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Education, Activism, and a Little Fair Trade

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:03pm

By Amanda White

I recently attended a barbecue hosted by Annie Myers, featuring her fellow foodie friends, where discussion revolved around how many cucumbers they recently received from their CSA, and the fact that tomatoes aren’t supposed to be as good this year due to the rain pattern. Boy was that a conversation I didn’t fit into! While I certainly have had my fair share of food culture experiences, I have never been a foodie. Don’t get me wrong. I like good food. But I also like an occasional Wendy’s or McDonalds. I hope the blasphemy I speak in the midst of such respectable food activists doesn’t make you judge me too much. Because although I don’t dream of such wonders as pulling homegrown tubers out of the lush soil or planting my own beautiful harvest of fertile bliss, I have an incredible appreciation for food and its origin. You see, I graduated in May after three years of being a fair trade activist at New York University. I have studied supply chains and niche markets in several countries, and I understand the potential power and often the oppressive poverty of farmers around the world. I worked hard to implement a 100% fair trade coffee policy on campus, and began working with our dining services to integrate other fair trade products like bananas, tea, and chocolate. But that is not the pride of my work at NYU. What I am most proud of is that I was able to leave a school that was once completely uneducated about fair trade with a basic knowledge and a growing resource base of activists who could continue to empower others.

Standing around the grill at Annie’s barbecue, with fresh corn cooking and local tomatoes sizzling, I chatted with Jeremy Friedman. I was asking him how the Sustainability Taskforce at NYU was shaping up for the fall semester, and we talked about some of the effective strategies for making change on campus. He said that he wished there was a stronger educational component to the taskforce, but at the end of the day, it’s the actions and policies that create real progress- every student living in a dorm doesn’t need to know that their showerhead has been replaced to use water more efficiently. The bottom line is that one single policy has saved tons of gallons of water every day. And when it comes to the urgent crisis of climate change and environmental degradation, perhaps the pressure is too high to invest too much time into enlightening every person. We must act fast, and act now.

As the grass-fed meat was tossed onto the grill, I hesitated. Now, as a side-note, Jeremy is a force to be reckoned with. He has almost single-handedly changed the face of environmental policy at NYU, and that is no small feat. So when he says something about making change, you better listen. That being said, I hesitated. I like teaching people! I like the satisfaction they feel when they understand the difference in the supply chain between conventional and fair trade coffee. I like the empowerment they gain from going out and buying fair trade items and knowing exactly how and why they have helped change lives in doing so. Maybe if I had spent my three years of activism focusing more on policy change, I could have in fact helped more farmers by getting more contracts with fair trade companies. But what can I say, I focused on education.

Perhaps it’s the environment of a university, perhaps it was my need to create a strong student community, perhaps it was just that I liked teaching people, but I truly felt, and still feel, that systemic change can only happen when the people are educated. When you’re dealing with entrenched global trade policy and generations of farming societies, change cannot be made overnight, nor can it be made with one single policy. Fair trade, and its current certification methodology, is deeply flawed. Don’t worry, I’ll still end this article with telling you to go out and buy fair trade, but I don’t claim it is perfect, or even close to it. There are already more and interesting alternatives out there to traditional certification, coming from agencies like the IMO and companies like Intelligentsia. Without an ongoing discourse, and the integration of new players in the sector and activists in the field, we could not have such an evolution of the movement. It is the creativity and innovation of educated young people that change the world, and change the face of movements like organic, local, and fair trade. If we don’t invest the proper time into finding and integrating others into our community of activism, we will inherently be limited in our ability to find the most effective solutions to the challenges we face. Who knows, Jeremy could have found a science student to create an even better way to save water, or Annie could find a business student with a more effective way to integrate local food into dining halls. If we don’t invest the time into educating those who are at our schools to be educated, we might miss goldmines of creativity, and the potential to foster incredible changemakers.

I say this with an understanding that there are limits to the amount of word-spreading we can do with our four years at college. But I also say this with the experience and knowledge that finding exciting ways to bring new minds into your community can only lead to more effective action. And I say this knowing that implementing a policy where water is saved or less food is wasted is an incredible achievement too.

But most importantly, I say this with the hope that each of you will truly consider striking a balance between education and action on your campus. We cannot afford to be insular or isolated, especially when we are working to save our planet, our farmers, our food. We must reach out and work with the sometimes unexpected great minds of our communities. It will only lead to great change.
Buy Fair Trade!

**There has been limited discussion on this blog about fair trade, and I initially intended to write a more descriptive piece about the ins and outs of fair trade policy, but I found this topic to be more pressing at the start of a new school year. For those of you interested in learning more or getting resources on fair trade, please don’t hesitate to email me, Amanda White, at awhite3@gmail.com

By Amanda White

I recently attended a barbecue hosted by Annie Myers, featuring her fellow foodie friends, where discussion revolved around how many cucumbers they recently received from their CSA, and the fact that tomatoes aren’t supposed to be as good this year due to the rain pattern. Boy was that a conversation I didn’t fit into! While I certainly have had my fair share of food culture experiences, I have never been a foodie. Don’t get me wrong. I like good food. But I also like an occasional Wendy’s or McDonalds. I hope the blasphemy I speak in the midst of such respectable food activists doesn’t make you judge me too much. Because although I don’t dream of such wonders as pulling homegrown tubers out of the lush soil or planting my own beautiful harvest of fertile bliss, I have an incredible appreciation for food and its origin. You see, I graduated in May after three years of being a fair trade activist at New York University. I have studied supply chains and niche markets in several countries, and I understand the potential power and often the oppressive poverty of farmers around the world. I worked hard to implement a 100% fair trade coffee policy on campus, and began working with our dining services to integrate other fair trade products like bananas, tea, and chocolate. But that is not the pride of my work at NYU. What I am most proud of is that I was able to leave a school that was once completely uneducated about fair trade with a basic knowledge and a growing resource base of activists who could continue to empower others.

Standing around the grill at Annie’s barbecue, with fresh corn cooking and local tomatoes sizzling, I chatted with Jeremy Friedman. I was asking him how the Sustainability Taskforce at NYU was shaping up for the fall semester, and we talked about some of the effective strategies for making change on campus. He said that he wished there was a stronger educational component to the taskforce, but at the end of the day, it’s the actions and policies that create real progress- every student living in a dorm doesn’t need to know that their showerhead has been replaced to use water more efficiently. The bottom line is that one single policy has saved tons of gallons of water every day. And when it comes to the urgent crisis of climate change and environmental degradation, perhaps the pressure is too high to invest too much time into enlightening every person. We must act fast, and act now.

As the grass-fed meat was tossed onto the grill, I hesitated. Now, as a side-note, Jeremy is a force to be reckoned with. He has almost single-handedly changed the face of environmental policy at NYU, and that is no small feat. So when he says something about making change, you better listen. That being said, I hesitated. I like teaching people! I like the satisfaction they feel when they understand the difference in the supply chain between conventional and fair trade coffee. I like the empowerment they gain from going out and buying fair trade items and knowing exactly how and why they have helped change lives in doing so. Maybe if I had spent my three years of activism focusing more on policy change, I could have in fact helped more farmers by getting more contracts with fair trade companies. But what can I say, I focused on education.

Perhaps it’s the environment of a university, perhaps it was my need to create a strong student community, perhaps it was just that I liked teaching people, but I truly felt, and still feel, that systemic change can only happen when the people are educated. When you’re dealing with entrenched global trade policy and generations of farming societies, change cannot be made overnight, nor can it be made with one single policy. Fair trade, and its current certification methodology, is deeply flawed. Don’t worry, I’ll still end this article with telling you to go out and buy fair trade, but I don’t claim it is perfect, or even close to it. There are already more and interesting alternatives out there to traditional certification, coming from agencies like the IMO and companies like Intelligentsia. Without an ongoing discourse, and the integration of new players in the sector and activists in the field, we could not have such an evolution of the movement. It is the creativity and innovation of educated young people that change the world, and change the face of movements like organic, local, and fair trade. If we don’t invest the proper time into finding and integrating others into our community of activism, we will inherently be limited in our ability to find the most effective solutions to the challenges we face. Who knows, Jeremy could have found a science student to create an even better way to save water, or Annie could find a business student with a more effective way to integrate local food into dining halls. If we don’t invest the time into educating those who are at our schools to be educated, we might miss goldmines of creativity, and the potential to foster incredible changemakers.

I say this with an understanding that there are limits to the amount of word-spreading we can do with our four years at college. But I also say this with the experience and knowledge that finding exciting ways to bring new minds into your community can only lead to more effective action. And I say this knowing that implementing a policy where water is saved or less food is wasted is an incredible achievement too.

But most importantly, I say this with the hope that each of you will truly consider striking a balance between education and action on your campus. We cannot afford to be insular or isolated, especially when we are working to save our planet, our farmers, our food. We must reach out and work with the sometimes unexpected great minds of our communities. It will only lead to great change.
Buy Fair Trade!

**There has been limited discussion on this blog about fair trade, and I initially intended to write a more descriptive piece about the ins and outs of fair trade policy, but I found this topic to be more pressing at the start of a new school year. For those of you interested in learning more or getting resources on fair trade, please don’t hesitate to email me, Amanda White, at awhite3@gmail.com

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