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Choosing the Journey: Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

We are honored to offer this guest post for this year's 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge by John Fisk, Director of Strategy and Partnerships at the Wallace Center.

What does it mean to center racial equity and inclusion in our work?  For us, a national level organization seeking to shift our food system, the answer is a journey, both a personal and organizational one.  When the Wallace Center was founded 35 years ago we aimed to support the growing movement working to create more environmentally sound agricultural systems. The Center was part of a group of organizations focused on fundamentally changing the U.S. food system which had developed a treadmill like reliance on synthetic fertilizer and pest control, monocultures, and federal subsidy programs, all contributing to water pollution, soil degradation and the loss of hundreds of thousands of family farms.  At that time, there was not a lot about racial inequity in that narrative that we could see or sought to address.  

In the early 2000’s we expanded the Center’s focus from the farm, to include more of the food value chain. Systemic racism and inequities became clearer across every link in the chain, from farm to fork. It is apparent in farmland ownership, to labor rights, from organizational power structures to food access. Yet, even as we expanded the thematic focus of our work, for the most part we remained willfully ignorant of these undeniable realities. 

Taking a Different Path

Over the last ten years this started to change. We began doing some work to address the disparities experienced by people of color in food systems.  We managed a small grant and technical assistance program  helping establish and expand businesses addressing healthy food access, most of which were led by people of color.  Similarly we provided resources and assistance to black led organizations in the deep south that were building wholesale value chains for black farmers.  There are other examples; however, these efforts were limited, and disconnected.  We were not an organization focused on systems to improve racial equity.  We did not apply a racial equity lens to any aspect of our work or our organization. But these programs helped to start us on the path.  We had a subtle but growing awareness of structural racism in the food system and a sense that without greater understanding we may unintentionally be contributing to it.  

In hindsight, with new eyes and expanded awareness, I now see there is a lot about racial inequity in our original narrative of industrial agriculture driving environmental degradation and collapse of rural communities.  It has always been there, we just did not see it or chose not to address it if we did, which is a symptom of being white and privileged in a society where people with race privilege are socialized not to see the benefits of their own privilege.  Black farm and land owners have lost their farms earlier and faster than white farmers, have not had the same access to technical knowledge and support and financing that white farmers have (more about the class action lawsuit against USDA won by black farmers here). Even harder to reconcile is the fact much of our agricultural land was taken through deception or force from the people of the First Nations and/or cleared and made productive through slavery. Today the vast majority of farm workers are Latinx or Hispanic, while the vast majority of farm owners are white.  

Navigating the Terrain 

Facing the reality that our food and agricultural system has extensive roots and current dependence on structural racism is challenging.  As a white man helping to lead a food system organization it means accepting responsibility both at a personal level and organizationally helping to shift how we operate and what we focus upon.  Just a over a year ago, with the support of our staff and an external racial equity advisory committee, I addressed participants at our National Good Food Network Conference in Albuquerque, and, committed Wallace Center to the journey of embracing a racial equity lens and applying it to all that we do.  We started with the conference agenda, subject matter and speakers reflecting this commitment and we featured and promoted the 21 Day Racial Equity Challenge. Once the conference was over, we formed a racial equity working group among our staff which has led our journey since then.  We engaged The Justice Collective to facilitate an internal racial equity training for our entire staff, to help pull back the curtain on racial inequity and identify practical ways to integrate a race equity lens in our processes, operations and programs. We have an optional racial equity coffee chat every other Thursday morning providing informal time to talk about what we are learning and our experiences. We have rotating facilitation and topics each time we meet, as a way to give all Wallace staff members an opportunity to teach and learn together. Each program area within the Wallace Center is using these tools to understand racial inequity within their area and identify ways to internalize it operationally and programmatically. For each of our initiatives this presents challenges and new opportunities. For all of us it urges us to work with greater intentionality and mindfulness. 

Looking Ahead

Deepening racial equity and inclusion in our work will be an ongoing journey. It means accepting the inextricable link between structural racism and our food system and our society at large, and incorporating it in our theory of change, our strategies, our organizational culture, and our day-to-day decision making. It means acknowledging the ways we have failed to do so throughout our organizations history and committing to changing this for our future. It also means accepting and embracing that as a white man in a position of leadership, I have a personal journey of awareness and learning to take. That, as Robin Diangelo says in White Fragility, “The racial status quo is comfortable for white people, and we will not move forward in race relations if we remain comfortable. The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort.” Over the past year I have gotten more comfortable with being uncomfortable.