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UPDATE: Food First and the U.S. Food & Farm Movement (Part 2: August 14, 2020)

This is my second update on the quasi-public meltdown of Food First, a 45-year old food & farm organization based in Oakland, CA. For reasons only history will tell, Food First is now the latest poster child for chronic disfunctions in the U.S. food & farm non-profit world.

As I stated in my first Update on Food First  (Part 1), this is not an official update (I have no standing with Food First as an organization).  I also stated that this is not all on Food First as a single organization: The “complete explanation for our current collective stresses might be called the Great Confluence (of existential crises):  climate crisis, financial crisis, COVID pandemic, political crisis, and spiritual crisis.” We are all going to have to do a lot of fast learning to get through this.

This update covers two areas of my own learning as I’ve watched things unfold at Food First.

CONTENTS

A. UNION ORGANIZING and U.S. FOOD & FARM NON-PROFITS
The different kind of energies involved in union organizing for a supermajority strike compared to the energies of food & farm justice non-profits, especially think tanks.

On August 12, 2015, Mike Elk was illegally fired from his job as labor reporter at Politico, a digital news outlet.  He had been trying to organize the Politico staff so when he went on vacation, they fired him. He sued and won $70,000. Now, every year on August 12, Elk goes on vacation, citing his mentor’s comment the day he got fired, “Bruce [Jett] told me not to sweat the firing. ‘It’s Payday, dude! Go enjoy your vacation. You earned it. Relax dude. It’s Payday.’”

On August 13, 2020, Mike Elk published an 8,000-word story about his personal justice journey through disability, school integration, labor organizing, storytelling, and solidarity.

B. COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION HOARDING:
The problem with “personnel” matters
Information hoarding as a chronic disfunction of U.S. food & farm non-profits (and likely most U.S. non-profits).

On July 31, 2020 I received an invitation (sent to 35 friends of Food First) to attend one of the listening sessions organized by Food First. The invitation included a public announcement of the listening sessions posted on Food First’s website. On August 1, I responded with some analysis as to why the process would ultimately not be successful.

C. FINAL COMMENTS ON “PERSONNEL” MATTERS
The personal is political is public.

Here’s the details. I offer them mostly as potential subjects of reflection in terms of where the U.S. food & farm movement is headed.

This post was originally sent to four listservs serving the U.S. food & farm movement:
– COMFOOD (Tufts University) the oldest and largest all-purpose food system listserv
– Food Policy Networks (FPN, Johns Hopkins University) serves and supports food policy councils (FPCs)
-North American Food Systems Network (Cornell University) professional development for food system folks
– Regeneration Midwest (Organic Consumers Assn.) serves a 12-state coalition supporting regenerative agriculture and local food economies

A.  UNION ORGANIZING and U.S. FOOD & FARM NON-PROFITS

When I first heard about Jahi Chappell’s precipitous resignation after just ten months as Food First Executive Director and first learned of some of the apparent governance issues at Food First, I wrote to a food & farm colleague (June 26, 2020): 

“I wonder if a good labor union organizer would be helpful in this case, not only for Food First, but for the entire food & farm movement. Jane McAlevey comes to mind.”  

In response to the colleague’s request for explanation, I replied (June 26, 2020):”I wouldn’t go so far as to say we should unionize the entire food & farm movement. But, I wouldn’t rule it out, either.I’ve been impressed with how logical, practical, and results-oriented union building can be—especially if the union is orienting toward a supermajority strike—i.e., real, systemic power shifts.

“Good grassroots organizers do this, too, in every field.  Good legislators do this, too — they always count the votes before the vote is taken. But the non-profit world, especially in the food & farm world, is always about keeping the organization alive first. That means they’re oriented towards the status quo — not real change.” 

Yesterday, a Pittsburgh-based labor reporter, Mike Elk, published a long personal story about how he became a justice “fighter” and he always goes on vacation on August 12 .  It’s 8,000 words and I highly recommend it as a microcosm of U.S. justice history, connecting labor organizing, school integration, disabilities, and how to build solidarity.  Along the way, we re-connect with some of our national heroes—Curt Flood (baseball), Pete Seeger (folksinger)—and get introduced to Mike Elk’s personal heroes—Doc Allen, Bruce Jett, Mel Womack, etc.

I offer the story as a comparison between the energy and solidarity I hear in the labor movement gearing up for a strike (which is always!) and the energy of food & farm think tanks. 

Obviously, the questions that this comparison brings up for the food & farm world include:
—Who’s labor?
—Who’s capital?
—How to make a power structure analysis in a non-profit think tank?
—How to level the playing field?
—Who holds too much power?  Funders, board of directors, leadership team, founder? other?
—Who holds too little power?  Employees, clients, the subjects (of think tank reports)? other?
—How to harmonize a U.S. food & farm non-profit’s internal organizational structures with its justice mission?

Here’s the link to the story and a brief summary. I hope it inspires the food & farm movement to think differently about our work.

Woody High and the Black Union Reps, who made me an Autistic Fighter
by Mike ElkAugust 13, 2020
Payday Report: Covering Labor in News Deserts
On August 12, 2015, Mike Elk was illegally fired from his job as labor reporter at Politico, a digital news outlet.  He had been trying to organize the Politico staff so when he went on vacation, they fired him. He sued and won $70,000. Now, every year on August 12, Elk goes on vacation, citing his mentor’s comment the day he got fired, “Bruce [Jett] told me not to sweat the firing. ‘It’s Payday, dude! Go enjoy your vacation. You earned it. Relax dude. It’s Payday.’”

B.  COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION HOARDING:
The problem with “personnel” matters

On July 31, 2020 I received an invitation (sent to 35 “friends” of Food First) to attend one of the listening sessions organized by Food First. The invitation (see #2) included a public announcement of the listening sessions posted on Food First’s website (#1). On August 1, I responded with some analysis as to why the process would ultimately not be successful (#3).

For the record, I have not attended any of Food First’s volunteer listening sessions, nor will I. Presumably, based on the announcement on their website (#1), interested volunteers are welcome.

1.  JULY 31, 2020  
Food First’s announcement about listening sessions  — website  
The Reports of Food First’s Destruction are Greatly Exaggerated

The announcement included the following information:
Listening session 1 on Saturday, August 8. The new Board members will be seated by then.
Listening session 2 on Saturday, August 15.
Focus group 1 with grassroots constituents (8/22)
Focus group 2 with funders and donors (8/29)
Focus group 3 with other interested parties (9/12, to allow for Labor Day holiday)
 
Please consider the following questions:
“What should be the priorities at Food First?”
“What are Food First’s most impactful accomplishments in recent years?”

2.  JULY 31, 2020
Invitation to me and 34 others from Hank Herrera, Interim Exec. Director – Food First
Reference to “attached letter” is the announcement posted on Food First’s website, as described in Item #1.

Dear friends,
Upon learning of the departure of Jahi Chappel from Food First, many of you wrote to express your deep unhappiness with Food First.  The Board of Directors has worked hard to develop a response that can move all of us forward—hopefully together if at all possible.  We all want to fight to achieve food justice and food sovereignty in this world.  It is our common goal  Let’s unite in this struggle and if at all possible not fight with each other.  The attached letter addresses many of your concerns, and also ours.  And we now invite you to join with us in listening sessions and focus groups over the next six weeks for deep reflection and renewal.  Later today you will receive the Evite invitation with which you can RSVP.
Very best wishes,
Hank

3. AUGUST 1, 2020 EMAIL: The problem with “personnel” matters 
My response to Food First’s invitation to participate in a listening session

From: Debbie Hillman 
Subject: Re: An invitatiion — the problem with “personnel” matters
Date: August 1, 2020 at 9:56:36 AM CDT
To: Henry Herrera, 34 Food First friends

I congratulate and thank Food First leadership for
—following up on our collective discussion — an informal one prompted by our individual expressions of concern for Food First and, in my case, for the entire food & farm movement
—putting so much effort into a listening plan
—inviting us to participate in the listening plan

“PERSONNEL” MATTERS CONFLICT WITH LISTENING PLAN
From my perspective, although I think you will gain some new insights and some new information during the listening process, the process overall is destined to fail. This is because you will always be able to say — to yourself and to any one of us — that we didn’t have all the information because much of the information falls under “personnel” matters.

But here’s your “get out of a bad situation” card:This is a specious argument that came with our corrupt, colonial system organized and locked down by white, land-owning males, who continue to hide behind “personnel” matters because they don’t want to be held accountable.

And here’s some breaking news: Everything done by human beings — by people — is a “personnel” matter.

MOST “PERSONNEL” MATTERS ARE NOT PERSONAL — and should be public
Now we can have a discussion about what kind of “personnel” matters –should be kept private (and for what purpose)–fall under matters of honesty, integrity, equality for the purpose of public transparency, democratic process, and equitable human relations

In my opinion, since food & farm organizations are working towards a public purpose, all “personnel” matters should be public. In other words, Food First personnel should consider themselves to be public figures whose words and actions can and should be discussed publicly. The only exceptions should be rare and have to do solely with people’s personal lives, well-being, and safety. Insofar as Food First personnel act as a representative of the organization, such actions should not be private. Insofar as Food First personnel might say or do something solely related to their personal life, such matters can be kept confidential.

And, yes, I’m pretty sure that there have been and will be situations that might not be so cut-and-dried and someone will have to make a judgment call.

‘PERSONNEL” MATTERS AT FOOD FIRST
Do I believe that all the “personnel” matters cited in Hank’s latest letter are personal or occur in a gray area? Based on other people’s accounts of Jahi Chappell’s tenure at Food First and my own life experience, no. 

Would I need a lot more information about what’s gone on in Food First — for years, now you tell us (long before Jahi Chappell was hired as Executive Director) — before I would consider participating in a listening session? Yes.

U.S. FOOD & FARM MOVEMENT
For the record, for people on this email who might not know me, I am a 69-year old woman who’s spent the last 15 years observing and participating in the U.S. food & farm movement and all 69 years observing the disconnect between what people in power say and what they do. In my June 25, 2020 email to four U.S. food & farm listservs (in response to Hugh Joseph’s news about Jahi Chappell’s resignation), I wrote:

“In response to the letter that was just posted on COMFOOD (Racism & The Food Movement — The Destruction of Food First, forwarded by Hugh Joseph, the listserv manager), it looks like food & farm folks are going to be having a long overdue conversation—not just about racism, but about sexism, systemic problems with non-profit organizations, turf wars, elites vs. grassroots, democratic decision-making, etc.”

More to the point, this country — the United States — is long overdue for a conversation on:
—racism
—sexism
—class
—corporations (including non-profits) as legal entities
—real democracy
—the money question (what is money, who creates new U.S. money, how does new U.S. money enter economy)—types of knowledge
—life 

NEXT STEPS FOR FOOD FIRST? 
If I were connected to Food First, I would take a second look at Food First’s non-profit status and how assumptionsabout non-profits, boards, “personnel”, etc., may have caused a good deal of confusion within the organization, trying towork within a rigged financial and legal system. It’s part of the problem that most food & farm non-profits have been fighting against.

I hope this is helpful.

Best wishes to Food First and to all other groups trying to work within the system. In my opinion, it can’t be done. Time to change the system—this time, at an even deeper level than where we’ve been working.
— Debbie

C. FINAL COMMENTS ON “PERSONNEL” MATTERS

Let me repeat the final paragraph of my August 1, 2020 email:

“Best wishes to Food First and to all other groups trying to work within the system. In my opinion, it can’t be done. Time to change the system—this time, at an even deeper level than where we’ve been working.”

Let me end by repeating a well-known observation of the second wave U.S. feminist movement, an observation that, apparently, hasn’t quite gotten through to the white, land-owning, and male power-brokers in the U.S.:
The personal is political.

The personal is political and the political is public. And, besides, there are no secrets. “There are no secrets” is the wisdom of a friend of mine who escaped Hungary in 1957 at the age of 12 (with his mother and brother). They were taken in by a sponsoring family in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He has passed this wisdom onto his American wife and four children, which is how I came to hear it. There are no secrets. We are all connected. The tip of the iceberg is just the tip.

And one final besides: People who don’t feel heard within the confines of their own organization will go public. Perhaps the deeper places to “change the system” are within — within our own organizations and, of course, ourselves.