Stepping Back

by Lauren Maunus
September 5, 2016

Lauren Maunus '19 is a Social Innovation Fellow, pursuing a venture designed to connect low-income communities with fresh, accessible local food.

I am sitting here in Logan International Airport staring at the clock move slowly as my time of departure continues to be pushed back.  Unlike the travelers surrounding me, I am delighted that the flight is delayed because it gives me extra time on Wi-Fi to complete my assignment before the rapidly approaching deadline.  I do not typically save assignments until hours before, but I have tried for the past week to gather my thoughts and reflections to distill my experiences from the summer into a narrative and have been stuck.  But now, sitting in the the airport, with a bit of distance from the summer, it came to me…  

The last time I sat in this airport was on my way to Zurich, Switzerland for the Thought for Food Global Summit.  I was deep in the weeds of spring semester, feeling an intense pressure to perform and live up to a high self-constructed standard of achievement.  I dove into freshman year with the goal to create something of my own and leave a positive mark on campus and in the community.  I knew that I was passionate about environmental sustainability and food justice, but did not know exactly how I envisioned addressing these broad issues.  Almost spontaneously, I brainstormed some business ideas and compiled an application for the Social Innovation Fellowship.  

Throughout the semester in the Fellowship, I felt wary about my intentions of starting a venture and lacked confidence in my ideas and place in the Fellowship cohort.  Despite this underlying hesitation, I pushed through, motivated by the drive to solve problems in current systems.  I applied for Thought for Food, a global challenge for college students to generate innovative projects on how to feed 9 billion people by 2050.  

During the summit in Zurich, my confusions about social entrepreneurship as a means of creating systemic change were exacerbated.  The conference was sponsored by multinational bio-tech companies with specific agendas about how to cultivate the next generation to create more technologies as a means of feeding an increasing global population.  Rather than focus on how to bolster the current efforts of communities to produce and distribute food, we discussed solely how to increase food production and improve the lives of individuals in underdeveloped countries through technology.  Many of the attendees and facilitators had backgrounds in business and economics rather than in environmental science, history, anthropology, or other disciplines that focus on the fundamental issues underlying the disparity in availability and access to natural resources.  There was limited discussion of how to work with the natural processes of the Earth and with the traditions and values of various communities.  Feeling even more disillusioned, I returned to campus to finish out the semester in the Fellowship and prepare for the upcoming summer in which I was supposed to work on starting a venture.  

After spring semester concluded, I went home for a few weeks to reflect on the year and plan for the summer.  It was not until I had some distance (both time and physical distance) from campus that I realized that I was overwhelmed by an intense self-induced pressure and that my drive to create a venture was overshadowing my goals of being an engaged global citizen and engendering change in our food system.  So, instead of coming back to campus with a set agenda to start a project of my own, I decided to consciously take a step back and learn from people who were already doing work in the community, listening to their stories and needs and asking how we could work together to improve their operations.  I attended numerous conferences and community meetings, volunteered on farms and at various organizations, met with leaders of different food initiatives, and talked with many community members about their food cultures and experiences.

I concluded my summer by attending the Northeast Organic Farming Association Summer Conference, which focused on agro-ecology and using traditional knowledge and the natural processes of the Earth as foundations for all innovation.  Listening to farmers talk about the power of regenerative agriculture to sequester carbon and reverse climate change while providing nourishment to people reinforced my goal of innovating within current systems rather than creating new ones.  

I spent this summer attempting to more deeply understand my relationship with social innovation and change-making.  Although this summer is closing, a new phase of my work is just beginning.  I feel rejuvenated and energized to further my involvement in shaping a just food system for all people, animals, and the planet while respecting both my personal needs as well as those of the community.