Saturday, August 5, 2017

Legacy

I delivered this d'var Torah ("word of Torah," or sermon) at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA on Saturday, August 5, 2017.

*** 

My father, Bernard Wolfman
Next Shabbat will be my father’s yahrzeit, and each year I like to honor his memory by delivering a d’var Torah around this time.

Va-etḥannan seems like an appropriate parashah for recalling my father. I won’t suggest that he was a modern-day Moses, but my father was called teacher by many. His role as an educator—professionally and as a parent—was a tremendous source of satisfaction for him and a great benefit to all of us on the receiving end. Just as Moses is facing the end of his life by recounting to the Israelites the substance and meaning of the exceptional journey they have lived together and its implications for their future, as my father neared the end of his life he reflected on our family. There was one remarkable night when I sat by him and he narrated to me the emotional histories of each of his children, clarifying for me how closely he had paid attention throughout our lives and bequeathing to me his insights and the opportunity to build from them even in his absence.

One legacy my father left with all of us was his uncompromising commitment to social justice. This quite simply was woven into our family story—not only in what he told us, but in what we saw every day in how he lived and worked. Social justice also runs through the fabric of Moses’s narrative in Va-etḥannan.

From the opening, Moses essentially is saying “I won’t be there with you, much as I want and pleaded. So hear me because my words, and all we have seen together, are all I can give you; and what you take from them are what you can take with you.”

After recounting that he had not been worthy to live to enter the land, he nonetheless is prepared to provide the instructions that—if followed—will ensure the Israelites are worthy to do so. His personal story is instructive. As Moshe Rabbeinu, he teaches even through his frailties by demonstrating what not to do. And then he declares that this responsibility to serve as a model for others extends to all of Israel. “Observe them faithfully,” he says of the laws, “for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples.” (ch 4:vs 6) 

This brings to mind the Aleinu, which says first that we bow down and then—from our example—that all the world’s inhabitants will know to do so.

Just after this, (ch 4:vs8), the theme of social justice is emerging.  “What great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day?” Moses asks. But the notes in Etz Hayyim point out that the Hebrew says tzadekim, which better translates as “just” than “perfect.” So the message really is that the laws and teaching are uniquely just.

Interwoven with this is a theme of seeing, hearing and remembering. There is great emphasis on truly seeing and hearing, so one can learn, so these just laws are seared into memory and guide how one functions in the world—and into future generations. “Do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes…so that they do not fade from your mind,” he exhorts, adding, “And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” He recalls that God said to him at Mount Horeb, “Gather the people to Me that I may let them hear My words, in order that they may learn…and may so teach their children.”

Moses goes on to exquisitely evoke revelation as a mystically visual and concretely hearing experience. “The mountain was ablaze with flames.” “[Y]ou heard the sound of words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice.”

Continuing with the themes of seeing and hearing, the injunction against sculptured images of God characterizes idols as precisely the opposite of God’s appearance at Mount Horeb—they are concrete to see, and nothing to hear.  And they themselves “cannot see or hear or eat or smell.” (ch.4: vs.35-37) He goes on, “It has clearly been demonstrated to you that the Lord alone is God; there is none beside him. From the heavens He let you hear His voice to discipline you; on earth he let you see His great fire; and from amidst that fire you heard His words. And because he loved your fathers, He chose their heirs after them….” Again: hearing, seeing, and passing to future generations.

After this extraordinary justification for following the laws, and before giving them, we have a seemingly incongruous moment of social justice: (ch.4: vs.41-43) “Then Moses set aside three cities on the east side of the Jordan to which a manslayer could escape, one who unwittingly slew a fellow man without having been hostile to him in the past; he could flee to one of these cities and live.” This comes from the narrative voice, not Moses’s, and the reason for its appearance here is a little unclear. Maybe it’s a bit of unfinished business, and Moses worries that – once he delivers the laws—it will be time for him to die. So perhaps he believes that this is his last chance to create this protection for those who may accidentally commit manslaughter in the chaos that could ensue as they enter and battle for the land.

Whatever the reason for it to appear here, I find it compelling that the theme of social justice enters so strongly, just as we are about to enter the Decalogue. The ten commandments, as we know, move from laws about our relationship with God to those about our relationship with each other. We might therefore expect that social justice would enter into those later commandments. But in fact they start earlier.

The laws that address our relationship with God are punctuated with exhortations for social justice among people. “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.”—this may dictate how we invoke God, but it also forbids us from sworn false accusations against each other. And the requirement to observe Shabbat also addresses treatment of slaves, equality between men and women, and fair treatment of animals. Embedded in our relationship with God is an expectation of social justice.

Once we exit the Decalogue, the focus on hearing and seeing returns, again with the visual on the mystical and even overwhelmingly frightening end of the spectrum, with “the mountain…ablaze with fire,” and the aural at the firmly human end, with Moses as the intermediary through which the Israelites will hear “the laws and the rules.” Hearing, as a theme, reaches its apex with the words of the shema (ch6:vs4), succinctly charting the path from hearing to conviction to behavior and to teaching future generations. “Shema Yisrael Adonai elohenu, Adonau ehad…” “Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai alone. You shall love Adonai with all our heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children.”

Now, it gets complicated.

As we enter and take possession of the land and its many assets, we must do so with the humility of recognizing that we developed none of them. Such humility can be a key element of effectively pursuing social justice. We must “take heed that [we] do not forget the Lord who freed [us] from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage,” a reminder that often is coupled with specific social justice obligations, such as our responsibilities to strangers. And we are to “do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord,” another line that might lead us to a mindset of righteousness.

But instead, we are told to destroy the nations in the land without mercy, and that we must do so because we are God’s “treasured people”—chosen, despite being a small band, on the strength of an oath God made to our ancestors.

As I said, it’s complicated.

But today I’m taking from this parashah the elements that foster clarity. Truly hearing in a manner that brings understanding. The majesty of what we see in the world and how it manifests our experience of God, or spirituality, or mysticism—however we define it. The imperative of social justice for living in community. And the urgency of teaching the next generation. Moses shows us all, and my father certainly demonstrated to me, that these are brought into particularly sharp focus when we close in on the end of life.

I wish for all of us—wherever we are in the course of our lives— that we hear, that we see, that we learn, that we teach, that we foster social justice in all we do, and that we help ensure the same for the generations that follow us.

Shabbat Shalom.



Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Our Seder



Among those at this table on Monday night, only my husband and I were not immigrants. We trace ourselves to immigrants—in my case, recently enough that I knew some of those who immigrated—but Brad and I alone, at our Seder table, were born in the US. 

We all deeply appreciated learning of many cultural traditions related to Passover, sharing hopes for the future and hearing moving personal stories about the importance of the freedom that this festival represents. Among us were those born Jewish, converted, in the process of conversion, and Christian from a majority Muslim country. 

It was a beautiful evening, so we had the windows and the front door open. Anyone passing by could have seen and heard what was happening in our dining room. How fortunate we all are to live in a place and time where that brought no fear. But as things are progressing, how long will those we hosted be able to throw windows and doors open with such ease?

One of our guests relayed that, in her country’s Jewish community, the Seder involves not merely telling the story but reenacting it. They roast a lamb and burn the carcass; they place the blood on their doorposts; and at midnight they flee into their homes to escape the Angel of Death. Perhaps the White House Seder could follow this tradition; maybe that would help to make more palpable and horrifying the fear among those we increasingly persecute in our nation—and drive home a realization that, in time, the Reaper comes for the persecutors.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Toward A More Just World

I delivered this as the d'var Torah (sermon or, literally, word of Torah) at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA on February, 25, 2017. The Torah portion (parashah) was Mishpatim (laws), Exodus 21:1-24:18.
 -DWB

In this turning point of a parashah, we move from what has been rich storytelling to what now is straightforward legislation. And we go from the iconic Decalogue in Yitro directly into the particulars of the laws of slave ownership in Mishpatim. It’s not an especially enjoyable transition, and a lot of the laws set out here don’t sit well with a contemporary audience.

So let’s do two things. First, I am going to succumb to the urge to cherry-pick a few of the laws that resonate for me. Then, I will return to the challenge of the discomfort that this parashah imposes. 

What resonates for me has a lot to do with what has been emanating from the White House for the last five weeks. Exodus 21:12-13 determines the fate of a person who commits manslaughter. Because the killing is unplanned, the culprit is provided “a place to which he can flee” or, as the notes in the Etz Hayyim humash explain, what are described elsewhere in the Torah as “cities of refuge.” Right now, our federal government seeks to deny sanctuary for refugees regardless of what they may be fleeing. It wants to shut down sanctuary cities to undocumented immigrants regardless of their contributions to our society.   Yet the bible establishes and dictates sanctuary even for those who, under certain circumstances, have killed. Later in the parashah, in Chapter 22, verse 20, the text reminds us of our responsibility to care for outsiders: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Our foundational experience of slavery and freedom must inform and, in fact, shape our choices, our decisions and our laws going forward.

This stance extends to all who are at risk, in the strongest of terms. “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan,” it says of these populations that exemplify vulnerability in biblical text. It continues, “If you do mistreat them,…my anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword….” Consider this against the backdrop of the White House announcement, three days ago, that it will rescind language ensuring Title IX protection for one of our society’s most vulnerable populations—transgender school children.

Protection of the outsider or the vulnerable goes beyond our individual responsibility to the role of the judiciary. In Chapter 23, verse 9, discussing the expectation of judges, we again hear, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Let’s also look at Chapter 21, verse 22. In the midst of the laws addressing the consequences of killing, the text takes up miscarriage caused by pushing a pregnant woman as collateral damage in a fight among men. The assailant will pay a fine, but nothing more; only if there is “other damage” will there be more stringent penalties: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” But such precious elements of humanity don’t ascribe to the unborn.

Nearly 45 years after Roe v. Wade, we face new attacks on a woman’s right to make her own health choices. The administration seeks to mold the US Supreme Court to mount that assault, all in the name of religious right-to-life fundamentalism. Yet our fundamental religious text tells us here that the fetus is not a person, and that its demise is not the taking of a life.

I also was struck by Chapter 23, verses 1 through 3. “You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness: You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty—nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute.”

Consider this warning against the tyranny of power and wealth, in contrast to an administration that binds itself to billionaire business interests; speaks of “alternative facts” as it converses fluently in untruth; and seeks to control public discourse through repression and selective exclusion of the free press, a financial stake in a major TV network, and the white supremacist media comfortably ensconced in the White House. Not that we should give undue preference to the meek, as it clearly states.  Rather, Mishpatim unequivocally tells us to deal in truth, in fact, and in influence-blind justice.

We also find in Mishpatim, Chapter 23, verse 10, a call for food justice encoded as law. “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it and what they leave let the wild beast eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.” Many of you know that Brad invests much of his time and horticultural expertise in community gardens, including those designated for stocking food pantries with fresh produce. Our daughter, Audrey Baker, has made her career in food justice. Just after the election in November, as the keynote speaker at the Syracuse Food Justice Symposium, she said, “government Farm to School funding only became a reality once the Obama administration took office. Under the new regime, this funding is most likely going to disappear. And yet we must remain resilient. We must continue to build and bolster community food systems. And we must continue to have a strong, loud voice in policy and politics, including at the district, municipal, and state levels.”

As promised, I cherry-picked the laws in Mishpatim that fit my preferred narrative.  But how do I address the problem of the parashah as a whole, as it legislates a world that, by virtue of regulating them, condones slavery, women as property, and capital punishment. It offers us the law of resting on Shabbat; the feasts of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot; the separation of meat and milk; and then slips comfortably into a policy of terrorizing our enemies through plague, and displacing peoples to take their land. This is not a world I particularly like.

But perhaps it is better than the world it seeks to improve upon. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, asking why God didn’t just abolish slavery entirely in Mishpatim after leading us out from 400 years under its yoke, answers it this way:

Freedom is difficult. We each seek it for ourselves, but we deny it to others when their freedom conflicts with ours. So deeply is this true that within three generations of Abraham’s children, Joseph’s brothers were willing to sell him into slavery: a tragedy that did not end until Judah was prepared to forfeit his own freedom that his brother Benjamin could go free.  

It took the collective experience of the Israelites, their deep, intimate, personal, backbreaking, bitter experience of slavery – a memory they were commanded never to forget – to turn them into a people who would no longer turn their brothers and sisters into slaves, a people capable of constructing a free society, the hardest of all achievements in the human realm.

 
And then Rabbi Sacks turns to economist Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Susstein, authors of Nudge, a book I read a couple of years ago for its application to marketing strategy. Citing Thaler’s and Susstein’s findings, Rabbi Sacks says that “freedom depends on not over-legislating. It means creating space within which people have the right to choose for themselves. On the other hand, we know that people will not always make the right choices. The old model on which classical economics was based, that left to themselves people will make rational choices, turns out not to be true.”

So we need to use indirect influence; we must nudge. “That is exactly what G‑d does in the case of slavery,” says Rabbi Sacks. “He does not abolish it, but He so circumscribes it that He sets in motion a process that will foreseeably, even if only after many centuries, lead people to abandon it of their own accord.”

With this lens on Mishpatim, maybe I can find in its challenges some hope. I harbor deep fears about our country’s administration; about the mix of division, apathy, complacency and dismissiveness that earned us this administration; and about the dangers to populations, ecologies, and democracy that it threatens.

But I know that over the passage of history civilization grows and matures, and we make inroads toward compassion and progress toward justice, despite sometimes treacherous detours.

I believe that we are on one of those detours now. Mishpatim offers several strong arguments against some of the specific minefields along this dark road, as well as a hint of promise that through a combination of memory and forward momentum we can steer ourselves back on course.

We cannot, however, find that path by succumbing to our own version of suppressing and oppressing the vulnerable. To a large degree, those of us who never could imagine the political ascension of Donald Trump, and now decry his presidency, brought this about by picking and choosing the vulnerable populations we would acknowledge. Is it acceptable to diminish vulnerability because it does not fit the definition that has traditionally lit a fire under us? Those whom we overlooked, as they felt the secure world they had known slipping away, looked elsewhere for their refuge.

So now, when we accuse and mock Trump, the individuals who found acknowledgement from him take it as mockery and condemnation of themselves. Yet, in Mishpatim it is clear: we are not to mistreat the vulnerable. We engage in the rhetoric of “us” and “them” because, let’s be honest, simple black-and-white makes it easier to be in the right. But by asking us to side by default neither with the mighty nor the poor, our parashah insists that it’s all really about the harder-to-navigate gray areas where our interests meet, overlap and diverge.

If there is anything this set of legislation tells us, it is to take personal responsibility. There is nothing easy in maintaining a course toward a more just world, but it rests on all of us to do so. Mishpatim reminds us to never rest from carrying out that hard and sometimes convoluted work. The past five weeks has made it clear to me that, when we become complacent, we suffer for it.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Do We Remember


Do we remember a leader who exploited his people’s fears in order to rise to power?

Do we remember a leader who scapegoated the “other”—those who looked, sounded, or worshiped differently—to give his people someone to easily blame rather than an agenda on which to pin real but hard-won progress?

Do we remember a leader who let slip away the promise of some of his country’s greatest minds and talents because those minds and talents emanated from the bodies of those labeled “other?”

Do we remember a leader who punished news to promote propaganda?

Do we remember a leader driven by his narcissism and paranoia?

Do we remember a leader whose desire for ever greater power knew no limits, and unleashed a limitless path toward destruction, with the patience to take as long as necessary to erode the legal and moral constructs in his way?

Do we remember a leader who left his country in shambles from his promises to deliver the nation to what he claimed as its rightful greatness?

Do we remember our promise to never forget?

Our promise to those who perished and those to come.

Our promise that, in remembering, we’d ensure never to let it happen again.

Do we comprehend what we have done?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

L'Dor V'Dor

This essay grew from a story I shared at The Story Space on January 24, 2017. 

There is a Hebrew phrase, “L’dor v’dor,” meaning “from generation to generation.” In my life, this manifests as a legacy of responsibility for how we act, and take our place as activists, in this world we have inherited. This legacy is deep within us, passed on through example, through experience, and even through name.

My story spans about 25 years. It is a generational story.

When the US entered the first Iraq war in August 1990, I was pregnant with my younger child. Like many pregnant women, I had frightening dreams in which I was powerless to protect my children from harm. My dreams began to center around bringing a child into a world at war, and those thoughts plagued me during the day as well as in my sleep.

My baby was due on April Fool’s Day, 1991, about a month after the war officially ended. The spirit of that due date apparently took hold in vitro; the fetus turned breach, and then turned back, during those final weeks, and I awoke at about 5 am on April 1 in what proved after two hours to be false labor. But at 5 the next morning, the gig was up and real labor set in.  Life quickly became about rousing my aunt to come over and watch our 3 ½-year old daughter, and getting to the hospital. The most I noticed about the world around me was that spring weather had finally set in.

Our son arrived that morning, and at that moment we saw only brightness. We named him Isaac James. Isaac, for my grandfather Isador, means laughter. An apt name for a boy who was playing April Fool’s pranks before he even slid into the world. James carries on a naming tradition in my husband’s family and derives from the Hebrew Ya’acov, or Jacob—the son of Isaac, and the progenitor of the tribes of Israel… the future of the people. Not too much of a name to be saddled with: keeping the future going, with good humor!

But I remained frightened about policies that could steer the course of our country in what I believed to be a harmful direction. We might not have been waging war in the Gulf any longer, but we were fighting other battles. The twelve years of the Reagan and Bush White Houses had, among other things, weakened the voice of abortion rights. The US Supreme Court was about to consider the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania law that limited abortion access, and we feared that we’d see Roe v. Wade overturned. This was about my children’s future.

I already was involved as a volunteer in local and state politics—part of the legacy I’d inherited from my mother, who had served as our district’s Democratic committee woman. And on April 5, 1992, the week of my son’s first birthday, I traveled from our suburban Philadelphia home to join the crowd of 750,000 in Washington, DC for the March for Women’s Lives.

What an exhilarating experience, side-by-side with friends and strangers, on the mall of our capital, a place that by its very design tells us we are welcomed—even encouraged—to gather in peaceful protest as a fundamental aspect of our democracy.

And the 8 or so hours it took to drive the usually 3 hour ride each way, because so many were making the trek.

And the storming of the men’s rooms at the rest stops, bringing the wait for bathrooms down to about an hour be women were out in such force.

Exhilarating in every way.

Soon after the march, the conservative-majority court left Roe v. Wade intact.

My name, by the way, is Dina. It signifies Judgement or Justice.

Fast forward.

On January 20, 2015, our daughter gave birth to our first grandchild and named him Atlas for the combination of strength and humility encompassed in the Greek myth of the God who was condemned to holding up the heavens in perpetuity, as punishment for his role in the War of the Titans.  Strength and humility. Possibly the most critical combination of traits for one who might take on a family legacy of acting on conviction. He also has a Hebrew name, Bahir Nistar, or “illuminated” and “hidden”—for its similar duality of knowledge and the unknowable—as well as the Iroquois name “Neesah,” or new moon. We took some delight in knowing that, every four years, his birthday would be marked by cyclical renewal with our democracy’s peaceful transition of power.

But what we couldn’t know then was that, on Atlas’s 2nd birthday, Donald Trump would become president of the United States. All the bright promise I see in my grandson helped to overwhelm what was, for me, the darkness of the transition our nation made that day.

Our daughter didn’t make a party for Atlas last weekend, because on his birthday she was doing much more for him; she was en route from their home to join the Women’s March in Washington. Just as I had marched during the week of our son’s birthday. Our daughter’s name is Audrey Zelda. Audrey signifies strength and nobility, and it is associated with gold (think “Au” in the periodic table), just as her Hebrew name Zehava means “golden.” Zelda carries on my mother’s name, and it means woman warrior. And so, with noble strength our daughter engaged in peaceful battle on the national mall and shone a light on the values she holds precious as gold.

Here is what she posted to Facebook that day:
Happy 2nd birthday to my loving, goofy, friendly, observant, thoughtful, sly little dinosaur monster who is now speaking in sentences, telling me stories about your day, and always pushing my imagination (and patience...). It's such a privilege and joy to be your mama. I'll be thinking of you while I'm marching with our friends and family this weekend - it's for you!

And this was my response:
I'm so proud of both of you. I remember marching for your future back in 1992. From generation to generation.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Place and Its People: Justice in the Farm to School Movement

Below you will find a guest blog from Audrey Baker. She prepared and delivered it as the November 16, 2016, keynote address to the Syracuse Food Justice Symposium--Youth Engagement in Urban Agriculture.  It is not my practice to publish others' work, but this is an extraordinary piece of writing and thinking. I publish it with Audrey's permission, interspersing many of the images that appeared on her accompanying slides, and it is my honor to do so. You will find Audrey's brief professional biography at the end. (Disclaimer: Audrey is my daughter.)

_________________________________________________________

A Place and Its People: Justice in the Farm to School Movement

I’d like to ask you all to close your eyes and listen while I read a common version of the Haudenosaunee (how-dee-no-SHOW-nee) people’s daily Thanksgiving Address.

I’m reading this to honor the history and the ecology of the place where we’ve come together today, and with respect for the first people:

We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We see them near our homes and in the deep forests. We are glad they are still here and we hope that it will always be so. Now our minds are one.

With one mind, we turn to honor and thank all the Plant Foods we harvest from the garden. Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans, and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them, too. We gather all the Plant Foods together as one and send them a greeting of thanks. Now our minds are one.


~~

You can open your eyes.

~~

When I started to think about what to say to you all today, I first wanted to get to know more about the place. And I’ve never been here before.

If we’re going to talk about the value of school gardens, farm to school programs, urban agriculture, and food or ag-based education, we need context. It matters where we are. We’re obliged to the seasons, the soil, the history, and the people—not to mention the politics.

At its essence, the movement to bring our children back to the earth and empower them to feed themselves with dignity, is about recognizing how to know and appreciate a place. In fact, educators often refer to our whole field of work as “place-based learning.”

~~

Recently, in Ithaca, where I live, I’ve been attending vigils and prayer circles for Standing Rock, where the largest indigenous people’s movement in history is currently underway to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline. Leaders from the Onondaga Nation have been guiding the vigils, and speaking of the desecration of the waters in Standing Rock in relation to the Onondaga waters here in Syracuse. So, when I thought about speaking today, and this place, I started with the water.

Onandaga Lake
In this church, which sits in Syracuse, in Onondaga County, we are less than three miles away from Onondaga Lake. The lake and its watershed are at the center of the original Haudenosaunee territories. It was on the shores of Onondaga Lake, many centuries ago, that five nations who had long been at war came together under the Great Law of Peace. Since then, Onondaga has been the capital of the Haudenosaunee confederacy, also known as the Iroquois. Theirs was the first representative democracy in the West.

~~

When we talk about a food system, or the land or the people involved, we are implicitly talking about the water, too. It’s all one system, in one place.

~~

The Watershed
As recently as 200 years ago, wildlife still teemed in and on the shores of Onondaga Lake and Creek. The watershed was a source of plentiful wild human foods for thousands of years. Fish made up at least one-third of the Onondaga people’s diet. The waters were home to many different animals who also ate the fish and the plants, and could be hunted as game. The clean, rich soil around the lake would filter groundwater as it moved into the lake. Onondaga settlements along the creek and lake grew crops such as the Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash), and the people could swim in the lake and drink its water.

Today, Onondaga Lake is profoundly contaminated. It’s been called the most polluted lake in the country. Multiple illegal land takings by state and federal government and unchecked industrial development have led to the continuous discharge of sewage and industrial waste into the Lake and its watershed. Fishing and swimming were banned decades ago because of the lake’s extreme toxicity. And while there has been some remediation by industry and upgrades to sewage system infrastructure, and the Onondaga Nation is fighting for the rights of their land and water, the lake remains heavily polluted and is one of many designated EPA Superfund sites within the original Onondaga territory.

~~

While this is all very depressing of course, I’m actually bringing it up here because I believe that our movement represents hope. We work with the children. (Or, we are the children). We provide opportunities for them to connect to the earth—to the soil, the creatures, the plants, and the water—by connecting with their food and an appreciation of where it comes from.

~~

When I was first involved in a youth garden project, I had just finished a year studying the federal policy climate around local school food and school gardens.

I began this research after discussing resource inequities with my history of physics professor, of all people, during office hours. It was 2008. The recession had hit, I was about to graduate college, and there was growing awareness of economic, social, and environmental crises.

Finally, our conversation landed on school gardens.

The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act was up for renewal, and the Obama administration had just taken office. I was jazzed up about the potential to effect change at the national level, but then realized how removed the people in power—in D.C.—were from those communities they were trying so hard to create change for.

The kids were always just statistics.

Play with Your Food summer program
So I designed a one-time summer program called Play With Your Food, straight out of college. I had no idea what I was doing. Cooperative Extension housed the program, and another local nonprofit funded it.

I reached out to everyone I could and started networking. My dad, a longtime landscaper, came to Ithaca for a day and helped me set up a fully mulched community garden plot. My friends and colleagues helped me put up a fence and keep it maintained. I had never gardened before.

One day each week, for six weeks, a group of eleven year olds would start the day at the garden, then explore or sell produce in the community, and cook a meal in the Cooperative Extension kitchen.

I remember the first time they all walked through the garden’s fence door and looked around. Standing stock still. Faces that said: No. Way.

Then we went over to the lettuce plants, which were already big and beautiful. We were making salads, shishkabobs, and mint lemonade in the garden that day.

I snapped up a lettuce leaf and took a bite. One of the kids started making puking noises.

Iron Chef Battle
But by the end of the summer, they owned it. Two teams faced off in an Iron Chef battle and they planned multi-course menus, harvesting from the garden, and comparing ingredients for cost and quality at Wegman’s.

They made good food. They could also discuss gardening, nutrition, nutrient cycles, business, and marketing, with confidence. These young people were aware of their part in Ithaca’s food system.

~~

Grow Pittsburgh Edible Schoolyard
From then on, I was sold on the transformative potential of this hands-on, food-based learning. I worked for a year in Pittsburgh running two school gardens. I helped start school garden programs in Ithaca, and worked for nonprofits engaging kids with food in schools and prisons. Finally I reached out to Ithaca’s school food director and began a Farm to School partnership that continues today.

It doesn’t pay well and it’s often beyond frustrating, but this work has been my calling.

And, for the record, it depends entirely on building, and maintaining, relationships.

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So, we’re here today, in this place, for the sake of food justice.

But what does that mean? And is it possible to begin to address food justice without also tackling environmental and economic injustices?

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The Fifteenth Ward of Syracuse
In the 1950s, many African Americans in Syracuse lived in the Fifteenth Ward in the east side neighborhood. In the 1960s, the majority were displaced from their homes, without recourse and despite large protests, by a slew of development projects. Discriminatory housing practices and white flight led to increased segregation and many of these families moved to the Southside neighborhood, where poverty and food insecurity are ongoing problems today.

In 2000, the residents of Southside formed a Partnership for Onondaga Creek, to oppose the county’s new plans to mitigate combined sewer overflows and its implied environmental racism.

The group was repeatedly rejected from participating in negotiations, until the Onondaga Nation began to advocate alongside them. Both of these groups have been marginalized and displaced from their homes, while their watersheds and foodsheds are destroyed by the development agendas of the ruling class.

Neither groups’ claims of injustice have been fully legitimized in the eyes of the state over time. They have been systematically disenfranchised. But our cities’ built infrastructure and urban planning processes are central to the potential for food justice to play out in a place.

Brady Farm
Today, the Brady Faith Center operates a community farm in the Southside, just two miles or so Southwest of here. Neighborhood residents grow and harvest crops they want to eat, and Brady Farm also works with some nearby schools.

According to Jessi Lyons, who manages the farm, however, there’s no funding within the schools to support field trips and so only schools within walking distance can easily visit.

And the funding climate is bound to get worse in coming years, not better.

So how will our movement continue to grow?

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Last year in Tompkins County, Ithaca City Schools discovered high lead levels in the water. Since then, the district has banned the use of running water for drinking or preparing food. All water is now brought into the schools in plastic containers, and we can no longer wash fresh farm produce in the district’s central kitchen or any of the cafeterias.

But we’re resilient. In Ithaca, we recently partnered with a food hub that now orders, washes, and processes locally grown produce for classroom snacks, serving over 1,200 students two days each week. We expand the program to schools with high numbers of low-resource families, which include both rural and urban schools. We’re exploring ways to apply this food hub model to school meals as well, and to scale up in Tompkins and other counties over time.

Many classrooms receiving these snacks also visit the Youth Farm Project for farm field trips where they plant seeds, explore the compost, and meet the chickens before harvesting ingredients for a fresh snack they prepare and eat on site.

The Fresh Snack Program
One second grade teacher at a rural elementary school—located in a food desert and with over 75% free and reduced lunch participation—reported that when the Fresh Snacks were first served in their school, students wouldn’t try them. A few months later they began to risk just one bite. By the end of the school year they had learned they enjoyed most of the foods, but commented that they were different than the vegetables and fruits they got at home. Two of her students, who most resisted the snacks at the start of the year, told her together, just nine months after the program began in the school, “we love carrots and salad!”

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Children have the power to recognize that where they live and attend school are not only defined by political and institutional boundaries, but also defined by a food system, a watershed, a home for animals and plants, an ancient place, and a sacred place.

Our cities and our school districts are part of this reality. The water is not a separate issue from education, or from school food. What’s more, such institutions present us with a great deal of power to create change.

But that will require all of us to recognize and fight against the corporate profit motives that dictate our industrialized food system at every level, and fight for ways that children and families can truly connect with and appreciate their food sources every day.

It will require all of us to fight against abusive government policies, and fight for the inclusion of systematically oppressed peoples in community food system leadership, because they understand the needs of the land, the animals, and the people better than I or others like me—the privileged, and the comfortable—ever will.

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Around the country, over 42,000 schools and 23 million students are engaged in some sort of farm to school program, including school gardens, compared with only a handful just 20 years ago. These programs provide fresh, whole food choices for cafeterias, classroom snacks, before- and after-school programs, early childhood centers, and summer meal sites.

School gardens, agriculture in the classroom, and field trips to farms and food processors are the hands-on educational components of Farm to School that can be integrated in subjects like science, math, and social studies.

According to the USDA, Farm to School programs and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables can help to mitigate the serious health threats caused by obesity, which as we all know has been on the rise for decades.

The comprehensive benefits of these programs extend beyond nutrition and human health. The CDC now supports the link between school nutrition and students’ academic performance. And when students experience the connection between the earth, our food, and our health, they understand the food system as a resource for social and environmental progress.

Farm to School programs have exploded in New York State as well. Almost half of the state’s school districts report to participate in Farm to School, involving over 750,000 students and 1,333 schools.

Farm to School
The rapid growth in Farm to School programs has come because our movement recognizes the necessity of an approach that combines grassroots, community-based planning with strategies that give the movement power in policy arenas.

The National Farm to School Network has been instrumental in this growth. The Network grew as a coalition of state and federal agency leads and has become increasingly powerful in policy, while also operating as a community-based support system. The USDA and many state governments, appropriate millions of dollars in grant funding for local food infrastructure and farm to school programs each year.

However, government Farm to School funding only became a reality once the Obama administration took office. Under the new regime, this funding is most likely going to disappear. And yet we must remain resilient. We must continue to build and bolster community food systems. And we must continue to have a strong, loud voice in policy and politics, including at the district, municipal, and state levels.

But, it is the youth in our communities today who will engage with policy in the future.

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Youth Farm Project
Each summer at the Youth Farm Project, 25 teens from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds learn to lead, work in teams, and of course grow food, as farm employees paid through Ithaca’s youth employment funds. During this time, the teens are immersed in an anti-racist food justice curriculum in which they play games to break down stereotypes, meet community leaders, process their crops for school meals, serve food at a soup kitchen, and visit other farms. They have conversations with local leaders from Black Lives Matter, and student groups leading a wetland protection project, in the same week that they work in crews to weed long rows of carrots and harvest tray after tray of cherry tomatoes. These young people will continue to protect our land and water, and fight for justice.

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But, the young people know:

This work isn’t easy, and it’s about to get much more difficult. Already, teachers have no time in their days with which to add new programming. Already, school food service departments have only $1.00 per meal to spend on ingredients. Already, districts can’t afford to replace pipes that contaminate the water with lead.

And yet, even as legislative support ebbs or even disappears, we all have to continue to make our work more impactful, more systemic, and more sustainable.

At the same time, we have to be more inclusive and more aware of injustice than ever before. We have to help our students understand how the seeds they plant on the windowsill in March and spritz with water each morning not only grow into tomato vines and spaghetti sauce, but also give them real power—to be independent, caring, and strong in the face of oppression; to honor and respect the interconnections of land, water and animals; to feed their neighbors in hard times; and to become caretakers of the earth.

The future of our planet and its people—especially those places and people that have been oppressed—depend on us, quite literally, to live and teach this truth.

It sounds dramatic; but in today’s political climate it’s time to own the educator’s—and the parent’s—roles in a revolution.

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So as we move into a new privatized policy era, how can we nevertheless grow the movement? How can we institutionalize food justice through our education system, while maintaining a community based approach?

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Traditionally, Haudenosaunee chiefs would recite their creation story every year. The process could take up to twelve days. For the past one hundred years, however, only a few remaining elders know how to recite it, and it is rarely, if ever, recited in full today.

In the reading of their creation story, in which personified stars and planets begin to literally build a food system from the raw earth and its waters, the elders refuse to tell their communities what the meaning of the story might be, or the answers to the questions it brings up about humanity. Those listening must think for themselves, discuss the story, and create the meaning.

This is what we all have to do, as our creation story continues to unfold. So, while I encourage you to answer these questions for yourselves, as a community, I’ll leave you with a few ideas.

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For starters, we do have momentum coming out of the Michelle Obama era. There are thousands of stories and detailed research. We can ride the moment.

Despite the paucity of resources in most districts, our school system presents an enormous opportunity to effect change. While grassroots community work that encourages dignity, leadership, and empowerment among community members is likely the most important work we have as a food movement, we must also gain power in our institutions. This requires working with them—including government, industry, and education.

The school system has the advantage of being an institution designed for our youth. Yes, it is a top-down institution. The Common Core State Standards are in many ways de-localizing education even more than before, and assessment requirements further reduce teachers’ flexibility in the classroom. The newest USDA Dietary Standards in many ways reduce the flexibility school food service programs have in menu design.

Yet, with each federal mandate comes an opportunity.

If we design farm field trips and school garden programs to meet Common Core standards and intersect with a STEM curriculum, hands-on food learning can potentially reach more students than ever before. We can organize and advocate more easily for state support of hands-on food learning in schools.

Similarly, if food service programs source farm fresh produce to meet their weekly requirements of orange/red, green, and starchy vegetables dictated by the USDA, we can actually be more specific about how to approach farmers, work with food hubs, and design cafeteria promotions around menu items. We can also make the case for Farm to School programs more readily to legislatures and funding bodies.

And though I barely touch on animal foods in schools, if you’re interested, the organization School Food FOCUS is doing amazing work to combine the buying power of major city school districts to afford hormone and antibiotic free meats.

In Tompkins County, we are strategizing for how best to make the case to district administrators to prioritize school food and hands-on food learning. This is a great challenge, but we can organize.

And I encourage you to join me as I begin a journey to become more familiar and involved with local government and policy.

I also encourage you to support the Syracuse school district’s new food service director as best you can as she navigates the rough waters of highly regulated budgeting and menu planning, while also trying to incorporate food grown here, in this place, by its people. It is no easy task.

The National Farm to School Network website is full of amazing resources to help all of us do this work. Curriculums, evaluation planning templates, educational materials, data and statistics, how-to guides about procurement and programming, policy outlines by state—you name it, you can find it there.

As we work with the system to create systemic change, we have to also remain constantly, intentionally aware of the inequity and injustice built into our system at every level, and to reverse it as best we can. People who have been disenfranchised by government and industry must lead the way in systemic change, as the rest of us support them on the sidelines with our privilege.

Even as racists and climate change deniers take over the federal government as we speak.

Making this possible is our challenge and our task as educators, as parents, as public health practitioners, and as caretakers of the land.

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Audrey Baker
Audrey Baker is the Farm to School Coordinator at the Youth Farm Project in Ithaca, NY; works in accreditation and evaluation to help develop the new Master of Public Health program at Cornell University; and engages with other organizations through her consultancy FeedBack Consulting. After being introduced to the local school food movement through federal policy research, Audrey began to develop and manage school gardens in Ithaca, NY and Pittsburgh, PA. She now works with community partners to increase fresh, local food access in Tompkins County, NY through school meals and snacks.

Audrey earned a Master of Public Administration from Cornell University, where she focused on institutional food systems.


She provides the following credits, thanks and references:
  • Introduction: Myth of the Earth Grasper. John C. Mohawk
  • Haudenosaunee Guide for Educators: Smithsonian.
  • Perreault et al.: Environmental injustice in the Onondaga lake Waterscape 
    • www.water-alternatives.org   Volume 5 | Issue 2 Perreault, T.; Wraight, S. and Perreault, M. 2012. Environmental  injustice in the Onondaga lake waterscape, New York State, USA.  Water Alternatives 5(2): 485-506
  • National Farm to School Network : www.farmtoschool.org
  • Locally Grown: Farm-to-School Programs in New York State
    • New York State Comptroller, October 2016
  • Jessi Lyons, Brady Farm
  • Katherine Korba, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Onondaga County