The Better food journey
Actionable ideas towards a world eating well
by Corinna Hawkes
In the month since I wrote my last blog, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the first item on the food systems wish list I shared – women’s leadership. I’ve had a second preoccupation this month too: the basil on my windowsill.
My preoccupations with the basil started a few weeks back when I planted several pots dotted around in the room where I work at home. Watching the plants grow has stimulated a mix of emotions. The basil I placed at the end of the room germinated fast; the first flush of tiny green emerging from the soil was an exciting moment in grey days. But then the seedlings grew spindly and crooked; it seemed that straining towards the light from the skylights above in the dark British spring made their stems tall but weak, lacking enough energy to grow leaves. Now, the plants that survived are permanently stunted.
On my (indoor) windowsill, though, the seedlings flourished, growing more slowly, still leaning towards the light, but with sturdier stems and larger leaves. It’s been a small pleasure between Zoom calls to stand up and turn the pots around so that the plants straighten up as they move direction and grow again towards the light.
Yet even here I’ve seen some of the seeds grow shorter than the others, crowded out by those that seem unstoppable. With my inexpert hand, I must have sowed the seeds at different depths, and spaced them unevenly, rushing rather than taking my time. I did not give them the fair conditions they needed to grow.
Now, in an attempt to help the smaller plants grow better, I moved a few into their own pots, not entirely successfully. This morning, I took more desperate measures, cutting the larger plants down to a size like the smaller ones, hoping that those crowded out now might stand a better chance. I recognise it probably won’t work - by snipping off the already stronger plants above the smaller shooting leaves below, the already taller ones will likely simply grow back bushier and stronger.
As I’ve been trying to course-correct the basil, I’ve been pulling together shared ideas on leadership into a paper with my colleagues in the Next Gen(d)eration Leadership Initiative. A new collective designed to create a leadership movement towards a well-nourished world (I first wrote about it in September last year), our working hypothesis is that while women dominate the world of nutrition and food systems, the strengths they have in leading through complexity, conflict and across sectors to effect and sustain real change are not being leveraged.
To that end, kudos to Jemimah Njuki, IFPRI’s Director for Africa and Custodian for Gender and Women's Empowerment for the UN Food Systems Summit for her recent proposal for a “Global Food Systems 5050.” As she wrote in a blog a few weeks back, the idea is that “hundreds of organizations working in food systems … make commitments to elevating women’s voices and representation, achieving gender parity in leadership, and gender equality both in their organizational cultures and their policies and programs.” It builds on the excellent Global Health 50/50 report that has done so much to highlight the need for global health institutions to walk the talk on gender representation in leadership.
The questions we are exploring are: How could leadership be better practiced? How can we unleash the power of women to leading change towards better food and diets for all? These are issues we raised in the first of a series of “ChangeMaker Connect Forums,” initiated this past April, where around 100 women came together to discuss their experiences of leadership, talking frankly about their perspectives on type of leadership they’d like to see. It was a wonderful experience, feeling such energy and connection with women across the globe. But it was also concerning, albeit not surprising, that so many women said despite their desire to stand tall, to act with ambition for nutrition, when they tried to reach higher, they felt crowded out. The issue was a sense of being limited, a sense that the way they wanted to practice leadership was not being rewarded, neither for them nor for the purpose of effecting the changes we all want to see.
It reminded me of those smaller basil plants, the ones for whom conditions limited their growth, the ones somehow not able to stand as tall as they wanted, but nevertheless, in whatever position they found themselves in, were still doing everything they could to reach towards the light, to take agency to make the best of imperfect conditions. It struck me more than ever that for real change in the journey towards better food, we must change the conditions in which leadership is seeded early on, and then continue to pay attention to unleashing the agency lying latent. If we want leadership to grow, we need the right conditions to put the power women already have to work.
Thanks as ever for the inspiration from my Next Gen(d)eration colleagues for shaping and influencing the thinking in this blog. More on the initiative and Forums can be found here.
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