Connecting an Emergent Movement

What follows is a paraphrase of the presentation about emergent movements and asset-based community development that I gave at the COPE (Childhood Obesity Prevention Education) Coalition meeting on Tuesday evening, 4/30/2013. COPE is a comprehensive coalition of public and private sector agencies, organizations, institutions, and individuals in our capital city working to address childhood obesity. The focus is on holistic prevention strategies rather than weight loss. Many Tallahassee Food Network partners received $10,000 COPE mini-grants to scale-up their efforts.  Learn more on the COPE webpage.

Tallahassee Food Network hosts monthly Collard and Cornbread Gatherings to connect folks and spokes of the food movement to one another around good food.
Good Evening!

My name is Nathan Ballentine. I'm here tonight as a co-founder of the Tallahassee Food Network. Folks around town know me as the Man in Overalls.

Before I get started, I'd like to take just a moment to recognize, to appreciate the incredible people in this room, the skills they possess, the amazing work that I know they're doing.  I only know a tiny amount of what we're all up to, all the skills in the room, connections they have, and I know it's incredible.  Now, imagine: what if we all knew what everyone else in this room knew? I'm not saying we need to know what they know, but we need to know that they know it. If we know what it is that the other people in this room know, then we can step up our game because then we can call on each other and turn to each other with dreams and ideas that draw off all that greatness.

Before we get started, to get us thinking along these lines, I have a couple questions for you. I want you to turn to a neighbor that you didn't come here with. You've only got a minute (thirty seconds each), and I want you to share a couple stories with each other. First: What is a skill that you have that's related to food? (You might know how to bake potatoes; you might know where to look for grants related to food security). Then next, you can answer one of two questions: What is a resource that you have, currently, that's food related? (For example, I've got a bag of potatoes at home.) Or, who do you know that has skills related to food? (My mother knows how to cook cornbread in an iron skillet).

(After a minute).

What kinds of skills did you hear your neighbor mention? (Cooking. Gardening. Canning. Nutrition. Mentoring. Partnering.)

What kinds of resources do y'all have or who do you know? (Family land. University departments with student interns and professors. Pots and pans. Gardening tools. Time. Grandparents. The Internet.)

Wow. Great responses.

I ask these questions because the Tallahassee Food Network is working to build partnerships amidst the food movement to grow community-based food systems that ensure access to good food, which we define as healthy, green, fair, and affordable. To do so, we're going to need all these skills, all these resources and connections. Everyone has a role to play.

The Food Network is especially interested in building a movement that bridges lines of division, however you think about those things: race, geography, age, income.

Those of us who founded the Food Network-- Miaisha Mitchell, Qasimah Boston, Joyce Brown, and I-- realized early on that in many ways we've got parallel movements going on. Let me give you quick example. If I get invited to a white church to do a workshop on gardening, it's because their sustainability committee invited me. If I get invited to a black church to do a workshop on gardening, it's because their health ministry invited me. So we've got similar conversations, similar work going on in different segments of our population. Yes, there is some overlap, but largely we've got disparate, parallel yet disparate movements. So we ask ourselves, how do we encourage overlap, collaboration, relationships, and synergy?

Let me introduce another way of thinking about these things. It's called "emergence." Emergence is what happens when a collection of individuals are able to asses their local situation, communicate, and take appropriate action. When they do so, they display an intelligence that is greater than the sum of their parts. Think ant hills, bee hives. We do things like this all the time. This is what we're doing amidst COPE.  Emergence is how the food movement is operating. We're all assessing the world based on the information we know, communicating with the people we have access to, and then taking steps: growing gardens, cooking dinner, managing farmers markets, teaching nutrition.

Given this reality, the question becomes "How do we facilitate an emergent movement?" Especially in light of the challenges.

For example, folks run in different networks, in different circles. Let's take Facebook for example. I hear people say, "We put it on facebook so everyone will learn about it." Except, not really. For starters, not everyone is on facebook. But even on facebook, if I post something it's accessible only to my network, and by-and-large, my network looks a whole lot like me. For most of us, our networks tend to look a lot like ourselves-- however it is that we choose to identify ourselves.

Geography is a challenge. There are the neighborhoods that we know and tend to stick to and there are those where we don't tend to go.

Communication mediums. Some people communicate through facebook. Others get their information via front porches or folks walking up and down the street; others through fliers, others by emails or the radio.

We're also dealing with different languages.  I'm not talking about spanish and french and english. I'm talking about styles. A few weeks ago, Efrayim the farm manager at the iGrow Farm -- a so-called black man was talking on the phone with Jen, a so-called white female FSU student intern. At the close of their conversation Jen said, "Ok, so I'll see you Friday," and Efrayim said, "Alright." Then Jen said, "I guess we've got our plan then," and Efrayim said, "A'right." Then Jen closed, "So I'll see you Friday. Sounds good," and Efrayim responded, "A'right...." They were both trying to get off the phone, but they didn't speak each others' languages.

So again, the question is: How do we facilitate an emergent movement amidst all the challenges?

One strategy that we use in the Food Network-- though we don't talk about it all that much-- is ABCD, Asset-Based Community Development. The idea is that every one of us in here, everyone in Tallahassee no matter where we are has skills, resources, and connections to bring to the table. This is where those stories we shared with one another come in. This is where knowing what it is that your neighbor knows fits in. This is where your grandmothers' recipes fit in. In the Food Network, the idea is that the more folks we have at the table from all walks of life* and the better we all know each other and know what the others know, the better we'll be able to grow those community based-food systems because we'll be able to partner, we'll be able to fill each others' gaps and enable each others' dreams.

Let me give a quick example of how we do this. On the second Thursday of every month, the Food Network hosts a Collards and Cornbread Gathering where we share stories, ideas, and projects with one another amidst the food movement. At our last gathering, Mr Bellamy, who coordinates the Frenchtown Heritage Market gave a two minute update about how he's working to make it so folks could purchase fresh veggies at his market using SNAP/EBT. (As y'all know, a lot of people buy groceries with SNAP/EBT; unfortunately, to date, none of our farmers markets in town accept SNAP/EBT. Largely, this is because most of our farmers markets are in parking lots or fields or other places where access to a phone-line is hard to come by. But comeon! We've got YouTube on our phones, and iGrow can accept credit cards with a device that plugs into the ear phone jack on an iPad. As it turns out, FL Dept of Children and Families is working on a wireless device for SNAP/EBT for farmers markets, and Mr Bellamy is one of the first to act on it.) Sitting across the circle from Mr. Bellamy was Claire Mitchell who works with the Red Hills Small Farms Alliance, which also wants to accept SNAP/EBT for their online farmers market.  Claire says, "Wait, who did you talk to at DCF?" Then a minute later, "What was the website? Where was the office?" In a manner of minutes, because we're sharing what we know-- because we know each other and get together-- we're growing the movement and the community-based food systems that will ensure access to healthy, green, fair, and affordable food."

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A few after thoughts:

*In the realm of assets, amongst the most overlooked skill-sets and knowledge bases are indigenous mores, customs, patterns of speech, historical knowledge, visual aesthetics, friendship networks, music preferences, and long-standing neighborhood tensions, i.e., generally, knowing the culture of a community.

Having grown up in Indianhead Acres (which was one of Tallahassee's first segregated suburban developments, and, consequentially, remains predominantly Euro-American) I know the folks on the neighborhood board as well as the unofficial leaders who others will follow because they're known and respected. I know where the creek is in the park and the place where I made a fort as a child. I know who bought my sister's Girl Scout Cookies, and who was diabetic-- or said they were. I know how to pronounce "Chowkeebin Nene" and can find my way from Koucky Park to Hartsfield Elementary and chime off the names of 20 neighborhood families in between.  People know me because I gardened on "the corner" from the time I was eight until I graduated high school.

Post college when I returned to the neighborhood, given my roots, I could conceive of community initiatives and projects that were within the understanding and acceptance of "my people" because, to a certain extent, I thought (and think), how my neighbors think.  The same is true of folks in Frenchtown and Killarn and Betton Hills and South City. Such localized community expertise is irreplaceable in growing a food movement that will work for everyone.  This is why, amidst my life and work in Frenchtown (a predominantly African-American community), as much as possible, I take my direction from-- I defer to folks who have roots and/or long-standing ties in the neighborhood. Although I've developed and investigated lots of successful community food projects and found many working models-- I wasn't raised in Frenchtown, so I don't know, de facto, what will work here, especially in light of Frenctown culture, with all the intricacies inherent.

I'll give you a simple example: Wendell, a friend with family roots in Frenchtown asked me a while back: "You ever notice how black folks never have picnics?" He explained to me that the word "picnic" is associated with "Picking a nigger," say, for a hanging party. Wendell educated me that black folks have "cookouts." For obvious reasons, had I mistakenly attempted to organized a "picnic" in Frenchtown as part of my work with iGrow, I would not have been received well by my neighbors.

The latter is an extreme yet real example of the importance of localized community expertise. (This is closely tied to ideas of cultural competence.) In such light, we need Wendell; we need Joshua and Clarenia on the iGrow team; we need Ms Mitchell and Mr Bellamy, long-time citizens of the neighborhood as well as Pee Wee and Bruce on Dent Street-- all Frenchtown neighbors with very different lives and perspectives-- as much we need the inspiration, models, and ideas provided by folks like Will Allen, Louise Divine, Malik Yakini, Mark Tancig and Vandana Shiva.

The beauty of ideas like Asset-Based Community Development, localized community expertise, and cultural competence is that we're all competent within the realm of our own experience, communities, and cultures. All of us have community-rooted and network-tied cultural skill-sets to bring to the table.

This is why, when it's time to grow the good food movement in your communities and circles, we need you on the team.

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If you're interested in this conversation about localized community expertise, cultural competence, and the challenges of building an emergent food movement that bridges lines of division, I've compiled a few items for additional exploration that have shaped my understanding:

Lastly, below I've listed a handful of organizations with similar models and philosophies to the Tallahassee Food Network worth checking out:
Blessings as you grow and intertwine the movement,