Our food system is wrought with issues and complexity. Nowhere
is the issue potentially worse than with our ability to work together, or
rather, our complete divisiveness. Groups like industrial agriculture and
agroecology are pitted against each other seething through their teeth. Groups
who could easily work together, that are not divisive, remain fragmented.

Lastly, and to the detriment of any movement, many individuals lack a true
systems understanding that could help to make sense of this divisiveness.

The movement for food justice is fragmented. More times than
not, coalitions only seem to attract others that are working within the same
fragmented category. For example, you have good food, anti-hunger, sustainable
agriculture, environmentalism, and environmental justice movements. While
having all these different categories can be fine and innocuous, there needs to
be an understanding of complex systems and how they function together not
separately.  Food justice touches all of
these movements, and is a movement itself, and also overlaps with everything
from our culture to our political and economic system to our environment. There
is nothing that it doesn’t touch and we are all either directly or indirectly
affected by it. This fragmentation prevents real change from happening within
the food system because it continues to lack the force required. It isn’t diverse
enough. It doesn’t tap its connections the way it could.

How do we tap these connections? Even more, how do we begin
to tap our divisive connections, the one’s that we deem an enemy? First off we
need to set our intentions. This is different from setting our vision.
Intentions are more like guideposts to help keep you in line with values that
you hold. The vision is something we need to release the grip on. There are all
sorts of ideas of exactly how the food system should look. Each of these
visions are usually crafted by one specific group that does not take into
account the full system of different viewpoints and opinions. Why? I believe it
is out of fear that this happens. Fear of the system becoming worse if we
loosen our grip for even a second. Fear of the unknown of what could take
shape. Setting an intention is like creating group norms at the beginning of a
project people have come together to work on. We at the outset can set the
intentions – parity, equity – so that we have an eye on what’s important. But
how this takes shape we may not really know until we are there especially when
dealing with so many various viewpoints.

After setting intention, we need to be inclusive no matter
how much we may not want to invite someone with differing viewpoints. This is a
complex challenge, and solving it may require a range of approaches. One approach
to inviting the stranger is through popular education.  It is a methodology that came from the
Brazilian educator and writer Paulo Freire. Popular education asserts that
there is no expert and breaks down the wall between teacher and student in which
everyone is a teacher and a student. Every individual in a group has something
to offer and something to learn. It requires a high degree of participation and
uses people’s lived experiences and traditional knowledge to learn and to
build. It is community driven learning.

If we feel like some groups do not listen to others (and
they may feel the same about us), what if we used the popular education tool as
our model of change? In can provide the intention (being curious and willing to
learn). It can also provide the setting where the stranger (person with a
different viewpoint which will be both sides) feels welcomed. I have to repeat
that it requires all participants to be willing to learn, otherwise it doesn’t
work. It can be a space where no one has to relinquish their values, but talk
about what’s important to them and why.

Inviting people with different viewpoints and opinions isn’t
to create some synergistic moment where we talk until we all agree and think
the same way. That is not the point. A system requires diversity which is no
shocking statement to some. What we may forget from time to time is that this
applies to ideas, answers, viewpoints and opinions as well. We need to have
some cursory understanding of complex adaptive systems (CAS). Characteristics
of a CAS is being comprised of many agents who act and interact with each other
in unpredictable ways. Think food justice activists, environmentalists,
scientists, farmers, philanthropists, NGO’s, government agencies, academic
institution, and for-profits.  CAS has a
sensitivity to changes in initial conditions which speaks to a natural fear we
have of change especially when it affects who we are or what we do. Third, is
adjusting behaviors in the aggregate to the environment in unpredictable ways.
These are known-unknowns in which we know there will be consequences whether
good or bad each time an action is taken. Next, a CAS oscillates between stability
and instability. Instability appears when a gap has been pointed out between
what we believe to be reality and what is actually happening. It grows in its
state of disequilibrium as the gap becomes more and more noticeable. Lastly, a
CAS produces emergent actions when approaching disequilibrium. This means that
as instability grows different groups or organizations emerge at different
times providing different solutions. This in turn can cause more instability,
less or be neutral. This phase continues until stability is reached where we
remain for some time, but the system will always eventually oscillate back to
instability. It’s the natural balancing of things. To understand this brings a
new approach to change.

Within the confines of instability or disequilibrium (a
state some would say we are in), is where dynamic interactions take place. What
makes them dynamic is their intense diversity of viewpoints. But these can only
happen when the space for dialogue is created. This space could be created by borrowing
from the popular education model. Within these interactions new ideas and
collaborations unfold and ignite. But the key to a complex system is its
diversity. It requires us to appreciate its differences and understand that
even if you don’t agree with what someone is doing or saying, this diversity is
critical. Even if it’s entirely frustrating at times.

The most unknown, and potentially frightening, part of a
complex system is that we don’t know what it’s going to look like when it comes
to rest. The more we think that we can make that a known, the more that means
we are not being inclusive and the change probably won’t stick. Just like an
organization who is changing its vision statement and creating brand new
endeavors needs to look at its current work and core model and how that might change,
so to do the actors within the food system need to look at the core, the structure,
and the way they do things. Because all this may need to change.

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