Racism is pervasive in all aspects of our society. We see it in our homes, communities, and workplaces. We exacerbate it with our biases, stereotypes, and word choices. It exists in the systems and structures that unjustly deprive underrepresented groups of resources, rights, and power, including the education system, healthcare system, criminal justice system, and food system.
As part of our organizational commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, IFT offered members and staff the opportunity to participate in the 7th annual Food Solutions New England (FSNE) 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge. The challenge offered participants the opportunity to deepen their understanding of and willingness to confront racism in the food system, expand the way they interpret the world, and shift behaviors to effectively engage across cultures.
Based on the idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit, the self-guided learning journey consisted of three primary elements. Daily email prompts were sent containing learning material (readings, videos, audio), reflection questions, and actions participants could take to apply what they learned to advance equity in their life, organization, and/or community. Each prompt was also posted in IFT’s online member community, IFT Connect, to provide a safe space for participants to share their insights and engage with others. In addition, each participant was invited to attend weekly facilitated small group dialogue pods via Zoom to discuss and further reflect on the week’s lessons and how it applies to them.
Varying Motivations, Growth Mindsets
Eighty-seven IFT members and staff at various stages in their careers participated in this year’s challenge. Lester Schonberger, a research associate with the Department of Food Science and Technology at Virginia Tech, said he participated in the challenge because he recognized in himself that he still has much to learn about the racial inequities which have existed (and continue to persist) within our food system. He said he thought it would be unique to engage in this material through IFT and the perspectives we bring as food scientists and technologists.
Cena Visch, who works in research and development at GLCC Co., feels like in the last year, she "woke up" to the fact that not every person faces the same reality in this country. She was hoping to learn ways to talk to people about racial equity in a non-confrontational and factual manner, something she has struggled with in the past.
Ricardo Olivas, a research and development manager at Mission Foods, participated in the challenge because he believes we all should know more about racial equity and that this knowledge can help us make better decisions both in our personal and in our professional life. He said he wanted to gain knowledge about such an important topic in addition to meeting other people in the food industry and academia who consider this an important topic as well.
Ellia Hyeseung La, a third year PhD candidate in the Department of Food Science & Technology at the Ohio State University, not only participated in the challenge, but also acted as a facilitator. She said leading an anti-oppressive and anti-racist life is fundamental to the fulfilling life she envisions for herself. Through this experience, she hoped to gain hope and feel inspired to continue her journey of decolonization, that is, the undoing of the destruction of colonialism and colonial influences.
Fostering Understanding, Inspiring Action
While each brought different life experiences and expectations to the table, Lester, Cena, Ricardo, and Ellia all found the experience to be worthwhile. The weekly dialogue pods were a clear favorite among the four participants.
“I really enjoyed the dialogue pods. They were a safe space to explore the knowledge learned through the week and how it impacted each of us,” Ricardo shared. “Some of the concepts and questions explored during the challenge were hard to deal with. Being able to face them alongside other professionals and being able to discuss, be vulnerable, and learn from others was invaluable.”
Lester agreed. “I really appreciated the dialogue pods, especially as I continue to work remotely as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. While I was able to have limited conversations with my colleagues, it was helpful to gain different perspectives outside of my day-to-day connections.”
The four participants also agreed that the challenge was not only educational; it inspired continued learning, reflection, and action.
Cena said the challenge made her realize that her view of equity within the food system is shaped by her own biases as well as other people's. At the recommendation of one of the group members in her dialogue pod, Cena has joined an organization working for racial and economic justice, a step she feels will help her continue to educate herself and move toward deeper understanding and action.
For Lester, the challenge highlighted that while there is progress towards racial equity in the food system, there is still work to be done. He said it also challenged him to question what he knows—or thinks he knows—and heightened his awareness of the various levels at which he can engage in challenging and dismantling racial inequity in the food system through his work, as part of his local community, and within professional associations.
Ellia shared, “It bolstered the way I felt about the inequities of the food system and planted a deeper promise to myself that I will not lead my professional career with moral dissonance.”
It is imperative to create racial equity in our food system, that is, an environment that recognizes that each person has different circumstances and needs, and fairly provides everyone with resources, opportunities, and access to healthy, culturally acceptable food. By examining the history and impacts of racism in the food system and modeling equitable behavior in their areas of influence, our participants have taken a positive step toward eliminating inequities and creating a world where everyone has safe, sustainable, nutritious, and acceptable food.