Lessons from the High Road: Thoughts on Mutuality and Interconnectedness
By Eliza Gifford
“All flourishing is mutual.” - Robin Wall Kimmerer
Last summer, I worked for a small family-owned greenhouse and landscaping business. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more plants go to waste in my life. At the end of every week, without fail, my coworkers and I had to haul carts full of starter veggies to the ever-growing compost pile. We’d eye each other in despair as hundreds of perfectly good tiny tomato, eggplant, zucchini, cucumber, basil plants sat in the sun to slowly rot away. We always wondered why our boss never wanted to donate them to local gardens, or to the community center, or even give them out for free.
I think about this a lot. She absolutely isn’t the only business owner out there who wastes like this because it’s easier, or more cost-effective, or whatever, and of course there are corporations who waste daily on a much larger scale. But what might have happened if she’d seen the potential for her role as a grower and imagined herself as part of something bigger? Maybe if she’d had more time on her hands, or more employees, would she have made the effort to give these plants a new home, to feed other people in the community?
What would all of our lives be like if we thought of ourselves as part of an inescapable network and recognized each of our own small pieces within this greater movement?
I can’t say that I blame her. This is America, of course, and we’re all taught to be good little individualists. We’re supposed to put ourselves and our families and our profits and God before anything or anyone else. I’m not supposed to ask you for help, or expect your help, because we’re all just trying to survive in our own little bubbles.
I’m guilty of this too, of prioritizing my own independence above everything else. I know that I am supposed to make my own way in this world, and I don’t like having to rely on other people. This mindset, however, often comes at the expense of forming deeper relationships with people. I’m good at being surface-level nice to people, but I struggle to really show up for people or ask for help when I need it.
Something I think we’re all learning this summer, though, is that relationships are more than just relying on one another; relationships are a form of collective survival. Relationships are the foundation of change. When you see yourself not as an isolated body but as part of a larger network of people, it becomes clear that helping me helps you and vice versa. When we realize our responsibility to one another, survival is no longer a competition for dominance or individual success, but an opportunity for community-wide growth.
Without a network of people willing to lift one another up, community change would be impossible. My supervisor shows up to countless events and meetings not only to represent his organization (Field & Fork), but to ask people how they’re doing, because he recognizes that part of his responsibility in this network is showing up authentically, getting to know people, and building deeper relationships over time. He’s there to work towards improving our local food system, but he’s also there to show he cares about people in the community. And because he has built this trust, he knows that people will reciprocate this dedication; he is never truly working alone.
Food justice work rests at the intersection of countless social issues, because those who experience food insecurity are disproportionately marginalized and often face a multitude of burdens at once. He has to know everyone in healthcare, and education, and community gardening, and housing, because all of these issues intersect with food justice. This overlap is why being a part of this network can be incredibly overwhelming sometimes, as you begin to understand just how intricately every issue is interconnected. No problem exists in a silo, but rather all problems are reinforced by a million other structural issues that also need solving. We can’t dream of solving food insecurity without also being ready to address structural racism, redlining, capitalism, the agriculture industry, etc. It’s a lot to take in, and it’s a lot to be ready to fight for.
But a network of problems is also a network of joy sometimes. You get to celebrate with your partners and neighbors because their wins are your wins, too. Solidarity means showing up when you need to, whether you’re picketing for worker’s rights or you’re bringing a dish to the community potluck so you can catch up on what’s going on in people’s lives. We exist in this network of incredible complexity, but this also means that your struggles and your fight are never truly just yours. Everyone shoulders the load, and it gets a little bit lighter; and when you extend a hand you know that your community is always willing to do the same for you.
Call it cliche, but when you think of yourself as part of something bigger than yourself, all flourishing is mutual, because survival becomes collective. So, as I’m beginning to remind myself: take care of your friends, and take care of people who are not your friends. Because there are so many pieces to this puzzle, this puzzle that includes everyone from your mother to your postman to your delivery person and your neighbor. We might all be working in Buffalo for different organizations, with different agendas, but all of our jobs are interconnected within place, within a larger movement of change and social justice. Remember that all of our flourishing is mutual.