A lightly edited excerpt from my forthcoming book’s last chapter for your Friday reading pleasure. (And don’t worry about spoilers, I’m pretty sure this won’t ruin the suspense from the rest of the book…)
Listening to our food futures
Several years ago, members of the Cornell University students’ New World Agriculture and Ecology Group (NWAEG) and I met with staff of the Southside Community Center in Ithaca. Jemila Sequeira, a social worker, advocate for food dignity, and then-Vice President of the Community Center, was one of the people we spoke with—to think through how NWAEG and the Center could work together. At one point, sitting back from the conversation between the students and the Center staff, I thought to myself that there was a real enthusiasm and openness to working with us on the part of the staff. That contrasted with the critiques of university-community partnerships that Sequeira had voiced at a NWAEG-sponsored event the previous year. She had been critical of university staff and students “helicoptering” in to supposedly help the local community, but usually, in her view, without truly engaging with or respecting the community.
I jumped back into the conversation at a pause to ask the Center staff why they were so willing to work with us, with their limited resources and time. I was glad they were, of course, but why did they trust us enough to invest their time and open their Center to us, when they previously had expressed wariness about partnering with the university? Without missing a beat, Jemila, who has since become a dear friend, looked at each of us in turn: “Because you all listen.”
Those four words capture both how easy and how hard it is to work on what matters. It is no small thing to listen to others such that they feel heard—to hear their meaning in the context of their experiences and not just the surface of their words. This sort of listening requires one to stop and devote oneself to engaging with others as equal fellow human beings; someone whose priorities matter at least as much as your own; someone who may have something to say that is different from what you expect, or want, to hear. It is usually difficult to build the trust that, having listened to people from another community, you will truly work with them, rather than “at” them, to engage in conversations and work that matter and come out of their experience and not just your own agenda. It is as difficult to truly “hear” as it is to act on this responsibility.
But this is what the case of Belo Horizonte tell us we must pursue if we are to end hunger. While the voices of those who have been marginalized—particularly small-scale food producers and all those disadvantaged by poverty and inequality—must be given, or must take, the platforms upon which they can be heard, we have to make sure at the same time that those of us involved in the more technical literature or the fine points of public policy are listening. What is more, we must dedicate ourselves to supporting and expanding spaces where we can truly listen (and learn lessons that are just as important any of the lessons from peer-reviewed literature).
Brazil saw such an accumulation of understanding leading up to Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s revolutionary food policies: from Josué de Castro’s analyses and efforts in 1932 to the implementation and then dismantling of the Brazilian Social Security Food Service in the 1940s; the post-70s social movements; the National Constitutional Assembly of 1986-88; the Citizens’ Action Movement; the thousands of state-civil society-business citizens’ councils; the consolidation of the Workers’ Party’s broad agenda; the formation, dissolution, and re-institution of regional and national food security councils; and finally Belo Horizonte’s SMASAN in 1993, which was followed by Fome Zero in 2004 and the Constitutional Right to Food in 2010. And now, as of April 2017, even with regressive if embattled President Michel Temer and his allies seeking to limit spending on social programs, including Fome Zero, we should remember that the progress in the battle against hunger in Brazil saw many setbacks. Similarly, despite the threat the current U.S. administration and Congress offers to the healthcare programs implemented under former President Obama, we should remember the decades of ebb and flow in the problems, policies, and politics streams that led to the new health care program being passed in the first place. Setbacks, even serious ones, can be surmounted.
What does Belo Horizonte mean for Brazil moving forward as for the rest of us? Different parts of civil society came together after the dictatorship to create a common agenda, yes, but it is also true that trust and reciprocity were already forming across society. The dictatorship was formative not just for spurring so many people to action. In the face of exile and persecution, leftist scholars and activists such as Josué de Castro, Hebert de Souza, and many members of the Workers’ Party persisted in their work nonetheless. Their commitment to listening and advocacy despite often heavy personal costs both burnished their reputations and solidified trust among other social actors for change. The value of putting yourself on the line for the well-being of others should not be underestimated.
…And so as I think about the importance of bringing about a new reality with new institutions capable of ending hunger—in Belo Horizonte and beyond, including the U.S., the proverbial belly of the beast—I see the “good-news stories, pockets of reality that could be seeds of a wider vision” (Meadows 1996). The future, unevenly distributed as it may be, is also firmly present, whether it be in organizations such as Portland’s Growing Gardens, SoulFire Farm, La Vía Campesina, the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, or the beats and flow laid down by the youth of North Minneapolis’s Appetite For Change. People are showing their commitment to a new world and new ways of new futures. We can see these initial steps along the path not as isolated efforts, but as multiple manifestations of a world where broader visions are already becoming reality. It is down to all of us to end hunger. The work will be extremely difficult, but as so much evidence, peer-reviewed and otherwise, now shows us, ending hunger is possible.