November 15, 2012 by Melody Porter
Thanks to the initiative of my colleague Elizabeth Miller, some of us in the Office of Community Engagement – and others across campus – are joining in a Food Stamp Challenge. That means that we’ve committed to eating on a budget of $4.31 per person per day, which aligns with the budget we’d have if we were receiving SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps.
While I’ve done similar activities before, I’m particularly aware this year of some of my privileges that this exercise is exposing, and I want to share them with you.
Privilege #1: The choice
I should acknowledge that the first privilege I’m deeply aware of is that I’m choosing this activity. Especially as I talk with people about it, I am aware that an exercise like this could be seen more as a weird form of poverty tourism – reality TV with food stamps! – rather than an act of solidarity. And so I write this with awareness that my choice to undertake this challenge ultimately only has power and dignity if I can learn something, share something, and take action to build a better food system for all.
Privilege #2: Supporting local food systems
In my first day of the Challenge, I was composing a shopping list for potato soup: potatoes, milk, cheese and a few carrots. Because of my interest in contributing to a thriving local food system, I typically would buy local versions of each of these things in my charming little locally-owned grocery store. And I’d pay for it. Local stuff isn’t always more expensive, but at $3.49 for 10 pounds, mass-produced potatoes from Idaho on sale at the Kroger are probably less than what I would have found from a farm around the corner. Kroger brand cheddar – also on sale – would also be cheaper than anything I’d find from an artisan Virginia cheese maker. All of this made me realize that, to maximize my $4.31, I’d absolutely have to buy the mass-produced, non-organic food.
A large motivator for me in buying local and organic is that the workers on smaller scale farms are very likely treated much better than the migrant labor I presume is involved in the production of some of my cheaper foods for the week. (Having met some of the workers on my local farm, and volunteered with the families of migrant laborers in California, I’ve felt comfortable drawing this conclusion.) And so I realized that the privilege I have of spending more on food also allows me the privilege of opting out, if to a small extent, of a system that keeps other people down. But people who receive SNAP benefits must participate in a food system that values profits more than effects on growers and the land. So the choices that people who are struggling must make can end up causing others to struggle as well.
Privilege #3: Hospitality
I had invited a friend over for dinner on Monday night. Even while I had planned to offer this simple potato cheese soup meal, I didn’t think I could get away with serving only soup without feeling like a bad host. So I sautéed up some green beans I had gotten at the farmer’s market, and even sliced and toasted a day-old “Manager’s Special” whole grain boule (only $1.55 for the loaf!) from the Kroger.
I have realized how much cooking in bulk is helpful on a limited budget, so I could count my friend’s portion as a meal when doing my math for the per-portion cost in my calculations. Still, if I were really on food stamps, I wouldn’t have been able to share that meal with her without skipping a meal myself. When the hospitality of food is one of the most basic ways we can connect with each other, what are the societal effects when simple economics make this impossible for 47 million people who receive SNAP benefits every day?
So, back to Privilege #1 – I’m off to contact my representatives to share my experience with them, and advocate for legislation that promotes a heartier sustainable food system.
September 25, 2012 by Melody Porter
Last week, I achieved a goal that has been nagging at my to-do list since I first saw a figure gliding down the James River last summer on a surf-board looking thing: I signed up for a Stand-Up Paddle lesson. After 150 short minutes on the water with a paddle in my hands and a board under my feet, I freely use the acronym, SUP, like I know what I’m doing. I also have seen and appreciated lots of parallels to how SUP relates to my life in general. Please allow me to share.
1) You’re going to fall off your board.
Well, if you’re the other four people in my group SUP lesson, you won’t. But if you’re me, you will fall in. Twice. I was the only kid in my ballet class to be denied pointe shoes when the time came, and those balance issues have followed me to present day. Thing is, if you like being in the water like I do, falling off isn’t so bad – you get to swim! And that stinky life jacket you’re wearing finally has a purpose.
Obvious metaphor here: we all bring our own difficulties and shortcomings to life, and sometimes may get derailed from what we had hoped or expected to do. But the fall can bring a shift, and a chance to show that you have the gumption to get up again. (Even if the instructor has to hang back with you and coach you through it.)
2) When you lose your balance, put your paddle in the water.
When I felt wobbly, I was tempted to use my paddle as a balance bar, as if I were up on the high wire in a sparkly unitard. The counter-intuitive thing about SUP is that putting your paddle in the water and pushing forward even before you fully have your balance helps you find your balance. Sort of like how you accelerate mid-curve while driving a windy road, to help pull you out of it.
It occurred to me that a lot of times, when we’re feeling uncertain about what’s coming up for us, we’re tempted to pull back and brace a bit for whatever may be coming. SUP reminds me that staying in the thick of things and trusting the river to work with you will make it easier to gain your footing.
3) Every once in a while, shift.
Because I had fallen off my board twice already, I was pretty frozen into position once I did gain my balance. It wasn’t until about an hour down the river, though, that I realized how frozen I was. My toes were cramping, all curled up and anxious. Our instructor encouraged us to shift a bit – move this foot forward, this foot to the side. And as much as I doubted my ability to do so while remaining upright, I went for it. Water eased over the side of the board, I swiveled my hips a little, and pushed my paddle back into the classic j-stroke.
Comfort tempts us to settle in to routines and patterns, whether that’s hanging out with the same people, studying the same thing even if it doesn’t really feel like us anymore or thinking about things and other people the same way we always have. Not only is it relieving to let go of something that can be cramp-inducing; it is refreshing to let the water of the shift roll over us as the river proves its trustiness in holding us up.
4) When you have your balance, take your paddle out of the water.
As much as being fully upright on that board made me feel connected to ancient river travel (and maybe made me feel a little bit awesome), my most serene moment on the river was when I took my paddle out of the water. I eased down to a kneel, and then onto my back, stretching the length of my board. My peripheral vision was full from horizon to horizon with water, trees, sky, birds, sky, trees and water again. A couple of huge flocks of Canada geese cut through the muted pastel sunset, and the wind shook the leaves, making the trees look like they had gotten a chill.
For those of us who like to get the most we can out of our little lives, it’s hard not to have our paddles in the water – or our eyes on our to-do lists and our calendars full – all the time. But as someone who can’t resist saying yes to every challenge, I’ve learned in spite of myself that our lives aren’t full if they don’t have some emptiness in them, too. Space to rest, to listen, to let openness bring potential and renewal that would have been overlooked had I not taken my paddle out for a stroke or two.
September 6, 2012 by Melody Porter
This fall, a grassroots committee of women staff, faculty and students are kicking off a pilot project we’re calling WM2: William and Mary Women’s Mentoring. It all began this past February, when Elizabeth Miller and I watched Miss Representation, a screening sponsored by the Student Assembly and facilitated by Kim Green. The movie shows a quick peek into an evening of mentoring for women in Washington DC, and immediately it clicked: We have to do this at William and Mary.
There are a lot of reasons that a mentoring program makes sense at William and Mary, but I’ll start with one: there is wisdom here, and it should be shared. At our last planning meeting, I asked the committee to share their advice for incoming women in these early days on campus, and here is their trove of good advice for you. Take it, savor it and share it with others!
- Don’t feel like you’re the only woman with doubt. Exposing a little bit of vulnerability will bring a lot of support, rather than feeling isolated. (inspired by this post on the blog, joythebaker.com)
- I hope that women who enter campus now are worried less about superficial aspects regarding their appearance and sexuality now than women were 10 or 15 years ago.
- See the opportunities, and have the courage and sense of empowerment and people to ask to figure out how to achieve those opportunities.
- You can disconnect in order to connect. Turn off cell phones to have meaningful conversations. Don’t build a relationship based off of Facebook. Disconnect enough to feel confident walking around campus alone – connect with yourself.
- Feel comfortable enough to challenge some of the ways you thought previously, and allow those challenges to shape who they might become.
- “Promise me you’ll always remember you’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” - Christopher Robin, to Pooh Bear. My hope is that every woman on this campus hears that from someone and is able to internalize it.
- I hope that you will find a group of people who help you to realize that it’s okay to be who you are. Remember the quote: “How you live your days is how you live your life.” Stay focused as you find your niche so you can live good, productive lives.
- Find those niches, and don’t be afraid to look for them, to make mistakes, to try something and fail, to speak in public, make your voice heard, take a risk – that’s where you find out who you are and what motivates you.
- My first year of college was so, so fun – totally full of silliness. I hope that you can take life seriously enough to not take it seriously. Do it with lightness that honors the depth that there is, because the depth of life is that it is really fun, too. Live your life with fullness because that’s all you have!
And, if you’re interested in being a part of the pilot year of WM2, join us for an Evening of Women’s Mentoring, September 19 from 4 to 6:30 pm. We will have a collective of W&M women faculty and staff sharing their expertise on personal and professional empowerment for female students at the College in roundtable discussions. We hope to match many of the attendees of this event to a year-long mentoring pair. For more information and to attend, check out the interest form. Email email@example.com with any questions.
April 21, 2011 by Melody Porter
A friend recently said that when Igor Stravinsky sat down to compose, he was struck by the blank page and its infinity of possibilities. At once thrilling and terrifying, all these possibilities! And even if we were to bisect the page with a large black line, as another friend pointed out, there would still be an infinity of possibilities to come. And then, if we were to draw a big red chicken on top of the line, there would remain, again, an infinity of possibilities for what that page might hold.
This blank-page mindset – so many possibilities yet nothing yet concrete or filled-in – is very real for many of our graduating seniors right now. How many times have you been asked what you’re going to do after graduation? “Do you have a job?” “Have you heard back from the Peace Corps yet?” “Did you get your first-choice med school?” If you don’t yet have an answer, it can be so painful to hear these questions, and to wrestle with them yourself.
So often, what we long for in the face of the unknown is not the best outcome, but really, just something. Anything, really, as long as we can imagine it, and as long as we have a response when people ask us those questions.
I have a couple of things to say to our dear seniors out there, who are still waiting for their pages to fill in a bit. First, remember Stravinsky, and try to focus on the thrill (rather than the terror!) of so much possibility. It is a gift to have many ideas about what you like, and many options to pursue. But when you feel overwhelmed by the multiplicity of possibilities, remember Stravinsky, and know that you’re in good company.
Secondly, imagine that you do dive in and take that job you’re not sure about. Say that job is the big black line on your blank page. As you learn more about your vocation, and yourself, you still get to draw on that paper over and over again. The first black line is not where your art ends. You can take other steps, continue to figure things out, maybe even end up doing something five years from now you never would have dreamed today. Rather than worrying about what you’re going to do with your whole life, think about what you’re going to do next. There’s always time to paint a big red chicken if need be!
Though even Google has not helped me find the origins of the Stravinsky quote or verify its accuracy, I think I will often return to this idea. Even when we think we have it all figured out and our pages are filled with beauty and variety, the infinite remains. In fact, it’s there all the time, and every choice you make only makes more infinity possible.
September 20, 2010 by Melody Porter
Last Friday, I was in Washington, DC, for a meeting to learn more about a fair-trade coffee growing cooperative in Haiti. This meeting arose out of the Haiti Compact, a new collective of alternative breaks professionals from five universities around the US and the national alternative breaks nonprofit, Break Away. We came together for an exploratory trip to Haiti in June, looking to discover if – and how – students and universities in the US can productively contribute to rebuilding in Haiti, post-earthquake.
As we were learning about creative projects in Haiti that focus on empowering Haitians and their communities, I learned about Just Haiti. Through phone conversations with their US contact, Kim Lamberty, we arranged to visit La Borde, a small town in the Southern department of Haiti. There, we met with some farmers from the co-operative, learning about their work, their community and how they plan to move forward.
Baraderes, where they live, has long been a center for coffee growing but a price collapse in the 1980’s left the farms bankrupt. Just Haiti works with the farmers to build power among them and develop outlets to sell their fair-trade coffee, paying a respectable wage to the farmers for the intensely difficult work that growing coffee is. As a result, these farmers have access to fair markets as they had not before, and are empowered to make decisions and have agency in their economic lives – unlike most people in Haiti these days.
On Friday, two of my colleagues from the Compact and I met with Kim to learn more about their background, and how we can get other universities in the US connected to support their work. Kim explained the importance of our work with Haiti – as inquisitive scholars and active citizens – with sharp clarity. She said that if you understand what’s happened in Haiti, historically and economically, you have a window into understanding how the Western Hemisphere has developed into its current state. Haiti offers insight into how racism, colonialism and economic oppression affect people and political dynamics, so as we learn more about Haiti’s history, we come to understand the broader dynamics of the past several centuries in the West.
Those are big ideas, and ones that our team will be researching and sharing information about as we develop an alternative break to Haiti this January. But for now, we can all begin advocating for positive change in Haiti – by calling our congress people and advocating for continued US economic support in Haiti. Just Haiti also offers a tangible – and delicious – way to advocate for Haitian economic empowerment: buy their coffee. I’m anxiously awaiting my first shipment of 12 ounces of regular roast, and 12 ounces of Haitian roast. I am excited to know that my little warm cup each morning can now not only be a great way to get centered, but a bold statement of support for people working hard in the fields of Baraderes, Haiti.