It started last week. Food activist Tanya Fields posted an open letter to COMFOOD describing her disinvitation to speak at the 3rd annual TEDx Manhattan: Changing the Way We Eat.
Responses were immediate and heated. Glynwood Institute, the organization behind the TEDx, issued a statement. Other responders chimed in. Conversation migrated to Twitter.
Yesterday, fellow food justice activist Karen Washington publically withdrew from the speaker line-up “in solidarity” with Fields.
It is clear that people are uncomfortable, angry, or both. But what is the right way forward?
Truly, I don’t know. Behind the open letters, the tweets, the posts to COMFOOD, I have no idea where the truth lies and doubt I ever will.
But I do know that no one can possibly please everyone working in food. We must live with the constant and undeniable tension between opening our doors wide and trying to get on with our work.
Once more I insist: There is no food movement. There are many food movements.
Food is not a shrink-wrapped sector. It tangles up with finance, energy, healthcare, environment, education, economic development, urban planning, international policy, religion, nutrition, culture, policy, community. It has to. It touches everyone every day.
There are no food-system experts. There are countless people with something to bring to the table, people who don’t all want the same thing.
In TEDx Manhattan’s first year, Josh Viertel, then-President of Slow Food USA, basically called Walmart the devil. Two local food-justice advocates were frank: “We don’t care who brings the fresh fruits and vegetables in, as long as they come.” That is okay. We are not all going to agree.
We are never going to have one food conversation for everyone. Being specific is critical. Last summer, I asked to sit in on a “Black Food Sovereignty and Black Food and Health Justice” teleconference. I identified myself as outside their desired stakeholder group, but promised: “You can mute me. I just want to learn.” The leaders said no. That is okay.
Race, equity, justice is thorny terrain. We know this. But if we want to build on firm ground (reality), we must acknowledge that food is thorny. We will continue to get fired up. We are packing so many values under Food: finance, energy, healthcare… all the way on down.
For people whose hearts are burning for a better food system, the only salve I know is this:
Articulate your Why, find your vital partners on your path to action, learn from roadblocks, and expect to encounter resistance. It’s baked in. But it’s also what fortifies us for the long journey ahead.
Like water through rock, the determined will always find a way through.