We will not live to see the work of the new age, we shall fight in the darkness; we must prepare ourselves to endure this life without too much sadness, by doing our duty. Let us help one another, call to one another in the gloom, and practice justice wherever opportunity offers.
I spent this past weekend in Chehalis at the annual gathering of the BC Food Systems Network (BCFSN), this being my second consecutive year attending this event. The gathering brings people together from all around the province who work in food security in the broad sense: from the grassroots organizers working at the local level to develop community gardens, community kitchens. cooperatives, and other projects, on up to people working at the regional and provincial level to develop policy and strengthen our ability to create a strong and equitable food system in BC and beyond. It’s an opportunity for folks working in small and isolated communities to come together with the folks from the big-city hotbeds of food security work (the entire Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, especially the Victoria-Nanaimo corridor). Opportunities such as this are really valuable to front-line activists, since it is enormously reassuring and empowering to know that you are not alone out there, that others all around the province share your perceptions and your passions, and that there is a big picture taking shape out of the constellation of tiny efforts everywhere.
This year’s gathering was the tenth and the theme was Bioregionalism. From the website:
A bioregion is an area defined by naturally occurring boundaries such as watersheds, terrain and soil. It is also cultural in nature and thus includes healthy associations between people, plants, animals and nature. These bioregions or eco-regions, could generally be self-sufficient with respect to local food systems and land use. When the local population makes choices that support the local ecology, economy and culture a bioregional consciousness is created. Promoting this sense of place enhances many of the principles the BC Food System Network values. Sustainable land use, enhanced Indigenous land interactions, empowered local communities and reduced carbon footprints are some examples of the benefits of healthy bioregionalism.
We spent some time during the gathering breaking out into bioregional discussions and then coming back together to report back and synthesize the information being discussed in the breakout groups. I was the only representative from the Upper Sunshine Coast, and there were two people from the Lower Sunshine Coast: Eleonora Molnar, a community developer with Vancouver Coastal Health, and Dave Ryan, one of the main growers for the Gumboot Restaurant in Roberts Creek. We weren’t sure what the borders were of our bioregion, so we chose to consider the entire Sunshine Coast as a bioregion, separate from the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. I can’t say how much sense that makes, but the conversation will continue as we refine our ideas about what makes a bioregion and how we can work within and among the various bioregions in BC.
Some friends were asking me a couple of nights ago what we did at the gathering, and I was a little hard-pressed to say. Much of the real ‘work’ of a gathering like this one lies in forging new connections between individuals and groups. I attended one discussion session on setting up cooperatives, and out of that came a potential new working group under the auspices of the BCFSN to share information and resources about how groups can use the cooperative structure of corporate governance to create pieces of a local food economy. I hope to use this working group as a way of investigating the possibility of using a cooperative to take on some of the projects that people keep talking about, especially the collective purchase of tools and equipment such as a rototiller, a crusher and cider press, a commercial dehydrator, and so on. There is a gang in Salmon Arm, which I named the Salmon Army, doing precisely this: instead of forming a standard non-profit society as an umbrella organization for pulling together the various food-security projects in the area, they are creating a cooperative. It seems like a perfect fit when part of the aim of an organization is to foment public engagment and involvement.
But the gathering is really about talking with all kinds of people from all corners of the multi-front struggle to create an abundant and just food system. And all of that meeting and talking and sharing takes place within the context of an institutional culture which has much to admire. For one thing, people in the BCFSN work very hard to create an egalitarian and respectful dialogue between indigenous populations and the settler community. First Nations folks are central in all discussions and traditional food systems are put on an equal footing with imported agricultural techniques. Another aspect which was mentioned by one attendee during one of the plenary sessions is the ‘culture of gratitude’ cultivated by the BCFSN: people within the network take time to honour everyone’s contributions and make sure that all the work that might otherwise go unnoticed is gratefully and respectfully acknowledged. That might sound like a trivial thing, but it is not. I see a lot of people in my community whose hard work and dedication takes place in obscurity, while others are ready to put themselves in the spotlight at every chance. A huge part of building a resilient community is honouring the people who do the work, especially the ones on the front lines who sometimes get overlooked.
More than just recognizing and acknowledging each other’s contributions, we need to start understanding how our social networks hang together. We need to know which forces strengthen them and which ones weaken them. We need to pay attention to the subtle but very real signals which draw us closer to some projects and some people, and learn to recognize the warning signals which caution us against wasting our time or getting involved with people who put their own personal interests before those of the community. We need to learn the simple but neglected art of showing gratitude to each other, of listening attentively, of respecting the differences among us, of including the ones who are easy to forget about.
In other words, we need to create a tribe for ourselves. A tribe consisting not simply of the like-minded — that’s a cult not a tribe. But a tribe of the people we can work with, the ones who share the more important pieces of our worldview and (even more importantly) are willing and able to work collectively, with gratitude and respect, even when there are differences.
The Chehalis gathering drew together a geographically far-flung but otherwise tightly-knit tribe of people from around the province who are all dedicated to the creation of a network of food-secure communities. So, what’s your tribe?