Guest Post: Michelle Knapik

November 10, 2008

At the Center for Whole Communities‘ Knoll Farm in Vermont this summer, Environment Program Director Michelle Knapik joined a group of New Jersey leaders interested in food-people-land connections to explore the fundamentals of building relationships in order to establish and develop a community food system “movement.” This is the third in our series of Environment Stories as told by our Program Staff.

Silos and Spoons

There were yurts, fire circles, and outdoor showers. There were the shimmering night skies of Vermont, the late August warmth of Knoll Farm, and the Center for Whole Communities faculty. Enter a stakeholder group from New Jersey comprised of farmers, soil scientists, state and federal government specialists, land preservation experts, organic and sustainable farming experts, a restaurant owner, land trust experts, urban gardening experts, and a Dodge Foundation representative. The Foundation’s purpose in convening this diverse group was to help participants explore the connections between agricultural preservation and a New Jersey (or regional) community food system that can address issues of food access, equity and security.

The faculty prompted us to get out of our silos and look at ways to integrate land, farm, farmer, food processor, distributors, institutional buyers, and consumers. They also helped us face and name some of the unintended consequences that come from working in silos, as well as issues of power and race that have created hard divides between people and land, “have” and “have-nots.” The objective was to consider what it takes to get beyond the divides and to a process of building new alliances – and ultimately building a community food system “movement” in New Jersey.

We discovered that we needed new tools to do this work. The Center’s curriculum included ways to build authentic relationships, the art of dialogue, the power of storytelling, contemplative practices, and reflective leadership. How does one embrace these and get to “movement building”? Did I mention the blocks of wood, the carving knives, and the spoon templates?

We carved almost every day, sometimes as a group, sometimes alone or in smaller groups. I won’t soon forget the awkward first (and second and third) strokes of the blade across the wood, or the primitive stages of the spoon that was supposedly taking shape in my hand. Then there were the moments of frustration and self doubt. Thankfully, these were countered by the encouragement of others, or the moments when I could share a technique that worked for me when I saw someone else struggling.

So it went, awkward attempts at dialogue (it is so easy to fall back into “discussion”); the struggles with meditation; and the multitude of thoughts from those mornings of doing chores in complete silence; and the sharing of stories that peel back our professional selves, tap into raw emotions, and leave us vulnerable as we exchange experience shaping moments in our lives. There were also the primitive stages of more authentic relationships, new program connections, and thoughts and commitments to keep moving toward each other – but we knew going into this week that this was stage-one work.

Thankfully, spoon carving is faster than movement building. I have to say though, that until the last few strokes of the knife, I couldn’t see how the bowl was going to take the final shape I wanted to achieve. When it happened, I realized that sometimes a new way of doing things requires not only a willingness to operate outside of your comfort zone, but actual faith that the vision can be achieved. This is what is happening as the Vermont Land Trust partners with the Vermont Food Trust to produce food on preserved land that will help feed the hungry, or as The Nature Conservancy invests in a charter school as a way to keep ranchers on the land in Montana. Some of this solution-based thinking is happening in New Jersey, but it feels like stage-one work. I know, though, that when those close to me start to get stuck in their silos, I have a spoon to stir-up those movement building energies.

You can find out more information on the Center for Whole Communities’ assessment tool, Whole Measures, here. If you have thoughts or stories about the integration of agricultural land preservation and local food systems, please post a response to this blog and we’ll see if we can expand this exchange.

Stay tuned for stories still to come from Arts Program Director Laura Aden and Program Officer Wendy Liscow.