Learning the Back-to-the-Landers

This interview originally ran in the Feb. 17 Ithaca Times. I thought the story near the end about Cornell brass submarining a grant proposal was pretty fascinating. My photo – these Q&A “speakeasy” interviews appear with the subject as a cutout, so we’ve been doing our best to avoid the person-standing-against-wall shot. Green and I foraged in the Agway on a zero degree day to find a prop that worked and we ended up with a wagon. My production guy didn’t like me, because there was no brick wall background. Alas.

The Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming is going through the first leadership change in its history this month, with the retirement of founding director Joanna Green. Elizabeth Gabriel, who operates Wellspring Forest Farm with her husband Steve in Mecklenburg and was the founding director of Common Good City Farm in Washington, D.C., will replace Green as executive director of Groundswell, which focuses on educating potential farmers in sustainable agriculture practices.

After Green took an early retirement from Cornell Cooperative Extension in 2008, where she worked with the farming alternatives program, she put in lots of unpaid time to help launch Groundswell. The center started offering classes in 2010 after receiving funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) beginner rancher and farmer development program. Groundswell, which is part of Cornell’s Center for Transformative Action, now offers numerous courses on everything from pasture management to marketing, and has an incubator farm where aspiring farmers without land can get a start.

The Ithaca Times sat down with Green to talk about her work with Groundswell.

Ithaca Times: How did Groundswell come about?

Joanna Green: It grew out of EcoVillage, where I used to live. We had always done a lot of sustainability education—West Haven is a beautiful farm, a really well run organic CSA, and they did a lot of great educational work. There was more demand than they could fulfill and still farm, so we started about making a non-profit institute for sustainable agriculture. The farmers weren’t going to build a non-profit, and EcoVillage had its own education agenda. In 2008, EcoVillage held a fundraising dinner and raised a few thousand dollars, and in 2010 we started programming.

IT: In your view, what’s been the overall mission of the Groundswell Center since it began?

JG: Increasing diversity in agriculture. And one of the challenges is we are a predominantly white region. There’s a matter of expectations on both sides: people in the agriculture world aren’t used to thinking about [diversity] or might not realize there’s interest from people of color in farming. In communities of color, in some cases, there’s a stigma attached, especially with African-Americans, where their historical role in agriculture is one of being exploited.

There is a growing movement to farming. It’s an honorable occupation that has a lot to do with sovereignty today. People don’t want to be dependent on a food system that’s poisoning them. If you’re not involved in producing food, you’re subject to a system that’s just feeding you junk and contributing to massive health problems.

IT: How do you go about increasing interest in farming from a diverse group of people, then?

JG: The challenge of those of us who are white and in institutions primarily led by white people is how do you actually do the work that engages and eventually turns power and resources over to people of color. The most basic thing is building relationships. In working for 20-some years in Cornell in agriculture, almost all of my colleagues and farmers—the whole world—was white. If we take on the mission of changing the face of agriculture and don’t have personal relationships, we can’t get very far. The organization has to build credibility and trust based on personal relationships. All the setbacks are learning opportunities for us. Coming to understand power we have as white individuals, the learning curve is painful sometimes.

IT: What places in life are those taking classes at Groundswell coming from?

JG: We’ve had anyone from their late teens and early 20s from any number of places, some really impoverished and some affluent college graduates. At the other end of the spectrum there are people in their 50s or 60s wanting to do something totally different in retirement or as a second career. We have a lot of midcareer people thinking, ‘I can’t keep doing what I’m doing.’ At least one couple with adult children who have started farming in T-burg moved to the Finger Lakes from Tennessee to do this. It’s people who want to farm but need to learn.

IT: And what do the prospective farmers who come through your doors learn?

JG: One of our most intensive courses is farm business planning, which we give every winter. There are 80 or 100 people who have taken it, and a substantial portion of them go into business. A lot of them come into this endeavor with little financial management skills, so we provide a much greater chance of succeeding by giving a realistic picture of what they’re up against.

For the same reason farming is super challenging, it’s super rewarding with those for which it’s a good fit. It’s a small segment of the population who’s really cut out to succeed in farming. It’s not a failure on anybody’s part or on Groundswell’s part to expose people to farming and our programs and they decide it’s not for them. And we have people who say what I really want to do is homestead, have a big garden, a little bit of livestock, but I’m not going to try and make a business of it.

IT: How have you seen support for sustainable agriculture education change over the years?

JG: The demand’s been increasing over the past 10 or 20 years. The USDA has supported development of all these different variations in farmer education nationwide. We have to reinvent a training system that fell apart over the last 60 or 70 years. It used to be farmers grew up on farms, and there was a natural organic learning process they went through. Then the [agricultural] colleges started taking on a lot of that—but all the practical how-to-farm stuff was gutted. It became all biotech, aimed at the large industrial model of farming.

The following questions are online exclusives! (There’s no limit to space on the Internet.) 

IT: Do you have any personal experience with institutions orienting themselves more toward that industrial farming model?

JG: At Cornell, we had a civic agriculture program under the direction of Thomas Lyson [a professor of sociology]. The Kellogg Foundation was pushing in the ’90s for sustainable agriculture to get a foothold in the land grant universities, and we had a grant written for three years and $750,000. Kellogg sent a team to meet with us to see if we had the support of the institution, if it was a wise investment. And a dean came into the meeting and said Kellogg shouldn’t bother putting their money here. They should invest the money into dairy manure management research. The Kellogg people were shocked. That was a low point in my career.

IT: What do you plan on doing with your increased free time in retirement?

JG: I’m going to play in my garden. Do more music. I’m going to step back from a lot of stuff and reinvent myself. I’m a good grant writer, but Elizabeth is someone who can put Groundswell on a footing where its not so dependent on the federal grants. I’m really confident in all the younger energy coming into the field and I’m going to embrace my role as an elder now. I’ve tried to model to staff and coworkers that being a human being is really important. There’s more to life than a job.

Raza Rumi on Pakistan, Terrorism, & Free Expression

This interview originally ran in the March 23, 2016, Ithaca TimesYou can read Rumi’s account of the March 2014 assassination attempt in an essay on aeon.co entitled “On the run,” and find more of his writings on his website: razarumi.com.  Photo by Diane Duthie. 

Raza Rumi left Pakistan for the United States nearly two years ago. An attempt on the journalist’s life made by armed militants on March 28, 2014 left his driver, Ghulam Mustafa, dead, and him feeling unsafe in his home country.

On the evening of the attack, Rumi was leaving the Express News television studios after an Urdu-language news and commentary broadcast. He had moved to Pakistan’s second-largest news network a few months before, the latest step in an increasingly visible media career that had earned him a spot on a Taliban-authored hit list of journalists and writers for expressing reformist views.

Last September Rumi began a two-year residency hosted by Ithaca City of Asylum at Ithaca College. This semester he is teaching an honors class on the history and culture of South Asia and a class in journalism research. He published Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller in 2013.

The Ithaca Times sat down with Rumi to talk about his work—in past, present, and future—the state of Pakistan, and his impressions of the United States so far.

Ithaca Times:You took an unorthodox path into journalism. Tell us a little bit about your background and how that informs your work now.

Raza Rumi: I was a civil servant in Pakistan, and then got into international development. I was with the Asian Development Bank for nearly a decade, during which time I began to write for Pakistani papers. I was enjoying it so much, getting so much feedback, that I said, ‘Let’s give it a try and make it into a kind of career.’ In 2008 I took a leave from the Asian Development Bank and started editing the Friday Times, a liberal weekly newspaper in Lahore … My background gives me an immense edge in terms of commentaries and analysis. I write with that experience; I know which parts of government talk to each other, how transactions come into effect.

IT: What are the restrictions on freedom of expression in Pakistan?

RR: There are red lines which journalists must not cross. You can’t be critical of the military intelligence agencies of Pakistan. You need to be very careful what you say about religion and Islam, because of the power of the Islamic clerics and militant, violent groups like the Taliban and Pakistani Taliban affiliates. You can’t call for the repeal of the blasphemy law in public. You can call to change the procedures, amend it, review it. But the blasphemy law is said to uphold the sanctity of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, so even to challenge that you’re seen as a kind of heretic.

IT: What are the uses of religion for the power structure in Pakistan?

RR: A good way of maximizing political capital is to use Islam. They say, ‘I’m a good Muslim politician, for people who are faithful, practicing Muslims.’ The military has used it even more since the dictatorship [of General Zia-ul-Haq] in the ‘80s, which used Islam to strengthen their rule for a decade. He kept telling Pakistanis he was here to enforce real Islam, to turn Pakistan into a greater Islamic country, and he took it to another level. During that time Pakistan was using jihadist groups to seek influence in neighboring Afghanistan, with the U.S. and Saudis as part of that project. … The use of Islamic militant groups is part of state policy. That’s what I was trying to challenge every evening with my own show and other shows as well, every evening for hours.

IT: And you were talking about reforming the blasphemy law and the state at the time you were attacked?

RR: I was commenting a lot on that when, in 2012, I started engaging with broadcast media more. I had been writing about these issues since 2005 in English, but there’s a limited readership. On a TV channel there’s the mass media effect of millions watching and noting what was being said. Toward the end of 2013 I was getting a lot of feedback from a lot of people. I was engaging people with what I had to say, but also getting a lot of threats, particularly on social media, on views about Islamic extremism and criticizing the state. … My ideas were getting more traction. I tried to be cautious always, but I had given up all my careers for freedom of expression to get this sort of kick and engagement. I feel like journalism has to guard and stand for the public interest, and use the most powerful and important means to achieve that.

IT: How do you compare the media climates in Pakistan and the United States?

RR: TV is the same format, the same sensationalization. Generally journalists are safer in the U.S., and media has far [broader] limits to criticize religion, policy, and politicians. The one similarity I would say is on national security, in terms of policy and objectives, by and large the mainstream media follows what the Pentagon, White House, and CIA say. The Iraq war is a great example: there was hardly any criticism of that when the U.S. went to Iraq—even the New York Times supported the invasion. Almost a decade later we know it was a disastrous thing to have done. It destroyed Iraq, there were no weapons of mass destruction found, and it led to the growth of groups like the Islamic State. And now the U.S. wants to fight them again. In Pakistan also, being critical of national security is taken as an act of being unpatriotic.

IT: What projects are you working on during your time in Ithaca?

RR: I’m working on a memoir about the last few years, about my work, about almost being killed, and my ideas of what it means to be a public engager. I did one third of the writing the last freezing winter locked up in this house, and I didn’t go anywhere. Now I plan to, hopefully by summer—fingers crossed—to finish a first draft. Once that’s out of the way I want to work on other book projects, including one on international development.

/endprintversion. Internet extras below, in which the interviewer drops the pretense that he actually asked those exact questions to get those exact answers. 

On the feelings of the Pakistani public toward extremism and violence:

Rumi: The majority of Pakistanis don’t support violent extremists. Since 2004 they have been attacking Pakistanis and have killed more than 50,000 civilians and military personnel. When I was engaged in journalistic work, terrorism had gotten beyond control. That was why my voice was loud and heard, because I was saying this terrorism is our own doing. The Pakistani government created these proxies to control Afghanistan, to attack India. Our policy needs to change that we view national security as acting through these proxies. It’s not too much different from what the U.S. did in many parts of Latin America, setting up the Contras groups to do regime change …

So the story is the Pakistani public by a large number does not support these kinds of policies, but they are influenced and controlled through the public opinion, and the media majority echoes the line of the Pakistani military.

(The military) tells us ‘The West is going to take away our nukes. The U.S. bombarded Iraq and Afghanistan and they can come and bombard us as well. We need to be anti-American.’ Or India is our enemy. ‘They harmed us, they broke us into two parts.’

That was 1971. It’s 2016. These ideas are drummed into the heads of ordinary Pakistanis. It’s like manufactured consent, the Chomskyian construct. The majority of the media is like Fox News. The few of us talking about this are called liberals, liberal fascists, traitors, liberal extremists, unpatriotic, sellouts to the West. Now that I’ve come to the U.S. I think I’m certified as a sellout leftist in Pakistan.

On the recent history of Pakistani media:

Rumi: In Pakistan there’s a big history of censorship, media muzzling, but over time it has changed. In the early 2000s General Musharraf deregulated Pakistani media and there was the emergence of many private channels, newspapers, and magazines. Television was all state owned – newspapers were not state-owned, some were, but those that were privately owned were under tight controls. The results have been very mixed. Media played an important role against General Musharraf in 2007, ’08, when new elections were held and democracy returned, the dictatorship was over.

On how he’s continuing to work with the Friday Times using technology.

Rumi: I still commission new stories and edit them (for the Friday Times). Initially when I came here I said ‘How will I do it?’ But technology has really facilitated that. There’s all of this talk in journalism of changing frontiers and it is actually true. I use Whatsapp, Skype, Viber, Twitter, countless other platforms. All day long I can be connected with my team, sources, and colleagues in the industry, so as these conversations are going on I manage to do work with the paper. I did a story on HuffPost where I interviewed a Yazidi refugee from Iraq via Skype. He took the camera into this refugee camp and showed me the camp. I walked with him, technologically speaking.

Grandma Drone Activist On Her Time In Jail

Originally published in the March 16 Ithaca Times. Photo by Diane Duthie.

Grady Flores and I talked for about an hour and a half on the Friday morning before this story was published, going over everything from the minutiae of where the property lines are at the Air Force base to the peace movement’s arguments for enforcing international law. 

Ithaca peace activist Mary Anne Grady Flores was released from the Jamesville jail in Onondaga County on March 7. She had spent 49 days in lock-up for violating an order of protection against Col. Earl Evans, commander of Hancock Air Force Base.

Grady Flores’ imprisonment came about from her involvement with the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars, which has staged protest actions at Hancock since 2010. The base hosts a command center for the remote pilots who control MQ 9 Reaper drones, which are used in missile strikes at alleged terrorists in numerous countries overseas.

At a demonstration on Oct. 25, 2012 outside the Hancock base gates, Grady Flores was arrested with numerous other protesters and taken to the DeWitt Town Court. There, a one-year order of protection to keep them away from Evans was issued to the arrested. On Feb. 13, 2013, Ash Wednesday, Grady Flores was taking photographs of other protesters outside the base gates.

“I wasn’t planning on getting arrested,” Grady Flores said in an interview with the Times. “I had a catering job the next day.”

As the police moved to arrest the protesters, Grady Flores started walking down the road to a diner to freshen up and get a cup of coffee when a police car swung around to pick her up. She said that photographs of that day show she never set foot on the base’s property—and moreover, where property lines are there are unclear.

“It’s important to explain this stuff, but it’s a huge distraction,” Grady Flores said, as she traced out the geography of the protest area with her hands. The base has eventually said that its property goes out to the double yellow line in the middle of Molloy Road, though many officers arresting protesters have admitted later in court they did not know where that line was.

In February 2014, Grady Flores was one of 12 protesters from the October 2012 action to be sentenced to 15 days in jail for disorderly conduct. In May of that year, her charge for violating the order of protection went to trial. That trial was frustrating because the moral and legal arguments that protesters have raised in the past were all off-limits, Grady Flores said. In the past, drone activists have had former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark testify to a Town of DeWitt justice about the connections between international war crimes law and local law in cases where they’re charged for disorderly conduct and/or trespassing.

The short of their argument, Grady Flores said, is the “justification rule.”

“If there’s a fire in a house you have a right to break a front door to save a life,” she said. “We can’t leave it only to those who are in power and we’ve known that throughout history. In the case of wars it’s been the veterans themselves who have had that quantum-leap moment where the secret is out and they want to know why they’re marching to wars and dying in the thousands. In the case of the drone pilots, they’re succumbing to [post-traumatic stress disorder].”

In July 2015, Grady Flores was sentenced to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, which her attorney Lance Salisbury notes is the maximum and “extremely unusual and severe.” When an appeal to the Onondaga County court was denied, Grady Flores had to surrender on Jan. 19 to begin her sentence, which had been reduced to six months by that time.

The experience of incarceration has its rules and routines that seem minor, but add up to a less than wholly human experience.

“No one is allowed to give hugs or touch one another in jail – you’re supposed to get seven hugs a day to be healthy and I’m in starvation mode,” Grady Flores said. Even something so simple as the guards making their rounds every 15 or 20 minutes, with keys jangling and their “bloody bleeping” scanners takes some time to block out.

Incarcerated in a pod with about 60 other women, Grady Flores said there were moments of joy. On one day, Grady Flores’ friend Carissa returned from the downtown Syracuse jail excited, because she had met four women who had been arrested at a Jan. 28 action at Hancock. Later, Grady Flores was called to the TV room to see her comrades on the 6 o’clock news. And while she’s a self-proclaimed radio news junkie with no television for 20 years, Grady Flores did discover she liked the Ellen DeGeneres show while “in the hole.”

Grady Flores is originally from the Bronx, which gave her “a lot of street cred.” One of the guards said hello with the greeting “What’s up, OG,” one day.

“What’s that mean? Old Grandma?” Grady Flores asked the guard. “No, he said, old gangster.”

Grady Flores might yet have to return to jail. She’s out on a “stay of judgment,” while the New York Court of Appeals, its highest court, decides whether to hear her appeal. That appeal relies on a misuse of the order of protection, typically applied in cases of domestic abuse.

At her trial for violating the order, Evans took the stand and admitted “he doesn’t know me or any of the others, he’s not afraid of me, and he never had a conversation with me,” Grady Flores said. “It was just a piece of paper to keep us away from the base.”

Grady Flores’ mother is in hospice care and she said she hopes to stay out of jail long enough to see her to the end. While Grady Flores is catching up on the news and continuing to pay attention to drone warfare, she also wants some family time.

“There’s a bombardment of messages from society all about numbing ourselves and not taking an honest look at this thing, which is pretty hard to look at,” Grady Flores said. “I’d rather not look at it myself. I’d rather hang out with my grandchildren at the playground and waterfalls, make cookies. And I will do that, that’s what feeds my soul.”

Charlie Bucket in Seneca Falls

This space has been long neglected, in favor of writing for my day-and-nights job that actually pays, a little. So perhaps we’ll make this space a bit of a reporter’s notebook, for those whimsical bits we can’t fit in our 28 to 32 pages a week.

Our emails at that alternative-to-Gannett-parsimony-weekly are inherited and very generic. “My email is reporter at ithacatimes.com” is often how I give people an idea of the size of the shop. Which is still, I believe, the largest full-time editorial staff in Tompkins County, with three reporters and two editors covering an area of 100,000 people.

So our long-used accounts get a lot of press releases, like lots of reporters do, and some of them are the boring kind – some recent grad in some PR shop out of NYC or San Francisco, asking us four times in a week whether we want to run some study showing Ithaca to be a place from which families are fleeing or something. Because it’s a study performed by some real estate site trying to get its name out there before the venture capital runs out.

And some of these releases are far more amusing, surprising, whimsical, what have you. Usually, the more mom-and-pop local operations supply those. I been meaning to share more of these, so let’s start now with this one from the Seneca Community Players.

It starts out telling us it’s the 45th anniversary of the Gene Wilder version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Important why? Because the …
“Seneca Community Players have issued a virtual Golden Ticket to residents of Seneca County and surrounding areas to come and meet Peter Ostrum, who portrayed Charlie Bucket in the film at a Willy Wonka themed, press release party at the Gould Hotel in Seneca Falls on Thursday, April 21, 2016.”

“Doors will open at 6pm, and attendees will be invited to enjoy a chocolate buffet donated by local businesses.  Peter Ostrum will give a presentation followed by a brief question and answer session, after which he will be available for autographs and photos with a suggested donation of $5 for Seneca Community Players.  There is no charge to attend the event.”

A very affordable fundraiser; the tie-in is a kick-off for a larger fundraiser – an “auction theater,” where each role in a three-night stand of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka will be auctioned off to the highest bidding would-be player.

Ostrum (pictured above, in the release photo) only acted in Charlie, and no other film, according to his Wiki. At the wise age of 13, he turned down a three-film offer and instead ended up going to Cornell’s veterinary school. He now practices large animal medicine in the North Country of New York.