Reflections from around the table

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In the world of community organizing, there are kitchen tables, board room tables, picnic tables, cafeteria tables, tables in bars and tables in cafés. There are so many different types of tables that a person sits around while trying to turn an idea into a reality. It’s surprising community organizers do not double as table connoisseurs. They could, but they don’t. In fact, it’s more probable that chairs leave greater impressions than the surfaces upon which Agendas are distributed and Minutes are recorded.

If you’ve ever organized a committee, community project, or something similar, chances are you’ve spent a sizable chunk of time talking, listening, brainstorming, and planning with others while seated at a table.

Work (I use the term loosely, as it often receives free coffee, tea, and snacks, but no financial compensation) that happens around a table is a foundational, but sometimes under-acknowledged aspect of community organizing. It may seem boring to some; however, sitting at a table is as fundamental to food security projects as heating oil in a pan before the Real Cooking begins. I suppose that in the world of writing, covering committee work is the equivalent of covering practices in sport. While these sessions are necessary, they lack the glamour of the game, or in this case, the project in action. Where is the photo op? Not here, that’s for sure. Instead, people sit, looking at each other. Many take notes. Someone may actually be saying something profound, but a face mid-thought often appears as photogenic as a face mid-bite. At the risk of saying the same thing twice, boring as it may seem, committee work is important. It’s where ideas take shape, it’s where perspectives are accounted for, it’s where blindspots are acknowledged and checked, and best practices from similar initiatives and experiences come to light.

…committee work is important. It’s where ideas take shape, it’s where perspectives are accounted for, it’s where blindspots are acknowledged and checked, and best practices from similar initiatives and experiences come to light.

I remind myself about this as I reflect on the work that I’ve seen done around tables in order to coordinate food security-related events and projects over the past few months, as well as the work that is to come. Not to toot the horn of the organization that I work for, but the Food Security Network is planning another Food Security Assembly. Much of the table talking that has occurred in Newfoundland and Labrador since the last provincial conference in 2008 will be brought to bear, in reference to the community kitchens, community gardens, food banks, farmers’ markets, and skills-sharing programs that have taken shape across the province over the past few years. As we seek to celebrate these initiatives, so too do we seek to determine where we will go from here. Committee work will be crucial to the coordination of a successful Assembly, and to the goal of increasing food security within the province. Stay tuned for more exciting news about this, coming live and direct from my fairly unexciting table.

Round tables, mixed feelings

I left a committee meeting the other day and felt equal parts excited to have had the chance to speak with a table-full of others who share interests and concerns, and bored by the prospect of meeting again to talk, share ideas, and determine our plans. While I appreciate and enjoy the opportunity to hear from others who have unique sets of knowledge, skills, backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives; at the end of the day, by joining a committee I hope to do more than discuss a topic. It is often the case that I wish to see an event, a project, or an initiative come into place. But you know, the best dinners often appear that way in retrospect. Perhaps you have to leave the table to see the meal, lest you find yourself in a “can’t see the dinner for the food” kind of scenario.

Maybe it’s a similar thing with committee work. By speaking about an issue with others (for instance, poverty-related food insecurity; inaccessibility of healthy, sustainably produced food; or export-oriented fisheries) it is often my intention to become better-informed, and then to act in consciousness of our long-term plans and goals. To act without knowing seems more like wandering, and few of us have time for that in this day and age. But committee work cannot be seen as such. It’s more like a meditative walk, which may take you round and round in circles physically, but has the capacity to help with sorting things out. So, restless as I may feel at times, I maintain the sense that committees are important.

How are things looking from your seat?

Some exciting updates from our table

We’ve recently established two exciting new committees at the Food Security Network. One is the Institutional Food Policy Committee, which has to do with learning more about food purchasing policies in cafeterias and canteens at schools, universities, hospitals, and municipal government settings. More recently, we formed another committee that’s looking at the commercial and recreational fisheries in Newfoundland and Labrador. At this point, our talk is about what our talks will be about. If that seems Orwellian, it’s unfortunate, as there is good reason to be careful and slow about something as complicated, important and widely-debated as the fisheries in Newfoundland and Labrador. In our first meeting, we discussed what has already been talked about, because there’s not much sense in walking (or talking) in circles, really. These committees are open to the public and attendance is possible via teleconference. To get involved, simply check out the contact information at the end of this article. It’s been exciting to see active and thoughtful participation in these committees.

Another committee that is well-underway has been organized by students at Memorial University, who have developed a Campus Food Strategy Group in partnership with Meal Exchange and the Sierra Youth Coalition. Here, the table is adorned with fixtures from students’ unions, administration, Chartwells (the current food service provider), and members of the community who are interested in campus food systems. For more information about the project, be sure to visit www.studentfood.ca

A healthy committee includes diverse members…Attention must also be given to the ways in which physical mobility, parental obligations, and language contribute to participation.

The Food Security Network operates many of its initiatives through committee, and even the Root Cellars Rock project has a group which helps to steer upcoming projects, writing topics and initiatives. FSN’s Annual General Meeting, which was held in November 2011, was also a chance for members to help direct the organization’s focus for the year. During roundtable discussions that were held at the event, attendees discussed existing projects, how to measure success, plans for the 2012 Assembly, food safety at farmers’ markets, and what sorts of resources they would like to see created this year. In earlier articles, I have stated that dialogue has been important to food security organizing thus far. Committee work and roundtable discussions have allowed interested citizens to meet one another, share concerns, and begin to determine suitable community-based solutions.

A healthy committee includes diverse members, who may share common interests and concerns, but are able to openly share their thoughts, suggestions and concerns even if they differ from one another. Inclusivity not only relates to diverse perspectives. Attention must also be given to the ways in which physical mobility, parental obligations, and language contribute to participation.

Some of the challenges that I have noticed within committees include determining meeting times that are convenient for those who work, raise children, and are engaged in other commitments. Many of us are busy, and most people share the sense that endless rounds of discussion eventually become frustrating. It can also be difficult to set agendas that respond to the interests and ideas of committee members, and build momentum.

…although some food security-related issues may be considered and addressed independently, solutions cannot be created by solitary, independent actions.

For me, committee work is a part of my job, but sitting around tables has become a bit of a lifestyle. It is the way undergraduate students and I organized ourselves when we wanted to hold a film festival, a clothing swap, a food drive, create a community garden, or have a band play on campus. We didn’t call it committee work, but sitting around the table was a necessary first step. Looking back on my university experience, it sometimes embarrasses me to realize that most of my friendships were forged around tables, in pursuit of an idea or a goal of some sort. And yet, I must acknowledge that I find it exciting to speak with people about various aspects of food security, or work (used loosely again, as much of this is performed by volunteers) that is being done in Newfoundland and Labrador in person or over the phone. In an era when perspectives and social commentary are so frequently shared online, having face-to-face discussions about social issues or topics serves as a more satisfying form of connection than a simple Facebook like. Furthermore, although some food security-related issues may be considered and addressed independently, solutions cannot be created by solitary, independent actions. In committee, conversations sometimes challenge our perspectives, and cause us to re-assess standpoints. In some ways, that seems as valuable as developing a project.

For more information about committees, visit http://www.foodsecuritynews.com/ or email info@foodsecuritynews.com