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A Perspective on Healthy Food Access – Thor Erikson

A Perspective on Healthy Food Access – Thor Erikson

Group collaborates to workshop food access challenges

Guest Blog by Thor Erikson, Facilitator, Food Equity Innovation Challenge

Following the Healthy Food Access Summit in June of 2019, CFT, the City of Dallas’ Economic Development Department and newly minted Innovation Office aligned as a collaborative to launch the Food Equity Innovation Challenge. Designed to leverage community voice, this initiative featured a public idea submission platform that gathered potential solutions and input from across our region. I joined the initiative as a facilitator with a charge to lead established design teams in workshopping the top submitted ideas. Over the course of several months, groups met, discussed, and refined projects with the goal of ultimately submitting proposals to the coordinators for funding.

As a community engagement professional, I strive to find the proper setting for the community I am working with to extract all the stories and lessons a group has to share. My first thought when I was asked to work on a project related to Food Equity was how little I knew about the ecosystem of dedicated practitioners working to address this critical need. The food asset map and report produced by buildingcommunityWORKSHOP gave some insight into the challenges Dallasites face in accessing and affording healthy food. I had a reviewer role in producing that deliverable, but it was the analytics team at [bc] that really tackled that project. So, armed with a couple decades of practice in the non-profit sector and a handbook that CFT produced to help guide their funding in this area, I designed a series of meetings that sought to bring people together, share insight and data, and provide the opportunity to workshop ideas that could solve for the food equity challenges of Dallas communities that need it most.

Now that the Challenge has concluded, I wrap this project the same way I began it – knowing collaboration is hard. Leveraging the expertise of community stakeholders to solve for healthy food access in Southern Dallas is as complex a process as the issue itself. Given this, I’ve reflected on the process and the conversations that were had, both at each meeting and behind the scenes, to really try to learn from what was accomplished.

What has emerged as a consistent theme throughout this initiative is the need to both acknowledge and create space – space to share experiences, to ideate and create change, as well as the space to challenge the status quo, to test, and potentially to fail.

Space to Share

Addressing a systemic issue that has its roots in racial inequality requires first creating the space to acknowledge and share painful, personal experiences. The DFW region has numerous food deserts where our neighbors struggle to access fresh, affordable food but often have a wealth of cheap, unhealthy options at their fingertips. There is an indignity in that. In considering solutions to this injustice, we first have to create safe space for nonprofit leaders and community members to express longstanding frustration and anger. This may be uncomfortable and lead to some difficult or heated exchanges, but it is necessary.

We recognized that this kind of work takes time and there are complexities in accommodating various perspectives, providing the time to fully hear everything, and taking into account all the dynamics of having community members sharing space with small and large nonprofits. There is a learning curve for this, but as relationships were built and the process evolved, the importance of affording this kind of intentional inclusion was affirmed.

Space to Ideate and Create Change

After some getting to know each other, participants were grouped into teams and each team received one of the top seven ideas from the public idea submission platform that aligned with their expertise or interests. The goal was for participants to ideate around that concept- kick the tires, test its feasibility, and make necessary improvements. At this stage of the process, we gained new participants and lost others as teams continued to refine and work through the details of each idea. We also invited individual residents and other funders to come in at different phases to contribute. We acknowledged that this coming and going was okay, as it was part of what we had set out to do. We knew not everyone would have the time or the energy to go through an intensive ideation cycle.

While there was some healthy revision of teams, I have come to believe there could have been even more movement between teams. In collective problem-solving processes like this, we have to create space for imagining a future state very different from our own and determining who would be the right partners to collaborate on bringing that vision into reality. These are hard conversations. I (along with the Challenge organizers) could have taken a more active role in evaluating the organizational structure behind each proposal while it was still being developed to encourage authentic partnerships and ask the hard questions about the long-term feasibility of the implementation plan.

Space to Test and Fail

While different issues and community collaboratives require their own roadmaps, there is a universal takeaway I feel is relevant to share with anyone embarking on a similar journey – creating solutions to systemic and persistent issues is not a straightforward path. It requires participants to take an iterative approach, to plan and test and succeed or fail, reflect on what was learned, and repeat.

While sometimes invoking a negative connotation, failure is a necessary part of any ideation process. Read any blog or article on the subject and the idea of failure as a valuable step comes up. Yet still we seem to exercise paralyzing fear of this outcome, and favor safe solutions. The beauty of this process, however, is that it was recognized early on we needed to try and embrace it, and that meant creating the space for it. Navigating the uncharted territory that was this Challege required an attitude of transparency, degree of humility, and willingness to redraw the map, when needed, along the way.

So, were we successful? I’d like to say yes, but I have to give the generic planner answer of “it depends.”

It depends on how well the funded projects address the need. It depends on how we use each learning to inform our next steps. It depends on who you ask. It depends……

I present these ideas not to undermine what was achieved, but to acknowledge the ways in which we can continue to collaborate better and design the space needed to plan and test and fail. Reflecting on our shortcomings and challenging our work allows us to strengthen our skills as practitioners and more effectively address our community’s needs. If we do not, the people we serve may suffer and problems continue to persist.

As long as we have inequities as large as we do in this city, I feel we have to work on how we make decisions, how we come to solutions, and how we can continue to learn from our failures and use them to intentionally create the spaces that generate success.

January 10, 2020: Design teams met to discuss project plans and draft funding proposals.

Thor Erikson
Thor Erikson
Facilitator, Food Equity Innovation Challenge

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