ASTEP was honored to give the keynote address at the 5th anniversary celebration of Adelphi University’s Collaboration Project. The Collaboration Project is a cross-campus constituency of faculty, staff, students and administrators who create programming and events related to issues of social justice. This year’s theme is Hunger For Justice, and ASTEP’s Abby Gerdts gave a poignant speech, which you can read below:
I’m so happy to be here. My name is Abby Gerdts and I’m the International Program Director for ASTEP-Artists Striving to End Poverty. We are an organization that believes ART CAN CHANGE THE WORLD. We use the arts as a way to work with children, both in the US, and in Africa, India and Ecuador, and teach them health education and life skills. We’ve actually worked with some students from Adelphi, and we are so impressed and excited to see a University community coming together to explore themes of social justice.
And as you all know, the theme this year is Hunger for Justice.
The need for justice comes about when a person or group of people has been oppressed or marginalized. This can be in relation to race, politics, gender, sexual orientation, or even a deep seeded love of Family Guy. I venture to guess that all of us in this room have been both the perpetrator and the victim of some form of oppression.
We are here as a community to think about how justice can be achieved, and what exactly our role should be as a global citizen.
So, how do we define hunger?
In 2010, approximately 1 in 7 households in the United States were considered ‘food insecure’, which is the highest number ever reported in the US. I have been privileged to work with communities facing some of the most extreme poverty all around the globe, and you’d be shocked to know that some of them were in our own backyards.
Food is a power and a necessary resource. People use the power of food for leverage in many ways, both today and throughout history. Hunger strikes have become a way to bring attention to issues in nonviolent ways. Images of emaciated African children beg us to get involved in this struggle. The Hunger Games is a bestselling book and now movie industry. This is like a car wreck we can’t look away from. Nor should we.
In my global travels, people sometimes ask me if we have poor people in the United States. They often seem surprised when I try to explain the issue of poverty in the US. “But, you are the richest country in the world. How can you have poor people? Aren’t there enough resources for everyone?” Sometimes it takes looking through their eyes for me to see just how unjust the situation is for some Americans.
But it isn’t about feeling guilty for what we have; it is about being conscious of what we waste. Developing a hunger for justice leads us to live in the world in a way that is about paying attention. Being active about knowing what is going on. We live in an age where information is instantaneous. We have the capacity to know what is happening all around the world at all times…..from the wars in Syria to what kind of Starbucks Snooki ordered this afternoon. We can drive the conversations based on what we show interest in. We can choose to NOT bury our heads in the sand and instead to engage in a global conversation about real issues and about saving real people’s lives.
As part of a community of artists with a desire to see justice in our world, we have to be in dialogue with each other. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
We have the ability to encourage each other to open our eyes to our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, our colleagues and friends- to be present so we can bear witness to the struggles that may be happening right in front of us. Not just in Ethiopia, or rural India, or some community in the Bronx.
This past summer, ASTEP invested in a Culinary Arts curriculum in our south Florida program that targets Hispanic migrant children. We were responding to a discovery we made that our kids were unaware Type 2 Diabetes wasn’t a natural progression of getting older. Like grey hair, or sagging skin. They explained to us that everyone would get Type 2 Diabetes, as they munched on Flaming Hot Cheetos and drank a Coke. And everyone they know does have Type 2 Diabetes, because the food their parents can afford that is accessible for the migrant lifestyle isn’t particularly nutritious. Lots of fast food, processed food, with corn syrup. Little to no produce. It is an interesting experience to introduce common vegetables….like raw carrots…to a 17 year old girl who has never put one in her mouth.
When I try to explain who ASTEP is, I often end up in a conversation about poverty. I explain that there are different kinds of poverty….financial poverty seems obvious, but there is also emotional and spiritual poverty as well. I’d venture to say that there are many kinds of hunger. Hunger for food is clear, but then there is hunger for equality, hunger for peace, hunger for jobs, hunger to be really heard and seen, hunger for community, hunger to belong, and hunger for justice.
As you start to become more aware of your hunger for justice, you may feel the need to become an advocate or an ally for those who are being oppressed. This can be a great thing. We need to strive to create that just society whenever and wherever possible. Personally, I believe it starts here….in this community, in your personal life….with you. With me. Between us. To do that, we need to be living out those intentions in an active way. Justice is truth in action.
I want to leave you with a story by a woman named Jacqueline Novogratz. When she was growing up in Alexandria Virginia, she had a blue sweater that became her prized possession. Her Uncle Ed gave her a wool sweater with an African motif: two zebras at the foot of a mountain. She wrote her name inside and wore it all the time. As she got older the sweater got tighter, and one day at school a boy in her class cracked a joke about the mountain across her chest, and she was humiliated. She vowed never to wear it again, and told her mother to give it to Goodwill.
When she was in her mid 20’s, she traveled to Rwanda to help establish a microfinance enterprise for poor women. As she was jogging in the mountains one afternoon….she spotted a young boy on the road. He was wearing her sweater. She stopped him and turned down the collar to see her name written on the tag. It was the same sweater she donated 11 years earlier. This encounter convinced her that all of us are connected, and every action or inaction, everything we put out into the world has a repercussion felt by people all over the globe that we may never know and never meet.
Remember that we are all connected. Keep the hunger for justice alive as you continue to develop the many communities you will be part of in your life. We all play a role in the change we need to create.