A few years ago, I was watching a Charlie Rose interview with the musician, Tori Amos. She was going on tour with Alanis Morrisette and Charlie asked her how that worked, how could they combine their shows. Tori frowned in concentration and said (I’m sort of paraphrasing here):
it’s not really about merging them. Really, I’m… a pirate ship. I have a captain, I have my own mates, my own wenches…..and so does she…
That comment stuck in my mind. When I went to work the next day, I shared it Richard McCarthy, who was then the Executive Director of Market Umbrella. We were constantly searching for metaphors for farmers market organizing to describe the way it was bending (or could be) to becoming a true movement rather than a series of random events in towns and cities. We had collected some cool descriptions, still wondered if we had yet found the best way to describe it.
“A pirate ship. Hmmm,” he said. True to his nature as a leader who employs engaging and system-level thinking, he kept at it, coming up with a powerpoint on the pirate ship idea that he continues to refine and use in his global work with civic and food organizers.
When I’m out in the field, I find that much of what we do in markets and in food systems is duplication of the worst sort, meaning unnecessary and a time waster for overworked markets or networks, or just as bad is the an expectation that all markets or projects should operate and be measured the exact same way. Why is that, I often wondered? Why don’t markets or organizers talk more to each other, sharing more tools peer-to-peer and find the strength to resist being measured and judged by inappropriate metrics?
Well, I do know why it happens. It happens because the work of community organizing is so important to do correctly and yet so unrelenting that it is hard to find time to share. And then what should be shared and how it could be shared is often as complicated.
The Tori Amos interview spoke to that idea.
The idea that innovation and creativity is handmade and often an individual exercise, or coming from a small committed group who are learning as they go.
And that sharing is not necessarily about combining efforts, but more often about connecting when needed and not overemphasizing one set of values over another.
That individuals or small groups need some autonomy and yet, in order to build a movement there are times when building the networks is as important.
So from that Amos interview came this line that Richard and I created while standing outside of a coffeehouse:
Sail Alone, Anchor Together
Like pirate ships or if you prefer, privateer ships, markets have their own flag, their own code and their own mates. Sooner or later though, they may need to join up in order to defend themselves from other forces or come together to succeed on an issue.
How they do that is important. When they do that is important too.
The lack of a national or even a regional convening primarily for farmers markets may be starting to hamper our efforts for long term policy changes and impair capacity building. In lieu of that, we can (and should) moor our nimble little ships to sides of elegant liner like a re-imagined public markets conference or join a strong armada such as a well-organized school food initiative when we can, but even then, when we don’t know what to share and when, it’s hard to contribute meaningfully.
We also have our own issues to talk about. What about SNAP/EBT? Disaster planning for market farmers? Training for market managers? Food safety issues? Permanent locations? Sustainable funding? Building appropriate networks for policy work? Evaluation? We need to work this stuff out together and decide how it’s appropriate to our scale.
Some market networks are lucky. They have solid food systems that they work in and grow in sustainably. But even the best need to anchor with the odd little markets and share and hear because innovation within a field often comes from unlikely sources.
And sometimes it’s as hard to get the larger, more established markets to take the time and find the right voice in which to share their ideas and plans, to do that even as they are piloting ever more complex projects.
Respect to each pirate ship must be paid by the others. Learn to spot the flags and to find ways to anchor together.