From Trade to Action

Chicago Summit

By Frankie Pondolph and Danielle Robidoux, Action Forum Organizers

Since the creation of Equal Exchange 32 years ago, people and relationships have always been at our center. Coffee, chocolate, tea, mangoes, cashews; these are the mediums which allow us to show the world that ethical supply chains are viable and that there is more than one way to do business. Radicalism lies within the Equal Exchange model: a supply chain that is characteristic of true democracy, cooperative learning, transparency, and respect for our planet and its people.

We at Equal Exchange have supported our producer partners abroad and have stood alongside them in their struggles to build a more sustainable trade system. We have intentionally committed time and resources to strengthening our internal democracy as a worker co-op.  As we reflect on the organization and the model we have built; and the complexities that now define our world; we have come to realize that there is a missing piece: you. This insight led us to create the Equal Exchange Action Forum.

In an attempt to build a democratic food system which is truly transformative, it is not enough to focus on the buying and selling of a product; likewise, for true change to occur, involvement can not begin and end with a purchase. Voting with your dollar is not enough. Democracy takes effort, commitment, collective responsibility, and passion. It is not always easy; is definitely not straightforward; but it is necessary, if we want to create a better world.

The Action Forum is an initiative through which we invite individuals to participate in our organization; more deeply than ever before. This process has been fluid and malleable. We are trying to find better ways to carry out our work; to be transparent and authentic about our successes, weaknesses, challenges, and visions.  To do this, we hope to build a group of active participants who will do this work alongside us. In short,we want to change our way of doing business. Again.

This past year has been one of learning, connecting, and discovering a shared community and culture within the Action Forum group, now comprised of 4,000 people across the U.S. and abroad. We have gathered in breweries and shared a beer; convened in churches; presented in community spaces; had round-table discussions at food cooperatives; organized potlucks; and even sipped espresso with members at their kitchen tables. Our team has gone from the East Coast to the West, and many places in-between. About 20 face to face meetings and 25 webinars, we are grappling with the complexities of our food system and beginning to formulate innovative solutions, together as a community.  

2017 was our launch year, a year of learning, engaging, experimenting and building a global community. As an Action Forum team, we got to travel to new places, meet amazing people that were really engaged within their communities and shared moments of inspiration and difficult realities facing the future of food, and the need to elevate the stories of it all. From the stark realities of climate change affecting our producers partners, to political strife, and price and market conditions consolidating – we have just started to thread together the alternative systems and creative thinking to combat these challenges, as an Action Forum community. We learned about supply chains, shipping, price, access and through this had moments of joy, laughter and challenging moments of realizing the heaviness and complexity of growing, buying, selling, and consuming food.  

One of the biggest pillars of our work is hosting annual summits- you may remember reading about our first-ever People’s Food Summit hosted last year at Stonehill College and on June 8th of this year we brought together over 100 individuals representing all parts our supply chain: Equal Exchange worker-owners, producer partners, and allies, together with our Action Forum members. As a community, we seek to offer spaces to grapple with many food industry dilemmas and ways we could imagine building a better food system, together.  

We are gearing up for for our second summit of the summer next week on July 7th and 8th in Chicago, held at Loyola University’s Water Tower campus. This summit is bringing together keynote speaker Silvia Roblero Torres, sales and certification manager of CESMACH our coffee cooperative partner in Chiapas, Mexico. Workshops from Professor Phil Howard a professor at the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University and a member of the International panel of experts on Sustainable Food Systems, Pushpika Freitas founder of MarketPlace of India an Alternative Trade Organization founded in the 1980’s working with small farmer textiles and Jeff Heinen a third generation owner of Heinen’s Supermarkets a family grocery store, as well as the directors of Equal Exchange, Rob Everts and founder Rink Dickinson.

Please fill out the short application to stay connected and RSVP to our summit here.

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About The Author

Frankie Pondolph