it will always be that way if we keep playing this game on a playing field that is designed to make us lose, where we have to redefine victory as just not getting beaten too badly this time around.

Another way I was thinking about it: our unhealthy food system right now is a bit like a vicious, poisonous plant with long, strong branches and tendrils that keep reaching out and attacking us.  We keep hacking away at the branches and tendrils and flowers (e.g., the Farm Bill), but because they are still connected to the root of the plant, they are always drawing strength to regrow and come back at us.  Those branches are so dense and distracting that it feels impossible to even identify the roots, but we need to figure out how to do it and then how to get in there and dig that sucker out.  Maybe we need to develop some really good armor so we can dive right past those branches and get to that root.  Maybe we need a bunch of people hacking away at the branches to provide cover for a stealth team sneaking in under the radar to get the root.  Maybe we need both; we probably do for this kind of hydra-headed beast.

Here’s the thing though: those are fascinating analogies, but they aren’t a concrete organizational framework or policy platform.  Those are nice ideas, but they’re not an action plan.  I’m a poet and a philosopher and I’m pretty good at it, but I’m not sure that those are particularly practical, valuable, useful skills for this time and place.  I would contend that the various movements for justice with which I associate are suffering from a tremendous lack of ideas and vision and imagination and story in our focus on creating projects and policies; but who’s to say that’s not simply my desire to validate my own sense of being a special snowflake who is above the hard work of getting things done?

I don’t think that is really true of myself.  (Of course, who would ever say so if it was?)  At any rate, I am feeling a deep longing for a sense of vision and power that I have not yet found, and I have these skills that I feel are desperate to be used but have little outlet.  I feel bound, and straining to burst my bounds, but I don’t have any idea what that means.

In short, it’s kind of a weird week.

Finally, We Have Proof!

Turns out a renowned French economist has discovered a startling truth: capitalism as an economic system doesn’t work well for the vast majority of us.  Mind you, my first reaction to this news was, “Well, duh!”  But being more serious, it’s quite refreshing to finally have an economist dig through the data and verify what those of us with our eyes open see happening around our neighborhoods, the country and the world, every day.

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Community Builders

DSNI Community Summit - Development Without Displacement breakout session
Development Without Displacement discussion session at the DSNI 30th Anniversary Community Summit

I spent an absolutely lovely portion of my day at the DSNI 30th Anniversary Community Summit.  Those of you who weren’t there missed something amazing; lucky for you, I have a gift for live tweeting conferences.

One of the sessions at the end of the day asked us to indicate on a timeline when we had first become involved with DSNI.  While my formal involvement has only been for a couple of years, I’ve known about DSNI for almost a decade; and knowing about them has so powerfully shaped my feelings about what communities can achieve together that I feel like they’ve been present in my life for much longer than they’ve known me.  It feels like it would be foolish of me to try and summarize their history, as so many people have done it much better than I ever could.  Instead, I want to talk a little bit about what I learned – and keep learning – from them.

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Why Urban Agriculture – Part II

Yesterday, I took issue with the relationship of urban agriculture to the social, economic and environmental justice issues that need to be addressed in many of the communities where these projects are located.  I want to continue that conversation in this post, focusing on what I think is the most problematic aspect of urban agriculture from a food justice perspective: economics.

I spoke with one leader of a Massachusetts urban agriculture project about my concerns in this area, and he was quite blunt: his project is not about addressing food access in the community where he works (as well as being a long-term resident).  He firmly believes that his project can make a significant contribution to community food security and resiliency when the time comes that we can no longer rely on our far-flung food system to provide for us, as the unsustainable global food system is well on its way to a breakdown.  At the same time, he was very clear that in order to meet his nearer-term goal of building a successful agriculture business that could provide living wages for its employees, he needed to make money – and that wasn’t going to happen by selling food at the price point that would make it affordable for the neighborhood residents struggling most with food insecurity.  I wasn’t very encouraged by the answer, but I appreciated his forthrightness about a question that the urban ag advocacy community is largely avoiding.

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Why Urban Agriculture? – Part I

Today I attended the 2nd Annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference.  With a full house of 300 attendees, it’s clear that urban ag is a popular topic in the Commonwealth; the audience was full of farmers, policy makers, community members, academics, and food systems advocates all wanting to understand how we advance the cause.  It was certainly an engaging and thought-provoking day for me – touching base with friends and colleagues, connecting with existing and potential partners, listening and being challenged.

The moment that really stuck in my mind came quite early in the day.  Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, has been one of my inspirations since the first time I heard him speak.  Malik speaks frankly about the effects of oppression on the food system and on the lives of many black people in Detroit and elsewhere, and he is unapologetic about naming the forces of racism, sexism, classism and other manifestations of power and privilege used to disenfranchise a particular group.  He was speaking frankly and powerfully this morning, when suddenly he paused.  He observed that he noticed looks on the faces of a number of audience members that indicated that he might need to moderate how he was presenting, and went on to finish his keynote with a slightly more subdued (although no less truthful) approach.

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Market Economics

I’ve been working in the local food system world for about two and a half years, and was a developing enthusiast for about two and a half years before that.  Much of that engagement has involved farmers markets in some way: shopping at them, studying them, overseeing them, supporting them.  Farmers markets have been around for quite some time, but it’s been fascinating to see how they’ve exploded in number in recent years.  More and more, communities, organizations and individuals are trying to tap into farmers markets as a strategy for everything from food access and health  improvement to local economic development and placemaking.  Everybody wants one – but getting a market up and running and successful over the long-term is not for the faint of heart.

In particular, I work with a lot of markets that are trying to serve communities with high proportions of people of color and families with low-incomes, communities that have largely been ignored or excluded when our society is handing out social,  environmental and economic benefits.  These markets are often run by volunteers, or by nonprofit organizations that see the market as a way to express their community-serving mission (but whose core business is definitely not running farmers markets).  Like many small, community-serving ventures, these groups struggle to find the resources that would help their markets flourish: resources for marketing and outreach, resources for events and special activities, resources for logistics and operations, resources to pay the people who handle all of those things.  This struggle is endemic, and frustrating; and from both the inside and the outside the question often comes, “How do we make these markets self-sustaining?”

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