Thursday, March 17, 2016

Reimagining Food, Remaining Community -- Detroit Style

Dr. Kami Pothukuchi, Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University

The WMU Center for the Humanities sponsored a talk by Dr. Kami Pothukuchi, associate professor and chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University. She spoke to a group of 150 recently about the urban agriculture movement in Detroit and how ideas about community are created through the practice of urban agriculture and local food systems.

Pothukuchi pointed out that big ideas such as food justice, sustainability and sovereignty matter because they inspire us and inform work on the ground. However, groups translate these ideas differently within their varied contexts and draw on a repertoire of strategies familiar to their communities. Thus, community is both an outcome of and a resource for rebuilding food systems that are better than today’s industrial system.

Notions of community are especially challenged in Detroit given its recent history of abandonment. Population estimates from 2014 count 680,000 and show a dramatic decline from nearly 2 million during the city’s heyday in the 1950s. The city’s Land Bank has more than 90,000 properties or  roughly 30 percent of the city’s properties that have come into its ownership due to tax foreclosure. Four out of five the city’s residents are African-American and 36 percent of the people live in poverty. Three out of ten households are food insecure, according to definition used by the US Department of Agriculture. One in three adults is obese and according to a study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009, one of five children and youth ages 9 to 18 are obese. The city restructured $18 billion of debt as it came out of emergency management in 2014.

It would seem a hopeless venture even to think of building community in such a seemingly devastated place and yet since 1997 a groundswell of neighbors and friends has been steadily coming together to grow gardens on vacant lots near their homes. In so doing, theyimagine a new future for the city. One by one people have planted over 1,500 community, school and backyard gardens. Some are even growing food for the city's 10 community markets in a cooperative that reaped $80,000 in revenues last year.

As major grocery stores left the city, gardens are an increasingly important resource in providing fresh fruits and vegetables even though they don’t provide all the population’s needs. Over the past couple years, however, Meijers and Whole Foods opened stores in Detroit. Together with community markets and farm stands in many neighborhoods, several corner stores have also added a fruit and vegetable section to their business. Food, in other words, has become a key ingredient in engendering a new spirit of community in Detroit.

The Detroit Food Policy Council formed in 2009 following the adoption by Detroit’s City Council of the City of Detroit Food Security Plan and spearheaded by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, to address problems related to food access in the city. This networking body comprises of representatives from the food system, youth and government all committed to nurturing the development and maintenance of a sustainable, localized food system so that all residents may be hunger-free, healthy and benefit economically from the local food system. The values of justice, respect, integrity, inclusion and transparency guide its work.

Although some city leaders are ambivalent about urban agriculture, grassroots people keep moving forward. Part of the problem is a common perception is that development is the “highest and best use” of urban land. Another obstacle is the belief that agriculture is antithetical to development and that urban farmers want to take over all vacant land. In fact, urban agriculture advocates led by Keep Growing Detroit take pains to emphasize that 5,000 acres—or about one-third of the parcels now in land bank control—are all that are needed to create a food-sovereign Detroit, as they define it: a city that grows most of the fruits and vegetables that are consumed by its residents.

“Instead of this contest of development versus agriculture that has emerged in some corners, let’s reimagine urban neighborhoods that are better, more vibrant because they have a community garden or a small farm,” said Pothukuchi. “They offer many benefits such as nutrition, physical activity, safety, sociability, and even higher property values, and the gardens can take different forms depending on if the neighborhood is a dense, tightly woven one or if it has significant amount of vacant land in it.”

Urban agriculture is providing much more than food, continued Pothukuchi. It is opening the way for “food justice” where African Americans and ethnic minority groups are growing healthy, nutritious food for their community and cultivating leadership in the food system. Such a system offers an alternative vision to the industrial food system, which fails to treat people of color with respect and instead extracts resources from their communities.

“The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network—or DBCFSN—calls on fellow African-American members to take on leadership roles in food system work and invites white people and others with anti-racist commitments to join as allies,” said Pothukuchi.

Meanwhile, farms like D-Town, located on seven acres in Rouge Park, include programs in youth leadership and education, a farm stand, and cooperative buying. DBCFSN also is developing a grocery co-operative—the People’s Food Co-op. A stalwart presence in its Eastside neighborhood, Earthworks Urban Farm—the city’s only certified organic farm—supplies the neighborhood through its farm stand and through incorporation of meals served by the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. It has a nearly 4,000 sq. ft. passive solar greenhouse across the street from the Soup Kitchen.

In addition to her professorial role, Pothukuchi is founding director of SEED Wayne, a campus-community collaborative dedicated to building sustainable food systems at Wayne State and in Detroit by nurturing student leadership.

The students of SEED Wayne plant three gardens on campus and sometimes sell their harvests at the Wayne State Wednesday Farmers Market, which is located on Cass Avenue, WSU’s main drag, from June to October and features 12-14 growers each week. The market generates between $200,000 and $250,000 in sales each year. It also offers up to $20 of matching Double Up Food Bucks each market day, to shoppers who use their SNAP benefits at the market. And, in exchange for $5, students get $10 in vouchers to buy fruits and vegetables. Chefs provide cooking demonstrations and healthy eating ideas, and youth entertainers provide a welcome break for shoppers and passersby.

SEED Wayne sponsors outreach programs and partnerships with local institutions to engage people in various conversations about food, health, nutrition and community. It even trains students to offer structured nutrition and healthy eating workshops and healthy food demos.

“SEED Wayne is shaped and maintained by students,” said Pothukuchi. “It has a flat hierarchy and word of mouth is its best recruiting tool. People collaborate in different ways through interdisciplinary opportunities, academic and non-academic venues, storytelling and more formal data collection. Also, all participants learn to take time to reflect on what they’re doing as well as to analyze the outcomes of their work and develop better strategies.”

SEED Wayne tries to be mindful of what it is doing and at one point even turned down the opportunity to renew a significant grant because it didn’t match its mission and purpose. However, mindful also of the need to get off the grant treadmill, it has established an endowment to support SEED Wayne students into the future.

SEED Wayne approaches its activities from a definition of sustainability that commonly involves integrating the social, economic and environmental sectors. To this, they have added a fourth, democratic engagement. Thus, the four essential “Es” guide their work in developing food systems that are:

·      Ecologically regenerative
·      Economically vibrant
·      Socially equitable
·      Engaging of community members in a democratic process

“SEED Wayne is helping forge connections to the national and the local food movements,” said Pothukuchi. “It is a contextualization of big ideas about food that is helping us build a community here on Wayne State’s campus and to enact a new vision of a food system that helps community to take root.”

“Reimagining Community” is the theme for this year's Humanities Center speaker series, which is designed to help people reflect on a global culture of war, social injustice, environmental calamity and the nation's stark racial and political divisions, and then to reimagine the idea of community by putting an emphasis on healthcare, racial and gender equity, feeding the hungry and fostering community.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Trumping the Media

Say what you will about Donald Trump and his run for the White House, the man knows how to use the media effectively—and he's beating it at its own game.

He comes out with several Tweets each day to add his word on a given topic and people listen—both his supporters and his critics. He gets himself on the news nearly every day, too, and this is all free publicity. As a result, people are excited about this year’s presidential election, and they are responding in unprecedented numbers at the primaries and caucuses.

How does he do it? Dr. Sandra Borden, professor of communication, explains Trump's media savvy with an eye toward history and an ear on what's moving the public.

“Trump is a natural outcome of several trends in mass media that have been accumulating over the past 30 years and converged in this moment,” she said.

For example, the media have increasingly focused on celebrity news. At one time, shows about the stars and their personalities and lives shown on “Entertainment Tonight” were not considered journalism. Now, such formats and content have been embedded into the news model.

“Donald Trump is a prominent and highly successful and wealthy businessman,” said Borden. “He also is a reality TV show star. We’re used to the media focusing on personality, and he knows how to cater to this aspect of the media culture.”

The 2007-08 writer’s strike was instrumental in the increased reliance of TV networks and cable stations on reality television. Since they needed to fill air time, they turned to unscripted shows that were cheaper to produce and proved popular with viewers.

Secondly, when it comes to presidential elections, the media tend to focus on the horse race: who’s ahead and by how much. Polling is incorporated into this coverage, some done by polling groups and some by the TV networks themselves.

“The logic of this is that the candidate who is ahead deserves more coverage, and once again, the issues are of less importance,” said Borden.

Dr. Sandra Borden
Campaigns realize that “messaging” is the most important way to promote their candidates. They stage “pseudo-events” as part of their strategic positioning of their candidates, which take place in the form of press conferences and rallies. The candidates, then, deliver “canned information” and sound bites that repeat their message over and over again.

“By not digging into the complexity of the issues, the media plays into these ploys,” said Borden. “These ‘pseudo-events’ are spectacle and they’re cheap, easy and predictable ways for the media to cover the candidates.”

In truth, it costs money to pay journalists to gather news and analyze it in the 24-7 news cycle. Political campaigns are wise to this and play to the media’s priorities. Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan's deputy chief of staff,  first utilized this approach of creating a candidate's image and side-stepping substance in the 1984 presidential re-election campaign.

So why does Trump get more coverage than Hillary Clinton, who is ahead in the Democratic race?

“Journalism has certain conventions,” said Borden. “News is not about 'dog bites man' stories but rather about 'man bites dog' stories. Everyone thinks they know Hillary Clinton, and it’s difficult for her to break out of that narrative. However, Bernie Sanders has no pre-existing narrative, so he is news—especially since he is 74 years old and a self-proclaimed socialist.”

In truth, important public issues are difficult to cover. They rarely have just one cause or a simple, “magic“ bullet solution. And to give issues thorough coverage would have been even more complicated in a such a large Republican field—17 in all.

“Campaigns know how the media work, so they give the media what they are looking for to fit their routines and conventions,” said Borden. “That’s why the debates became personality contests with prepared speeches and comebacks made for the media to pick up and repeat.

“Journalists who strive to be objective often avoid covering issues in favor of covering events. Events are less ambiguous in content and require less analysis—and cost.”

Alternative media cover policy issues, she said, but they are more slanted toward their political leanings on both the Left and the Right.

“The audience plays a role in this view of news, too, and the Internet has influenced people’s attention span as well as their ability to get information on anything they want. Some of that information is authentic and some of it is questionable. Being informed takes a lot of effort.”

Young people don't typically read the news every day, Borden continued. Instead, they use their Facebook feeds for information. This produces a certain tunnel vision where they consume only certain stories they and their friends find interesting.

Meanwhile, the general public often doesn’t read to the bottom of a story, even a great story, she said. They don’t compare their sources of information. In this way, the public ends up complicit in its relationship with the media.

Borden, whose research includes communication ethics, is very concerned about the future of our democracy if it lacks good journalism.

“Some people make the argument that journalism has always been written for a small, attentive audience,” said Borden. “However, as many people as possible should be informed citizens and not just the news junkies. If we want to maximize our democratic participation, everyone has to pay attention to the issues and policy positions of our candidates.”

However, Borden does see a ray of hope.

“Sometimes it takes a dramatic turn of events to make people pay attention,” she said. “Something like the terrorist attack in Brussels can bring the political conversation back to substantive policy questions, though terrorism is an issue that also can turn on emotions.”

Those who vote will decide the election whether they are up on the candidates’ positions on the issues or not, she said.

“There’s no secret gathering among the media to corrupt politics,” said Borden. “Journalists are an idealistic breed who really do care about the political process. They are political junkies, but that doesn’t come across when they are pressured to produce stories on the 24-7 news cycle, work on tighter deadlines, fill up air time and web space. This is not deliberate. It is not a conspiracy. It is the logical conclusion to all these things that drive the media.”

However, the media can’t just be about winning, entertainment and ratings either. Elections should be about ideas, she said.

“The media, the political campaigns and the citizens all need to do their parts,” said Borden. “The good news is that, if everyone does his/her part, the job gets done.”

Making Sense Out of Donald Trump

Many Americans today are scratching their heads over the popularity of Donald Trump, New York billionaire real estate magnate turned presidential candidate.

However, his supporters seem to be very clear about his appeal. Typically, they believe that he says what many people think about issues like trade, jobs, immigration, torture and multiculturalism that they have not heard in a long while. Some political analysts also believe Trump’s bravado appeals to authoritarian types of people. He appears to know what he’s doing and saying even though he is long on style and short on specifics.

Trump is a largely non-ideological Republican who has made donations to candidates of both parties. He is motivated less by social issues than by political pragmatism and economic populism, said Peter Wielhouwer, associate professor of political science and a specialist in elections and campaigns.

“What this means is that he can say what he wants—and he usually does,” said Wielhouwer. “On top of that, he is the master of the sound bite. He uses short words and then repeats them over and over again. This appeals to his supporters who are angry and frustrated over business-as-usual obstruction politics and their own economic disenfranchisement. Most of his supporters are non-college educated people whose income and personal finances have fallen behind. This sets up an environment for a candidate like Trump to come in.”

As the heat of the primary season increases, the frenzy over Trump’s success is likewise steaming up as “establishment” Republicans fret over where they went wrong, what they should do and how they can defeat Trump.

Before Super Tuesday, several Republican leaders like Senators John McCain and Mitch McConnell as well as House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced Trump. Recently, 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney made some scathing remarks that Trump was a phony, a fraud, a misogynist and a bully who threatens America's future.

And yet, some GOP leaders are warming up to him, including Paul Ryan after Super Saturday, because they believe a Trump nomination might help them with donors and supporters for their own campaigns.

Meanwhile, Trump is definitely attracting people to him in significant numbers as droves of them—including new voters—show up at his rallies and more importantly, the state primaries and caucuses. For example, in both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries entrance and exit polls showed that pluralities voted for Trump. It is unclear since then what the first-time voter choices are, but Trump’s supporters in many states tend to be younger and with less than college education (though there are some exceptions).
Dr. Peter Wielhouwer
“He evokes emotions and provides simple solutions to complex problems,” said Wielhouwer. “For example, according to Donald Trump, if you have an immigration problem, you build a wall. If you have a problem with Muslims coming into the country, you keep them all out. If you have a health care problem, you eliminate the boundary lines between the states.”

These easy and simple solutions provide bumper sticker messages that are not only digestible and memorable, but they ultimately allow Trump to dominate the media who scurry after him to find out the latest outrageous thing he has said.

“Trump is a master media manipulator and he knows how to get attention and coverage. He evokes strong emotions, which attracts media attention, which ultimately gets people to watch him—even those who don’t support him. In short, he makes news, which is good for the mass media because this ultimately attracts TV advertisers.”

“The anger and frustration of Trump’s supporters goes deeper than not liking President Obama,” said Wielhouwer. “Many of Trump’s supporters believe in the principles of less government, less cronyism and restoration of American pride and strength. They are not as concerned about social inequality as economic inequality. They feel they have been left behind and that the American Dream is elusive for them and their children. They can't go to Bernie Sanders, another outside-the-establishment candidate, because he believes in big government programs, higher taxes, and more regulations. So they stick with Trump.”

The teflon-coated candidate even survives criticism for his personal life and the contradictions that go with it. For example, Trump has been married three times, twice to immigrant Slavic women. Ivana Zelnickova and Trump married in 1977 and had three children before they divorced in 1991. Trump married his second wife, Marla Maples, a runner-up for “Miss Georgia” in 1993, and they had one child before they divorced in 1999. The current Mrs. Trump is Melania Knauss-Trump who is also of Slavic background. The couple has one child.

About one-third to one-half of the Republican base is evangelical Christian, said Wielhouwer. They care about abortion, the sacredness of the family and tend to oppose expanding gay rights. Like all voters, they care about economic issues and support Republican positions on national security. In contrast to national media reports, Wielhouwer suggests that Trump support among Evangelicals is not that high.

“Consistently across the states, we see that Trump support in this group is either below or just at the rate seen for Republicans in general. For example, among Michigan primary voters, 38% of white born-again or evangelicals voted for Trump, compared with 37% of Republicans not in this group. But among voters who believe shared religious beliefs matter for candidate support, Ted Cruz had much higher support. And this is typical.”

As for Trump’s alleged racism, he evaded questions about his rejection of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan just before Super Tuesday on March 1.

“The white supremacist element in America is getting smaller,” said Wielhouwer, “so its influence on national elections has been waning even though this group still manages to get a lot of media attention. And Trump is clearly tapping into these groups’ support with his nationalistic and anti-immigrant rhetoric.” 

Some critics say the Trump phenomenon looks like an upheaval of GOP establishment politics and may even be sounding the death knell for the Republican Party itself.

“I would not make sweeping generations of that broad a scale,” said Wielhouwer, “but the Republican leadership clearly is unsure about how to deal with the conflict it appears to be having with its base.”

The credibility of our political parties depends on their predictability, he continued. The Republicans are the party of small government, for example, but they have helped grow it. The party says it encourages the small business owner’s success, however, large corporations and rich business owners appear to have benefitted the most from the party’s policies and general direction.

“There’s a disconnect between what the GOP says it stands for and what it does in Congress,” said Wielhouwer. “This creates uncertainty in the voters, and it’s hard for them to connect to the ‘establishment.’ This opens the door for Trump.”

This same sort of disarray happened to the Democrats in the 1980s, and did not shake itself out until Bill Clinton came along as a “new Democrat” in 1992.

“The party was really fractured in 1988 and in 1992, that showed itself with a wide range of candidates,” said Wielhouwer. “Clinton emerged as a non-establishment candidate who didn’t fit the liberal stereotype of the party. He appealed to the base and to moderates. It will take some time before Republicans can figure out who they are and what they can do.”

One area that unifies Republican is anger directed at President Obama.

“Many loathe him, but they also generally oppose Democratic positions on principle,” said Wielhouwer. “Much of Republican opposition to Obama is not about racism, though there are some racist subgroups in the party. Much of the opposition is mainly ideological.”

“In fact, the Republicans have been hating Hillary Clinton much longer than Barack Obama has been on the political scene, and they are likely to be highly motivated to vote against her. Hate has long been known as a strong motivating force in politics.”

Some Democrats are ambivalent about Hillary, too. Her trustworthiness is at issue even though she is probably the most experienced and most qualified among all the candidates. For example, in the Michigan Democratic primary 40% of Democrats said that Hillary Clinton is not honest or trustworthy.

“Those e-mails make her look terrible,” said Wielhouwer. “If she is charged with a crime and continues to run under a cloud of indictment, that could be very bad for her. Democratic Party leaders avoid talking about this possibility, but it looks like the FBI and the Department of Justice are not simply letting the issue die. Neither will the GOP.”

Wielhouwer also speculated that even if Clinton is indicted before the November election, it is unlikely there will be a trial any time soon.

Third party candidacies have been mentioned, especially in the context of Republican elite’s opposition to Trump.

“Third parties, however, have virtually no chance of winning,” said Wielhouwer, “because of the way we are set up constitutionally. Such a run by a Republican third party candidate would almost certainly split the party’s vote and guarantee a Democratic presidency. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, had expressed some interest in running as a third party candidate, but decided against it in early March for precisely this reason.”

Last December, Trump insinuated that he might run as a third party candidate but he continues to deny that possibility, especially now that he is earning a respectable number of delegates.

On the left, the Green Party candidate for president, Jill Stein, might be an alternative for some disaffected Democrats, however, a vote for her also has the potential to “chip away at the edges” of a potential Democratic win, said Wielhouwer.

If a President Trump is elected, Wielhouwer can’t begin to predict what his presidency would look like because Trump’s sound bites don’t provide enough clues about what he would do in office. However, Wielhouwer is concerned, as are many Americans, that Trump might win.

“According to what Trump has said, it doesn’t appear he is committed to individuals’ religious freedoms or to rights of political expression,” he said. “He threatens those who criticize him and has expressed a willingness to change libel laws, which tend to limit First Amendment expressive liberties. Neither does he seem to know much about the Constitution. That’s very concerning about a serious contender for the Oval Office.”

One more final, ironic note. Despite all of the political haranguing and the people’s disappointment and anger over obstruction and gridlock, some quiet negotiations have been taking place between President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan with regard to the earned income tax. Maybe they provide an example of how compromise could work and shine a little light on how government could solve problems for its electorate.