Celebrating Community Stories from 2021

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly    12-22-21

By Eric and Cathleen Banford

This year has been another intense year. Change is here to stay, and depending on how we react in the here and now, that could be a blessing for us all. Perhaps it’s time to stop saying, “Hopefully next year will get back to normal” and embrace the new normal.

During 2021, Signs of Sustainability was all about honoring change. We shared meaningful contributions from a variety of community members, with inspiration, education and motivation spilling forth from each article. This issue seems a good time to say thanks, to reflect on what was shared and to look forward to a new year. Let’s dive in!

Many organizations, including Sustainable Tompkins, are expanding their perspectives as to what sustainability and social justice mean, learning better to live with social and ecological equity and accountability. In life, we can measure this directly by the number of people who experience a sense of being truly valued, when human rights and rights of nature are a priority at every turn, and when the work of social design is open, transparent and all inclusive.

Our main focus for the past year has been on food security, food sovereignty and regenerative farming. We are blessed in the Finger Lakes region to have many small farms, a robust farmers market and a local-food-focused culture. However, there are still many who go hungry or only have access to low-nutrition food sources. We wanted to highlight the work of community members working to reimagine systems and establish trust in relationships.

One of the first impacts of the pandemic shutdown was shortages of food and other items on store shelves. As noted in our first article of 2021, “Food justice encompasses environmental concerns when we look at farming practices, but it also extends to equal access to healthy food for low-income families and the ability of different ethnic groups to access traditional foods.” With shortages impacting everyone, how were those who were already food insecure going to feed themselves?

Phoebe Brown gave us an overview of how Mutual Aid was addressing this with blue pantry cabinets, gift cards, clothing giveaways and more. When asked about the history of mutual aid, Brown noted, “This is the way [people who have been oppressed] took care of each other because it was necessary. The history of it goes way back to slavery. This is how communities who have less took care of each other for survival.”

Another group addressing food security is Tompkins Food Future (TFF). Katie Hallas and Don Barber wrote about that group’s efforts over the past few years to assess our region’s strengths and weaknesses and to come up with a plan to improve our food system.

They noted, “We can choose a different future if we put control of our food systems back in the hands of the people, particularly local, small-scale food producers and those most impacted by food system challenges.” TFF hosted a community gathering at the Ithaca Farmers Market in late September, sharing a locally sourced meal and brainstorming ideas to move this project forward.

A local project focused on food justice and the education of future farmers is the Youth Farm Project (YFP) based in Danby. Katie Church wrote of YFP, “The long-term goals are to create stronger, more resilient community bonds; more food producers; increased political engagement; food sovereignty; increased sense of purpose and responsibilities and healthy families. These are the visions of the Youth Farm Project and the lens we use to evaluate our programs”

The local Mothers Out Front organization contributed two inspiring articles (here and here) about local farms who “have chosen to conduct small-scale, labor-intensive, Earth- and climate-mindful ways of farming,” highlighting the work of Kingbird, Gathering Together, Sweet Land, West Haven, Main Street and The Learning Farms.

With news outlets vying for readership by focusing on negative issues, Anna Marck wrote about the positive, slow-but-sure progress being made within environmental and social justice movements. Some of the stats she shared were eye opening and hopeful, others discouraging.

Yet in the end, she concluded, “In order to have hope, true hope, we not only have to believe that we can make a difference in the future but that we already have in the past. And we have to reconcile with despair because it lifts the unsustainable panic away and helps us do the amazing work we must continue doing.”

In another article, Cornell Ph.D. candidate Samantha Bosco said of the potential for perennial nut crops in our region, “I’m trying to envision and help create new forms of sustainable agriculture, not only in terms of ecological sustainability, but I really think it’s important that we think hard about ways that we can leverage social justice as an important integral part of any kind of future.”

We also learned about proper composting, how to keep your home cool in summer and warm in winter using low impact methods, the ecological dangers of Bitcoin to our region, gratitude for hunting and gathering, protecting our forests, Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) efforts, the Climate Stewards volunteer program, Discover Cayuga Lake’s carbon offsetting campaign and more. It was indeed an inspiring year!

Sharing stories of community and creating space at organizational meetings to do the same has the potential to affect real change. Working within unsustainable policies adversely affects quality of life.

Experiencing connection, abundance and equity has more to do with nurturing relationships than focusing too much on meeting goals. This is the work of untangling our scarcity mindsets, and it’s work that needs to come from the heart.

It takes a long time to learn new ways of thinking, to change our neural pathways, to reimagine and rewrite policies and redesign social systems. Yet this is exactly what our community is doing, as the stories in this series reveal. It’s beautiful to realize that the most efficient way to effect change is by sharing stories and envisioning what is possible through empathy, play and creativity.

How will these stories positively impact our future? What will it look like when those living with the negative effects of current systems are empowered within those same systems to directly design and implement initiatives that better serve our community?

In truth, social designs are more effective if they are informed by everyone living within them. It’s difficult for large formal organizations to accommodate this. The sheer magnitude of scale, micromanaging, pride and even self-importance get in the way; they are human characteristics after all. That’s why it’s vital to create space for stories everywhere possible, stories that exemplify and encourage compassion and empathy, that make a difference because they inspire change.

We genuinely look forward to sharing more stories, ideas and inspiration from community members. Feel free to contact us if you have something you would like to share: brew_bird@yahoo.com. Thank you!

Eric is on the Board of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, and Cathleen is on the Board of Sustainable Tompkins. Together, they are designing an edible food forest on their farm in Danby.

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