WhyHunger sat down with longtime supporter and author Rich Garon to get some insight on his new novel Felling Big Trees, his commitment to address the root causes of hunger and what his career in politics has taught him about social issues. Proceeds from Felling Big Trees benefit WhyHunger.
Q: Of all the charities, what drew you to WhyHunger and its mission?
A: I started working with WhyHunger 40 years ago, which was known as World Hunger Year at the time. My first duties as a legislative assistant were supporting my former boss, Congressman Ben Gilman, as he worked on the Right-to-Food Resolution. That was followed in the late 70s when I helped him as he worked with this whirlwind dynamo named Harry Chapin. He and Bill Ayres had just set up the group and they were determined to create a Presidential Commission on World Hunger. The Commission was established and Ben served with Harry, Congressman Rick Nolan, Senator Pat Leahy, Senator Bob Dole, and other members from the private sector. Harry was soon known as the conscience of the Commission—the driving force to get things done the right way. I’m truly heartened by the great work WhyHunger has done and continues to do.
Q: How did a career in Washington both help and fail to help you prepare for spending your retirement serving the homeless?
A: I saw how Ben, as Chairman of the House Commission on International Relations, could use that position to make a difference on issues such as children’s survival and related nutrition and health issues. However, as we know, there’s a lot more to do, and Washington can be a tricky place to get done what needs to get done. I guess as I entered my work on behalf of the homeless, I had little power to bring to the table. I had to, as Harry would say, just do something. I learned through a lot of trial and error what seemed to work and what didn’t. I think I’ve been doing my homework as I now begin to approach elected and appointed officials. Again, I learned that from Harry. Policymakers he met couldn’t believe that a singer/songwriter seemed to know more about the issues than they did.
Q: In your book, Felling Big Trees, the main character Fran Stewart is a disgraced politician who is searching for meaning and an answer to global injustices. Do you relate with the main character and why?
A: Yes, I think it’s not uncommon to come away from a career on Capitol Hill wondering why more can’t be done to effectively and humanely deal with the problems our nation and the international community face. I had to think for quite a while on how to portray a single act that captured his lashing out at Washington. Congressman Fran Stewart wonders what could have been done, for example, to halt genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. Having visited both areas, those questions always burned in my mind.
Q: Why did you choose to write about poverty, hunger, and homelessness from the point of view of Capitol Hill?
A: I wrote this novel 15 years ago. I had just retired from a career on Capitol Hill, so that seemed to be the perspective from which I could relate with authenticity. The novel format gave me an opportunity to create characters struggling with personal issues, as they also tried to better understand and deal with issues and themes I thought important.
Q: What has a career in politics taught you about social issues and how we can help?
A: It is important to be persistent in seeking change, but not to the degree that you can’t recognize that those who earlier have opposed change are now ready to talk. I’ve seen some real opponents come around to seeing the merit in one’s position.
Q: Why do you think it is important to support community-led solutions to hunger, poverty and homelessness along with policy change?
A: It’s important, as Fran Stewart recognizes, to ask some universal questions, questions as relevant today as in the 1990s: What breeds inaction and apathy? How do we jumpstart a deeper connection to injustices we see every day? How far will we humble ourselves to help those with few resources? Community led solutions, such as those advocated by the work of WhyHunger, focus on these types of questions in the face of the realities of changing obstacles. WhyHunger has served its supporters well in doing this over the years and in alerting policymakers of the voices and stories of the people, who are a force to be reckoned with.
Q: How do the challenges of our current political climate dovetail with the challenges in your book, Felling Big Trees, and how do you see that affecting the state of hunger, poverty and homelessness in the U.S.?
A: Ben used to urge us to keep our powder dry until we knew exactly what we were dealing with; to see the best way to get what we wanted from any given situation. I think that’s sound advice, and a position embraced by Fran Stewart. At some point, he realizes long-established ways of doing things are not the best ways. He raises one person’s voice and does what one person can do to the fullest extent possible. I believe in any political climate, that’s the measure of a person.
Rich Garon received both his M.A. and Ph.D. in Politics from New York University and began a career on Capitol Hill that lasted more than 25 years. For the last six of those years he served as Chief-of-Staff, Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives. He currently chairs the Serve (Outreach and Mission) Committee at the Immanuel Anglican Church in Woodbridge, VA and coordinates the Homeless Ministry, with an emphasis on those living in the woods. He was named to the Board of Directors of the Greater Prince William County [VA] Community Health Center, and conducts mission trips with his wife, Karen, to Bolivia to support church-building in several areas including what began as a tent city.
Proceeds benefit WhyHunger.