Building Action Forum Community in the Windy City

Chicago Summit

By Frankie Pondolph, Action Forum Organizer

Building off of the success of our June Summit, the Action Forum hosted our second summit of the year on July 7th and 8th-bringing together EE worker-owners, action forum members, farmer partners and alternative trader friends for two days of learning, engaging and connecting. On the first day, forty of us gathered in a room overlooking Chicago’s downtown, the room filled with threads of conversation about what brought each of us to the gathering and how far we had traveled.

Picture above attendees at Midwest Summit                                                                                                          Photo Credit: Danielle Robidoux

Our day opened with a keynote from Silvia Roblero Torres from CESMACH cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico. Silvia told the courageous story of CESMACH and how they organized against a behemoth buyer (Starbucks), who began imposing business practices and ultimately tried to leverage control over the cooperative. The farmers organized a strategy of sending faxes to other coffee buyers announcing their break from Starbucks. CESMACH sought new buyers that would respect and support their community-based organization of small farmers. Todd Casperson and Phyllis Robinson of Equal Exchange received their fax and wasted no time-traveling down to Chiapas. Equal Exchange went on to purchase ten containers of coffee (60% of CESMACH’s harvest that year).Thus beginning Equal Exchange and CESMACH’s long standing relationship. I encourage you to read the full story of CESMACH’s break from starbucks by visiting this link, to read a blog post written by Phyllis Robinson.

Pictured above Silvia Roblero Torres of CESMACH and Phyllis Robinson of EE                                                    Photo credit: Danielle Robidoux

Silvia’s keynote set the stage for our time together, echoing themes of strong relationship building, the power of organizing and the importance of building people and planet-centered models of trade. After the keynote, we highlighted various workshops ranging from themes of the consolidation of our food system, lessons from building alternative trade organizations, the story of CESMACH and operating independant grocery stores in todays market climate. We heard stories from Pushpika Freitas founder of Marketplace: Handwork of India, Professor Phil Howard from the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University, Silvia Roblero Torres certification and sales manager at CESMACH, and Jeff Heinen owner of Heinen’s independent foodstores. The goal was to highlight and bring together people telling their story of alternatives, speaking honestly about their mistakes in building these alternatives, and analyzing the consolidation of US supply chains to try to understand how we can work together in new ways for the future ahead.

On day two, we carved out time to learn more deeply about what brought each other to this summit and what each participant hoped to gain.  The room was filled with stories of people organizing a food co-op in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, student activists, community organizers focusing on nutrition and health, people launching buying clubs out of their homes, and travelers from Equal Exchange delegation trips to name a few. Attendees than organized into three working groups comprising of themes around education/communication, consolidation of the food system and markets/sales. This was our work for the year ahead- to begin to organize ourselves into working groups around three emerging topics, co-sharing our work to build the action forum alongside our membership base.

Pictured above attendees of EE Midwest summit                                                                                                   Photo Credit:Danielle Robidoux

Through our  summits we envision creating a physical space for people to learn about and engage around issues affecting our food system- we hope to create ways for people to stay connected and to use the Action Forum space as a bridge to connect long after the summit. We have a lot to learn from each other, our communities, histories and past- and it is my hope that after we embark to our homes, we continue to carry our Action Forum community with us- to continue on a path of building a just, democratice food system, together.

To learn more about our action forum community and future summits/events, visit: or get in touch with us directly at

About The Author

Frankie Pondolph