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Tackling Adversity in Hunger Conversations: Tips from a Recent Grad

By Celia White, Healthy Communities Coordinator at Vancouver Island University 

Participation in the Universities Fighting World Hunger consortium manifests in a variety of ways at each campus across North America and the world – diversity is one of UFWH’s greatest strengths in tackling adversity.  At Vancouver Island University (VIU), a school on Vancouver Island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, a large focus has been connecting curriculum to topics of hunger, food security and food sovereignty, often with an emphasis on applied or experiential learning.

As part of my year-and-a-half contract at VIU as the Healthy Communities Coordinator, I was mandated to integrate applied research and experiential projects relating to food systems that is interdisciplinary, applied locally and community engaged. This was part of my overarching goal of building a healthy and sustainable food system on campus.  Having recently completed my undergraduate degree, I had little influence or established legitimacy on campus and this goal became difficult to both conceptualize and actualize.

I have experienced successes and set-backs, and as my contract comes to a close I am able to reflect on some of the most important lessons I learned through the experience. Interestingly enough, most of the skills I am taking with me don’t specifically relate to curriculum development, but more broadly to communication and relationships.

1. Squash Suspicions of Naïveté about Food Sustainability and Global Hunger

Due to looking young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I have encountered much criticism or condescension.  One individual reasoned that food sustainability initiatives were a waste of time because there is no concrete definition for what sustainability is, and there’s no point in researching it.

Therefore, I like to begin a dialogue by articulating my understanding of the complexity of sustainability and global hunger, explaining that although it is not my role to define sustainability or prescribe the magic bullet for hunger, it is my role to facilitate the researching, questioning and analyzing of it.

Although it is not my role to define sustainability or prescribe the magic bullet for hunger, it is my role to facilitate the researching, questioning and analyzing of it.

When professors are initially unreceptive or criticize “idealists,” I like to encourage their ideas by relating to a similar experience and explaining how my work differs.  For example, I will explain that we are encouraging students to be critical of broad assumptions and to research specific, tangible methods of change.  In other words, I try to inspire their ideas with similar experiences and frustrations instead of arguing against them.

2. Appreciate Where People Have Been

Building personal connections goes a long way in establishing professional legitimacy. Since the VIU campus has a large fisheries and aquaculture focus, many professors that I speak to are past fishers. Mentioning my past work experience on fishing boats allows me to bond with professors over a shared interest.

Identifying people’s passion and extracting a common experience from it can result in a surprising amount of inclusion and respect.

It also helps to bond with professors on a personal level by talking about hobbies instead of just work. I assume that this is partially due to the benefit of quickly breaking stereotypes. You can often change perceptions by offering insight to who you are, what you’re passionate about and what you do. I sometimes look young, naïve and girly, so revealing aspects of my identity that weathered fishers can relate to goes a long way.

3. Connect Your Work to a Credible NameIMG_0490

If I find that the individual I’m talking with is not receptive to ideas being presented, I say things like, “The VP Academic asked me to connect with professors,” or, “As part of UFWH, our school is encouraged to include food issues in curriculum.” If I can demonstrate that my work has a tangible connection to them, perhaps they will be more receptive to me in the future.

This proves that my work is legitimized by the university, and that my role is deemed valuable enough to receive direct feedback from the administration. It can also provide a window for the personal relationship to be strengthened, and can come in handy if connecting with the professor later on.

4. Reach for Low-Hanging Fruit First

The first three tips relate to navigating relationships with unreceptive stakeholders, but it is also important to reach for low-hanging fruit. Some individuals may be uninterested in curriculum development, but there have always been others who are passionate.

When I reached out to professors that I already knew were engaged in topics of global hunger, I was able to implement meaningful and tangible projects. The more I fostered successful relationships, the more momentum, legitimacy and experience I gained.