Friday, November 9, 2012

This One's for Debbie: Worldviews, Nature, and ... Lots of Food!

Thanks to colleague Debbie Hillman for posting the first comment! She is always insightful and I appreciate her pointing out that sustainable thinking and being has always been part of Native American lifeways.

One of my favorite projects related to this in the Chicago area is the partnership between the American Indian Center and Northwestern University, exploring how different worldviews result in different relationships to nature.

Here's a teaser--and the punchline:
"Native kids [....] come to see the biological world in terms of relationships and connections – what psychologists call “systems-level thinking.” Non-Native kids, on the other hand, generally think more in hierarchical categories like taxonomy – kingdom, phylum, species, etc. So the human-centered learning may not be universal after all, but instead flavored by the culture we grow up in."

Check out this short article about the project and listen to the radio interview, on WBEZ's Clever Apes.

 Menominee reservation

Debbie also pointed out the central role that food plays as an issue that connects all people to sustainability. All of my work has proven this to be true. Food--to grow, eat, and build community--is always one of the key issues that comes up when looking at sustainability from a community perspective. And promoting sustainable local food is an important strategy in metropolitan Chicago's Go To 2040 regional plan.

Below are a few of the most intriguing examples I have come across in my work on sustainability and food innovations around the Chicago region. Take a look at them.

Then...please comment:
1. Which ones intrigue you most?
2. What are some sustainable food innovations you love in the Chicago area--or elsewhere? Please share!

These are a few of my favorite things...
Sustainable Food Innovations...Chicago Is Leading the Way!
1. Debbie Hillman's work:
Of course I have to start with Debbie's own work. She is one of our region's leading food activists. Check out these videos:
  • Humble Strength, made by Debbie's daughter. (Trust me, you will be humbled.) 
  • The Talking Farm (scroll down to Video 13; there are 2 parts), made by my team at The Field Museum five years ago as part of our New Allies for Nature and Culture project, which aimed to increase collaborations among organizations working on social, cultural, and environmental issues. Here's the farm website.logo
2. Jane Addams Hull-House: Rethinking Soup
This is one of my all-time favorites. Years ago, when I read Chicago author Louise Knight's biography of Jane Addams, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy, I finally knew how I would answer that hard college essay question, "If you could talk with anyone, dead or alive, for 15 minutes, who would it be?" I greatly admire Addams' intellectual approach to learning and action. Hull-House's initiatives link environmental action with social justice. Besides Rethinking Soup, read about their Heirloom Farm--a partnership with UIC's cultural centers, led by my former colleagues Rosa Cabrera and Lori Baptista (and highlighted as a UIC sustainability innovation in the project I am now consulting on, UIC's Sustainability Strategic Thinking Process)--and The Heirloom Seed Library. 

The seed library is a Chicago manifestation of an international movement to not only preserve biodiversity, but allow farmers and others to continue growing their own food and plants outside of agribusiness. At the Chicago Bioneers conference this past weekend, internationally renowned environmental activist Vandana Shiva talked of the potential for abundance in one seed--and of having dedicated her life to saving seeds and keeping them free.

3. Garlic & Greens: accessible soul food stories
I can't say enough about this amazing project of artist Fereshteh Toosi, which explores "the intersections between food heritage, migration history, social justice, the arts, and disability studies." As a visual anthropologist, I emphasize the importance of using multisensory engagement to help people relate to issues--especially ones as distant as sustainability and climate change. Fereshteh is now producing a "tactile book"--more of a learning box, actually--containing a CD of stories that Chicago African-Americans shared with her about their "soul food memories" and objects to touch, feel, taste, and smell as you listen to the stories. When Fereshteh and I talked about this project, she told me that when she asked people about food, they often talked about family--so she started thinking about the food-related objects as "family heirlooms." 

We have also been talking about different ways to use the senses--including but beyond the visual--to engage diverse groups in sustainability and climate change work. Fereshteh's interest, like mine, is to focus on stories--and to help people experience natural landscapes in terms of their social, historical, and cultural layers.

On that note, here's a good way to end: with one of my favorite quotes these days on exactly this topic, from another anthropologist:

“…humans experience the world through active engagement with their environments. […] the landscape is constituted as an enduring record of, and testimony to, the lives and works of past generations who have dwelt within it, and in so doing have left there something of themselves.
” - Daniel H. De Vries, Anthropologist 

Bon appetit!


  1. Thanks, Jenny, for the reflections. All were interesting. I particularly found myself wanting to the read the books you mentioned about Jane Addams. It reminded me that Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor (and a big hero on mine), began her life of service by volunteering at Hull House while working at her first job teaching school in Lake Forest.

    1. I forgot that my user name was listed as "Mudvillejoys." FYI, this is Terry Bergdall.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Terry. Makes me want to look up more about Frances Perkins too since my knowledge of her is limited.

  3. I really find Debbie's actions to be very inspiring. Growing local sustainable food for human consumption is an important topic that is not very talked about. For one person to have influenced so much legislature and raised awareness of the issue is truly phenomenal. I would love to see Chicago grow more of its own foods and bring food to food desert areas. With the number of obstacles we face, however, it will truly take innovative strategies and persistent people such as Debbie.

  4. What an perfect time of year to be thinking about food and social connection. How many of our holiday memories revolve around some kind of taste or smell?

    I am so intrigued by Fereshteh's Garlic & Greens project. I can't wait to see...and touch, taste, smell, and hear the book in a box!

    One of the most exciting sustainable food innovations to me is the increasing acceptance of Link cards (food stamps) at farmers' markets. Affordability is a key to sustainability.

    I also love promoting Openlands' BUGs (Building Urban Gardens) class and their GardenKeepers program. The program's organizer Julie Samuels is incredibly knowledgeable about sustainable gardening and passionate about connecting gardeners across the city. A huge component of the program is community-building.

    1. Not surprisingly--since you helped create them--your comments make me think of the food and sustainability tools that we created for the Chicago Community Climate Action Toolkit. For others who are interested in checking them out, visit (scroll down to "Climate Change and Food").

  5. Oh and I also recommend the Advocates for Urban Agriculture Google group! Tons of great info:!forum/advocates-for-urban-agriculture