I’ve struggled over the past few weeks to focus on a single topic about which to write here, but I expected Thursday night’s lecture at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service to provide some specific food for thought. I knew the event had to do with technology and rural development, and I’ve been interested recently in my classes’ discussions about how innovation and technology affect farming techniques and food production. The title of the event was: The Role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Rural Development. I should have known what I was getting into. Yet I only registered the situation fully by the speaker’s third reference to an ambiguous “they.” “They” who are so beneficially impacted by cell phones and modern communication possibilities – a vague “they,” eventually identified as rural Indians and Africans (and Central Americans too, if we were being inclusive). The speaker was a professor from NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. And he led a lecture about affecting the “rural development” of developing countries, of course, and the clever, shocking technologies our avant-garde mathematicians are inventing to connect poor, rural populations with the rest of our “developed” world. In general, I fully support cell phones, particularly cell phones in Africa. And even perhaps $100 laptops. Yet the professor began his lecture by admitting to the failure of most technological efforts in the developing world, “because ‘we’ don’t know what is needed, because we make assumptions and act on them before we know what will really help.” The professor admitted this crucial fault in the ICT profession, and went on to outline his newest projects, in which he’ll make exactly the mentioned mistake. But of course he will. He is excited about technology! And about the potential he can and wants to demonstrate. And so the constituent population, not to mention others who are working on alleviating the same problems of poverty and isolation, fall forgotten by the wayside as he carries on with the excitement of academic discovery and innovation.
This semester, my agriculture professor has pinpointed me as the token idealistic, organic, dirt-loving hippy that clings hopelessly to the goal of a certain unreachable agrarian utopia. While, admittedly, such a utopia may very well reside in the back of my head, I initially stood up to my professor’s subtle bullying because I thought she was just jaded. I thought our differences were like those we see in generational politics, in the sense that even some of the most stubborn conservatives were radical when they were young. They grew up and gave up. They got tired of fighting. Yet my professor has highlighted in me a naïve energy characteristic of more than youth. It is characteristic of the leaders and do-gooders of the Western world, as well as of many alternative (radical, liberal) movements. I believe so strongly in particular principles, concerning land and farming and food and consumption, that I (even with a perspective I believe is valid!) hugely oversimplify the sides of a complex reality. I limit myself, identifying only the industrial versus the sustainable (straightforward terms much like developed and developing), the mainstream versus the alternative, the corporate– versus the family-owned. These simple sides do not reflect the agricultural community. There exists an endless variety of soils, perspectives, and cultures that lead to innumerable beliefs, ideals, and practices. There are many tenets that I do not profess, lived out in a practical manner that I very well might strive to mimic. There are many different types of farmers, not just “industrial” versus “sustainable.” And there are innumerable changes under consideration – in land ownership, policy approach, farmer collaboration, worker organization, technology use, and acceptance of GMOs. We cannot (and must not) confine this community of people and ideas to one side of a coin or another. We would miss the intricacies of ideas, the unique details of achievements. Our approach would be naïve and simple, as I have come to recognize, even in the classroom.People who value biological systems, health, and community are not all people cut of the same cloth. We have different political views, different cultural values, different income levels, and we are from places where very different things grow. We are of different religions. We work differently, and we eat differently. And so, acknowledging diversity and justice within the local food movement is not just about recognizing violated labor rights, underserved communities, and unjust trade laws. It is about opening a dialogue with people of various perspectives, who value nutritious food, land stewardship, and local community as much as we do. If we of these values want to talk about change in the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed, even just in the US, we’re gonna have to start recognizing each other’s accents. For me, this means growing up and out of the idealistic student phase, not into a cynical passive adulthood, but into an active and open-eared role of attention and dedication to realizing exactly what it is we all need. It’s seeing what fits this world, beyond what I want, beyond the change I’m excited about. It is actively not making assumptions based on my own limited perspective, but incorporating new and thoughtful ideas into the structure and future of that which I already believe.