Reflections on Diversity and Inclusion in Western Massachusetts

Recently, I had the good fortune of participating in a two-day intensive “Undoing Racism” workshop hosted by a local gUROCroup of the same name – the Undoing Racism Organizing Collective (UROC).  I’d like to share with you some of my reflection on the workshop, and why this topic is important to The Food Bank and should be to everyone in Western Massachusetts.

UROC is a little-known unsung hero in our region that has been working on this intractable societal issue for about two decades.  With support from Bay State Health, they invited the nationally-renowned People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB) to lead the workshPISABop for more than forty local individuals mainly from non-profit businesses, but also some representatives from government and for-profit businesses, including a couple of farmers.

Andrew Morehouse, The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts

[/media-credit]Andrew Morehouse, Executive Director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, at the PVGrows Forum.

Since its founding in 1980, PISAB has impacted the lives of more than 500,000 people to “help individuals, communities, organizations and institutions move beyond addressing the symptoms of racism to undoing the causes of racism so as to create a more just and equitable society.”  I felt that they facilitated the workshop in a sensitive and nurturing, yet direct and unapologetic manner, emphasizing that every participant came with a different life experience and perspective that warranted tolerance and respect.

While it would take a long time for me to explain everything I experienced and learned in the workshop, I would like to share the most meaningful benefit I got out of it.   I was able to meet so many interesting and committed individuals who are doing important work to provide resources to, and create opportunities for, vulnerable individuals and families in our region.   Going into the workshop, I knew that racism endures in our society even if we — individuals of all skin colors — personally reject it and even work to reverse it in our own way.  The workshop discussion unpacked the reality that “mainstream” American society affords privileges and opportunities (if not power) to white people like myself whether we are comfortable admitting and accepting it or not.   Conversely, people of color routinely experience disadvantages in our schools, the workplace, in our economy and even our political system even when there are laws, rules and efforts to prevent this from happening.  We simply haven’t achieved equal opportunity in this country regardless of skin color.

This is certainly true when it comes to access to nutritious food.  People of color are disproportionately at risk of hunger and/or food insecurity– not knowing where your next meal will come from– in Western Massachusetts and across the country.  (That said, the majority of people who experience both are still white given the larger size of the white population regionally and nationally.) There are many reasons why people of color are more likely to go hungry than white people. One reason that we hear a lot about these days is the preponderance of “food deserts” in communities of color where costlier and less healthy food is abundant relative to more nutritious and often less costly food.   Other reasons include the lack of equal opportunity generally in our society and higher rates of poverty and working poverty in communities of color.

When I think about Western Massachusetts and, specifically, the communities that we work with at The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, I am struck by the diversity across our region.   Of course, we can define diversity in many ways… not only race, but also ethnicity, country of origin, income, gender, age, sexual orientation, religious background, etc.

All of these aspects of diversity are important to us at The Food Bank because we work closely with so many diverse individuals from the more than 300 member agencies in cities and town across all four counties of our region.  We make emergency food available to more than 44,000 people every month through an elaborate network of local, non-profit feeding programs who are members of The Food Bank.  We also work with thousands of food and fund donors, and volunteers to carry out our mission to feed our neighbors in need and lead the community to end hunger.

For this reason, we undertook a year-long diversity assessment at The Food Bank about a year ago.  Since then, we’ve gone through a strategic planning process in which, among other things, we re-affirmed our organizational values, including diversity and inclusiveness:

  • We strive to have the diversity of our community and the people we serve reflected in our staff and board directors
  • We believe that an understanding of the inequalities in access to food is essential to conducting our work
  • We are committed to increasing cultural competence and inclusion in our organization.

Along with me, two other staff has participated in the UROC workshop.  We will share some of our learning with our colleagues as we continuously deepen our understanding of diversity and consciously take steps to live our organizational values.  I challenge you to do the same.  The UROC workshop is a great place to start.

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