The following speech was delivered to about 450 people to open the 2018 National Good Food Network Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The problems we are faced with today in our food systems are complex, interconnected, and urgent. So then, must be the solutions to meet them, the alternative systems that all of us here today are trying to build. Since its inception in 1983 Wallace Center has strived to be an organization that catalyzes systems-level change. We recognize – now more than ever – that the time to save our environment is too limited, that the consequences to our communities too dire, for us to keep pace by merely addressing the symptoms of this system.
If we are going to create change on a scale large enough to face the threats before us, we must get right to the heart of the issues. That means examining the ever-present, but often intangible, forces that got us where we are today. The origins of our current industrial food system can be found, not just in the pursuit of food security, fortune and feeding the world, but also in the consolidation and inequitable distribution of economic and political power, land, and resources, going back centuries: a legacy that includes stolen land, lives, and labor. And it is present today here and across the country, in our federal policies, and in the astonishing consolidation of money, power and control over the very things that give us life – our soil, our water, our labor, the food we eat every day. A call to racial justice might be a new conversation for some of us, but it is a lived experience for many in this room. It is a thread woven into every piece of our work, from the people who own the land, to the people who work it, to food itself. This thread is so deeply ingrained in our national fabric that pulling it out can feel uncomfortable, frustrating, or even threatening. But as organizations working in this space, we have the responsibility to use our privilege to move this work forward.
Ask yourself, what called you to this work? Why food systems? We know that when we talk about local and regional food systems, we are talking about more than farms, food hubs, and supply chains. We came to this work because we believe that food systems offer a lens through which to view the intersection of so many seemingly diverse issues – the environment, economic development, public health, community vitality, social justice. We came to this work because we believe that food systems can be a lever of change across all of these areas. That through this work we can not only create an alternative to the industrial food system; we can fundamentally affect how we distribute wealth and opportunity, foster health and well-being, and create connectivity in our communities, and across this country.
I believe in that idea, that food, as humble, as basic as it might sound to some, does have the power to affect that kind of change. The food system has that power because it affects, and is affected by, virtually every other economic, political and social system in this country. Without working to address these larger, underlying currents, we will never achieve the kind of sea change we seek. Without applying a systems-level lens to the problems we face, all our programs and projects and interventions can end up being inadequate and in fact more harmful than helpful, more exclusive than inclusive.
It’s clear that we can no longer afford to rest upon the values implied by our work or the words we have historically used to describe it. If we are truly committed to our values: (honoring community knowledge and leadership; centering diversity, equity, and inclusion; fostering authentic partnerships and collaborations) then we need to be explicit in this commitment and be more mindful of our words and actions. Too often, we fail to name racism as the great, pernicious weed in our midst, but in doing that we preserve only the status quo and our own comfort. The past few years have made it abundantly clear that structural racism and inequity continues to pollute – and in many ways control - our policies, our economies, and our culture. Our food system is no exception.
For years, Wallace Center has focused on issues related to value chains and the environment - increasing the impact of locally-sourced, sustainably-produced food. And while we are proud to have made great strides in those areas, I must admit candidly, humbly, that addressing racial inequity in the food system hasn’t been the focus of my work, of Wallace Center’s work, or of past NGFN conferences. But if we are trying to foster system-wide change, then it must be. Explicitly. Intentionally. Proactively. For many of us, myself included, that means de-centering our own narratives, de-emphasizing our own heroism, to uplift leaders from marginalized communities. The Wallace Center has a powerful voice, but we need to start this work by listening.
This work has a long arc. It takes months, years, a lifetime really. But all of us were drawn to food systems because we aren't intimidated by the world's biggest challenges. We look at injustice, at entrenched power, at broken systems, and rather than giving up, we say "we've got to start to somewhere." This time, we've got to start with ourselves. We are making the commitment to do this work and to fostering solutions to address inequity and injustice across the entirety of the value chain. We have made an intentional effort to bring a racial equity framework to this year’s conference through the selection of sessions and speakers that focus explicitly on racial equity and inclusion. This is not a one-shot deal, but a step towards deepening our own organizational commitment to bringing a lens of equity to this – and all future NGFN Conferences – and to integrating it into all of our work. If talking about race here makes you uncomfortable, that’s understandable. It makes me uncomfortable! And admitting that is a fine first step.
The entire rationale behind having this conference is the understanding that we all have so much to learn from each other. There are many leaders and organizations here in this room that are leading these efforts and have been for some time. They have wisdom, resources, and unique perspectives to share. We seek guidance and direction from these leaders as Wallace Center begins a long-term process of centering equity into our programs, policies and culture. Here at the conference we want to amplify their voices. Many are holding workshops and sessions over the course of the next few days. I urge you to attend their sessions, to seek out their ideas and input, and to engage in conversation on these topics with your peers.
I invite you, while here in New Mexico to reflect on what equity and inclusion means for your food hub or business, for your organization, and for you personally. As you explore Albuquerque, consider how the histories of racism, of exploitation, of consolidation of power might have affected the food systems here, in this state. Look closely and you'll see many diverse histories, including ancient alternative food systems that have flourished here for centuries, a living document of resistance and hope that we can all draw inspiration from as we seek to create alternative food systems throughout the country. Maybe your own communities back home hold their own wisdom, drawn from their own unique histories.
We cannot create the change we seek, we can’t have a sustainable food system without equity, without justice. While we are together these next few days, I challenge you to explore how we can work together to create holistic solutions that create a healthier, more equitable system for us all. And if any of these topics make you uncomfortable, or you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, relax: you will say the wrong thing. And then someone will kindly correct you, because we’re all here to learn and we’re all here in good faith. So today let’s commit to moving forward. With great care, yes, but without fear.
And, as part of this, we invite you to accept the challenge, the Racial Equity 21 Day Challenge. The Racial Equity Challenge, created and led by Food Solutions New England. We're tremendously excited about this concept, but we encourage you to use it a jumping-off point, and adapt it to the needs of your region. As with every other aspect of our work, our solutions in this area must be tailored in ways that acknowledge our differences, and our national patchwork of cultures and histories.