Tag Archive: Mississippi

July 10, 2024

Doing What We Can, With What We Have, Where We Are

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of getting to know and work with food justice advocates in the state of Mississippi through the Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative and the Mississippi Food Policy Council. On two occasions, as a part of visits to Jackson, Mississippi, I’ve had the opportunity to go on the wonderful civil rights tour provided by Frank Figgers. Mr. Figgers is a graduate of Tougaloo College, where he worked with the Jackson Human Rights Project, founded by Howard Spencer, a SNCC field organizer and former civil rights worker. While working with the Jackson Human Rights Project, Mr. Figgers met, worked with, and developed relationships with other former civil rights workers. He is an absolutely captivating storyteller, who has filled in many gaps in my own historical knowledge, and provided numerous corrections to the education I received.

Touring Jackson, we made stops at a number of different historical landmarks, including the Smith Roberston Museum and Cultural Center (once Smith Robertson Elementary School, the first public school for African-American children in Jackson), the Farish Street Historical District (known as a hub for Black-owned businesses up until the 1970s), the Greyhound bus station at 219 North Lamar Street (where many arrests were made during the 1961 Freedom Rides), Tougaloo College (established by descendants of slaves aboard the Amistad and an institution that has at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi), and Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Historical Monument (where Medgar Evers was fatally shot in 1963). Mr. Figgers narrated key and often dramatic events while those of us in the large van he was driving listened intently and as if we were watching events play out in front of us.

Exhibits inside the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

A common refrain that Mr. Figgers used, in pointing out how “everyday people” stepped up to fight for their and other’s rights amidst oppression and violence was – “They did what they could, with what they had, where they were.” As he said this, he scanned our faces in the back of the van, his eyes widening behind his glasses, and then smiled as a final point of exclamation. Even in the face of truly terrorizing circumstances, people stood up. They stood up. They did something. So many acts of tremendous courage, large and small. So many people, everyday people, finding ways. Making ways.

“They did what they could, with what they had, where they were.”

Something about those words continued to work through me, and so was the case for others who were on the tour, as we talked about it later. They’ve been echoing in my head more loudly recently, as I feel the strain in my body and mind related to escalating challenges and suffering around us.

*******

Another story recently came to mind as Mr. Figgers’ words have been working on me. Not long out of college, I created and ran a youth service program for middle and high school students in upstate New York. My first summer organizing the program was spent in the most rural and economically poorest part of the county where I was based. We had assembled a group of about ten middle schoolers who were motivated to help others or simply looking for something to do with their time in the summer months. We got involved with the local food pantry, learned a lot about hunger in the county and country, did some painting and cleaning work on a couple of historical buildings needing love and care, and made ourselves available to those in the community unable to do certain things for themselves.

About mid-way through the summer, as more people heard about our work, we received a call about an elderly woman who was legally blind and lived by herself. The town works department was coming to her house to fix some sewage pipes and in the process of digging up a portion of her back yard to do so, they were going to have to take down a few of her young fruit trees out back. Could we come and move them for her, a neighbor who was calling on her behalf wondered? The youth were very eager to assist, and on a blistering hot day we arrived with gloves on and shovels ready. Approaching the house I gasped a little – the structure looked like it was held together by little more than hope. We met the woman outside. She wore darkened glasses and was leaning on a walker. She welcomed us and promptly guided us to the trees out back. After some basic instructions, we got to work and spent a few hours digging holes, moving and watering trees, packing soil, adding some fertilizer, and then – with sweat pouring down our faces – felt satisfied that the job was complete.

The woman was delighted and, smiling behind her darkened lenses, asked if she could give us something in return. Without waiting for an answer she told us to follow her. We went inside her house and she waved us in the direction of the door behind her where we found the stairs to her cellar. We were then instructed to flick the switch at the top of stairs, descend, and “pick anything you like.” The kids and I looked at each other, a little uncertain. I went ahead and led the way. Once at the bottom of the creaky stairs, we looked around to see dust-covered shelves on all sides of a single unfinished room, completely packed with jars. Jars full of fruits, vegetables, jams, and pickled this-and-that. Hundreds of jars. We were completely floored. After taking a few minutes to absorb the incredible array, we each selected a jar that looked good to us and went back up stairs.

“You do all of that?” one of the girls asked once we were all gathered back in her kitchen.

“Yup,” said the woman, matter-of-factly.

“And you gonna eat all of that?” asked one of the boys.

The woman laughed. “Oh no,” she said. “I send most of those to the needy.”

There was silence in the kitchen as we worked that over in our minds.

She continued. “I give them to people in my church to send to people overseas who are hungry or experiencing difficulties like earthquakes.”

The kids nodded, clearly still working that through in their minds.

Well, let’s just say that gave us a lot to talk about during our van ride back to the kids’ homes. Despite all appearances, this elder, officially living at the poverty level, legally blind and physically limited, was doing what she could, with what she had, where she was.

A nice coda to the story is that the kids decided they wanted to learn how to do canning themselves and wondered if the woman would teach them. I reached out through the neighbor, the woman agreed, and we ended up donating what we produced (fruit jams) to the local food pantry where we had begun our summer of service work.

*******

I am not going to lie. There are days when I feel completely overwhelmed. I look at what I see as the challenges we face in this country and world and I wonder, “How on earth…? It’s too much! It’s just too much.” And then I think of Mr. Figgers and the everyday people of the historical and current day civil rights movement in Mississippi and other places. And I think of “The Canning Lady,” (as she came to be called by the kids in our service group), and so many others like her that do what they can everyday with whatever they have wherever and however they are. And that’s enough to eventually right me.

Part of this righting is remembering is that it is not just about me! It is about doing my part, making the contribution(s) that I can make. To riff on a phrase I often use in supporting the creation of social change networks, it’s also about “doing my best, and then connecting to and trusting the rest.” That’s why I am such a big fan of networks, of making more loving links between people and places. Imagine more of us doing what we can, where we are, with what we have, and weaving it all into something larger. Something even more beautiful. As a poet once said, we might just make a world like that.

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February 2, 2024

Lessons From 12 Years of Weaving a Regional Network for Better Food Futures

Recently a colleague and I were invited to present to partners in Mississippi about what we have learned over a dozen years of creating a network in New England dedicated to advancing a just, sustainable, democratic and collaborative regional food system.

It has been quite a journey to date, filled with twists and turns, much joy, and some hard-earned wisdom. Over this time I have done my best to capture insights and developments as they have happened in blog posts. In reflecting on those, along with content that has been curated on the network’s website, I pulled together the list of developmental lessons/milestones below.

This could easily be longer, and if one were to “double click” on any item, a whole story would unfold with other learnings. Some day we hope to capture this in a fuller telling, and for now, here is an offering of 25+ take-aways, some of which might be of interest to others depending on where you are in your own network stories of change.

  1. Work and consider what we can do as a six-state region, as opposed to individual states.
  2. Co-create a guiding vision to bring people together across real and perceived differences/boundaries.
  3. Build a network and strengthen trust that is vertical, horizontal and diagonal (in network-speak, “bond and bridge“); years from now, we will be very glad we did.
  4. Lean into core and common values (these will help us through some of the hard times and decisions).
  5. Engage in storytelling and breaking bread together, getting to know one another beyond roles, titles and assumptions (this will create more “surface area” for connection).
  6. Ensure there is funding to support skillful and dedicated convening, coordination, facilitation and other key collaborative functions.
  7. Create diverse teams for key functions such as process design, strategy development and program implementation to deepen engagement.
  8. Keep evolving and socializing the shared vision, helping people understand what a vision is/is not and what a vision can do.
  9. Keep evolving and socializing the network, helping people understand what a network is/is not, and what a network can do.
  10. Enroll formal network weavers (we call them “ambassadors”) and commit to ongoing outreach to keep expanding and diversifying the network.
  11. Work to really understand social inequities, what drives them and what they have to do with food; commit to racial and other forms of equity broadly and deeply.
  12. Leverage “network effects” and network tools to spread learning.
  13. Work to better understand the dominant system(s) and why, despite our best efforts, they persist and resist.
  14. Identify leverage areas (we now call them “impact areas”) that we can lean into collectively to create the better system(s) that align with our shared vision and values.
  15. “Do what you do best and connect to the rest” – keep focusing on what is ours to do as a network in the region, while respecting, appreciating and linking with what others are doing that aligns with and complements our efforts.
  16. Create pipelines for and connect emerging and existing leaders in the regional food system.
  17. Work for narrative change in and around the food system and messaging that aligns with our shared vision and values.
  18. Create an integrated policy platform across the region and sectors, grounded in our core vision and values, and help make policy more accessible and relevant to everyone.
  19. As Toni Morrison once wrote, “Keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.” Normalize complexity in our shared work, while avoiding making things more complex than they need to be.
  20. With respect to technology tools and platforms, remember that less can truly be more, and that they are as much about sociology as technology. Ask what you really need to facilitate fluid communication, sharing and decision-making.
  21. Be prepared for disruptions and learn to pivot together with grace.
  22. Be trauma-informed,
  23. Be well-being oriented.
  24. Be dedicated to accessibility.
  25. Ongoing and always, throughout all of the above, practice “fierce love” (deep caring and accountability, for/to yourself and others)

Also, based on where we seem to be heading in 2024 … Help weave together a larger regional “network of networks” and regional infrastructure focused on addressing poverty advancing climate resilience and supporting thriving communities/local people.

Feel free to sign the Food Solutions New England Pledge here, no matter where you are, to support and align with our core values and vision.

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July 19, 2023

Transformation Teachings

I am recently back from the Transformations Community gathering in Prague in the Czech Republic and still savoring and making sense of the time. That trip capped a flurry of work travel that began in May and took me from Jackson, Mississippi (Food Policy Council Network COLP) to New York City (Ford Foundation Global Leadership Meeting) to the Seacoast of New Hampshire (Food Solutions New England Network Leadership Institute) to Haudenosaunee Territory in Buffalo, NY (Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Network Voice Choice and Action Gathering) to the District of Columbia (DC Legal Aid Transformations Network) to water ravaged northern Vermont (Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont) to Eastern Europe.

All along the way, there were messages of what the times are calling for in terms of practicing resilience and transformation. Each of these deserves a fuller unpacking, and I offer them here for now, with much gratitude to many teachers along the way. I begin each of these with the word “remember,” as that was a core teaching from our gathering on Haudenosaunee lands, that one of our greatest gifts is to remember, and that so much of this is about remembering …

Remember that everything is designed to work together through reciprocal relations.

Remember where you come from, what your “creation story” is, as there is great guidance there.

Remember what matters most to you, your values, and align with them in practice.

Remember what is yours to do in this lifetime and in/with Life.

Remember to go below the neckline (to the heart and gut), without throwing out what is above it (the head).

Remember to practice belonging and accountability (they go together and support one another).

Remember to do intergenerational work/learning, thinking of those living, those passed on, and those yet to come.

Remember to bring in “the periphery” (whatever that means in your particular situation – this generally relates to power and access). There is much wisdom and fresh insight here.

Remember the importance of putting in place a “resilience or transformation infrastructure” (think process, roles and relationships) – this does not necessarily happen on its own.

Remember when it makes sense to “institutionalize” and do so in ways that do not kill spirit, vitality and diversity.

Remember not to make assumptions and be prepared to be surprised.

Remember to have faith in the unseen, the power of “practical magic.”

Remember to break bread with one another, to talk with one another and to keep leaning in to the (apparent) differences. Learning awaits!

Remember to find what grounds and nourishes you (individually and collectively) and cherish/honor it.

Remember to listen …

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May 5, 2023

Mississippi Learnings: Deep Trust, Values, Accountability and Faith as and for “System Change”

One of many murals in Jackson, celebrating local s/heroes.

I have been trying to capture my learning from the past few days in Mississippi. I feel pretty shifted by the experience, in directions that we at IISC have been pointing towards (along with partners such as the Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative, Food Solutions New England, The Full Frame Initiative, National Parent Leadership Initiative, and many others), though now personally I feel it at another level of depth and conviction. For that I am so grateful.

This is something that I put into a digital journal as I was traveling home to capture what was moving through me:

“Just leaving Jackson, Mississippi, where I was for three days, co-facilitating and participating in a gathering convened by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future of food policy councils from around the country (US) that are trying to advance social equity in their work. It was incredibly powerful to me to gather in Jackson, for all its history; to meet the likes of Reena Evers-Everette (daughter of Medgar and Myrlie Evers), Charles Taylor (head of the NAACP-Mississippi), Savi Horne (Land Loss Prevention Program), Ed Whitfield (Seed Commons) and Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott (founder of Foot Print Farms); and also to learn more from colleagues there about the network weaving and healing work they are doing in and around food systems, which is about so much more than food – community, local economy, and culture. 

As I was walking through the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum about two hours after we closed the convening, I was hit in the forehead and heart (literally had to sit down) by the messages from both the history I was taking in and also what I had just experienced in Jackson. And I should add that it links to the work we at IISC have been supporting through Food Solutions New England for over a decade. To distill “success” (or encouraging movement) in the Civil Rights movement (especially in Mississippi) and what is happening now in Mississippi and in New England around food systems change, much seems to come down to this:

  • Foregrounding relationships and relational culture, and especially bridging beyond bonding (like-to-like)
  • Being grounded in core values and principles that are co-created and co-evolved
  • Establishing, collectively, accountability structures and processes focused on the values and principles and maintaining relational culture 
  • Relentlessly keeping those who are most negatively impacted by the existing system(s) at the center, not to exclude or peripheralize others, but rather to make sure their experiences-voices-ideas-advocacies serve as a guidepost for systemic redesign (the curb cut effect suggests that when we design for those who are most marginalized, we catch others up in the process)
  • Grounding in the anchoring power of faith, which may or may not be religiously-sourced, and nonetheless is about having humility in the face of Life’s gifts and grandeur, which is complex and awe-inspiring, and asks us to both never give up but also to let go …

On top of this, or infused with this, comes the work for policy change, creating new civic infrastructure, and the like, and never losing sight of the list above. 

Picture from Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

One peril, over and over again, in social/system change work, seems to be the pitfalls of abstraction – making what we are doing too intellectual and inaccessible to most, not to mention unactionable; not addressing the abstractions that people make of one another in systems (seeing someone only as their role, or other aspects of identity); inappropriately “scaling” or “franchising” efforts and not shaping the work to real places where there may be some familiar patterns but always uniqueness in terms of history and culture.

Another peril is perpetuating fragmentation – not working with living breathing wholes, siloing our “knowing” to overly intellectual/analytical thinking, failing to integrate/weave strategies and perpetuating unhelpful competition (playing into the oligarchic capitalist narrative and way of doing things).”

Now reflecting on this a few days later, something else comes up, which is the importance of ongoing work on ourselves as “change agents,” care-fully watching our own automatic tendencies, biases, and inclinations (including towards groupthink), and especially being careful of the rearing of the overly pride-full ego in the forms of fear, envy, greed and striving for control. Much seems to come down to the abiding power of Love (and from it the expression when necessary of “holy rage”) and the never-ending practice of making room for regenerative flows …

Still sitting with it all, and curious to hear reactions, resonances and other reflections …

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August 15, 2021

Into the Matrix and Beyond: The Value of Network Values and Values-Focused Processes

A couple of years after the Food Solutions New England Network officially published the New England Food Vision, and just after the network formally committed to working for racial equity in the food system, it formally adopted a set of four core values. On the FSNE website, a preamble reads: “We collectively believe that the food system we are trying to create must include substantial progress in all these areas, alongside increasing the consumption of regionally produced foods and strengthening our regional food economy and culture.” The four values are:

Democratic Empowerment:

We celebrate and value the political power of the people. A just food system depends on the active participation of all people in New England.

Racial Equity and Dignity for All:

We believe that racism must be undone in order to achieve an equitable food system. Fairness, inclusiveness, and solidarity must guide our food future.

Sustainability:

We know that our food system is interconnected with the health of our environment, our democracy, our economy, and our culture. Sustainability commits us to ensure well-being for people and the landscapes and communities in which we are all embedded and rely upon for the future of life on our planet.

Trust:

We consider trust to be the lifeblood of collaboration and collaboration as the key to our long-term success. We are committed to building connections and trust across diverse people, organizations, networks, and communities to support a thriving food system that works for everyone.

In the last few years, these values have generated a lot of good discussion, both internal to the network and with others, and we are discovering that this really is the point and advantage of having values in the first place. They can certainly serve as a guide for certain decisions, and in some (many?) instances things may not be entirely clear, at least at first. What does racial equity actually look like? Is it possible for a white-led, or white dominant, institution to embody racial equity? Can hierarchical organizations be democratic? Are there thresholds of trust such that people are willing to not be a part of certain decisions in the name of moving things forward when needed?

Recently, FSNE received an email from a Network Leadership Institute alum who now works as a commodity buyer for a wholesale produce distributor in one of the New England states. They reached out to inquire who else in the network might be thinking about high tech greenhouse vegetable production in the region. Specifically their interest was talking about projects that use optics of being “community based,” but are financed by big multinational corporations. “What would a “just transition” framework look like in the context of indoor agriculture,” they wondered, especially in light of undisclosed tax deals happening as the industry rapidly grows.

As it turns out, a public radio editor recently reached out to FSNE Communications Director, Lisa Fernandes, about pretty much the same thing, also referencing other similar projects taking root in different parts of the region. What does FSNE think of these? Part of her response was that there are some good questions that not only the New England Food Vision (currently being updated), but also the Values, can raise to evaluate the potential role of some of these more tech-heavy food system projects and enterprises as the region strives to be more self sufficient in its food production. And this conversation is certainly growing.

These exchanges in our region have had me thinking about work colleagues and I have been doing with food justice advocates in Mississippi. A central part of this also lifts up values as being key to establishing “right relationships” between actors in the food system, and also between advocates and partners (including funders) from outside of the state. I have learned much from Noel Didla (from the Center for Ideas, Equity, and Transformative Change) and her colleagues about the importance of establishing what they call “cultural contracts,” which create a foundation of values-based agreements as a way of exploring possibilities for authentic collaboration. The signing of any contract is just a part of a process of ongoing dialogue and trust building. For more on these contracts and culture building, see the recording of a conversation Karen Spiller and I had with Noel and other Mississippi food system advocates during the FSNE Winter Series earlier this year in a session called “The Power of the Network.”

“Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.”

Brene Brown

In a different series of workshops with those same Mississippi-based advocates, we introduced a values-focused tool from the PROSOCIAL community. PROSOCIAL is rooted in extensive field research (including the commons-focused work of Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom) and evolutionary and contextual behavioral science. PROSOCIAL offers tools and processes to support groups in cultivating collaborative skillfulness and the critical capacity of psychological flexibility, including the application of Acceptance and Commitment Training/Therapy (ACT) techniques.

The ACT Matrix (see below) is something that individuals and groups can use to name what matters most to them (their core values), along with aligned behaviors (what are examples of living out these values?), as a way of laying a foundation for clarity, transparency, agreement, support and accountability. The Matrix also helps people to name and work with resistance found in challenging thoughts and emotions that might move them away from their shared values. The upper left quadrant is a place to explore what behaviors might be showing up that move people away from their stated values. In essence, this helps to both name and normalize resistance and when used with other ACT practices (defusion, acceptance, presence, self-awareness), can encourage more sustainable, fulfilling (over the long-term), and mutually supportive choices.

An additional values-based tool we have lifted up both in New England and in our work in Mississippi is Whole Measures. Whole Measures is a participatory process/planning and measurement framework from the Center for Whole Communities). There is both a generic version of this framework, as well as one specifically focused on community food systems (more information available here). As CWC points out, “How the tool or rubric framework  is used, how the community engagement is facilitated, who is represented in the design matters.” Whole Measures is about content, yes, and it is meant to be used for ongoing deep dialogue, especially amidst complexity, diversity and uncertainty, and when faced with the challenge of tracking what matters most that can also be difficult to measure.

When it comes down to it, these times seem be asking us what kind of people we really are and strive to be. As the old saying goes, “If you don’t know what you stand for, you’ll fall for anything.” And so the work of values identification and actualization is of paramount importance. I’ll leave it to the poet William Stafford to appropriately close this post with his poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” (something we often share with social change networks as we launch, especially the first and last stanzas):

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

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