Get Woke, or Get to Work
Working with the public, in community, provides both cherished and trying situations. We set out to grow something wonderful for St. Louis—the neighbors, friends and family that have gathered around our efforts are why we get of bed every day. The joy that comes from seeing positive impact far outweighs any negatives. For this personal post I’m taking a moment to share one of the most difficult parts (and it’s not pitchforking for hours a day, or working from before sunrise until after sunset!) Ideally more than just a rant — if you lead a service-oriented organization in 2019 or plan to start one, I hope you find some strength and encouragement from our experience to trudge forward with your good work.
We began our residential compostables pickup service in early 2018, which has evolved into the foundation for our full-circle urban dream farm and a platform to help other regenerative farmers. We’ve received many emails that, while seemingly well-meaning, require effort, patience, and empathy-stretching to not take offense. I’d rather manually scoop and haul chicken manure for two solid hours than take twenty minutes attempting understand the thought process leading to some emails we’ve received, to contort my mind around their thinking and attempt a diplomatic response.
One favorite suggestion came four months into our launch. This person believed we should scrap our model of picking up food scraps on a weekly basis from subscribers’ homes — which required investment in a vehicle, considerable equipment and materials, land, building a website…— and instead consult for neighborhood groups to do their own composting. Not a bad idea, we want to see as much organic material as possible diverted from the waste stream and utilized agriculturally. I told them this could be a good idea and I fully support them to give it a try. (Since then, we realized this option essentially exists in the form of the 120+ community gardens in St. Louis. Now when we have requests out of our service area, or someone with financial burdens, we share this map and propose getting involved.)
Their free consultation caused us to grit our teeth a bit. It wasn’t that they saw some of the good press we’d begun receiving, or discovered us while searching for a place to compost, and had a Eureka! moment to share. There was a painful lack of awareness for the amount of actual blood, sweat, and tears starting a small business and farm requires, and an arrogance to think we would ditch all for her daydream. Maybe a bit of “I love what you’re doing and you might be able to branch out someday…” would have been a little easier to swallow, but her take was without any consideration.
For those who haven’t put all on the line to take an idea from nothing to something, it might be hard to understand our feelings toward input like this. A good analogy for the career type would be telling someone finishing up their med school residency that they should be an accountant. First of all, who are you? Secondly…
Fast forward to the inspiration for this post. After grinding for two years, we received an email this week insinuating we are racist, our service area doesn’t include enough neighborhoods with a majority percentage of black people. Even further, they took the time and effort to create a spreadsheet of 80 neighborhoods along with 7 demographic columns, color-coding the rows to show which ones we serve to illustrate their point! What is hilariously ironic to me is they are the ones that are making race-based judgments! Did she dig in to make sure we were white? Probably, it could have been very dangerous had she not.
Not a single decision of ours has ever been determined by race. In fact, I was raised that treating people differently because of this immutable quality is wrong, the definition of racism.
It’s not good enough that we pour every waking, working moment, and every penny of revenue, into north city St. Louis. That our 5-, 10-, and 25–year plans all all orbit around seeing this long-neglected swath of our city get the love it deserves. Or, that for the past 2 years we’ve worked with our own hands to beautify a city block without funding or assistance from any organization or government agency, and in doing attracted other amazing stakeholders to this street.
Nevertheless, I mustered up every ounce of politeness I could and drafted her a reply, explaining that our main work is on the north side where she saw our site. Sharing that we started out with a much smaller service area, including and bordering our farm’s neighborhood, and organically followed demand. We receive requests weekly from the county, and not once has anyone reached out from north city outside our currently served neighborhoods. Also, despite solid demand to expand further west, we will not as we need to focus on our agricultural and educational endeavors. I let her know that we are in a position to help her get started serving those areas if she’s really passionate about it (and meant it). It’s been three days now, no response.
Attempting to compensate for the hollow, ignorant attack, I assured myself it’s probably not her fault — her parents likely paid an elite university top dollar to indoctrinate this way of thinking. Left to bear the burden of justifying the cost, she now must see the world through skin-toned lenses. Even further, academia prepared her to use all these graphs and charts in their only real world application: from an administrative position. It’s just the age-old Critic, veiled behind a desk, a title, and a salary.
We may both have the same desires for positive change in the world, possibly even the same exact outcomes. There is, however, a completely different approach. A disparity so great, resulting in such different states of being, that a human can only afford to be one or the other. If you want to effect positive change in the world, this is the question before you:
Will you be a Bureaucrat, or a Builder?
My intent has not been to brag about our endeavors, or to get sympathy. From a selfish standpoint, it has been unexpectedly therapeutic to write this out, and maybe it will also be entertaining to readers. More than anything, if you are a doer, it is my hope that this will encourage you to do more doing. It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and scoff. Do the hard work to see the change that needs to happen in the world.