Transcript of the episode “Theory meets practice: no magic carrots”

[00:00:15] Jon M: Hi. I’m Jon Moscow. 

[00:00:16] Amy H-L: And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Today we’ll continue our conversation with Dr. Garrett Broad, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. If you haven’t yet listened to Part One, you might want to do so now. Welcome back, Garrett.

[00:00:34] Jon M: As you’ve worked with nonprofits and community based organizations, in your experience, what are some of the things that a lot of nonprofits are doing that are problematic?

[00:00:46] Garrett B: Okay. So it’s an interesting question. I think oftentimes there’s a hesitancy to want to be critical of nonprofit organizations, because why would you critique somebody that’s trying to do a good thing? And first of all, there’s a lot of nonprofits. Nonprofit is just a tax structure, right. So there’s a lot of nonprofits that I would argue are doing actively harmful things, but I’m thinking more along the lines of what about those nonprofits that have a stated social change, mission, social justice mission, even, and that are maybe not advancing those goals in the way that is optimal. 

So this is something I’ve focused on a lot when I studied and continue to study food activism, community food activism. It’s also a topic that I think a lot about in the context of animal advocacy movements as well. And so there’s this critique that’s been put forth by a number of scholars, among them folks like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who talk about this idea of the non-profit industrial complex. And I think that is probably the biggest critique of nonprofits as we know it, which is to say like the military industrial complex before it, and the prison industrial complex is another analogy, there becomes this self perpetuating mechanism where the continued existence of the nonprofit becomes the most important thing. And the social change mission gets lower priority, often not intentionally, almost. It’s never stated explicitly, but functionally that’s what we often see. And so we have a lot of organizations that are not necessarily asking themselves, “Is what we’re doing, this program or this project, is this really achieving the goals that we’re trying to achieve for the community that we’re trying to serve?” and/or reflect, but rather, “How can we get that next grant to make sure that we can pay people to keep the lights on?” And I totally understand that, because nonprofits have, in this professionalized world of nonprofits that we live in today, people depend on them for jobs. People depend on them for services, but this is I think, a big challenge of nonprofit organizations.

And one of the things I’ve tried to do in my work is to say, “Hey, it’s okay if you feel these tensions within the work that you do. It’s normal. It’s if you didn’t feel these tensions, I think you’re probably missing something. But let’s talk about it, right. How do we navigate that?” There’s a, to go back to Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who’s a real sort of scholarly inspiration for me. She has this great piece where she talks about being in the “shadow of the shadow state.” So the shadow state, referring to sort of the nonprofit industrial complex in an era when the state has stepped back from providing a lot of services for people, that nonprofits now provide a lot of those sometimes funded by, you know, indirectly through the state. But what Gilmore talks about is how do you sort of be a radical organization operating in that shadow state?” And she talks about operating in what she says is “in the shadow of the shadow state,” which is just a kind of fancy way of saying there are a variety of creative and radical and sometimes transgressive ways that a non-profit structure can subvert the very structure that it’s operating within, but it takes conscious thought. It takes consistent interrogation and it takes some strategic planning and strategic rhetoric, frankly, what’s the narrative that you might offer to that foundation. And how might that narrative be somewhat different from the way you talk about it in a staff meeting or the way you talk about it when you’re interacting with the community that you’re serving? 

And so that I think is kind of the big challenge that a lot of nonprofits face. I think the other that connects to this other big thing, which is, again, back to the conversation we had earlier about branding and media, that oftentimes what we see in this current context is the groups that are the best at telling their story, the best at branding, are the ones that get the attention from the big fund. We’re able to get lots of donors because they have a GoFundMe that goes viral or whatever else it might be. And so I think what we need to do, those of us who study and interact with organizations in the nonprofit sector, is to ask ourselves two questions:

One, how can we become better storytellers potentially and leverage these tools to offer, you know, our own story, right, our own brand, for lack of a better word, that does get attention. And I think that’s something we’ve actually seen a lot of over the last several years, the variety of social justice movements that are sort of increasing their capacity to use media, to tell stories effectively in that way. So that’s part one, how do we use these tools.

But part two is to critically interrogate and ask ourselves what are our red lines here, you know, what are some of the trade-offs that we might have to make in terms of how we position ourselves, in terms of chasing after that money? What are some of our no-go zones that we won’t go there so that we can maintain that credibility internally and in with the communities that we serve?

I just think this whole area of sort of the tensions of nonprofit activism are really important. We see it in the public sector as well, but I think, especially when we think of students that are coming out of high school and into college. So many of the social justice oriented students that I know, and that I work with, they go right to work in nonprofits and they have this kind of rosy view of the nonprofit sector and they get a bit of a rude awakening. And so that’s something I try to do in my classes as well is talk about what are the tensions here. How do we effectively navigate them? But also how do we live with the tensions that we know are not just going to disappear? They’re going to continue to be there so long as some of these economic structures continue to exist in the way that they do. 

[00:06:28] Amy H-L: Let’s talk about food. What should high school students be learning about food and food justice? 

[00:06:35] Garrett B: All right. Number one is you already know a lot, and I think that’s something that’s often lost in a lot, especially around like healthy food interventions, for instance, which I’ve spent a lot of time observing and sometimes participating in and often critiquing, is they often start with this idea of, well, people don’t know where food comes from. People don’t know what’s healthy. People don’t know, people don’t know, especially kids don’t know, especially kids in low income communities, don’t know, especially kids of color in low income communities and stuff. I think we need to start there, which is to say you have knowledge about food and culture and challenges and all these sorts of things. And so don’t let anybody start by telling you you don’t know anything. You have a lot of knowledge. It might not be expert scientific nutrition knowledge. Maybe it is though. But you also have that knowledge of the everyday experience, right. And I think oftentimes, actually the folks who are the target of ” interventions,” “healthy food interventions,” they often know a whole lot more than the folks designing those interventions about what it means, because often these interventions are targeted low income communities. They often know a whole lot more than the “experts” about what it really means to live with food insecurity or live in poverty and how to creatively eat your way through the world. So that’s number one. You know stuff. So think about that. I encourage students, young people, to think about that. What food knowledge do you bring to the table? Whether it’s culinary, whether it’s historical, whether it’s cultural, whether it’s personal, whether it’s just about navigating your everyday. So that’s number one.

Number two is that food and food systems are connected to everything. And so you can approach food questions from a whole bunch of different angles. And it’s one of the reasons I continue to be interested in food, because it’s just this sort of connecting site of study and practice where if you’re interested in labor, if you’re interested in health, if you’re interested in the environment, if you’re interested in animals, if you’re interested in technology, all these things, the food offers this really cool site of study to explore that and explore these interconnections. So that’s number two. Think about food and its interconnections with so many other aspects of society and culture and the environment. And then three is beware the silver bullets in discussions about food and food policy. 

It seems like these days, and this again comes back to the conversation we were having about the differences between branding and identity. One tries to offer this simple story. The other is more of this complex messy story. Well, my experience is anybody saying I’ve got the solution to the problems of food, they’re lying either to themselves or to you or both. There are trade-offs, and what might be really good for, for instance, making food accessible from an economic perspective, from a cost perspective, might not always be what’s best from a health perspective, might not always be what’s best from an environmental perspective, and people bring with them different values. This goes back to the conversation we were having earlier about the importance of understanding different perspectives people bring with them, different values. 

People have different priorities. And decisions about food and food systems and food policy always are going to require you to be clear about what are the values that you’re trying to promote and in so doing there’s going to be some trade offs. And so my other kind of big thing that I would say is be, be mindful of trade offs and be skeptical of anybody who says I’ve got this great solution and there’s going to be no trade offs at all. Right. So those are kind of three big things. To think about your knowledge, to think about the interconnected, intersectoral nature of food, and three, to be mindful of values, priorities, and trade-offs.

[00:10:26] Jon M: You talked about the illusion that planting gardens in itself will bring about social change. Why is this an illusion?

[00:10:34] Garrett B: Yeah. So this is, you know, for someone who spent a lot of time over the years, working with community gardens and school gardens, and working with organizations that do this kind of work, it might sound like a kind of a strange thing to say. So I want to be clear. I think gardens are great. I’ve been involved with gardens for many years in different ways. I helped found a community garden a number of years ago when I lived on the West Coast. But this goes back to what I was talking about previously, about the sort of silver bullet solution. And I think there is this tendency sometimes to, especially when we’re thinking about low-income communities, historically marginalized communities of color that experience food insecurity, that are, there’s different words for it. Food desert is a term that that has been used historically. It’s not a term I like very much because it just sort of suggests that nothing’s there. Food swamp is another term that gets used. It sort of speaks to the kind of unhealthy nature of that. I know that there are objections to that term as well. Food apartheid is a term that gets used increasingly now. I think Karen Washington was the first to really coin that term. This speaks to the kind of structural conditions that have led to differential access to healthy and affordable food.

But oftentimes there’s this sort of narrative that, okay. If we bring a garden to one of these neighborhoods of structural inequality, that A) people will sort of learn where their food comes from and the garden will be the site where they can get healthy and interact with others and it will bloom and it will be beautiful and that will all sort of solve everything.. And I think this is what I refer to in my book that I wrote, More Than Just Food, about food justice organizing. That’s what I call the “magic carrot approach” to food justice. This idea that if only a child sees where this carrot comes from and they grow it and they pull it out of the ground and they dust off the soil and then they eat that, then almost like magic, they’ll be healthy, and not only will they be healthy, but that will amplify throughout their community.

It’s like, all right, well, let’s ask a couple questions first. All right. First of all, you can’t live on carrots alone. You can’t live on usually what these gardens supply, which is great, and that can often supplement our food in a community or in a household and maybe grow things that might be hard to find elsewhere. All those things are great as well as the social connections, but we need to ask questions. All right, is this kid going to be magically transformed? What’s the home that he’s going to? Does the home even have a stocked kitchen? You know, do they have working stove? Do they have the pots and pans? Do they have parents working two, three jobs and you know, don’t have the time to prepare these healthy meals that we’re expecting?

And so, do we have a long-term plan for the sustainability of this garden? This is another issue that I’ve long seen where gardens, either because of internal challenges of leadership or because of external forces, like a city deciding, “Hey, we’re going to bulldoze this and put in a parking lot.”

There that there are a variety of reasons why these gardens, I think, can be very valuable, but they are not in and of themselves going to solve food apartheid. They are not going to solve diet related disease, but they can be a really powerful way to build community, to build and to cultivate and to sort of highlight existing food and agricultural knowledge. But they’ve got to be connected to other strategies and organizations for that social change around food to be more transformative. And so, yeah, I love gardens. I think they’re great. I would love more and more of them, but they’re limited, as all things are. And so this again, just goes back to, just beware of this kind of “magic carrot” or silver bullet approach. They’ve got strengths, they’ve got weaknesses. How do we figure out how to leverage them, productive ways that make sense for the community in which we’re planting and building these gardens?

[00:14:12] Amy H-L: Are there organizations currently using food effectively to organize either locally or nationally? 

[00:14:20] Garrett B: Sure there’s tons.

And so I’ve worked with a number groups in California. I’ve I have a long time relationship with an organization called Community Services Unlimited, which has a really interesting history as, uh, originally founded as a non-profit arm of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party.

They’re a central case study in the book that I wrote. They are not perfect. And we’ve had great conversations over the years about all the things we’ve been talking about, about the nonprofit, industrial complex, about what gardens can do and what they can’t do. They’re part of a network though, that I think is really interesting.

This group called E F O D equitable food oriented development network, which is bringing together a bunch of different food justice organizations from around the country that are sort of have common values around racial justice, economic justice, and the power of food, but also are thinking critically about how do we work within the nonprofit structure, but also through things like social enterprises, how do we use markets?

In productive ways, what might be the types of legal structures, tax structures, whether it’s cooperatives or whether it’s B corporations or whether it’s 5 0 1 C3 non-profits. So that’s an interesting network that I think has done a growing network that is doing interesting work here in New York city.

There’s a number of organizations that do really interesting work. Harlem Grown is one that initially comes to mind as a group that does a really good integrated programming where they are, you know, not only doing gardens, but they’re doing gardens and they’re connecting that to schools that are right across the street. And then they’re also connecting it to job training and community development. Another organization locally that comes to mind, that I actually had the pleasure to have some of my students do some community engaged learning, volunteer work, is an organization in the Bronx called POTS, Part of the Solution. And what you’ll see is the groups that I’m often mentioning are those that have a philosophy of kind of integrated approach. Where POTS does, they’re not just doing, they have a very necessary kind of food bank, food pantry approach, but they’re doing all sorts of other job training, community development work, haircuts, like, I mean all sorts of stuff, right. 

Other ways to think about how do we connect food to these broader strategies, bottom up community development. So I I’m missing so many other organizations. There’s many others out there that are taking this from a variety of different directions. Some of them trying to, as I said, develop for profit social enterprises, some that are doing non-profit work, some that are more on a kind of charity-based model, but the best ones, I think, are the ones that have a kind of broader theory of change that recognizes how the work that they’re doing on food connects to a broader mission for social change and social justice. They’re also very serious about their organizational sustainability and realize that they have to be smart and careful about it. You know, where’s their funding coming from? How are they going to provide good living wage jobs to the folks that work in the organization? And then the other thing is that they’re connected to other networks, networks of social change. So not just that they have this conceptualization of how food might connect more broadly to social change, but are they engaged in productive networks that can build a kind of collective capacity because it is important to make change on a local level. But for broader movements, we also need to think about how can we collaborate across location—within a city, within a state, within a region, nationally, internationally. So those are some of the kind of principles I’ve seen work well and continue to try to follow organizations that are operating in that mold.

[00:18:00] Amy H-L: What is it that educational organizations such as ours can do to kind of accelerate this movement? 

[00:18:10] Garrett B: Folks who are self-identifying as involved in the ethical schools movement are already doing a lot of that work, right. So that’s important, but in terms of specific skills that they might develop among students or particular approaches, I guess I’ll come back to what I think I’ve been emphasizing throughout this work with students, to understand how theory meets practice. That to me has been something that’s been really central to my development and the students that I’ve had the privilege to mentor and teach and work with over the years. The ones that I see doing the best work are the ones that are doing that critical thinking, but then are also putting it into practice and then bringing that practice back to the thinking and and then reflecting on. And so I think that would be the best thing to do, right, which is, start either with the practice or start with a theory. It doesn’t even matter where you start, it’s more of a recursive circle. But make sure you’re doing both. Make sure that you’re not just reading the books and the histories, but then also getting students out to learn from those, doing the practice based work, and then bring that back to the classroom and say, “Okay, how did what we saw there and what you engaged in as a volunteer?” You don’t just treat those as one-off volunteer days. You come back, you reflect. What did we learn here? How is that similar or different from some of the concepts and theories we’ve discussed. And then you’re back and you’re forth and you’re back and you’re forth. I think the biggest thing you can do is to instill in students that engaging with a community group,engaging with a social justice group, is not just a one-time thing for your resume to get into college.

And I think there has been a big push to get back to some of the conversations we were having about branding as well, right. The students are kind of trained to like have a brand by the time they apply for college, right. And what’s a good way to do that? Well, if I’ve got all these volunteer opportunities and XYZ, I’ve done 10 different volunteer opportunities and a hundred hours or whatever it is. Okay, but what’s the substance there? And sometimes it’s better actually to have one organization that you develop a deep relationship with and that you can learn with over time and contribute to over time. So those are kind of big picture insights that I think folks in the ethical schools movement can do, which is again, think about how can we have this ongoing relationship between theory and practice and making sure that we reflect on that, and we don’t just let it be a kind of one-off thing, but that we come back and reflect and think through the positives, the possibilities, but also the tension, like what doesn’t make sense here? Or maybe even, you know, as sympathetic and as compassionate, as appreciative as we might be of this organization that maybe we’re volunteering with or whatever, what maybe could they do differently? If you were put in charge, what might you do differently? Why? And maybe we even pose that in a conversation. If we built that relationship over time, then you could have these kinds of harder conversations where an organization doesn’t feel like they’re being critiqued by somebody who just showed up, parachuted in for one day.

It takes time. I think that’s the other big thing that I’ve learned a lot from my work, which is you don’t just show up and say, “Hi, I’m here to help.” And then you’re out, right. It takes time. And if you really want to develop students who are making positive impacts, they need to know that you need to show up and you can’t just think about it as a one-off. You need to keep showing up and you need to build that, especially for folks like me and many of the students I have, who are often not from the communities where we’re doing a lot of social justice work, especially around things like racial justice or economic inequality. There’s an, a higher level, a higher bar that we need to clear and we need to build that trust over time. And the only way to do that is to show up and keep showing up and to listen and learn for a while. And then to, you know, once you’ve built that to come back and say, “All right, here’s what I’ve seen. Here are things that I think I might be able to contribute. What do you folks think of that? Is that something you’re interested in?” And then we can build from there, but it just takes time.

So I think the biggest thing that I would say is be ready for the long haul. Be ready for the long haul and to be ready for some ups and downs and be ready to ask yourself questions about “Is this thing even working?” Is this thing that I’m doing, you know, am I doing the right thing?” Those feelings of self doubt, that messiness that we’ve been talking about throughout this conversation, that’s where the good stuff happens. That’s where growth happens. And I think that’s the key. And to communicate to our students that this is about growth. You’re 18 years old, you’re 15 years old. You’re 13 years old. You shouldn’t be fully formed. This is the time for growth. And to cultivate a classroom where that growth can happen, I think is some of the best things that the folks in the ethical schools movement can do.

[00:22:52] Jon M: Thank you, Dr. Garrett Broad of Fordham University. 

[00:22:55] Garrett B: Thank you. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure. 

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