the power of food and potential of people: a visit from robert egger

the power of food and potential of people: a visit from robert egger

Earlier this month Robert Egger—Founder and President of L.A. Kitchen—dropped by our offices in Seattle for a visit. Over a tequila and tonic (his signature drink, for anyone who might be hosting him soon), he talked to our team about a lot of things—from economic sexism and the expanding constructs of what it means to be a refugee, to nutritional imperialism and aging. What struck me most is the number of issues Robert and his organization are addressing through their work, including “lovingly disrupting senior meals.”

Food waste, unemployment, poverty, senior nutrition—these are all treated as “solvable issues” within the L.A. Kitchen ecosystem. Considering the number of organizations focused on addressing any of these single issues, it’s especially impressive to see how L.A. Kitchen is addressing them all as part of one interconnected system.

They reclaim nutritious, local food that would otherwise be discarded (primarily due to cosmetic issues); provide culinary training to men and women (most whom are coming out of foster care or the criminal justice system) who turn those ingredients into healthy, delicious meals; then distribute those meals to social service agencies serving the city’s most vulnerable, particularly low-income seniors, who are so often provided with processed foods. It’s an impressive cycle all aimed at “ensuring that neither food nor people go to waste,” and one that was noticed by the AARP Foundation, who awarded them a founding grant of $1 million, the largest single AARP grant in its history.

Tapping into the power of food and potential of people, I’d say Robert is disrupting more than just senior meals. L.A. Kitchen has also started a for-profit subsidiary—Strong Food—which will compete for food service contracts, employ graduates of the organization’s training program, and ultimately support L.A. Kitchen to be self-sustaining. That’s important to Robert not just from a financial perspective, but from an advocacy perspective as well. Too often the organizations best positioned to advocate for policy changes are prevented from doing so because of their funding models (most grants specifically state that funding cannot be used for advocacy) or their 501(c)3 status.

I’ve seen the power of culinary training programs with my own eyes–someone close to me, who’s faced their share of challenges, is currently enrolled (and thriving) in one—but L.A. Kitchen takes this to a whole new level, in a way that truly inspires my farmer’s-market-shopping-foodie heart. If you ever have a chance to meet Robert Egger or hear him speak, do. And be sure to check out the amazing work that L.A. Kitchen and D.C. Central Kitchen (the organization Robert founded and ran for 25 years before heading to Los Angeles) are doing.

 

the water we swim in

the water we swim in

We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the second in a series inspired by the book. Read the first post.

Josué:

After reading A Path Appears, this was the quote that really sunk its teeth into me and wouldn’t let go:

“To be harnessed effectively, idealism needs to be grounded in a practical sense of how to get results and a grassroots understanding of the lay of the land.”

Idealism is something we see in nearly every social entrepreneurial effort and in the work of so many of our clients. They—and we—believe the work they’re doing will make a difference.

Idealism is tricky, though, and I’m glad Kristof and WuDunn mention it. At my worst, I can get swept away by or grow cynical towards grandiose idealism. The need for harnessing idealism in an effective way cannot be overstated—practicality and cultural understanding are vital to seeing idealism succeed.

Ashlie:

It’s interesting that you mention being cynical towards grandiose idealism, because I think I’m also guilty of that. Too many people, especially young social entrepreneurs, think they have found the next big idea that would solve one or more of the world’s major issues. But helping people is harder than it looks. When I was younger, I thought I understood the word idealism and I used it often. After taking some time to look at it again, I’m not so sure anymore.

Oxford Dictionary defines idealism as “the unrealistic belief in or pursuit of perfection.” It almost sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Does this also mean an idealist is someone who is unrealistic and impractical? I thought we referred to our global thought leaders as visionaries. There should be more hope and fight in us, rather than playing a feeble role that sets us up for failure.

Idealism is usually a term applied to an idea, objective, or plan considered to be unrealistic. Does this then mean the global elimination of poverty and injustice is idealistic and, therefore, not worth fighting for? These perceptions of idealism, as they relate to international relations, may be ambiguous, but they probably trace their roots back to some discouraging interpretations of human nature and/or diverse cultures that coincide with a historic judgment on the difficulty of peaceably achieving radical change in world affairs.

Josué:

I agree we tend to think in idealistic terms when we imagine a global solution to a nasty problem. But I think idealism has its place, especially if it’s rooted within a community. Kristof and WuDunn portray so many heart-wrenching failures by social entrepreneurs who lacked the cultural aptitude for their solutions. Understanding the needs of the people is one thing, but developing a solution that’s birthed from the community is another.

The culture piece reminds me of this parable by the saintly David Foster Wallace: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

Culture is the water we swim in—it surrounds us so wholly that we are usually unaware it’s there. This is, I think, the larger issue—even bigger than idealistic altruism. Often, people move so quickly to solutions that we forget to pause and take in the people with whom we are working. People can be blind to the culture of others, and may automatically assume they live under the same cultural rules that we do.

With your travel and aid work around the globe, I imagine you have tons of experience in this very thing.

Ashlie:

I have been lucky enough to visit many places, meet incredible people, work on a variety of projects, and experience many things in my life, but progress never came without communication and connection. It was important to enrich my time by immersing myself in the local culture. I was respected more by the community if I wore the local fabric, swallowed a plateful of fufu, joined the dancing circle, learned phrases in the local language, and made an effort to visit with people in the community.

I first travelled to Africa when I was 18 years old and, I have to admit, I was both naive and idealistic. I truly thought I could change the world. I spent the summer volunteering at the Buduburam Liberian Refugee Camp just outside Accra, Ghana, which easily became one of the most transformational experiences of my life.

I remember one incident very vividly: One morning, I was walking from the volunteer house to the organization’s main office. Rugged, red dirt paths radiated through the camp, connecting humans with homes, barbershops with bars, and schools with sewer streams. I had my head down, paying close attention to the bumps and dips in the street so I wouldn’t trip. I must have been walking fast and dodging people along the way, much like I normally did on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston where I went to college, when a hand grabbed my arm. I looked at the person holding me and she said, “Polé, polé.” The phrase meant to “slow down,” but more in the sense that I needed to lift up my head, ease my pace, smile at the people I was passing, and take in the colorful culture around me.

We may be aid workers, social entrepreneurs, researchers or travelers—all with a purpose or plan—but we’ll never get where we want to go by moving fast on a course toward a pre-determined destination. We must learn to observe, listen and engage with the culture before we try to inject ourselves and change it. From pilfered Toms shoes to abandoned flush toilets and poorly designed farming techniques to unsustainable microfinance programs, I am well aware that big ideas come and go. The ideas that last and influence are those that are woven in the fabric of the culture.

Josué:

Ideas woven in the fabric of the culture is a beautiful way of describing the work of the social entrepreneur. The greater we are able to root ourselves into the culture, the greater we can respond with ideas that find traction within the community.

I love how we often joke at Aggregate that “Anthropologist” should be added to our job description. So much of what we do is developing that grassroots understanding of a culture or community. We study communities—pockets of people struggling with a common problem and striving toward a common goal. Through our study, we are able to discover solutions that respond to the real needs of a community rather than just meeting the desires of our clients.

I find that it’s by using an anthropological lens to view our work that we’re able to turn idealism into reality. It roots our idealism within the community we’re working for.

Ashlie:

At Aggregate, we seek deeper explanations that help influence our ideas, recommendations, and proposals. We enrich our work—and, therefore, our clients’ work—with our intimate understanding of a certain group, organization, community, or issue area. Ultimately, this helps inform our strategic approaches to communicate value propositions that make philanthropic efforts effective.

Each day, I’m blown away by the caliber of this team. Professionally, we are able to match our altruism with practicality, and build upon a company culture and tradition of strong realistic idealism.

the empathy cycle

the empathy cycle

We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the first in a series inspired by the book. Stay tuned for two more posts, coming soon.

Barbara:
I’ve written before about why I and my colleagues choose to do mission-driven work, and Alison recently shared why Aggregate makes donations throughout the year. But what are our underlying motivations for these donations and deeds? Do people give because it’s the right thing to do, or because it makes them look good, or because they enjoy helping others?

I make a yearly personal donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation because my grandfather, his brother, and my great grandfather all died of complications related to Parkinson’s disease. It is something I wish no family to ever go through again and I know it’s a long battle to get to a cure. And so, I do what I can to ensure a cure is eventually found. Similarly, I dedicate time and money to environmental conservation groups because I care about the health of our world and living creatures, and personally value being in nature.

Qui:
Personal experiences often determine how I spend time and money, too. Last year I became a mom, which is challenging under even the best circumstances; you can imagine why I started zeroing in on ways to help other mothers and single parents. Now I can relate to and help carry the load for a subset of humanity that I didn’t previously empathize with.

More research is pointing to the fact that channeling money toward others—not ourselves—means the giver walks away happier, and healthier. Kristof and WuDunn peel back some of these layers in their chapter on the neuroscience of giving, citing multiple studies which reveal lower stress and longer lives of people who volunteer and donate. I wonder if our proximity to a cause also affects how we feel after giving time, money, or resources.

A weaker connection might reduce motivation to participate, in my case, prioritizing causes based on where I live, and what I’ve lived. So, then, what about causes that aren’t close to home, or the heart?

Barbara:
Some people balk at the idea of “outsiders” becoming involved in communities that aren’t their own. We’ve all heard, “If it’s not happening in your backyard, it’s none of your business.” I am a straight, white, cisgender female from a middle class family. I don’t fall within any minority or at-risk population. I did not experience racism directed at me growing up, or harassment and abuse based on my sexual preference, though many of my friends did. I will never experience many of the hardships so many people face worldwide, such as not having access to health care, well-funded schools, and healthy food. I recognize my privilege.

Why do I care about ensuring equal rights and opportunities for at-risk and minority populations if I am not a part of that population? I contribute to organizations working to eradicate these disparities because I have empathy for the people living with these issues each day. It is important for the health and stability of our communities for everyone to have equal opportunities and representation. Everyone should have access to these things I consider basic human rights, and as an ally, I have the power to follow the charge of those living these experiences to see where and how I can help. 


Qui:

You’re a living example of caring beyond yourself to look after essential issues, even if you’re not in the epicenter or on the periphery of those issues. So many organizations hustle every day to reframe stories and statistics to make them more relatable to potential donors who feel removed. In the midst of feeling overwhelmed, lending words and resources can provide us with a sense of productivity, as opposed to doing nothing and feeling guilty as a result.

This is why I genuinely struggle with those who take carving knives to altruistic intentions, which can never be purely selfless. Let’s be clear—I’m very in favor of of the “warm glow” theory of giving. It sounds like you are, too. It builds empathy, a basic building block of humanity.

Here’s the rub: empathy and happiness that results from giving is too often a luxury. While we bask in the afterglow of our good deeds, those trapped in the labyrinth of meeting basic needs can’t always afford to be empathetic. And according to the research I mentioned above, that exasperating cycle means shorter and less healthy lives for those who aren’t in a position to give.

Barbara:
Violence and disparities in health and education can chip away at empathy, or jeopardize it all together. One of the biggest and most heart wrenching recent examples of the importance of empathy, particularly as it relates to violence in America, can be found in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases. Perhaps if there was more empathy for and within these communities in general, resulting in more action and policy change across the board, these events never would have occurred. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but a compelling thought nonetheless.

While empathy is difficult to measure, organizations like Ashoka are working to study the long-term effects of encouraging empathy and trauma-informed care. In schools where outcomes are being studied, there have been reports of reduced bullying and ethnic and racial tensions, increased capacity for conflict resolution and openness to others, and increased attendance (source). It is critical to social and economic security to ensure we are teaching the younger generations empathy and setting them up for success—particularly at-risk youth who may not be able to afford empathy and generosity toward others when their own basic needs aren’t being met.

More and more, it seems empathy is a privilege. If empathy and the ability for action are a privilege, what better way to use that privilege than to help others?

sharing our good fortune

sharing our good fortune

Selecting the organizations with which we share our good fortune is a group effort that includes our full time staff as well as the collaborators with whom we work. My request to them is that they share ideas that reflect who we are as a company: we want to support organizations that are unapologetic about their passion, who use storytelling as a strategy to achieve their goals, or have simply reached us with a powerful story about their work.

I’m proud of the people who have joined me in building Aggregate and of the ideas they shared this year. I hope you’ll consider joining us in supporting the following organizations.

We believe in justice.

We have now made our third annual donation to the Southern Center for Human Rights, which provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails and improves legal representation for people who are low-income. We made the donation in the name of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

After reading about Lenzi Sheible, the 20-year old founder of Fund Texas Choice in The New York Times, we felt compelled to make a donation to enable her to do her important work. Because of legislation passed in the state of Texas—as well as in a number of other states—women often must travel long distances to access abortion services and many cannot afford to do so. So our donation will support Lenzi and Fund Texas Choice to cover those costs.

In July, we paid a Detroit resident’s overdue water bill  to prevent their water from being turned off thanks to the quick organizing and deft communication skills of the Detroit Water Project. We admire them for jumping in to address a need and for ensuring others both understood what was happening and that they could do something to help.

And in September, we made a donation to the Center for Death Penalty Litigation after they successfully worked to enable the exoneration of two men—Henry McCollum and Leon Brown—who had been on death row for 30 years in North Carolina for a rape and murder they did not commit.

We love filmmakers. 

Because 1) we like working with Josh Simon, 2) because criminal justice should be just, and 3) because Josh asked, we made a donation to support the production of This Place is Dirty. This new documentary—currently in production—is about Jon Burge, a former Chicago Police detective who was convicted of torturing criminal suspects for nearly twenty years.

For the second year in a row we are supporting the True/False Film Fest‘s Pay the Artist program to enable the festival to support the filmmakers who screen their films at the Fest (beyond travel costs) and to encourage others to invest in independent documentary filmmaking. (We’ll  be announcing additional support for the festival soon, so stay tuned.)

We made additional donations to support the re-release of Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer as well as the Sarah Jacobsen Film Grant, which is a grant for young women filmmakers “whose work embodies some of the things that Sarah stood for: a fierce DIY approach to filmmaking, a radical social critique, and a thoroughly underground sensibility.”

We think young people deserve better.

This year was also the third year we made a donation to the Ali Forney Center in New York City, which provides services to LGBTQ youth. And for the third year in a row, we made the donation in the name of Spencer Cox, the great AIDS activist who died in 2012.

Closer to home, the Sanctuary Art Center in Seattle works with homeless and street youth to enable them “to experience creativity and success through art.” We supported them this year to buy a new press. They reached that goal, but they have countless additional needs, so we’re confident that would appreciate your support as well.

We also gave to the national organization, Girls on the Run, which uses running as a strategy for promoting self-esteem, teamwork and a positive body image for young girls.

We love Jay Smooth.

We made a donation to WBAI‘s hip hop show Underground Railroad, which is hosted by our favorite video blogger Jay Smooth. Jay was such an important and smart voice on race relations this year, someone to whom we looked to make sense of a series of events and a world that often made no sense at all.

We love Seattle.

We also gave money to our hometown public radio station KEXP (for the second year in a row) to support their efforts to build a new home in Seattle. As I said last year, they are a significant contributor to making Seattle the amazing place it is and we’re grateful to them for filling our office with music every day.

KEXP is building a new home at a time when the real estate market in Seattle has gone apeshit, leaving many of our lower income neighbors in situations where they are paying an unlivable percentage of their income to put a roof over their heads. It’s a heady time to live in Seattle—if you are among the privileged who can still afford it. So, we’re supporting the Tenants Union of Washington State to enable them to continue to be advocates for tenants’ rights. Thanks to the fabulous Ansel Herz at The Stranger for pointing us in their direction.

We owe it to veterans (especially Ryan).

My friend Ryan Friedrichs came home safe this year after serving for the past three years in the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan. To express our gratitude for and admiration of Ryan, we made a donation to the Veteran Artist Program, which has a mission to “foster, encourage and promote veteran artists.”

We love food.

Finally, we gave to L.A. Kitchen, which “reclaims local, healthy food that would otherwise be discarded, training men and women who are unemployed for jobs and providing healthy meals.” L.A. Kitchen was founded recently by Robert Egger, who founded D.C. Kitchen 24 years ago as the first “community kitchen.”

Best wishes to everyone for the new year. Give when you can.

forced drought in detroit

forced drought in detroit

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is knocking on doors—not to collect what is owed—but to turn off the water at any homes owing at least $150, or who are behind on two months worth of water payments. Yes, you need to pay your bills. And if you don’t pay those bills, those services are taken away. Water, however, isn’t a service. Safe access to clean water is a basic human right. The lack of running water in a home is grounds for being charged with child neglect.

So far, over 17,000 homes in Detroit have had their water turned off. Detroit Water and Sewerage Department spokesman Bill Johnson estimates 89,000 customers owe near $91M to the city of Detroit, and are under threat of losing their access.  Amid rallies, protests, and public outcry, the department has put a hold on turning off water for 15 days, as of July 21. They insist this is not permanent and is only to give the city a chance to conduct outreach to residents about their options.

The city is working with residents to put them on payment plans, and says they will work with anyone who genuinely cannot pay their bill. With 38.1% of Detroit’s population under the poverty line, how do you decide who is destitute enough to be worthy of access to clean water and who is not? In the meantime, neighbors are borrowing from neighbors. People are spending money they don’t have on bottled water to keep their children hydrated. Some are even turning a profit by illegally turning the water back on. When those residents are caught with water turned back on, they are fined a hefty fee.

Last year, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy. They need the money. The city began shutting off water as debt piled up, but has been targeting individuals and not the companies in Detroit that also owe, to the tune of an estimated $30M. Is anyone knocking on the doors of the hockey arena, the football stadium, the high-end golf course, or the commercial businesses? Is the city turning off their water? The answer is a resounding, “No.”

A group has started an online campaign to bring attention to this issue. More importantly, they are working directly with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to link those who need assistance with those who are willing to give.

Turn on Detroit’s Water takes your email address and asks you to indicate the amount you would like to pay. They then match you with a Detroit resident in need. After you verify the account and payment due, your donation goes straight to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department on behalf of the resident.

Aggregate made a donation and it couldn’t have been easier—or more rewarding. So many of us say if our neighbors were in need we would help them in a heartbeat. Here’s your chance.

Image by Mike Boening. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

getting your undriving license

getting your undriving license

Instead of pledging money, what if you pledged to change your behavior and challenge your daily routine? That’s radical.

As a newcomer to Seattle, I’m enjoying learning about the diverse organizations and causes with roots in the Pacific Northwest. Each month, I will highlight a local group whose radical work inspires me to be more radical in my own work and daily life.

Minimizing your car use can reduce carbon emissions, ease parking and traffic congestion, and enhance community connections. Undriving is an organization that challenges residents of Seattle and the surrounding neighborhoods to “get creative about getting around” and to pledge to reduce their car use or stop using a car altogether. As part of their campaign, you can sign up to receive your Undriver’s license for a donation of $20. You can include your own photo and your pledge is printed on the card as a reminder of your commitment. Undriving envisions this movement going national, so non-Seattle residents can sign up, too.

Named No. 1 on a list of walkable U.S. cities by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, Seattle is the perfect place to make an Undriving pledge. Seattle was recently ranked as one of the top cities with the fewest number of cars per household, so we’re on the right track. If you pledge to reduce your car use, or stop using your car completely, you’ll be in good company.

Minimizing the use of your car might be more of a radical change of your lifestyle and schedule than you think. Think about how often you truly use your car. Is it one hour a day? Two hours a day? For those who sit on congested highways getting to and from work, five hours a day? A quick trip to the store might not be as convenient when you factor in waiting for a bus, catching the right one, and timing your trip properly. Add in bags of groceries or a baby and a stroller and complications arise.

I live a short 6.5 miles from the office, a quick 15-minute drive without traffic. That trip turns into 45 minutes during rush hour, regardless of my means of transportation. In an effort to reduce my footprint, I forgo my car and use the local bus system to commute. Taking the bus has resulted in other benefits in my life. I have increased my activity level during the day walking to and from my stops, I’m saving money on parking and gas, I am able to make a small dent in my current book on the way home (Ishmael Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow, in case you are wondering), and I have noticed new things around downtown Seattle, like the street art on the electrical boxes or an interesting architectural detail on the building across the street.

I’ve started minimizing my car use in other ways, too. Instead of driving a mile to the dog park near my house, my dogs and I walk there together. If I have errands to run that require my car, I’ll plan them all on the same day so I’m not going across the neighborhood more than once during a week. These are small changes, but I like to think they make a difference.

For more information on Undriving, peruse the website, like it on Facebook, and follow it on Twitter.

Did you miss our other Radical Locals features? Read more about Project Violet, Seattle’s Rain City Rock Camp for Girls, and the Seal Sitters.

Image credit: Press Office, City of Münster, Germany