Candidates for UUA President answer questions from Food Justice Ministry, Part 2: Rev. Jeanne Pupke
Food Justice Ministry has invited each candidate for UUA President to respond to the following set of questions:
It is FJM's view that each of the candidates should have the ability to amend their answers based on reflection and, if it seems apt, in reaction to what the others are sharing— in other words, these can be living documents that are foundations for conversation if the candidates want to use them that way.
Here are Rev. Pupke's responses.
Thank you for asking my input on your stimulating questions. I have attempted to answer them as fully as possible.
1. Please describe any obstacles to UU involvement in ethical eating and related environmental justice issues that the president of the UU can and should address.
I hope you will indulge me as, to address your questions adequately, I must address how ethical eating is related to other issues of justice. As Dr. King told us, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Therefore, when we pull on the injustice of eating unethically, we send energy to other interwoven issues. It’s a testament to your wisdom that you see the relationships among ethical eating, environment and food justice. More deeply understood, this question asks how we can live ethically upon this earth, something of greatest importance to us all.
The Network of Mutuality is Demanding
Unitarian Universalist congregations and communities experience a paradox in most of their efforts to build a just world. The call to live in just ways and to advocate for others to do the same competes with our need to take time to grow our own consciousness and to build community. I believe that one of our greatest challenges is to recognize and integrate these competing priorities with integrity.
Happily, in any corner of Unitarian Universalism, there are subgroups who, through discussions and interest, have identified issues they find significant. When groups sharing such interest and passion are in robust communication and organized for effectiveness, they can do much to raise the individual and/or collective consciousness of UUs, instigating changes in behavior and in the level of support for such changes in the larger society. One example would be the Statement of Conscience on Ethical Eating and Environmental Justice passed in 2011. I was on the Board at that time and followed its successful passage.
No doubt, those who participated in the process of getting that SOC passed remember that there were many other pertinent issues considered at GA. In workshops, and through responsive and business resolutions, we UUs engaged with dozens of meaningful justice questions. Even getting committed delegates to engage with the issue was, and always is, a struggle for bandwidth and interest waged among projects equally noble and important.
We all want UUs to care more about the project we support. We all know how very many noble projects there are. It can demoralize our hard-working advocates and, sometimes, instigate competition for interest, funding and recognition. If the UU delegates or congregations focus on an issue as particularly relevant, they can affirm it in deliberative process. But the glory of that prize can leave advocates unprepared to the resultant “did that last year” fall out. Another resolution will replace it in a year or two.
As President of the UUA, I would encourage a congregational conversation on prioritizing how we say “yes.” We UUs are not without limitations in time, energy and money. Time/money/interest given to any project in our lives limits other possibilities. Time/money/interest of any congregation precludes other options in congregations. What I fear most is that, as a faith, we create the sort of competition for the breadth of social justice activism that leaves us unable to make an impact on those issues in the larger world. Some have used that old phrase “a mile wide but an inch deep” to describe our commitment levels. I find it more uneven than such a phrase can suggest. Nonetheless, this is a conversation we need to have, assessment we need to do.
We must ask: what are the priorities of UU congregations for justice work? What are the priorities of individual UUs for personal practice? These two questions may be very different. For example, to cite the congregation I serve, we hold as our highest social justice commitment the need to dismantle racism. This is logical for the church of Richmond, VA. It is symbolically important the work be prioritized here where racism has had such a repugnant history. Our food selections, therefore, prioritize relationships with communities of color who may in turn prioritize authenticity in ethnicity or food affordability as their own justice priorities. As such, they may not concern themselves with locally grown or ethically grown sources for reasons of expense or cultural connection. In our congregational buying practices, we must balance our commitment to ethical eating with our commitment to respecting cultural practices and patronizing businesses owned by persons of color.
You might say that it then becomes the congregation’s role to educate its providers about food justice issues, so that they might prioritize ethically grown foods and greater solidarity with food worker justice. We have found that we must establish and maintain long-term relationships before we can begin to address such matters with our partner communities. When we surrender some of our privilege, we may find that these communities have different priorities for equally valid reasons. I trust you understand this and have probably experienced these conversations first hand so you know the challenges they present.
So, my question to you is how do we acknowledge that ethical eating is part of the larger ethical examination we UUs must undertake in a world of limited time and money?
2. What role would you assume as President of the UUA in helping UU's "walk the talk" of Statements of Conscience once they are passed (this in not restricted to the SOC on which we focus)?
Trusting Our UU Community
We may not always recognize when folks are indeed walking the talk. Heck, it’s hard to know if we as individuals are doing enough. When is a trip to an ethical food producer going to require travel that outweighs the environmental benefits of purchasing ethically-produced food? When is an added trip to market a distraction of a parent from a child? I find myself less and less willing to make claims about the “walk” of others and more content to bring that accountability closer to home. I am learning the best course is to trust the wisdom of our UU Community and work to support their priorities.
What is important to me now and what would most likely guide me in the UUA Presidency is not to answer the question of how the President of the UUA can promote ethical eating but rather to ask you to discuss with other UUs where ethical eating can fit in the conversations of priorities. It is something best promoted in the process of getting another 300 congregations to enter the Green Sanctuary process? Is it more effective as a well-presented spiritual consciousness-raising for individuals? Is it best to emphasize food justice or ethical consumption for greater impact? Where does food justice intersect with other justice priorities? These are conversations we might have in the context of the larger UU conversation.
The Importance of Your Group as Story Collectors
Just recently, I met a new minister who was working collaboratively with her congregation to become a lead congregation in the work of building earth consciousness. She was obviously proud of them and wanted to share their story but also wanted to respect and not dominate the group we were in. I called her forward on that. As a member of the group, I recognized the power of her story and understood that we all need to hear and, in fact, crave stories about our care of the planet. The group agreed. In the end, we encouraged her to report out by telling some of the story to the larger group, even though it wasn’t directly connected to their agenda. She resisted. We insisted.
Afterward, when this new Minister and I spoke, I suggested she do more -- write the whole story, find the best portions, share them with colleagues, create a curriculum. The story she tells is the kind of story you must find for food justice. If one congregation, such as First UU in Richmond, marches for the fight for $15 and hosts Imokalee workers on their way to lobby in DC, and another congregation promotes good food consumption choices or works to support the local farmer’s market, we can become connected by learning one another’s stories. We may discover that food justice is already one of our highest priorities through its intersection with racial, environmental, and other justice work. We cannot know this without gathering the stories. We must encourage they be told, collected and shared. A book, a video, a podcast series. SOMETHING! There is no better group than you to take on this work.
Living in Right Relationship with the Planet
My response to your questions arises in the context of the largest question I can relate to: being in right relationship with the planet. The President of the UUA cannot pretend this is an incidental to the job description. Our faith is either of the consciousness that our care of the planet is of paramount importance to ALL beings or it is seriously deficient and part of the problem.
In the briefest of assessments, I think we are deficient…not in the recognition of the importance of planetary care but in the belief that we can get by just a little longer, living as we are living. We lack the fierce urgency of now we have felt on racism, LGBTQI rights, and now, again on women’s rights.
What is most important, in my perspective, is to have among us a theo/philosophy which says there is enough time in our days to lighten our impact upon the earth we have so badly misused. We need ways of thinking which lead to prioritize a consciousness of possibility. Some have described this as an effort of spiritual integration (spiritual here to include humanist perspectives). Such a spirituality transcends the consciousness we have now. We need to be more deeply aware of our mutual interest of the earth and develop a longer vision. Living into this consciousness will help us cease our neglect of the planet and live accountably – less negative impact and more aware of renewable possibility.
3. What can you share about how your personal perspective has evolved on food as a social justice and climate justice issue?
You may be aware that I spent some years as the COO of a coffee company. The experience taught me that coffee companies come in all ethical stripes. The major supermarket coffee product is a can of misery. But that can be true for many of the specialty coffee producers, too, and, therefore, we must be vigilant. I have learned that there are food systems of oppression, attempts to produce ethical foods, nationalistic efforts to market products, and a whole lot of efforts in between. In general, the shorter the supplier-consumer connection, the more integrity the process holds.
But nothing is perfect. As a coffee leader, the more often we could buy from a farmer, the more integrated their processing and our own, the better. It was also the riskier and more expensive option. I took us years to learn how to pull it off without risking every job in the company. I assure you I tossed and turned a lot in the process. By the end of my time there, after years of working on this objective, we were only able to purchase 40% of our coffee directly from growers. Even motivated companies, congregations and individual find it difficult to live ethically all the time.
Consciousness as Spiritual Learning
When I worry that I have not turned my compost pile in too long (an occasional meditation in my candidacy) I am measuring the distance between my aspirations and my lived reality. It is easy to see that I struggle to take on this new consciousness with consistency. I have to trust that, should I be elected, this meditation on my own failures can be instructive. If not, I will struggle to remember that a well-turned compost is not a sufficient use of my influence. ;-) It is a spiritual practice to stay in the higher of your conscious understandings. It must be done regularly to become your truth.
You ask what I have learned, how I am evolving? I answer in this way: I am learning how very much I do not know. I am learning how not to be scandalized by it, nor to be scandalized by all you do not know. I am trusting more what we know together. I am trusting that if we truly come together to discern, giving ourselves time for story-telling and patient listening we can act to greater effect. When we take time to reflect and consider and place trust of one another’s good will in the forefront, we live more peaceably, we form deeper community and we act to greater effect in the larger world.
This is the best vision I can muster for our faith and for the planet. I hope it tells you something about how I might facilitate such a conversation among congregations in the UUA. What follows is up to us, congregations, groups and individuals. I will work to do a good enough job that when I leave, the people will say: “look at what we have accomplished together.”