Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My Experience at the Breakthrough Leaders Program in Vermont

It's now been several months since I packed up my car and headed south of the border for The Breakthrough Leaders Program at the University of Vermont (UVM). I had been accepted into the program in late May and was very excited to be taking part in the inaugural year of a program designed to support and develop leaders in the sustainable food movement.  

I really had no idea what to expect from the program. All I could predict with any certainty is that I'd be inspired, because Vermont serves inspiration up like it's going out of style (which, sadly, it is).    I had a feeling I'd leave the program with more questions than answers. They'd be good, but challenging questions I'd be forced to ask myself, the type of soul-searching questions that can shift the trajectory of a person's life.  And that is exactly what ended up happening.

But what exactly did the Breakthrough Leaders Program offer up, and what were my key take-aways?  I'm not sure I can answer any  these questions with great certainty. It is often difficult to pinpoint or articulate how an experience, a particular interaction, a conversation or a combination of these things can contribute to subtle, yet profound shifts in one's life. All of this is to say that I am having difficulty identifying precisely what it was about the program that made it an invaluable experience, but I will try to share what made the week so special and spectacular.

So as not to keep you waiting, I'll begin by sharing some of the quotes and concepts from the week that resonated most deeply with me, and that I expect I will return to often for inspiration as my journey continues to unfold:

  • Love is better than anger or hate. You cannot sustain the necessary energy to be engaged in the food movement (or any movement) if you are operating from a place of anger or hate. It will get you only so far. You may start from a place of anger, but it's imperative that you  move to a place of love.
  • Be a Beaver. You can't continuously worry about what other people are doing in the forest. Find your 'tree' and start working on it. Trust that others are working on their trees and together you will build what needs to be built.
  • Information can influence, the heart can change.  It's never easy to sway a person, but I'd place my bets on tugging at someone's heart strings over showing them a table of data.  When I think of great leaders of recent times , I think of the 'heart' with which they have led - Martin Luther King Jr., Jack Layton, Jane Jacobs, David Suzuki. Sure, they were all well-educated, informed individuals that could cite facts if need be, but it was their passion and conviction that won many people over. 
  • Take Risks Together - This reduces the risk to any one individual and simultaneously develops valuable bonds between the risk-takers.
  • Collaborate -  Co-operation is a start, but collaboration suggests a more active effort to integrate ideas, projects and resources to reach a shared vision. This approach seems to have worked miracles in Vermont, maybe it can do so in other places.
  • Dream Big - no sense in dreaming small dreams when we have a whole planet to rescue
 But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's go back to the beginning of my week at the BLP program....
Heading to the Breakthrough Leaders program I wondered, briefly, if the glean of Vermont would lessen with time, if I'd feel less enamoured with it than I did in 2009 when I lived there briefly while doing field research for my thesis.  But, of course, I didn't. If anything,  its beacon shone even brighter, undoubtedly because Canada's May 2011 election had extinguished any last ray of hope my country might have of being considered progressive or thoughtful.  It was summer too,  and maybe that made it shine particularly  bright.    I arrived after a day of driving from Fredericton via Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to the welcoming arms of Maura and Joe (and Simon, the cat...but he doesn't have arms, per se), who had so kindly agreed to host me for my first night in Burlington. Somehow they knew I'd need wine and, boy did I!  Blueberry crumble was also on offer (yum!).

After a quick catch-up,  we all slumbered and then it was Sunday - the first day of the Program.  Generally I'm not a fan of the first day of anything, especially the first day of class. Let's face it, it tends to be awkward and who likes awkward? This time round though, I was simply excited to meet the cohort of others that, like me, wanted to be food revolution leaders.  I'd already received a bit of a preview of the people I'd be keeping company with and was truly impressed by the work everyone was doing and the values/reasons that had drawn them into the world of sustainable/local/socially just food. Many were already leading revolutions, from transforming DC's school lunch program, to starting an urban garden in NYC, to providing families with prepared meals of local, healthy food.

Indeed, I was not disappointed when I finally got to meet the cohort I'd be going through the BLP with. Energetic, optimistic, insightful, friendly - just a few adjectives to describe the group I was a part of. We spent the afternoon getting to know each other and ourselves, with our 'Top 5 Strengths' as the focal point of conversations and exercises. After an afternoon of in-class introductions, we were off to dinner with the President of UVM, Dr. John Bramley. As it turns out, Dr. Bramley was instrumental in getting the Breakthrough Leaders Program off the ground and after he spoke to the group, my impressions of him were solidified - this was a man that 'got it' and was able to shape his passions and values into something much bigger than himself. If only every institution could be so lucky to have the kind of visionary leadership that UVM was so fortunate to have.

Our curriculum for the week was jam-packed full of in-class learning and field trips, sprinkled liberally with time to eat good food. To speak of the highlights from the week would be to suggest there were lowlights, but there really weren't any.  There were, however, some field trips and some speakers/instructors that resonated deeper with me. I am sure for other students, such a list would be different from mine, but for what it's worth, these were the most impactful parts of the program for me (in no particular order):

  • The Intervale  - We spent Monday morning on the site of The Intervale, a 700 acre piece of land which is located in heart of Burlington. Amongst its roles, The Intervale provides farmers with access to training, land, capital and markets. It also operates a Food Hub, including a multi-farm CSA, and a gleaning program that collects surplus food during the growing season and distributes it to community members in need.   But what really struck me about The Intervale was that it all began with one person.  That's right, this amazing non-profit organization that now employs of 15 people and provides valuable resources and services to a multiplicity of stakeholders resulted from the vision and countless hours (years, really) of hard work and perseverance. If you want to learn more, check out the website and read the history of The Intervale.
  • Hardwick -  My only regret when I went here with the BLP crew was that we couldn't stay longer. This is not a place that can be fully experienced in a day. Nevertheless, I think that many in the group were inspired and impressed with the 'Town that Food Saved' and the many thriving agri-businesses that we toured while there. As many know, this little town in Northeastern Vermont holds a special place in my heart. It was here that I carried out my field research for my Masters thesis and it is in large part because of the people in this town that my long search for my life's calling was cemented. I dare you to spend a month in Hardwick and not be changed by it!  The town, like many others throughout Vermont, is bursting at the seams with 'community'.  The community bulletin boards are packed with upcoming events to engage the political minds, the artists, entrepreneurs, foodies and plenty of other passions. People have conversations in coffee shops about things that (in my opinion) matter. And there's always time to stop and say hello to a friendly face as you wander along the street. Time is a gift people are willing to share with each other.    In the span of a generation or two, I think many of us have really lost sight of what it is to be part of a community. It is my belief that the only way our species can find its way back to a balanced way of living is through vibrant, tightly-knit communities and I think food is a lynchpin, a game-changer in community development.
  • LaDonna Redmond - LaDonna has a presence about her such that she doesn't even need to speak and you can sense her power and conviction. When she speaks, however, there is no doubt left that this woman is knows more than a thing or two about 'Finding Your Voice'. And that, incidentally, was the name of the session she led with the BLP group.  She spoke to us about finding our own voices, and led us through exercises that helped us discover our story (the Why of our involvement in the food revolution). This is something I'd been struggling with for awhile. What was MY story? I didn't come to the food revolution as a down-and-out conventional farmer, I didn't come as a parent wanting to feed my children properly, I didn't come as a person sick with cancer that wanted to eliminate pesticides and GMOS from my diet. For the life of me, I couldn't really pinpoint how I'd found myself on this journey. I knew I wanted to be here, I just couldn't find my voice. LaDonna helped a lot with that, and in the days and weeks  that followed I grew more confident of my voice and dug deep to find my truth, my story.
  • Stephen Ritz - This Bronx high school teacher spoke to our group and  then at the Vermont Food Summit (picture a TED-like afternoon of amazing speakers)  which we attended. He is a ball of energy and an amazing man. He has transformed his classroom into a living garden of learning and, in the process, is helping to transform the lives of his Bronx students (i.e. the poorest congressional district in the USA), and the community. His TED talk will do much greater justice to explaining his achievements and those of his students, than I could, so just go watch it (right after you finish reading this!). He brought three of his graduated students with him and they were also amazing young men.
  • Corie Pierce - Now maybe I'm just a sucker for any story of a successful female farmer and businesswoman, but I have to say that our visit to Bread and Butter Farm and the two opportunities we had to listen to Corie speak (on the farm and at the Summit), left me thinking 'I want to be like her!'. OK, maybe I don't want to farm, but I do want to be steering my own ship and making a difference in the lives of others. One piece of advice/widsom that Corie shared with us was that right now, opportunities abound in the farming and food worlds, but that to get there, we're going to have to forge our own paths. We must be true pioneers, staking out a place in a newly discovered land of opportunity.  I believe I am ready.

Those are just  few of the highlights. I really could write far more, but I'm sure you've other things to do, so I will end with this realization, which came to me on the very last day of Breakthrough Leaders:

We aren't fighting for a better food system, we are fighting the global and corporate powers that are shaping every facet of our life, as a species, and as individuals. Lord of The Rings and Star Wars have nothing on the 21st century when it comes to ultimate Good vs. Evil tales. Each of us has a chance and, dare I say, a responsibility to the future, to side with the forces of good and fight against these powers. Your fight doesn't have to be in the world of food. There are so many battles against power conglomerates over basically every single resource or idea worthwhile, from water to a woman's right to education. All I'm suggesting is that you choose a battle and engage. And while I use 'fighting' and 'battle' to describe these struggles, I suggest that you leave your armour and your anger at home and go forth wielding love, truth and selflessness.