What’s in a Name?

4 September 2017


Dear Friends and Colleagues:

Last November, in Long Beach California, my mother’s children and grandchildren gathered at a neighborhood elementary school to witness a ceremony formally changing the school’s name in her honor. Olivia Nieto Herrera was an amazing woman, but of course, to me she was just, mom.

Her achievements included partnering with Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, on the Chisholm Trail when the feisty Congresswoman was the first Black woman to run for President of the United States. That was only one among many groundbreaking moments in the life of my mother but I am writing of that elsewhere.

No, this column is about how small the world and our country are, about how local all politics really is, and about how interconnected we all are with one another. Because you see, the newly renamed Olivia Nieto Herrera Elementary School was originally named Robert E. Lee Elementary School.

What is in a name?

I am amazed as I watch and listen to pundits argue over whether or not to remove confederate statues and flags, free speech versus hate speech, and whether or not racism still exists. I marvel at how quickly activities that immediately strike to the core of beliefs and hit one’s gut are deflected to intellectual discussion. It is truly a dis-ease of our age that we allow solipsism to distance us from what we know is wrong and unacceptable. (It is also what makes greed so acceptable in a culture of me-me-me.)

With regard to statues and flags, celebrating a man and country where Black people were ni**ers is just wrong—no matter how “good” it makes you feel.

If you can’t tell the difference between hate speech and free speech then you are not even trying. The axiom that “your right to make and use a fist ends where my nose begins” is but one of the simplest analogies.

With regards to racism, is it not clear that the current occupant of the White House is getting away with words, lies, actions, and activities for which the previous occupant would have been crucified but for one simple fact. Because Trump is a “white” man. (And the previous president was “Black,” although strangely we avoided that discussion for eight years.) White privilege, self-interest, and greed should not be the hallmarks of a country as diverse as ours.

(before you “Click” to continue reading, also please consider “Donating” to CFJC so that we can continue to speak out and hold space for the dialogue we must have to change to a society based on justice instead of greed.)

What is in a name?

Well, words do matter.

As I prepare this message it is my birthday, which is also the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and in 2017 the season of Hurricane/tropical storm Harvey in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. You have to wonder what will be the message our words and actions will convey in response to the current crisis. Words matter.

Reports out of Texas indicate it will be weeks, months and even years to recover from the storms. What will be our response? Will we make every effort to make use of and expand the social safety net—SNAP/food stamps, general relief, etc.—and take care of our own? Or will this be yet one more opportunity for sleazy modern day carpet baggers and developers to use the misfortune of people, communities, and municipalities to make another fortune?

With the current leadership in Washington, D.C., what do you think? When our president is the “Developer-in-Chief.”

This really is a distinct moment for the country, and it is likely we will be defined for the foreseeable future by how we as people-citizens-residents respond to the challenges.

To change attitudes is a monumental challenge.

When Gordon Gecko said, “Greed is good,” in the movie Wall Street in 1987 it was self-evident that his proclamation was the antithesis of common values of the United States at the time. By almost any measure it would be difficult to say that is still true today. We elected a president who proudly stiffs employees and contractors and uses any legal loophole to increase his personal and family fortunes, and anyone else be damned.

Likewise, decades of demagoguery about “welfare queens” and lazy and shiftless people have marginalized the SNAP program and welfare assistance, which is really just how we take care of people unable to provide food for themselves and their families, in most cases through no fault of their own.

If we respond to the challenge and aver that the current crisis in Texas and elsewhere is not primarily an opportunity for developers and carpet baggers but rather a chance for us to learn how to better care for one another then I believe we are finally taking a first step on the right track to self-awareness and sanity.

Similarly, as Congress returns from recess to look for ways to provide tax cuts for wealthy Americans, we can choose to see the SNAP program as a means to provide for people in crisis, and make sure it is available to those in need in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and elsewhere. Or, we can let Speaker Paul Ryan continue with plans (Path to Prosperity) where he sees SNAP as a $1 trillion pot of money available to increase the fortunes of 1-5% of American households.

What’s in a name?

How proud are you to be called an “American” these days?

Certainly, the images out of Texas of neighbors making heroic efforts to care for one another is heartwarming and inspiring, and embody the proud American spirit. But those images and acts of heroism are in direct contrast to a heartless administration with budget proposals to cut FEMA, the EPA, and our social safety net.

Last month I reminded you of Tom Brokaw’s phrase, “The Greatest Generation.” I floated the idea that maybe it is now our turn to become the greatest generation—if we respond to the challenges of the 21st century in a manner that allows us to reach for greatness.

But wait a moment.

Greatness is not a goal in and of itself, despite President Trump’s baseball caps—available for $19.99 at the Trump Outlet (discounted from $30).

As we used to say back in the day, fighting for peace is like screwing for chastity.

And trying to be great for greatness’ sake is equally oxymoronic.

To be real and authentic and earned, future generations will have to determine if we deserve the “greatest” designation. It is not something we can claim. Hold off on that ballcap.

I wrote earlier that a first step in how begin to alter current attitudes in our country, to become the society and people we want to be, is to make a decision to be the kind of people we aspire to be. Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

But it doesn’t have to be scary.

The president sold the country on “making America great again.” But no one questioned what he meant. By his words and actions, as a man of color, it seems to me he me means “white” again.

Were we great when we lynched black people? And, if not, why do we still openly celebrate that culture?

Maybe one measure of greatness is to acknowledge our history for what it truly is, and where we erred, and to make every effort to do better. Isn’t that what we teach our children to do?

Our history has many noble achievements. But our forebears were only human. They made mistakes, too.

We can love and honor our family history privately, without celebrating the grievous wrongs perpetuated in their names, and as a culture, for which they were responsible.

Because of the incredible inequities in wealth that have amassed over the past fifty years there will have to be a reckoning at some point, and probably sooner than later. We know this because the current disparities are just not sustainable. History is replete with examples.

But we can make sure we are worthy and up to the task of becoming the country we want. And that means we cannot just talk a good game and point fingers. It means we have to be and become the kind of people who care for one another, each and every day. And not just sit back and allow another greedy and ugly American to define our culture.

Perrsonally, I still have faith in us—in U.S. I have faith in you. I have faith in what we can do and achieve in behalf of the world we want to leave for our children and future generations.

But we have to start now, each and every day.

No, if we want change, it has to happen at the very local level in a person to person and people to people effort.

We are seeing that happen, organically, in communities across the country. But rest assured, it will be co-opted in the best tradition of American politics, if we allow political business as usual to prevail.

No, to change and become the people we deserve to be we have to engage in the very messy business of democracy.

So, once again, I ask you to talk with one another. To talk with those family members and neighbors you usually avoid.

What’s in a name? I am proud to be called, “Neighbor.”

We live in a culture where lies are passed off as truth by our president, by news outlets, and by special interests. The only way to change that is to talk with one another and strive for the common good. Check the BS against our values. Challenge ourselves to strive for the highest common good.

CFJC uses the GOAT process as one means to achieve that process. On a weekly basis we help convene a conversation based in D.C., of activists, food advocates, and social justice workers from around the country. As important as the individuals on the call is the process where we hold that space to have the conversations that need to take place if we are to change.

I’ll close with another request that you click this button to make a donation so that we can continue the work on behalf of all of us. That is about as hard a sell as you will ever get from us, but it is sincere. If every person gave just $10 we would have funding for a year. CFJC is running that lean a machine.

As always, I remind you that maybe the best thing we can do is to listen to those—family, co-workers, whomever—who seem to embrace the limitations of a new normal. If we can learn how and why people support the new American jingoism, we will be better prepared to engage the 46% of the country who sat out the last election.

Remember they are not some nebulous population located somewhere in the Midwest. They are our neighbors, our family, our friends. They are also the allies who most likely share our values. And who would likely support the programs for which we work so hard, if not for the toxic partisan politics that fill the blogosphere, television and radio airwaves.

I realize you already know this. Thank you for keeping the faith, too.






Y.Armando Nieto
CFJC Executive Director



CFJC promotes the basic human right to healthy food while advancing social, agricultural, environmental and economic justice. Through advocacy, organizing and education, we collaborate with community-based efforts to create a sustainable food supply. We envision a food system in which all activities, from farm to table, are equitable, healthful, regenerative and community-driven.

If you believe in these principles JOIN CFJC NOW.

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