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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Returning for a look at 'real' social change

On Friday, Roger, Kylie, Fatma and I went to see our colleague Sarah Ramirez receive a great honor: the 2014 Thomas I. Yamashita Award for Social Change at an event hosted by the Center for Research on Social Change at UC Berkeley (link).  The event itself was a 35 year celebration of the work by the Institute for Study of Social Issues at Berkeley. It, in my experience, was quite odd.  I have a lot to say about that, but this posting is about Sarah.

Sarah was given the award for her work in her home town, Pixley, CA, which is located in the "Fruit basket of the US", the central California Valley. She grew up in a town of about 3000 people, where most people made their living by picking food in the fields.  This was more or less indentured servitude, with no "way out." Oddly, 90% of the people there are food insecure and rely on the Food Bank for their sustenance. Although people spend all day surrounded by food, they are not allowed to take any of it and there are no actual grocers in Pixley. The closest market is 20 miles and since they do not own cars and there is no public transportation, they are left to buy food from a local convenience store, where a simple loaf of Wonder bread is priced at $5. Sarah is featured in a document called "Hunger in the Valley of Plenty." , for which her reward is Pepsicola Corporation, threatening to shut down the Food Bank and withdraw their corporate contributions to the Food Bank, since the documentary speaks about how processed foods contribute to the chronic sickness of the region.

All of Sarah's nuclear family and ancestors who have come to Pixley have died of exposure to toxins from working the fields or from complications from diabetes. After completing a PhD in Epidemiology at Stanford University, she returned to Pixley to work full time in community change, rather than taking a high-paying faculty job in some ivory tower. She and her husband, David, a high-school teacher in a community, 20 miles away, spend all their time working with the local people to empower their ability to eat healthy food and live healthy lives.

I found myself silently weeping as she spoke about her work. I suppose the emotion was a mix of celebration, admiration, grief, and despair. When SUSTAIN began, the work that Sarah is doing, collaborating for systemic change for the currently marginalized, is the thing I imagined we would be doing together.

Somehow, we have not gotten there. I think the reason is that we are not the people who have lived that life. We are the people who have lived a life, largely of privilege, so that the things we often concern ourselves with are around that. For example, I am often bothered by what I perceive at being mistreated by the "institution."  I get quite worked up about these things, the exertion of power onto our learning initiative so that we cannot do the things that we had set out to do. These little first-world problem seems so pale in comparison to what it is that Pixley is dealing with.

I am wondering if we, in SUSTAIN, are doing the "right" things.

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