The newly elected mayor had picked up a dose of food-movement religion somewhere along the campaign trail. The exact source couldn’t be identified, but more than likely it was from those angry moms seething about the crappy food their children were eating in the schools’ cafeterias; or maybe those shaggy, shovel-waving urban farm advocates demanding more land and less rules; or perhaps it was that wild-eyed food entrepreneur whose harebrained job creation scheme sounded plausible though not remotely fundable. So from the exalted heights of his inauguration platform – already looking ahead four years to the next election – he crowned himself the city’s “Food Mayor.”
But like a high-strung colt not yet fitted to his traces, whose perspiring flanks betrayed his eagerness and lack of experience, the overheated mayor began to fade in the stretch. He grew impatient with the slow pace of the community food coalition which was attempting to present a unified food charter to the city. The rancorous public hearings on the new urban agriculture zoning ordinance had shaded the mayor’s prodigious coif from pepper to salt. So in a desperate attempt to burnish his waning Food Mayor image, he turned to his biggest corporate backer who was willing to expand his fast food empire. In return for some public cash and a suite of regulatory concessions, the city’s leading corporate citizen made the tantalizing promise of 500 new jobs.
On the eve of the mayor’s big announcement, the food coalition had finally, after many messy and excruciatingly long stakeholder meetings, put the finishing touches on their proposed food charter. Though it had engaged the community, including many elected and appointed city officials, the coalition’s document was dismissed by the mayor as taking too long and producing too little economic value. The following day the Food Mayor and Big Donor unveiled their plans for the spanking new, state-of-the-art fast food factory. Dismayed and brokenhearted, the food coalition watched the mayor sail on to an unopposed second term.
Swift and certain action producing immediate and precise results, or a slow but deliberative process producing uncertain but potentially wide ranging results? The tortoise or the hare? Participatory democracy versus executive action? Grass roots versus grass tops? Means versus ends? People versus Power? Maybe the question is how we can work most effectively in the chaotic sausage-making process that is community engagement and coalition building.
Our communities’ food systems need lots of things. At a local level we need good-paying jobs; at a global level we need to be able to feed the Earth’s population which is fast approaching 10 billion people. Whether it’s the ticking of the mayor’s election clock or humanity’s biological clock, time ultimately waits for no community process. In light of the many food-related threats we face, do we trust the masses or the mighty?
Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates have their plans to save the world, and they have enough money to avoid democracy when the people exert an excessive gravitational pull on their timetables. The high-tech billionaires aren’t into collaborating across multi-stakeholder platforms if the right app can’t produce the divine symmetry of many oars plunging and pulling together in perfect union.
If the peoples’ voices are going to be heard and not drowned out by itchy politicians and go-go technology titans, we have to perfect our organizing game. At present, I believe our group process muscles are weak and our facilitation tendons are stiff. We have grown flabby with soft organizational development work and phlegmatic coalition-building practices. Our physical profiles look like those of a 65-year-old man who can no longer conceal his paunch. We talk the talk of coordination, cooperation, and collaboration, but our walk has all the strength and sureness of a wobbly toddler.
It’s time to get back in the gym and out on the track. Take a class in group dynamics. Read a book or two about how to optimize the performance of your group or coalition. Hire a professional facilitator when you really need the time and space to get your people serious about their enterprise. Yes, we’re divided by so much and the task of getting us all on the same page is daunting, but the stakes of not doing it are too high. Benjamin Franklin, who may not have been the best looking of our founding fathers, got it right when he said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Fortune 500 companies can afford to send their up-and-coming young execs to the Wharton School, whose recent New York Times advertisement touted courses like “The Leadership Journey: Reinvigorate Your Leadership,” and “Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams.” They sound great, but I’m pretty sure my local food policy council is not going to pay for me to attend. More and more community foundations are supporting organizational capacity building, cultural competency training, and a host of other coalition and group development efforts. Seek them out, and if they aren’t investing in capacity building, tell them they should. If outside training resources aren’t available, you can always organize some study circles. One member reads an article on a subject such as facilitation, then leads a group discussion.
This is a plea for a more intentional approach to building the multi-stakeholder campaigns and organizations we need. I know how hard people work to juggle six balls in the air at once, only to have their success rewarded with a seventh. But we have to take leadership and group process more seriously if we harbor any hope of winning. The poor coalition member, for instance, who gets up near the meeting’s end to use the restroom shouldn’t necessarily be the one chosen as chairperson because he or she isn’t at the table.
And lastly, while we must be efficient, we shouldn’t cower before the taskmasters who crack their whips for results. Like the industrial food system that produces lots of empty calories, a rushed process with too few participants will ultimately satisfy no one. Nutrient-dense, community-centered initiatives have the ingredients to build strong food system bodies twelve ways. If we can eat smart, we should be able to organize smart as well.