Last week we bid a fond farewell to Dr. Leigh Maynard, who is retiring from his work at UK and The Food Connection. We’re all still in a bit of denial, and I have to stop cc’ing him on emails. I’ve had a wonderful time professionally palling-around with Leigh. I’ll miss his enthusiasm and encouragement, which were winds in my sail the past two years.
At the goodbye happy-hour, I ran into an economist colleague whom I only see maybe twice a year. While introducing him to the others in my group, I heard myself describe the two of us as “Unexpectedly Like-Minded.” He chuckled and nodded in agreement.
We first met on a panel presentation about the future of farming. Despite coming from very different personal and academic backgrounds, we essentially gave two versions of the same talk. I covered the history of the 1980s farm crisis, the long emotional and economic shadow of that crisis for farming communities, and some troubling parallels with our current moment. My colleague spoke from the perspective of both a business analyst and a farmer about the uphill battle facing family farmers working to make ends meet in contemporary commodity markets. He shared his frank concerns about the future viability of farming as a whole, and for his own family’s enterprise in particular. Needless to say, it wasn’t a particularly uplifting panel, and I joked that we were both guilty of ‘saying the quiet part loud.’
I remember being nervous about giving that talk. To be honest, I’m still nervous writing about it here. It feels vulnerable and even risky to say “everything might not be OK” when we’re all working so hard to put on a hopeful face. Despite, or perhaps because we both took that risk I connected with someone that I assumed was from a different ‘camp,’ and who I didn’t expect to share my thoughts and concerns. Somber subject matter aside, I left that day feeling less isolated and with a new sense of possibility.
Orthodoxy and Uncertainty
The two traits that my favorite friends and colleagues have in common are 1) they’re nothing at all like me and 2) they ask good questions. Possessed by a compassionate curiosity, they are grounded in care for the world outside of their immediate material interests. They are troublemakers of the best kind, or perhaps caretakers.
The best people in my life connect with me across and beyond difference and give me ideas and insights I’d never find alone. They are driven to ask hard questions about themselves and our community, and thereby challenge our habituated ways of thinking about the world. They also help me see my own life and experiences in a new way. Leigh is just such a person which is why it’s why we’ll miss him terribly.
In a winter that has felt like one long grey damp slog, it’s easy to fall into an existential slump about the state of the world. As a commiserating friend put it, “the wins seem few and far between.” Taking a dose of my own reflexive medicine, I wonder if it’s the very act of framing the world in terms of ‘wins’ that causes a sense of defeat.
There’s a lot of hand waving in popular discourse focused on a supposed animosity between farmers and eaters. Bogus labels are tossed around and fingers are pointed every which way. All our troubles are the fault of those fake-milk drinkers. All our troubles are the fault of those mega-farms. All our troubles are the fault of ignorant eaters. No wonder we fall into isolation and frustration. There’s no unexpected connection or compassionate curiosity to be found in an environment like that.
To paraphrase Donna Haraway, it matters what thoughts we use to think-with. What if instead of trying to be on the winning team, I focused on challenging my assumptions about the issues at play. What if we worked to both broaden and deepen our understanding of the people and places involved? What questions would I ask if I wasn’t worried about getting to a “right” answer, or at least the most popular one? Whose perspective can I learn if I focus on really hearing and understanding someone’s experience rather than finding a way to win an argument?
We need to break out of our habit of solving for a predetermined answer. If we come to our work with the assumption that we already have the solution in hand we’ve squandered an opportunity to discover and build something new (it’s hammers and nails all the way down from there). I’m so grateful for the friends and colleagues who teach the value of sticking your neck out, or even better a friendly hand.