Author Interview: Lana Dee Povitz on Stirrings: How Activist New Yorkers Ignited a Movement for Food Justice

In this Q&A, Siobhan Barco (@SiobhanBarco) speaks with author Lana Dee Povitz about her new book Stirrings: How Activist New Yorkers Ignited a Movement for Food Justice, out this week from UNC Press.

In the last three decades of the twentieth century, government cutbacks, stagnating wages, AIDS, and gentrification pushed ever more people into poverty, and hunger reached levels unseen since the Depression. In response, New Yorkers set the stage for a nationwide food justice movement. Whether organizing school lunch campaigns, establishing food co-ops, or lobbying city officials, citizen-activists made food a political issue, uniting communities across lines of difference. The charismatic, usually female leaders of these efforts were often products of earlier movements: American communism, civil rights activism, feminism, even Eastern mysticism. Situating food justice within these rich lineages, Lana Dee Povitz demonstrates how grassroots activism continued to thrive, even as it was transformed by unrelenting erosion of the country’s already fragile social safety net.

We are happy to include this Q&A in the 2019 University Press Week Read. Think. Act. blog tour under today’s theme, “How to build community.” We hope that Dr. Povitz’s research on community-based efforts for food justice in New York City can not only provide a window into history but also a blueprint for grassroots activists today. To read blog posts from other university presses on the subject of building community, click here.

Finally, if you’re in the New York City area, you can hear Lana Dee Povitz discuss her work at Book Culture on Columbus tonight, 11/7 at 7PM. She will be in conversation with Monica White, author of Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, and Justice, Power, and Politics book series editor Rhonda Y. Williams. More information here.


A Conversation with Lana Dee Povitz

Q: What kinds of power does food hold as an organizing tool?

A: Food has the capacity to bring people together across lines of difference. It is immediately intelligible because everyone eats (although of course not everyone has the same relationship to food and eating). Its accessibility makes it relatively easy to get people to care about it. Efforts to democratize the food system are a way of giving people a say over something that affects them multiple times a day, and it draws the participation of people who might not ordinarily think of themselves as “political” or “activists.”  You don’t have to be “political” to care about hunger; you just have to know or imagine what it feels like not to have food on the table.

“Food activism” is broad, so depending on what issues motivate you, there are different paths to action. Maybe you worry about the safety of the food you eat, and from there begin to think about the health of the workers who produced it. Maybe you want to try to prevent impending environmental collapse. Maybe you want to achieve racial justice. Whatever the issue, you find that if you frame it through food, people are readily interested.

Finally, food is tangible. When you offer it to people, you have the potential to make a connection. When a volunteer brought a gourmet meal to someone dying of AIDS—a person who had perhaps been shunned by their family, fired from their job, and scorned by society—it resonated on an extremely deep level. Or take a young mother, a recent immigrant from Puerto Rico, who speaks little English and has little formal education. When a meeting is held at her children’s school about test scores, she might not feel comfortable participating. But if the meeting is about what her children should be served at lunch–suddenly, she’s emboldened to speak up. These are just two examples of how food can be a way of forging connections that might otherwise not be made.

Q: Can you give us a brief overview of the four community-based efforts your work examines?

Shopping Coop members waiting in line. Courtesy of the Park Slope Food Coop.

A: Sure. First, I explore United Bronx Parents, a grassroots anti-poverty organization founded in the mid-1960s by a group of Puerto Rican and African American mothers. United Bronx Parents are best known for trying to end the racist inequality of NYC schools, but they also initiated the city’s first sustained grassroots campaign to reform school lunch! Second, I look at the Park Slope Food Coop, a worker-member food cooperative founded in 1973, which is today the largest in the country. The founders were ten friends who came out of the white New Left. Many had organized against the Vietnam War, and they were interested in figuring out a way to obtain high quality, organic, and natural food at low cost, which they were very successful in doing.

Next is the whimsically named God’s Love We Deliver. This organization was founded 1985 at the height of the AIDS epidemic in NYC. Founded by two women with no ties to the AIDS community but who were devotees of a spiritual guru from India, they started an organization that brought delicious gourmet meals to homebound people with AIDS at a time when the larger public treated them as pariahs. Finally, I tell the story of Community Food Resource Center, which was founded in 1980 as a response to the election of Ronald Reagan. Unusually, CFRC combined advocacy work with direct service provision—getting actual food and other services directly to hungry and poor people. So, on the one hand, they fought to expand the use of federal entitlement programs like school breakfast and food stamps. And, at the same time, they responded to rising levels of poverty by starting New York’s first food bank (today the largest in the country) and an innovative soup kitchen that also connected people with social benefits like welfare and legal services.

Q: What underlying themes connect the different food justice groups you study?

A: One important theme is that, in different ways, all the groups fought to expand people’s access to quality to food. Some of the organizations, like the Park Slope Food Coop, were more focused on the “quality” end, creating a way for people to get more organic, ecologically responsible, healthy food, while others, like the Community Food Resource Center, were more concerned with access: how to ensure that all people have their basic food needs met?

Another theme is that of direct service provision. In a context of deepening fiscal austerity, all the organizations I examine provided some form of food-related service, in many cases making up for what some activists felt should be the government’s work.

Finally, each group was shaped by broader social movements, whether it was the movement for community control of Black and Latino neighborhoods, the New Left, AIDS activism, or welfare rights activism. In all cases, food activists were both influenced by and contributors to these other social struggles.

Q: Could you explain the concept of a leaderful movement?

A: Historians of the Left have become invested in highlighting instances of leaderlessness in social movements. This is an understandable response to the focus on Great Men from the movements of the 1950s and 1960s—the Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Malcolm X’s, the Todd Gitlin’s and Tom Hayden’s and Mario Savio’s of American social movement history. More recent scholarship holds up people like Ella Baker, a civil rights organizer who famously opined that “Strong people don’t need strong leaders” and who trained oppressed communities to look to each other for answers rather than expecting direction to come from on high.

While I love these discussions and think they are definitely the right way to study the civil rights movement, my focus in the book is a bit different. When I say that an organization such as CFRC or the Park Slope Food Coop was “leaderful,” I mean that “traditional” leadership was still to some extent present (after all, each of these nonprofit organizations had structures and people who oversaw them), but it was present in a way that also, usually very intentionally, produced leadership in others. Instead of telling people what to do, leaders in my study made it a priority to nurture the political development of others, helping them hone their political analysis, building their self-confidence, and uplifting their ideas and initiatives. Thus, organizations and subcultures became “leader-ful.”

This is not an original concept, by the way. As far as I know, the term “leaderful” was first popularized by Joseph Raelin in the early 2000s, and it operates self-consciously in many of today’s most potent social movements and progressive organizations—from Black Lives Matter, to Jewish Voice for Peace, to the Sunrise Movement.

Q: Could you tell us about some of the key people discussed in your book and their backgrounds?

Portrait of Evelina Antonetty. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Kathy Goldman.

A: Evelina Antonetty was a remarkable grassroots leader and public intellectual based in the South Bronx, which in the 1960s and 1970s was the country’s poorest congressional district. Originally from Puerto Rico, she came of age politically in the Young Communists League. Before founding United Bronx Parents in the late 1960s, she was a union leader for District 65, a militant union that organized small shops. As a recently divorced 25-year-old, she managed to bring more than 4,000 Spanish-speaking workers into that union. She also supervised the city’s first Head Start (early childhood education) program. Antonetty was an outspoken advocate for Puerto Rican and Black families facing an extremely racist public school system. Antonetty died in 1984, but she was extraordinarily beloved and remains revered in the South Bronx especially.

Another key person is Kathy Goldman, much less well known outside of food advocacy circles but almost certainly twentieth-century New York’s most important food activist. The Jewish, Bronx-born Goldman was a Red Diaper Baby, that is, her parents were communists. One of only two white people in United Bronx Parents, she was mentored by Evelina Antonetty and eventually led the organization’s work on food issues. She later founded the Community Food Resource Center and was its Executive Director for its twenty-three years of existence. Although she worked on food issues all her life, because she also had been trained politically in Communism (she was in the Labor Youth League in her adolescence), she understood the connections between hunger and poverty, and always saw her work in terms of economic and racial justice.

Ganga Stone is the third pillar of my book’s leadership triumvirate. She founded God’s Love We Deliver, a meal delivery service program for homebound people dying of AIDS. Although she too was a Jewish Red Diaper baby, Stone is very different from the others in that she is not a Leftist, and in fact does not consider herself an activist. She was a disciple of an Indian guru in the Siddha yoga tradition, a path she began to travel in the 1970s following a rough early adulthood experimenting listlessly with sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Although she had no connection to AIDS communities, her guru had told her that her life’s work was to comfort the dying. AIDS patients were the worst-off group she could see at that time, so that’s where she focused her energies. She was the executive director of God’s Love for almost ten years, and, like Goldman although in a very different way, was a skilled fundraiser and a source of inspiration to those in her organization.

Q: How does your book reinterpret the phenomenon of charismatic leadership?

A: Throughout history, charismatic leaders are almost always men: King, Gandhi, Mao, Churchill, so on. In my work, I identify a form of charismatic leadership that rested as much on building and sustaining strong relationships as on creating strong impressions. Whether with community members, volunteers, donors, board members, employees, or members of the media, I show that the ability to build relationships was very often what made possible these people’s effective leadership. This kind of charisma was not only about connecting with a crowd from a distance (although it was sometimes that), but also about doing the time-consuming, long-haul work of building relationships, nurturing leadership and political analysis along with affinity-based camaraderie. A product of this was the creation of more leaders within many of these organizations, leading to what I and others would call a leaderful organization. Basically, I am saying that developing the skills and capacities of others needs to be seen as a potent form of charisma.

Kathy Goldman would be the best example of this relational charismatic style. On the surface, she was an unlikely candidate for charismatic leadership. Gruff, camera-shy, and self-effacing, she always preferred collaborations to solo efforts, and regularly left her name off the organizational documents she authored. But time after time, former employees, board members, and donors all emphasized to me the enormous confidence she instilled in them, and how her leadership was an anchor in the tumultuous and often dreary seas of antipoverty work.

Q: Why at times have seeming victories in the food justice movement sometimes cut against equality?

A: It turned out to be much easier for food activists to create model service programs than to push back against fiscal austerity at any level of government. Agnes Molnar, Liz Krueger, Kathy Goldman—the most important staff at the Community Food Resource Center were all policy people, advocates to the core. They never intended for CFRC to be a service-providing organization—they believed definitively that it was the government’s responsibility to provide for its neediest citizens, not the private sector. But, in witnessing how badly people needed basic services during the 1980s and 1990s, because of budget cuts, welfare reform, unemployment, drugs, AIDS, and so on, CFRC ended up taking on these service projects – opening a Community Kitchen in Harlem, starting a food bank, running an eviction prevention clinic (and more). These projects were very successful at helping people’s urgent needs. They were innovative and treated people much more holistically than city services were doing (attending not just to their need for food, but also to health care, legal rights, housing, etc.). They were always trying to avoid stigmatizing people for their poverty. The Kitchen on 116th St was even designed so that it resembled a fast food restaurant rather than a soup kitchen, as a way to make the experience more dignified. In providing these services, CFRC and groups like it inadvertently helped to legitimize the government’s offloading of service provision. This isn’t to discount CFRC’s real advocacy victories—how they were able to prevent further budget cuts, for example, or how they increased participation in school breakfast and lunch—but it points to an irony and a tension that I’m not sure the social service-providing Left has figured out how to resolve.

Q: Can you give some examples of the ways your book highlights the role of emotion in social movements?

A: Thanks to the oral histories, I was able to ask many of my narrators not only what they did, but how they felt about what they did, what meaning it held for them. The answers to those kinds of questions were very often emotional: people talked about what it felt like to belong to something, or how it felt before they found meaningful political work to do.

One of the most common emotions voiced was admiration, very often for mentors. In some cases, I had the cool experience of hearing sort of lineages of mentorship: I heard Kathy Goldman talk about her mentors, Evelina Antonetty and Ellen Lurie, at United Bronx Parents in the 1960s, and then I got to hear many others talk in similar ways about working for Kathy Goldman in the 1980s and 1990s.

On the surface, this kind of thing may sound fluffy, but victories in activist work are so rare and so long-term and so hard-won, that the social dynamics are very often what we’ve got. In other words, the terrain is hard, and if you’re going to tolerate or better yet enjoy the journey (because the destination is at best uncertain) then the people you meet along the way, and how they nourish and renew you, are actually enormously consequential.

Q: Could you tell us about your process of conducting oral histories?

A: My social curiosity and intuition really steered the process, especially at the beginning. I received very little formal oral history training. But as I came to see the incredible contributions that oral interviews can make to good writing about the recent past, I began to study it. I read about theory and methods, particularly concerning ethical matters like shared authority and negotiating trust. It was enriching and gave me confidence, but I would say the most important thing was something I was already doing, which was turning up with one or two (not more than that) key questions or ideas—things I really wanted to talk over with my narrators. These are the parts of the conversation that I go back over and think of as the juiciest. Almost always, they are more about meaning than fact. Although for the most part, it’s good practice to let the narrator take the interview in the direction they want, I’ve found it helps to communicate to the person you’re speaking with that you have earnestly and passionately considered the larger issues that lie at the heart of your shared topic. You aren’t there to simply receive their stories—you’re trying to have an exchange, to give them something too, even if it’s just a fresh perspective.

Q: Looking at the community-based efforts you studied, what are some of the key “ingredients” for successful, sustainable political work?

God’s Love We Deliver at the annual Pride march, 1992. Courtesy of God’s Love We Deliver.

A: I would say the five most important “ingredients” would be porousness, inclusivity, need, commitment, and relationships. By porousness, I mean that successful organizations made it easy for people to join and have an immediate impact. When God’s Love We Deliver was founded, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, there were tons of ways people could contribute: chopping vegetables, delivering a meal to a sick person, driving a delivery truck, collecting donation cans. Their goal was to create a way for people’s love and good will to flow easily outward, where it could do something. Inclusivity is about appealing to the widest possible range of people. People who might disagree on some political issues can often find common cause around food. The most strategic food activists, whatever their politics, were willing to work with anyone who supported their mission. As for need, I observed that the project works if those involved have real stakes in its success. Pressing need should dictate, not necessarily what’s trendy or what’s fundable. You also need commitment because it’s difficult to have an impact when leadership is always coming and going. You need at least some people with institutional memory. They are likely to know more and have better discernment, and (hopefully) also have more and deeper long-term social connections. Finally, relationships are one of the least talked about but most important ingredients. The real strength of grassroots organizations, especially when made up of volunteers, exists in the bonds between members. Feelings of connectedness may not always be what brings people into community work in the first place, but it is very often what keeps them there.


Lana Dee Povitz is visiting assistant professor of history at Middlebury College.