Putting Move in the Movement
The 2015 It Takes a Region Conference
At our 2014 Conference, our keynote speaker, Jim Hightower said, "NESAWG, you put move in the movement!" And then he told us several ways we could do that better. For our 2015 It Takes a Region Conference, we took up Hightower's challenge and made his words our theme. We looked across movements and generations for inspiration and lessons on how to make our individual and collective work in the food systems movement more inclusive and effective.
Over 300 farm and food practitioners across the 12-state NESAWG region—including farmers, researchers, food hub managers, labor advocates, food bank managers, cooperative extension specialists, policy wonks, and more —came to Saratoga Springs, NY, to to learn, debate, collaborate, and innovate solutions to critical food systems issues and to help build the movement for a sustainable and just farm and food system.
Our conference Opening Plenary featured a panel of speakers from across movements and generations discussing important lessons learned and struggles overcome in their own movement building experience. Michael Rozyne, founder of Red Tomato and Chair of the NESAWG Steering Committee, moderated the conversation. Panelists included Anim Steele and Tlaloc Vasquez of the Real Food Challenge, Carolyn Mugar of Farm Aid, and our keynote speaker, Shirley Sherrod. We also had the opportunity to hear Ms. Sherrod deliver a morning and evening keynote, sharing stories of her long and tireless career advocating for civil rights and family farming, beginning with a personal family tragedy and how that influenced her decision to stay in the South and work for change. Videos of Ms. Sherrod's keynotes as well as audio from the opening plenary panel are available on our Conference Session Resources Page.
The sixteen conference sessions spanned a wide breadth of issues impacting farm and food systems, from practical, market-place strategies to improve markets for regional farms, to policies that advance or hinder sustainable food systems. Labor, farm to institution, land grant university accountability, farmland preservation, and racism in the food system, were among the topics addressed. In addition we had eight Discussion and Work Groups, which allow participants to have in-depth conversations on a specific food systems area, such as food hubs or food systems planning. We introduced a new Group this year on Food Censorship and Misinformation, co-led by author, Columbia University Professor Emeritus, and gardener Joan Gussow and NESAWG Director, Ruth Katz. Notes, slides, and videos from several presentations are available on our Conference Session Resources page.
This year, NESAWG has made a commitment to focus on race and equity issues in food systems work. As part of this work, all presenters were asked to address race and equity issues inherent in their session topics. Conference attendees also received discussion prompts in their folders to inform their conversation.
Joining us for our afternoon Plenary Session was Stephen Cleghorn, a farmer fighting the onslaught of hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania. Quoting Joan Gussow, Cleghorn reminded conference attendees that "fracking proves us to be an insane species," and painted a sobering picture of the environmental devastation fracking causes in rural communities and the deep financial ties between the industry and the government in Pennsylvania.
Andy Bichlbaum closed out the conference by sharing stories of Yes Men culture jamming capers and exploits, which offered amusing inspiration for creative strategies to social change. Videos of both Bichlbaum and Cleghorn's talks are available on our Conference Session Resources page.
Though no one has all the "answers," the NESAWG It Takes a Region Conference brought together food systems practitioners with open minds and a diverse mix of expertise and experience to explore, brainstorm and consider our next steps -- together -- and back home in our own communities. We hope you'll join us at the 2016 Conference!