If We Can Imagine It, We Can Build It

An Interview with Susannah Morgan of Oregon Food Bank, Part II

Andrew Wolk
May 20, 2019

In last week’s blog post, I wrote about the discussion I had with Susannah Morgan, the CEO at Oregon Food Bank. I shared her fundamental mindset shift in how she approaches her work, from doing todoing with the people she serves.

Susannah has spent nearly a quarter-century in food banking, including twenty in leadership roles. That’s a lot of experience and time to think about what’s required to make real and long-lasting improvements to people’s lives. Here we go deeper into those bigger issues.

I asked Susannah about what I wrote back in May regarding a new social contract for the twenty-first century, what I called our Common Purpose, and about the critically important question all of us involved in this work need to be posing about everything nonprofits, philanthropy, and the government does: To what end? I know there are a lot of different points of view out there, and I really wanted to hear from a thoughtful leader who is working in the trenches.

Folks who are thinking hard about the short-term/long-term questions, who are thinking hard about to what end, who are really interested in long-term systems change, often pooh-pooh the immediate relief side of food banking, Susannah said.

They often find the immediate relief side of food banking to be less satisfying than the work they’re doing to try and change systems and society. Over time, I’ve developed an argument for folks who I think are going to lead with the but-are-you-really-making-any-difference-in-the-long-run questions.

She also offered some examples of arguments from across the political spectrum.

When I was at the Food Bank of Alaska, the arguments against the food bank all came from the right: You’re helping people who don’t deserve your help. Here in Portland, the arguments against food banking come from the left: You’re keeping people fed just enough so they don’t riot in the streets, and therefore you’re part of the problem.

All three perspectives dehumanize the people in need. That led me to an aha moment: meeting basic needs is the very foundation that enables one to be on, and stay on, the pathway to lifelong success from healthy birth to quality education, a well-paying job, and healthy and secure retirement. It may seem obvious, but it reminded me of how important it is to recognize that everything nonprofits, philanthropy, and government are doing ought to be helping people along with that pathway and meeting basic needs are an essential ingredient if nonprofits, philanthropy, and government are going to make progress at a population level and reduce disparities. There are obvious milestones to meet along the way, but sometimes people may need immediate help which everyone deserves (the answer to Susannah’s right-wing critics) and that makes it possible to keep moving forward (the answer to her left-wing critics).

I asked Susannah why she thinks people fail to see meeting basic needs as an essential ingredient of ensuring people can be on and stay on the pathway. Why don’t people get that? She answered by talking about our moment in American history.

We are not making progress, she said. We are seeing wealth inequality get worse. There is very strong data that many, many families can expect their children to grow up in worse economic situations than their parents, which would be the first generation we would expect that for in the United States. We are going backward, in the sense of the American Dream.

The charity has played at least some role in this regression, Susannah contended. I don’t actually lay a lot of the responsibility on charity, but I think it’s a reasonable question to ask. Were not making progress. Where is it broken? Who should we be held accountable for this?

More significantly, she said, this is really about American values and especially the fundamental American belief that you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that people can climb the economic ladder if they try hard enough, and that if you’re not climbing the economic ladder it is somehow your own fault or your own actions that have not led to that.

Susannah pointed out to data that backs that up. The strongest indicator of whether you will live in poverty is whether you grew up in poverty, she noted, but she also returned to the bootstrap idea, which remains our foundational myth across all economic groups.

Folks who are the high end of the economic ladder look down and say you ought to be trying harder. Folks at the bottom look around and think they ought to be trying harder. But they also know theyre trying as hard as they can. Why isnt it working?

That myth ends up fueling divisiveness. People ask why we have a growing group of people who aren’t working hard enough and then wonder whether giving out food to those who need it somehow means people don’t have to work hard enough. Our efforts at charitable assistance get intertwined with these myths around why the problem persists.

The economic ladder is, I believe, synonymous with the pathway to lifelong success. It has become more and more difficult to climb. Everything people need to do the climbing is so much more difficult to access than they were, say, in earlier times. Today, despite that everything people need can be made accessible so much more easily than ever before, the complex and for many, impenetrable systems we’ve created educational, financial, and so on make the ability to get on, navigate, and stay on the ladder, the pathway, much more challenging.

The conversation led me not only to see the provision of basic needs as fundamental to the pathway but also that whether people are having those needs fulfilled must be measured just as much as meeting more ambitious milestones associated with lifelong success such as quality education and a well-paying job.

That poses a question central to developing a new social contract for the 21st century. We have to decide as a nation whether having basic needs met is a right.

I ended my conversation with Susannah by offering her the chance to link to a song, as I’ve done with some of my own posts. She chose Tracy Chapmans Heavens Here on Earth. I asked her why.

Because I believe that if we can imagine it, we can build it.

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