By Lisa Hines-Johnson
Months ago, I agreed to co-chair Feeding America's conference for operations professionals scheduled for late summer in St. Louis. In a nutshell it meant that I committed approximately six months of focus on planning and collaboration to benefit my sister food banks all over the country. I was grateful and honored to serve our shared mission in this way. I admit to being a lover of learning so it was truly a joy to look at the national network of colleagues and plan a shared agenda for us. When I originally wrote out my list of places to see and things to do in St. Louis, I drafted the typical list: Check out the Arch, sample some delicious soul food from Sweetie Pies, tour St. Louis' Food Bank (of course) and join my colleagues at a baseball game. I didn't expect it to rival our Yankees, but hey I was traveling without my little ones so it was already SUPER FUN. Everything was planned...and then we received the terrible news from Ferguson.
From the moment I heard of yet another senseless loss of a young person, I had a huge weight on my soul. As food bankers, our work deals with a social issue--ENDING hunger--which is a basic human right. But so is feeling safe. As a mother of three, including one son, I couldn't shake the feeling of anger and sadness. It went to bed with me every night and woke me up even on the first day of the conference. I didn't expect to feel so much gratitude for the Executive Director of the St. Louis Area Food Bank for acknowledging what was happening just 20 minutes away. He reminded us that as food banks we have a duty to support communities that are suffering and in need. My spirit was lifted a bit after that as well as sharing with conference attendees my own feelings that first morning of the conference. It was a great lesson that even at a gathering of operations, get-it-done types, sometimes the first order of business is to allow yourself to simply feel what you're feeling whether good or bad. It doesn't make you "off task"...I think it makes you IN HUMANITY.
It was my humanness, my mommyness that compelled me to use my last day in St. Louis to side step the visit to my sister food bank to instead, travel to Ferguson. I needed to go there. I called a cab driver I'd met days earlier and asked if he'd take me to the place where a young man lost his life. The media was everywhere. As I made my way down the street, I talked to some of the residents and two police officers to get a sense of how people were feeling. I also visited the spot where Michael Brown was killed. It had been memorialized with flowers and candles. People had set up prayer stations, music was playing. The community was coming together in the wake of this devastating situation. Even though it was emotionally overwhelming, I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to witness it.
Everyone knows that I could not be more proud to be from the Bronx. As I reentered by cab headed home I was struck by one thought. The people of Ferguson want the same thing as the New Yorkers we serve: to be treated with dignity. When people think about a food bank, they think about food alone. But it takes so much more to thrive within a given life. It's not just about the food. It's about dignity. People want to feel respected. They want to feel recognized. The people of Ferguson, the families on line at soup kitchens are the same as all of us. We can never forget that. In talking to folks there I understood that the tragedy underscores something they've always wanted: to be seen--and not through a prism of what others think they are, but for who they truly are: Moms, brothers, dads, sisters, regular people answering to the same name: Human beings.
Lisa Hines-Johnson is Chief Operating Officer at Food Bank For New York City.