Building an Inclusive Democracy with Susannah Morgan and Liban Satu

Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger
Ep: 3 Inclusive Democracy with Susannah Morgan and Liban Satu


Ami McReynolds: So a few years ago, I was doing some genealogy research on my dad's side of the family. I was able to go back several generations to Wilcox County, Alabama, and there I met my second great grandfather, Anthony. I was able to meet Anthony through two important documents. The first was the 1867 Alabama voter registration. It was made possible by the federal post-Civil War Second Reconstruction Act. He was age 73, and it's one of the first government documents to record black males living in Alabama by name. The second document was the 1870 census. He was 75 years old. Anthony was a farmer and he was living with his family.

On today's episode, we're focusing on why building an inclusive democracy is key to ending hunger. Welcome to Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger. I'm Ami McReynolds, your host, and the chief equity and programs officer at Feeding America. Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger is a series of conversations with everyday leaders who are disrupting the systems of inequity that drive food insecurity across this country. 

When it comes to advocacy, the Oregon Food Bank has always been a leader in its field. They engage in innovative work to promote anti-hunger legislation. And recently, the food bank took this work a step further. Their goal? To help build the inclusive democracy needed to ensure a hunger-free future for Oregon. I'm excited to have Susannah Morgan, CEO of the Oregon Food Bank with us today. 

Well, Susannah, I have been looking forward to this conversation. Thank you so much for joining us here on Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger. 

 

Susannah Morgan: My pleasure. 

 

Ami McReynolds: So I'm curious, Susannah, what does an inclusive democracy mean to you?

 

Susannah Morgan: I think it means to me the same thing it would mean to a person you asked on the street. It means that everybody gets a voice. Everyone has a place at a table. Democracy is supposed to be for the people and by the people, right? And the people means all of us.

 

Ami McReynolds: As you think about your mission of ending hunger at the Oregon Food Bank, why is inclusive democracy so important? Why call that out in particular?

 

Susannah Morgan: Yeah. Oregon Food Bank's mission is to eliminate hunger and its root causes. This means that we are working on getting our neighbors experiencing hunger food today, and that we are trying to put ourselves out of business, trying to create a world in which hunger doesn't happen. Or, as we say in our vision for the future, to build resilient communities that never go hungry. But in order to build communities where hunger never happens, we need to put the right systems in place, because we know that hunger is not primarily a result of personal choices. It's primarily a result of systemic barriers to prosperity - education, access to healthcare, access to affordable housing. 

We see this play out in the zip code problem. I'm sure you've heard Ami about how what zip code you’re born in does the most to determine whether or not you will live in poverty or escape poverty as an adult. And that can't be a result of who you are. It's gotta be a result of the structures in our society. And so, if we're going to change these systems and structures, we need to do it in a systemic way, which includes public policy and regulation. So in our country, we do that through democracy. We set up the rules of the game through our democracy. And so, we need the people who know what it's like to be hungry to be participating in building the structures that mean that no one will go hungry again.

 

Ami McReynolds: What are the tangible steps that you and the Oregon Food Bank are doing to rebuild an inclusive democracy? 

 

Susannah Morgan: Yes. Um, I want to start with a quick story, Ami. Two and a half years ago, we were hiring a new director of advocacy and organizing for Oregon Food Bank. And I was describing the food banking system here in Oregon, which is Oregon Food Bank plus 21 regional food banks, plus 1,400 food-assistance sites, serving, pre-pandemic, more than 800,000 people and with at least 40,000 different individual volunteers at the Oregon Food Bank facilities. And her eyes just got wider and wider. And she's like, “Do you know, you have an army?” When you add up all the people experiencing hunger, all the people who are volunteering, all of these sites across the state and all of your donors, you've got 25 percent of the state engaged in food-assistance efforts. With that many people we can change any system. 

So I think that part of the question that people ask is, okay, why is it related to hunger? Well it's related to hunger cause we can't end, can't get to a place where resilient communities that never go hungry are, without doing systems work. But it's also because we've got the structures and the people power to make this happen. So, all of the practical things we're doing are about leveraging that people-power. It’s about engaging people civically in their systems and helping people engage in ways that matter to them. 

So, let's talk about centering communities. The first thing that we do in organizing is to go out and be in relationship with communities. So, be in relationship with Africans immigrants on the eastside of Portland. Be in relationship with the folks from Micronesia who settled in La Grande, Oregon. Be in relationship with our tribal communities in Warm Springs and Grand Ronde, and then have conversations: What matters to you? How is hunger showing up for you? How is food access showing up for you? What is driving this in your communities? Where do you most want to see change happen? And then adding that to our public-policy agenda and working towards those things. 

So that relationship building is called organizing and then directing that relationship towards a campaign is how you get towards civic engagement. And that can be really small. Like, let's all show up at the zoning hearing at city hall. Or, it can be, let's all work on a statewide ballot initiative. And the wonderful thing is we already have these relationships because in each of those cases, food assistance is happening there. So we can build on the relationships we've built through food assistance over the last 40 years and turn that into: Great, we've worked together on getting food to this community. Can we work together on getting the public policy priorities of this community set in law?

 

Ami McReynolds: And to do that, it requires you to be in relationship, and it sounds like you were able to build on some relationships, but I'm curious: did you have to rebuild relationships? Did you have to seek out new relationships? Establish trust with folks that maybe you hadn’t been in relationship with? 

 

Susannah Morgan: Oh absolutely. Ami, you know me, this is my 25th year in food banking. Food banking has been well intentioned and effective logistically forever. But, in some ways, we have a habit of doing to, instead of doing with, and making decisions for communities. Oh, there needs to be food assistance there. Oh, everybody needs to have potatoes. The capacity, the strength at being in community with folks and figuring out what they really need and what we have to offer, and trying to figure out where those things overlap, is a fairly new skill for food banks to undertake. 

We are in year six of our equity, diversity and inclusion journey at Oregon Food Bank. I would say that organizing is a logical outcome of DEI efforts, right? Because one of the critical questions that equity, diversity, inclusion asks is who's at the table. Who's making these decisions? And if you are doing equity, diversity, and inclusion right, you have to be in relationship with the people who are most impacted by the work that you were doing. And that starts with your food-assistance efforts, but it leads through to your systems-change efforts. And so yes, there were people who we didn't know were mad at us because we weren't in close enough relationship [with them]. There were people who we hadn't yet met. There were folks who didn't trust us because of former behavior that we needed to figure out ways to get at. And I am sure that that will be ongoing work for the next decade, as we continue to build relationships and build trust. And the way to do that is show up real; Here's who we are. Here's what we're trying to do. Here's what we can offer. Is this something that's interesting to you? And then follow through with integrity, and every time you do that, you build a little bit more trust and the reputation changes. 

And it pays off. I had a conversation with a leader in our tribal communities, Se-ah-dom Edmo, here in Oregon recently, because I'm trying to attract some indigenous leaders to join the Oregon food bank board, which is a lack for us. And when I reached out to her and asked her for her wisdom, she said: “Ah, yes, I've been hearing good things about the work that you've been doing in the Columbia Gorge. I'll talk to you.” To me, that was a sign that we are on the right path, that our reputation for doing what we say we're going to do and doing it with humility and in partnership is starting to bear fruit.

 

Ami McReynolds: That's wonderful to hear. And related to that, Susannah, I also think about, you talked about how the traditional work of food banking, as people tend to think of, is not about the rebuilding democracy piece. It is about thinking about supply chain and how to efficiently get food to those who are in need. I'm curious, you've talked about how the community has positively responded, and the work that the Oregon Food Bank has had to do to build those relationships or rebuild those relationships. Have you experienced any pressure, at least early on, to end this work? Or did it jeopardize any of your existing relationships and, and how did you manage through that?

 

Susannah Morgan: Just before we get there, Ami, if we could just pause for a moment on the phrase that you use, rebuilding democracy. You're a black woman; I'm a white gay woman. We both know that this country has never lived up to its promise of inclusive democracy for all. That's still a goal, right? Neither of us could have voted 110 years ago. You could not have voted 60 years ago. And I was only able to marry my wife five years ago. So I just question this concept of rebuilding democracy. For me, this is not about rebuilding democracy, it's about living up to our promise as a country. We set it down that this is who we wanted to be and we're still trying to get there. And I, for one, am totally energized and inspired by the idea that we can actually create a country in which everybody matters, every body matters. So, sorry, I’ll get off my soapbox now.

 

Ami McReynolds: No, thank you for, for making that clarification. Words matter. And that inclusive versus rebuild. We're not trying to rebuild what we had, right. Where we're trying to make changes. We want to be better than that. That's right. So thank you for that clarification.

 

Susannah Morgan: So your question was about, do we receive pressure or pushback or jeopardize any of our relationships? And the answer is, um, yes. There are people who want us to stay in our lane, they think they know what our lane is and they want us to stay there. Your lane is food distribution, Oregon Food Bank. You do food distribution, let other people do the other things. And they get very frustrated with us when we're stepping out of our lane. But the truth is, it's not their job to decide what our lane is. It is our board and our organization's job to decide what our lane is. And our lane is defined by our mission statement. And our mission statement says to eliminate hunger and its root causes. And its root causes. And that mission statement, by the way, has been in place for more than 30 years. So that is not ‘crazy Susannah’ putting it in place. That is me trying to live up to it. 

So some people have said, “You're not staying in your lane, we're walking away. We'll give our money to someone else who's just doing food distribution.” And we said, “Great, here's our list of partners. Please pick some.” We also get people who are mad at us around any particular position. We do take positions on a bunch of public policy. We’re a 501c3 nonprofit so we never ever wade into electoral politics, you know, who's running for what office. But we take positions on legislative bills and on ballot measures all the time. We work hard to ground that position in our community, which is people experiencing hunger. And so I'll give you an example. Last fall, there was a ballot measure in the Portland Metro area to expand and invest in the public transit infrastructure here in the Portland area.

And we hear all the time from people experiencing hunger that transportation is a barrier to prosperity. Yes. It's a barrier to accessing food, it’s a barrier to getting a job, it's a barrier to childcare. It's a barrier to all of, all of the things. So, investments in public transit are anti-hunger investments. And so we took a pro position, but, because of the way that particular investment was going to be funded and structured, many in the business community in Portland took a position against that measure - not that they didn't believe in public transit, but they didn't believe in that funding mechanism. And we got folks calling us up and saying, “You're on the wrong side of this.” And I was able to say, “I hear you, and I appreciate your perspective on this, but here's how we make these decisions. Here's how they are rooted in the needs of people experiencing hunger.” And in almost every case people go, “Oh, okay, well, I don't agree with you, but I understand where you're coming from and I see that as a principled approach. And every now and then someone's still angry and walks away, but that's part of trying to make change I think.

 

Ami McReynolds: So Susannah, before we wrap things up, I am always curious when I talk with folks, if you could close your eyes and just think about 10 years from now, 2031. As you think about our democracy and hunger, what does Oregon look like to you? And what does our nation look like? What's happening different?

 

Susannah Morgan: My hope is that we have made real progress towards actually building an inclusive democracy. That many, many people who are experienced or have experienced hunger are participating in our society and that is driving change that we can see. And that change will start with very tangible, straightforward things, like access to education and access to healthcare and access to living-wage jobs. So I would love to see more women of color, more folks with lived experience of hunger, more folks who have been immigrants to this country in positions of power and influence over our systems and helping make this happen in Oregon and across the United States. 

I would also hope that in 10 years we've changed the story. So Ami, I believe right now the overall story in Oregon and across the United States is that if you're poor, it's your fault.

 

Ami McReynolds: Right. Right!

 

Susannah Morgan: And I don't believe that, the data does not show that that's right. So I would really, really love us to get to a story, which it was, if you're poor, there are walls in your way. And we collectively built those walls and we collectively can blow them up. And it's possible. Yes, it is possible. And I have lived it. I met my now wife in fourth grade. We have been a couple since 1991 and we married a little less than six years ago after it became legal to do so. So I can tell you in my lifetime, we've gone from being outsiders and not able to fully participate in society to being legally married and I've adopted both of our children. So, I am living proof that we change, that we, as a society, can change towards love, towards inclusion, towards justice.

It does take awhile. I'm 51. So that's how long it took for that to happen. So, I think that the advice is the same advice I’d give for eating an elephant. You take one bite at a time. One bite at a time, one fight at a time, one public policy at a time. We can't make, reform our police system and root out racism and white supremacy tomorrow, but we can do something. Let's do that thing. Change happens at every single level, and you should approach it to the level where you think you have leverage. 

So for instance, the food bank in La Grande, Oregon - La Grande has maybe 40,000 people, it’s way out on the northeastern edge of Oregon - is very invested in the homeless community. And they were setting up a shelter and they got NIMBY-ed. A group of neighbors organized against them and took complaints to the city hall. And they organized; they organized their community through the food-assistance sites, through the churches, through any means on which they could organize people to come down and to advocate with the city council to allow that site for un-housed neighbors to stay during the bitter cold, northeast Oregon winters. And they won. That is a small thing, but it's not small for those people who didn't have to sleep on the streets that winter, that is a big thing. And furthermore, everyone who participated in that effort noticed that they made a difference, that their voice mattered. And that made them more likely to participate in the next thing, which was a statewide ballot campaign that we did this last fall to decriminalize possession of minor quantities of drugs and treat it as a behavioral health issue instead of a criminal issue.

And that passed overwhelmingly across the state using a lot of the same folks that got organized for smaller, local battles. So my answer to you is, it all matters. Again, as a gay woman, I think we only got marriage equality because we had a preponderance of states that had passed marriage equality measures, right? We didn't just go for a federal strategy. You need to go for a local strategy, a statewide strategy, a federal strategy, and you need to see where there's give and where there's opportunity and be able to move between all of those. We saw so much community goodness through this last Vote Out Hunger campaign, our campaign around ballot measures in Oregon this last fall. And were able to see so many communities engaged. We saw so many communities engaged in the census, and even in a pandemic, we got more participation in the census than Oregon has ever had. People are eager to be part of creating their communities. They just need to see the way and feel as if their voices will be heard. 

 

Ami McReynolds: As we heard from Susannah, an inclusive democracy is for the people by the people. To support this, Oregon Food Bank works in partnership with the communities it serves, Liban Satu is one of those leaders.

 

Susannah Morgan: Liban is a great example of doing with not doing for. Liban is a natural leader  among the African immigrant community in the eastside of Portland here. And when we went to speak to our African community about how hunger was overrepresented in their community and how we were working on trying to create systems change so that wouldn't be the case, Liban was one of the folks who joined in at the table and brought his lived experience in, his depth of knowledge with community and said, “Here's some of the things we need to do. We need to double down on food assistance here. Oh, and we should do census organizing here because many of our folks don't know that they should be counted. That’s something that we should do. Oh, and you know, we've got this population of folks over here who were probably eligible to vote and don't know how, so we should do some voter education and some voter drives over here.”

And we didn't know that, right. What we knew is that this is a group of folks we wanted to be in community with because they were overrepresented among people experiencing hunger. But Liban knew where there were challenges and where there was energy and where there's possibility for change. And so we said, “Great, that's what you want to do. Okay. Let’s get you some training. Let's get you some materials. Let's get you some organizers to help make that work happen. What else do you need? Oh, you need a mobile food pantry site here. Great. Let's make that happen.” What a gift. He is a gift of a man. And it's a gift of a relationship.

 

Ami McReynolds: A member of the Swahili-speaking refugee community, Liban has dedicated himself to empowering his neighbors out of poverty. One way he has tackled his mission is by working on the census, an important part of building an inclusive democracy.

 

Liban Satu: Hunger in my community is not something new. My community has gone through what we really call hunger, where people can even go for days. It's very complicated to them because the system they are used to is totally different. Here, you have to go somewhere and talk to somebody. You have to go to somebody's office and ask, let's say like for food stamps or any kind of support. You have to look for a job. You don't know where to find a job. Without a job you cannot survive. You cannot buy anything. It's really, really complicated. These are people who have never worked in their entire life. They come here, they start working for the first time. Back home, they work in their own farms. They take care of their own livestock. They are self employed. Here is totally different. Even the father sometimes feels like he is not the head of the house because he's not bringing anything; he doesn’t go to work. So it's very, very complicated and they have to learn, somebody has to teach them, especially the elderly people -  it will take them time because you have to have the language in order to get a job.

 

Ami McReynolds: I'm curious, you know, we spoke with Susannah Morgan at the Oregon Food Bank. And in this shift that you just talked about, she mentioned that you worked on the census as a means to fight hunger in your community. Why is it important to participate?

 

Liban Satu: So for my community, the census is very important because they get food stamps. They get support in housing. Their children go to school. So all this, if it's not there, it will affect them. Having been counted, it also helps those who receive SSI, because some of them are elderly people, right? If they are not counted, then they might not get, or somebody else will get affected. Having that number of refugees coming in every year. And they are not counted. They are being considered hard to count just because somebody doesn't want to come to them because of political views or political issues. Then that affects my community. And it affects the whole country.

Ami McReynolds: If your city or your state said that they would grant you two requests to help your community thrive and grow, what would you ask of them?

 

Liban Satu: To me, what matters is education.Education in my community, there's a gap between what the government is ready to do and what my clients need. And that gap can only be minimized through education. For instance, education on, about civic education. It's very important. When it comes to census, voting, ballot measures - they would vote in what they want and they vote out what they don't want. And finally let them make their own judgment on what is good for them.

 

Ami McReynolds: Are there other resources or support that you feel that could make a big difference in terms of hunger and poverty in your community?

 

Liban Satu: My community are farmers back in their countries. If they could be given an opportunity to own their own farms. And of course back home, they use the horse with their hands, but they help each other as families - three, like three to five, six, seven families come together and focus on one particular farm. Then they moved to another family farm. Then another family farm. Here, there could be nothing like that. We have machines, we have tractors, we have all this. So if my community, those who are interested, those who are able to do it, they can be given that opportunity either to buy land or to lease land and be trained -- because they have that background information about farming, I think they can thrive. They'll also be able to participate in contributing to America, having enough food everywhere. There's a lot of land in this country, especially in Oregon; Oregon is a great land. There's plenty of rain, so they can do farming here. But the only thing is how do they get access to land? How could they do farming? They just need the first-step support. Then maybe they'll be able to sustain themselves. And instead of receiving, they could be giving out.

 

Ami McReynolds: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger. If you enjoyed our conversation today and want to get involved in the work Feeding America is doing to address equity and food insecurity, visit feedingamerica.org/act. Don't forget, share the show with others and be sure to subscribe so that you can get new episodes. As soon as they're available. I'm Ami McReynolds, and I look forward to continuing our equity journey together in the next episode.

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