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by Dr. John Fisk and staff of the Wallace Center at Winrock International

The following speech was delivered to about 450 people to open the 2018 National Good Food Network Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

We at the Wallace Center, like many others, understand that the problems we are faced with today in our food system are complex, interconnected, and urgent. So then, must be the solutions to meet them, the alternatives that all of us here today are trying to build. Since 1983 Wallace Center has striven to be an organization that catalyzes systems-level change. We recognize – now more than ever – that the time to protect our environment is too limited and the consequences to our communities too dire, for us to keep pace by merely addressing symptoms.

If we are going to create change on a scale large enough to face the obstacles before us, we must get right to the heart of the issues. That means examining the forces that got us where we are today. 

The origins of our current industrial food system can be found, not just in the pursuit of food security and feeding of the world, but also in the consolidation and inequitable distribution of economic and political power, land, and resources, going back centuries: a legacy that includes stolen land, lives, and labor. And it is present today here and across the country, in our federal policies, and in the astonishing consolidation of money, power and control over the very things that give us life – our soil, our water, our labor, the food we eat every day. 

A call to racial justice might be a new conversation for some of us, but it is a lived experience for many in this room. It is a thread woven into every piece of our work, from the people who own the land, to the people who work it, to those who prepare and serve it, to food itself. This thread is so deeply ingrained in our national fabric that pulling it out can feel uncomfortable, frustrating, or even threatening. But as organizations working in this space, we have the responsibility to use our privilege to move this work forward. 

Ask yourself, what called you to this work? Why food and farming systems? …. We know that when we talk about local and regional food systems, we are talking about more than farms, food hubs, and supply chains. We came to this work because we believe that food systems offer a lens through which we can view the intersection of so many seemingly diverse issues – the environment, economic development, public health, community vitality, social justice. 

We came to this work because we believe that food systems can be a lever of change across all of these areas. That through this work we can not only create an alternative to the industrial food system; we can fundamentally affect how we distribute wealth and opportunity, foster health, and create connectivity in our communities. 

I believe in that idea, that food, as humble, as basic as it might sound to some, does have the power to affect that kind of change. The food system has that power because it affects, and is affected by, virtually every other economic, political and social system in this country. Without working to address these larger, underlying currents, we will never achieve the kind of sea change we seek. Without applying a systems-level lens to the problems we face, all our programs and projects and interventions can end up being inadequate and in fact more harmful than helpful, more exclusive than inclusive. 

It’s clear to me that we can no longer afford to rest upon the values implied by our work or the words we have historically used to describe it. If we are truly committed to our values then we need to be explicit in this commitment and be more mindful of our words and actions. Too often, we fail to name racism as the great, pernicious weed in our midst, but in doing that we preserve only the status quo and our own comfort. The past few years have made it abundantly clear that structural racism and inequity continues to pollute – and in many ways control – our policies, our economies, and our culture. Our food system is no exception. 

For a number of years, Wallace Center has focused on issues related to value chains and the environment – increasing the impact of locally and regionally-sourced, sustainably-produced food. And while we are proud to have made great strides in those areas, I must admit candidly, humbly, that addressing racial inequity in the food system hasn’t been the focus of my work, of Wallace Center’s work, or of past NGFN conferences. 

But if we are trying to foster system-wide change, then it must be. Explicitly. Intentionally. Proactively. 

For many of us, myself included, that means de-centering our own narratives, de-emphasizing our own heroism, to uplift leaders from marginalized communities. The Wallace Center has a powerful voice, but we need to start this work by listening.

We at the Wallace Center are making the commitment to do this work, and to fostering solutions to address inequity and injustice across the value chain. We have made an intentional effort to bring a racial equity framework to this year’s conference through the selection of sessions and speakers that focus explicitly on racial equity and inclusion. This is not a one-shot deal, but a step towards deepening our own organizational commitment and to integrating it into all of our work. 

If talking about race here makes you uncomfortable, that’s understandable. It makes me uncomfortable! And admitting that is a fine first step.

The underlying rationale for this conference is the understanding that we all have so much to learn from each other. There are many leaders and organizations here in this room that are leading these efforts and have been for some time.  For example; La Semilla Food Center, Community Foodworks, The Common Market, Corbin Hill Food Project, Agricultura Cooperative Network, Valley Verde and many more. 

They have wisdom, resources, and unique perspectives to share. We seek guidance and direction from these leaders as Wallace Center begins a long-term process of centering equity into our programs, policies and culture. Here at the conference we want to amplify their voices. Many are holding workshops and sessions over the course of the next few days. I urge you to attend their sessions, and to seek out their ideas and input. 

While we are together these next few days, I challenge you to explore how we can work together to create holistic solutions for a healthier and more equitable system for us all. 

And if any of these topics make you uncomfortable, or you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, relax: you will say the wrong thing. And then someone will kindly correct you, because we’re all here to learn and we’re all here in good faith. So today let’s commit to moving forward. With great care, yes, but without fear. 

And, as part of this, we invite you to accept the challenge, the Racial Equity 21 Day Challenge. The Racial Equity Challenge, created and led by Food Solutions New England, offers dedicated time and space to build more effective social justice habits.  We're tremendously excited about this concept, and we encourage you to use it a jumping-off point personally and for your organization. 


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