Voices that Make a Difference: Jim Hanna

An interview with Jim Hanna – this interview is part of the original “Voices that Make a Difference” series written by Andrea King Collier for the Food Security Learning Center’s Race in the Food System topic.

Jim Hanna says, “How we do our work is as important as what we do.”

It is hard to do the work of social justice in the food system without dealing with where you are in the work. Jim Hanna awakened to the impact of race on poverty and food access while in the role of Executive Director of the Maine Coalition for Food Security. “Our focus was anti-hunger policy. We also set up community gardens and did other hands on projects,” Hanna says. “As a ‘coalition’ with a mission to serve hungry people we needed to do more to involve people in the organizations decision making.” This led to many difficult moments. As a white male beginning to come to terms with his privilege, he says “dealing with the issues was devastating on a lot of levels.”

Doing the authentic work meant that he had to deal with his “white guilt and shame.”  Hanna says that he wasn’t ready for all the things he learned. “I resisted a lot because I wasn’t ready for it. Once I began to acknowledge my internalized white supremacy too much insight was coming too fast.” He says there was a lot of push back about the accountability to the people the Coalition served both from the organization’s Board and staff and from the hungry people in the mission.  “I struggled and it took a long time to integrate it all,” Hanna says. “It led me to understand that the policies we were advocating were not making a big difference in the lives of poor and hungry people and the way we went about the process was not inclusive and essentially flawed.”

The realizations led Hanna to step away from that body of work, because he says he didn’t “see a way to do the policy work with integrity.”

“In my work with recent immigrant farmers from Africa and Latino migrant farm workers in Maine, I got into a reflective phase,” Hanna says. “I wondered if I was defining the journey as a white privileged person, or if what I should be doing was join a more collective journey.” As the work evolved the priority became spending time with the community to find out what people really wanted. “I know that the most important work comes directly from the community.” According to Hanna, while many non-profits show up in communities with resources and good intentions, “our efforts to hold tight to control and limit access to our power can result in more harm than good. Sometimes we don’t challenge ourselves or ask the tough questions because doing so can threaten our paycheck.”

Trust is hard won but it can happen. “Based on our collective history, it takes more for communities of color to trust,” Hanna says. “Food links so much of this work together, including celebrating the diversity of cultures and forcing us to deal with the myth of race. “ We need to have a collective understanding of racism and how it impacts justice in the food system. There are a number of anti-racism training organizations that share the same analysis and are working to educate social change organizers,” Hanna says. “A movement is being built that includes many mission-driven non-profits including food justice organizations. In fact, I see some major national organizations taking it on. And while they are running into obstacles within their organizational structures, they are on the right track.” Some of groups taking this on include Heifer International, World Hunger Year and Bread for the World.

“Making change that transcends racism is slow and generational,” he says. But it is critical to be doing it, “because my kids will have a stronger platform to work from.”

Hanna says that his Lebanese grandparents and father spoke Arabic as he and his brothers grew up, though he was only taught a few words, mostly names of food. “I was blessed with exposure to my traditional Middle Eastern culture while also growing up as a white person of European descent. I was comfortable with different types of people, who lived together and worked together, but there were still tensions that didn’t get talked about and culture lost in the process.”

“Racial equity and hunger are linked, Hanna says. “There is so much of our nation’s history that was hidden. There is the exploitation of workers, the discussion of Native Americans and the land,” he adds.  He says that people will acknowledge that exploitation happened, but will say “that’s just history. I didn’t do that. I’m not responsible. I don’t have to be the one to change things.” Hanna says that once people really acknowledge racism and the way power and privilege come into play there is no way to go back to the old business as usual.  “Doing this work and being on this journey hasn’t always been pretty. It has been painful at times,” he says. “But I wouldn’t change any of it.”

“We tend to move forward our shiny stories and never tell about the failures,” Hanna says. He urges people who are serious about doing race and social justice work in the food movement to be forthcoming about their experiences, thoughts and feelings and be willing to share the lessons learned, both the good and the hard. Being authentic about what we are doing liberates all of us.

At heart, Jim Hanna is a community organizer and social entrepreneur. He currently works as a consultant and writer, assisting groups with grantwriting, organizational development and holistic evaluation. He presents workshops on anti-racism and multiculturalism. His recent clients include WhyHunger, Maine Initiatives, Dismantling Racism Works, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Four Directions Development Corporation and Coastal Enterprises, Inc.

His most recent project was creating the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project assisting recent immigrants and refugees to establish farm enterprises in Maine. Formerly, he was Executive Director of the Maine Coalition for Food Security (MCFS) from 1994 to 2002. While leading MCFS, more resources were activated for emergency food responses, more people were educated about the systemic causes of hunger, and more holistic strategies were developed to address economic injustice. He is a co-founder of the Northeast Region Anti-Hunger Network and a co-founder of the Southern Maine Peace and Justice Center. His educational background includes a B.A. in Philosophy from Saint Johns College, Santa Fe, NM and an M.A. in East/West Psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco.  He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife, son and daughter where he tends their garden, has a share in a Community Supported Agriculture farm, and enjoys preserving his family’s ethnic food cultures.

Our thanks to Andrea King Collier for writing and sharing these powerful stories. For more information about Andrea’s work, visit www.andreacollier.com.