Lessons To Learn

(this was a post I ran about 7 years ago, but I wanted to highlight it again as I am having more conversations with food system folks about larger outcomes around food and civic system. I find this promising, as it may mean that we are finally maturing our work to become true system changers…)


I ran across this Nicholas Lemann article (linked at the end) about how the 1970s grassroots environmental movement just about sputtered to a standstill by the 1990s. I appreciated this article, since as a 1980s/1990s community organizer I saw that rise and fall and also saw other movements, such as the women’s movement and the peace movement go through it as well.
In retrospect, many of those efforts were designed and based on Alinsky’s organizing methods, seizing on issues such as nearby toxic spills or hulking nuclear power plants being built downstream to gain support from regular folks. Those issues are excellent for devising and winning neighborhood or local campaigns but maybe not the best strategy for achieving national and international long-term social change.

In other words, crisis politics can’t keep the attention of regular people for long, and on the policy level those goals can seem abstract or too controversial for regular folks to be able to support. Anti-nukes, landfills, corporate pollution (protest movements in other words) can just seemed complicated and time-consuming for people to grasp completely or even enough so that they felt they could take a stand when needed.
In their defense, those movements were full of good campaigns, like the early Earth Day events on which the author bases his article. Many may also remember the anti-littering campaign that did a lot of good with a television commercial that ran for a few years with a sorrowful, crying Indian looking at the camera (actually an Italian actor originally from Louisiana); that campaign ran in the early 1970s and is still remembered well. It was successful in educating on a big issue but at the same time, clear as how individuals could make a difference; just don’t litter.

Back then, I did appreciate those movements hard won campaigns and sweeping goals but had a hard time with the lack of diversity in their people and goals. Also, the lack of federated structure mentioned in the article is an important one: most of the NGOs I worked with had local chapters, but all had to drop what they were doing and work on national work (which was almost always legislation with very little chance for passing since we did not have money or enough people organized) whenever the national team decided it was time.
When I joined the community food system movement in 1999/2000, I saw that there was potential for much more effective social change, since a) it struck at the very core of everyone’s lives: what we eat, how we own our own health and how we remain connected to our neighbors and b) it could be effective on many levels. The campaign part of this movement can be seen within the SNAP and incentive work done at markets, with the Real Food Challenge on campuses and guerrilla gardening movements across the world among others. The long-term effect can be seen in the growing awareness of food deserts, as well as fair trade, farmland protection, food sovereignty, worker rights, racial equity, industrial versus alternative agriculture and so on. So, both localized campaigns and important national work happen in this movement which may be one of our greatest assets. (However, we do have to think about how we can better communicate the Farm Bill and other policy needs to our shoppers, neighbors and producers.)

And no question that the community food work is much more decentralized and active at the local and state level than any other movement I’ve ever seen, besides, possibly, the Community Land Trust movement, a movement from which we can learn a lot.
So, while I tip my hat to my fellow enviros from the Billy Bragg days and use daily what I learned from those savvy street organizers, I’m glad that I also get to organize in these food system days…

A quote from Lemann’s article:

To turn concern into action requires politics.

and another:

It defined Earth Day as educational, school-based, widely distributed, locally controlled, and mass-participatory. He draws a contrast with Earth Day 1990, a far better planned, better funded, more elaborately orchestrated anniversary event, which turned out more than a million people in Central Park and two hundred thousand on the Mall in Washington but had far fewer lasting effects. That was because Earth Day 1990 was, Rome says, “more top-down and more directive” than Earth Day 1970, and more attuned to advertising and marketing than to organizing. Earth Day 1990 kept its message simple, because its organizers “sought to ‘enlist’ people in a well-defined movement….

and this, most importantly:

‘The public’ is seen as a kind of background chorus that, hopefully, will sing on key,” as the insiders try to manipulate people with focus-grouped phrases. Instead, she argues, “reformers will have to build organizational networks across the country, and they will need to orchestrate sustained political efforts that stretch far beyond friendly Congressional offices, comfy board rooms, and posh retreats.”

article in The New Yorker


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