Bringing Diverse Voices to Your Table
8 Jan, 2016By: Karen Karp
My company, Karen Karp & Partners, recently designed and facilitated the City Harvest Leadership Summit that took place in New York City in November. City Harvest is a nonprofit organization devoted to food rescue and hunger relief in the New York metropolitan region, and the leadership summit serves as an annual gathering of thought leaders, typically on food-related topics.
Yet at this year’s conference, there was little to no discussion of food and hunger. Rather, the bulk of the program was devoted to the problems of poverty and affordable housing. And although the program included its fair share of food activists of all stripes, from farmers to grocers to food systems specialists, many of the panelists came from non-food-oriented business sectors including banking, design, health, economics, employment, development, public policy and government.
What was this all about?
The planning and implementation of this year’s conference, with its emphasis on cross-sector dialogue, grew out of the realization that issues surrounding hunger, poor nutrition and access to fresh and affordable food don’t exist in a vacuum. Hunger is inextricably intertwined with poverty, and solving the problem of hunger in our cities requires innovative approaches and deep collaboration between leaders of all sectors of urban life.
While we can and do talk about and plan for more efficient food systems, including improving methods of growing, processing, packaging, transporting, delivery and marketing of food, hunger can’t and won’t be solved by food alone. Improving food systems – or any system for that matter – must be part of a holistic approach that includes integration with other systems, such as jobs, housing, transportation, neighborhoods, health and social equity.
Thus, we heard from Alicia Glen, New York City deputy mayor for housing and economic development, who spoke of the need for making cities more equitable and affordable to solve problems of hunger. Chauncy Lennon, head of workforce initiatives at JPMorgan Chase & Co., noted that government systems tend to be the largest and have the most impact on communities.
Likewise, we heard from community activist and urban farmer Karen Washington who pointedly asked for a real-life definition of “affordable housing” and made more than a few people squirm in their seats when she insisted on replacing the term “food desert” with “food apartheid,” implying that the lack of fresh food availability in certain neighborhoods is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but the result of conscious planning and decision making.
What was unique about this event was getting this diversity of voices in one room in one place for an entire day for a provocative exchange of ideas that ordinarily might not take place. This sort of cross-sector communication is essential to planning for change efficiently, but all too often it’s not a priority, as planners remain in their own comfort zones and plod ahead without taking into consideration the big picture. The desire to forge ahead in one’s default area is totally understandable, but in the long run, one can only go so far without considering the greater environment.
This doesn’t only apply to food-based systems or urban planning – this is a takeaway that applies to any efforts to improve or develop systems-based change in the cause of greater efficiencies. In other words, it’s just plain good business. So next time you are considering some sort of reassessment or innovation in how you operate, be sure to bring as many folks to the table as you can, to make your discussions as meaningful and enlightening as they may be. It might just improve your bottom line.