Letter from the Director: The Global Grassroots

“I don’t like people who eat dogs.” my then 7-year old son said matter-of-factly to our two South Korean house guests, totally out of the blue. Without missing a beat, one of them gently replied, “We try to have tolerance for all people.”  With a little discomfort, we finished our ice cream and said our goodbyes. They had been pleasant enough house guests during their two weeks in Milwaukee while studying the food/water nexus at the Global Water Center.  They chose to stay with me because they wanted to be in a place with others whom they would have commonality.  It was an unusual and enlightening ending to our shared time, but not a bad ending.

A few months later, a delightful man from Ghana came to study urban agriculture as part of an international leadership development program that is funded by the US. Department of State.  As we all did, my son instantly liked him.  He was quick to smile, had a gentle spirit, and perhaps most importantly, seemed to enjoy it when my son climbed on him.  One night, while getting to know each other, and playing with our new puppy, Freeman casually said, “In my country, we eat dogs.” My son’s disposition changed, and he looked Freeman straight in the eyes, proclaiming, “I don’t trust you anymore.”

Freeman looked to the ground and put his hand on his heart as if physically injured, while my son left the room, and went to bed for the evening.

I didn’t know what to say exactly.  I, too, was horrified by the thought of a human being eating a dog, but unlike my son, I wasn’t in a position to let it be a barrier to developing a relationship with this otherwise wonderful human, who had traveled this far, in order to make his country a better place, by learning how to help people there grow their own food.

Over the months, Freeman worked on the farm in all kinds of weather, he charmed schools groups, inspired our older youth, and simply added to the character and flavor of everything that was happening at the farm.  Without really acknowledging it, my son overcame his discomfort with Freeman’s cultural food difference. When he left four months later, we were sad to see him go, and we still talk about his shining energy today.

Freeman

Freeman Ahegbebu with his students from “Changing the Dream Garden Initiative” class in Ghana. April 2017

Freeman was just one of many international internships that VGI has housed over the years.  We have worked with El Salvadorians, Hungarians, Haitians, Brazilians, Hmong, Syrians, Indians, and too many more to mention. People from all over the world are coming to the same realizations that we as citizens of the United States of Americans have had. It doesn’t really matter which country we were born in, we are all subject to the same humongous multinational corporations that control the quantity, quality, and variety of food that is available to people everywhere.

Funding for the national agriculture programs that promote local, sustainable agriculture is  diminishing. President Trump’s recently announced budget, will deliver a 31% cut to the EPA’s funding, which is the one remaining strongholds for ensuring the the Department of Agriculture performs its due diligence in protecting farmers, land, consumers and the earth, from vulture companies such as Monsanto, Cargill, Du Pont, and Archer Daniels Midland.  These companies are exerting their insatiable wills globally, diminishing communities, addicting naive farmers to expensive and short-term agricultural strategies, and depleting soils and health.  To be quite honest, sometimes the effort to stop this death train seem futile.

But, when I look back on all the people from around the world that we have touched throughout the years, the emerging global movement to resist the continued globalization of our food system is clear. In the same way that our work has had ripple effects in southeastern Wisconsin, it is sending winds across the seas.

I have long believed that growing our own food is perhaps one of the most agreed upon strategies for making the world a better place.  It is unifying, across political lines, religions, cultures, genders, ethnicities, sexualities, income levels and practically any other dividing line we can contrive in our discerning human brains.

The original victory garden movement during World War II is often referred to as the most unified time in our country’s history. Given the global interest in taking control back from these large agricultural conglomerates the issue seems to be one that we can rally around, not only on a national scale, but a global one –  unifying the world against the new axis powers, the trifecta of large corporations, governments, and corrupted media outlets.

This year during our BLITZ to install 500 gardens, we received a gift from a donor who wanted to give gardens specifically to refugees families. We were able to build gardens for a handful of families from various countries. The one that stands out most for me, is a group of four Syrian brothers who until a few months ago, had been places all over the world in various refugee camps. Just a couple weeks before landing in the U.S., they found themselves at the same camp being told that they would go to the U.S. the next day.  They landed in Milwaukee, and by nothing short of a miracle, all four brothers and their families now share an apartment building together. In spite of differences, it is easy to see how beneficial this is for everyone involved.

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VGI Team enjoying tea with a refugee family during BLITZ 2017.

Sometimes, the cultural differences of those we perceive as dramatically different, those between whom we draw lines, creating an ‘other’ have more in common with us than we might think at the outset.  At Victory Garden Initiative, we believe that growing our own food can help these lines be less divisive. We believe in bringing people together towards solutions. We believe that grassroots efforts can make a more equitable world. We hope you’ll consider getting involved in our work, at any level, to help this happen.

A few months after Freeman went back to Ghana, I had a young Saudi Arabian man staying in one of my rooms.  The week before I knew he was coming, I had ordered a half of a hog from a local farmer, so pork was inevitably on the menu for the next several months.  I’ll never forget the way I felt when he walked into my kitchen one evening, and I explained that he was welcome to join us, but that I thought he should know what kind of meat it was.  When I told him, his face lost its color. A look of disgust, and maybe even fear washed over his face as he slowly paced toward the hunk of meat on the table, staring at it for a very long minute.  He did, however, agree that the powers that be need some undermining.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite prose, entitled Lines in the Mind, by Donella Meadows.

Think global, act local.

~Gretchen

 

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