Tales of a grassroots activist, 2005-2022
August 8, 2022
In 2005, at the age of 54, I embarked on a new chapter in my life — organizing around food & farm policy. Within 1.5 years, we were so successful in terms of public interest and projects, that I decided to retire from my successful 25-year career as a professional gardener, in favor of seeking income as a grassroots organizer.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out as I’d hoped. To some extent, we were ahead of our time in an area that is the opposite of a food desert (Evanston, IL, the dining capital of the North Shore), next to “Nature’s Metropolis” (William Cronon’s name for Chicago, in a farm state in the middle of the Midwest, the U.S. Heartland. But even in 2022, there’s very little money for food & farm projects, food & farm policy work, or food & farm justice. This is true in Evanston, in Cook County, in Illinois, in the Midwest, and the entire country.
I don’t actually know why this is, except that Americans seem to be really stupid about basic realities of life on earth — e.g., where does food come from, the effects of weather on our food supply. We’ve bought into the blind beliefs spoonfed by the power brokers, one of which is equating democracy with capitalism, which attempts to establish their hegemony “in perpetuity”. It is no accident that the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United redefined inanimate corporations as living persons, or that the Evanston Community Foundation’s URL is EvanstonForever.org.
Nevertheless, I continue to be amazed at how disinterested in food & farm issues the power brokers can be, even when directly confronted with chronic hunger, climate chaos (land destruction), and abundant community interest in food & farm projects.
I have been collecting stories since 2005, when I first bumped up against some local Evanston power brokers who weren’t at all interested in food & farm issues, even though their own public processes suggested that the Evanston community was. Maybe by the time I finish retelling these stories, I will understand their lack of interest. The stories are:
TALE #1: Evanston Community Foundation, Grand Victoria, organic farm
TALE #2: My dream about ECF, the North Shore
TALE #3: Evanston150
TALE #4: Wieboldt Foundation
TALE #5: My legacy list
TALE #1: 2005-06
— The Evanston Community Foundation hosts a public process for allocating some Grand Victoria casino funds
— The Evanston Food Policy Council suggests an “organic farm”
— Bad behavior ensues
The first meeting of the Evanston Food Policy Council was held in August 2005, following the success of two stand-alone food events in the spring of 2005. The Network for Evanston’s Future (precursor to Citizens Greener Evanston) had been hosting earth month events for a few years and in 2005 the topic was food. I had helped organize one of the events and thought that was the end of the matter. But it turned out that people in NEF’s leadership thought it might be time to have a dedicated food group, with regular meetings, etc.
One woman especially was very interested in taking this on. She contacted me and in a matter of minutes I said yes. Thus began a very fruitful six months or so of Catherine Buntin and I brainstorming, getting to know one another, making lists, and hosting the first meeting. It was immediately clear that this was going to take off. Our task as co-chairs was just to facilitate the conversation and decision-making process so that we (a) identified the issues of concern to Evanstonians and (b) organized some plan or action items to move things forward.
Another task as co-chairs was to keep getting the word out about the new group and to look for potential partners and opportunities to implement a food & farm project. Soon after our first meeting, Catherine had heard about the Evanston Community Foundation’s Grand Victoria grant and we attended the first event of that process, held in the auditorium of Evanston Hospital.
The first event (Nov. 2005 ?) was to be a visioning + voting event. Under certain community parameters laid out at the beginning, attendees were asked to suggest ideas for using the Grand Victoria money. All ideas were written on long sheets of paper taped on the auditorium walls. The plan was that, at the end of the visioning part, we would vote on the ideas and XX number of ideas would move onto the next round (a second event a few weeks later).
Catherine stood up and made her proposal: an organic farm. When the first round of votes was tabulated, the farm was one of the ideas that moved onto the second round.
In hindsight, I should have been sensitized right off the bat that this was not a grassroots-style community process. For one thing I recognized almost no one there, even though I’d lived in Evanston for 25+ years and had been active in the community for all those years. Second (and this will be explained later), the audience was relatively small for such a great opportunity, maybe 50 people at most, spread sparsely across a large auditorium. Nevertheless, Catherine and I were delighted that an organic farm was moving on to the next round.
The second round was held at the new Evanston Public Library (Jan. or Feb. 2006 ?) and participants were randomly divided into a few different groups meeting in the library’s small meeting rooms. Lo and behold when the vote was taken, the organic farm was one of the three winning projects.
Unfortunately, by then, the Evanston Community Foundation was already on my radar for bad behavior and questionable integrity:
1. After the first event, Catherine suggested that we call ECF to explain more of our vision, since we hadn’t had much opportunity to go into detail about the proposed project. We already knew that terms like “urban farms” were commonly misunderstood, evoking a boatload of assumptions like: community gardens? animals? feed the homeless? In fact the purposes of urban agriculture were multi-faceted, including educational components on climate, soil, zoning, public health, workforce development, community building, etc. I volunteered to call the Exec. Director since we had some minimal acquaintance from other community events.
Not only was she not interested in learning more about our vision, but when I pressed the idea (possibly being a little pushy), she said that the first event had been misscheduled at the same time as a Plan Commission meeting. The implication was that if the Plan Commission members had been in attendance they surely would not have voted for an organic farm. !!!
2. During the second event at the library, the Evanston Food Policy Council was accused of stacking the attendance, even though ECF’s own process assigned people randomly to various rooms. It so happened that the 3-4 (?) EFPC folks who attended the second event wound up in the same room, virtually assuring that the organic farm would be prioritized by that room. I like to think that the universe might have been playing with the random assignments, but it certainly wasn’t the EFPC.
A third incident of bad behavior was later exposed when we discovered that during some internal ECF process the idea of an organic farm became something else related to food production (support for existing community gardens?). No organic farm was ever created in Evanston with Grand Victoria money.
TALE #2: c.2009
— I have a dream about the Evanston Community Foundation and North Shore
— I never waste my time with foundations again.
By the time I had this dream, I already knew that making a living as a grassroots activist on food & farm issues (and other issues) was going to be problematic. The “great” recession had tightened the money supply for all kinds of nonprofits. Hence, the message of this dream was clear as could be and saved me a lot of unprofitable job-hunting, etc.
In my dream, a senior staffperson from the Evanston Community Foundation is sitting on a folding chair in front of a huge pile of mine tailings, 20’ high perhaps. Somehow I know that the location is Glencoe. I also know that the image is saying that ECF (and other similar foundations?) have already mined the North Shore for everything; nothing is left but the tailings.
I wonder to myself whether Angelic Organics Learning Center has any experience growing food in a tailings pile or whether they think we can grow food in the tailings pile.
TALE #3: 2010-13
— Evanston Community Foundation gets a contract for planning the City of Evanston’s 150th birthday celebration
— Evanston150 is another multi-stage public visioning + voting process looking for 10 Big Ideas
— More bad behavior
Starting in 2010, Evanston150 invited 2,000+ ideas from the community. A committee of volunteers would eliminate duplicates, etc., whittling the list down to 100. The list got further whittled down by one or two community votes and finally the 10 Big Ideas were announced — ten projects around which the ECF would facilitate volunteer implementation teams and, presumably, organize some resources towards eventual implementation.
Somewhere during the public voting process, it became clear that 2-3 food & farm projects were high in the running. A colleague from the Friends of the Evanston Farmers Market (and my daughter’s history teacher from junior high) informed me that someone from ECF had called her to ask if the Evanston Food Policy Council had been “stacking” the vote. If only ECF knew that I’d already gotten their number and not only did EFPC not attempt to stack the vote (we had many better things to do, with partners who understood the importance of food & farm issues), the co-chair of EFPC — myself — didn’t even bother to vote during the entire Evanston150 process.
Two of the ten winners were:
—A Market for all Seasons (a year round farmers market)
“Establish a year-round indoor/outdoor community market as the centerpiece of a revitalized public space. This market will connect our community with local farmers and artisans, strengthening our local economy, and will serve as a vibrant community gathering place. Its essence is two-fold: to energize our public spaces, and retain dollars within our community.
“Develop sustainable local food sources by creating urban farms, community gardens, greenhouses and composting sites. Through these sites, provide educational opportunities for individuals to expand their knowledge of nutrition, growing food, and composting. Incorporate a long-term commitment to development and preservation of open green spaces in the urban environment.”
A Market for All Seasons eventually changed its name to Evanston Food Exchange. I believe it still exists but is not publicly active.
Edible Evanston is wildly active and successful, and is now a project of Citizens Greener Evanston.
A third Big Idea winner was also related to food & farm but I don’t remember what happened with that idea.
— Green and Clean
“Make Evanston one of the greenest cities in the United States. Become carbon neutral, conserve water, and create sustainable sources of energy. Balance carbon released with an equivalent amount absorbed through planting trees and vegetation. Promote responsible water use and conservation by installing rain gardens, green roofs, and permeable pavement. Research and develop renewable energy sources while simultaneously increasing energy efficiency in existing buildings.”
Unfortunately the Evanston150 website seems to have been erased, which is too bad as it would have been a great historical document of our time. All 2,000+ initial ideas would have made for great reading by historians and cultural observers of the future.
TALE #4: Wieboldt Foundation (2015)
— Original mission
— Exec. Director schools donors on where the money came from
My first gardening client was an older woman who was a member of the Wieboldt family. I did not know this immediately because her married name was not Wieboldt. I ended up gardening for Mary for 20+ years and we developed a wonderful friendship. Along the way I learned a little about the Wieboldt Foundation, a small family foundation founded in 1921 with a big vision: that its grants would support “charities designed to put an end to the need for charity.”
Mary died in 2015 in Madison, WI, where she and her husband had moved about ten years prior to be near their son. Happily, I was invited to attend the memorial held in Chicago about a month later, also attended by Regina, the long-time Executive Director of the Foundation.
I had met Regina many years before when a food & farm colleague — a mutual friend — set up a meeting. Regina had been very friendly and cordial but made it clear that the Wieboldt Foundation would not be funding any food & farm projects. At this distance, I don’t remember why and I’m now kicking myself that I didn’t ask. But there were no hard feelings at the time of our first meeting and, at the time of our second — Mary’s memorial — we greeted each other warmly.
Serendipitously, Regina offered me a ride home, so we got to chat for 15-20 minutes. By then (2015), I had long realized that I was not going to find funding for my food & farm work and, in fact, I was in the process of downsizing, having just sold my house and getting ready to move. Somehow my personal update led to Regina sharing a very interesting piece of information with me: That she sometimes told donors to the Wieboldt Foundation that the reason the money existed to create the foundation in the first place was because the department store (Wieboldt’s) didn’t pay their employees a living wage.
Not only is this extractive capitalism in action, creating the need for charitable foundations. But the capitalists continue to hold and concentrate their power by creating foundations to which 99% of us have to go begging because the money supply has been constrained in numerous other ways, including by the 1913 Federal Reserve Act, which gave away Congress’s money power to private, commercial bankers.
I don’t know whether Regina or Mary knew how convoluted and undemocratic our money system is. Whether current foundation boards and staff know this is also questionable, even as I agree with my monetary reform colleagues that 21st century Americans don’t even know what The Money Question is (despite it having been a common topic of civic conversation in colonial and early American, up through the 1890s).
For the record, the Wieboldt Foundation has long been recognized as one of the better funding partners for small organizations in the Chicago area, because (1) once they fund an organization, they’re likely to keep funding that organization, and (2) they place fewer restrictions on funds than other foundations. If you’re lucky to get funded by Wieboldt Foundation good for you.
TALE #5: July 2022
— I’m getting old
— I’m thinking I need to write a few things down, highlight them, share them
— FOLLOW THE MONEY? Better to follow the lack of money
Recently I drafted a legacy list of ideas, policies, quotes, etc., that I wish more people were aware of because they would open people’s eyes to various blind spots in our U.S. culture. One big blind spot is about the money supply and “why it’s getting it’s harder and harder to make an honest living (e.g., mothers, farmers, teachers, small businesses). In addition to being forced to work at 2-3 jobs, more and more people are being forced to make money any way they can — i.e., to prostitute themselves in a variety of ways.”
As I also wrote, “following the LACK of money might be a productive use of journalists’ time because it leads to the history of money and banking policy, the big black box at the core of our economy.”
In other words, it has become very apparent to me (and to many others) that our money and banking systems (including the Federal Reserve System) are (a) not public, (b) “legally” structured to serve private purposes, and (c) artificially forcing us all into prostitution, slavery, homelessness, starvation, etc. These are established facts and you can find some resources on my legacy list blog: Dear Annie Lowrey (and other practical journalists): FWIW, my Legacy List.
The question I would ask all foundations in 2022 is: Do you think there is something wrong with our money & banking system that is causing the increasing need for charities? The follow-up question I would ask would be, If so, why aren’t you funding the people who are trying to right that wrong?