The Beyond Hunger Conference surprised us. As we worked to organize our very first national conference, we believed in what we were doing but there were so many unknowns: speakers to be confirmed, attendees to connect with, and pages upon pages of checklists with many boxes left unchecked. Eventually, as time ran out, we had to just cross our fingers and hope for the best. We expected to pull off a conference…a pretty good one. What we got was inspiration.
The conference was our effort to shift the dialogue on hunger and poverty, beginning with those three days in Philadelphia and extending into communities around the country. The task seemed simple: May 2-4, 2012 we hosted over 350 participants in Philadelphia to participate in a conversation around hunger and poverty in the US. But it was also complex: we worked to include an intentional mix of participants from government, universities, nonprofits, philanthropic organizations, the news media, and, most importantly, those who have suffered from hunger and poverty first-hand. We sought to level the field and allow for dialogue across community, across job categories, across culture and across social context and education attainment. We strove to create an environment of equality, diversity and collaboration.
At the opening session,when we finally had a chance to sit down and take it all in, we looked across the sea of people who had filled the room and were amazed. We saw a crowd diverse in so many ways: there were teens and octogenarians, people from all corners of the country (and the globe), those who had flown to Philadelphia in first-class seats and those who were only able to come because we provided a scholarship to cover travel expenses. And everyone was there to learn and find inspiration, not only from big name speakers like Antwone Fisher, but from each other. We found this inspiration in the small moments of the conference: with Gwen Ifill when she talked so intimately and plainly about what we should expect from Washington and what we should not, or when Witness Crystal Sears, during the opening plenary, described her house burning down only to get the long-fought deed to it a few days after the fire. We were moved to tears in the youth session, when young poets described in eloquent detail their hidden hunger. Hunger is an ugly and painful topic, and many panelists and audience members alike struggled to get through the sessions, but found themselves supported and encouraged by those around them.
The warmth, the support, the inspiration that we felt, reached beyond the typical conference experience. It got us thinking about the Beloved Community, an idea popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Beloved Community is the end goal toward which nonviolent activists reach. It describes a “truly brotherly society” in which enemies can meet as friends, the disenfranchised can sit with those in power, and that all people in our society can come together and relate. And with that poverty, racism and injustice have the potential to be eradicated. In Dr. King’s eyes, and in ours, the Beloved Community is a lofty goal, difficult to achieve but very much possible and a necessity in these most difficult times.
Looking back, we see that in our own small way, the conference was a success in modeling the Beloved Community. Some may have disagreed on how to end hunger and poverty, but everyone was committed to working toward our shared goal. We think about the power of true community in Dr. King’s eyes:
“The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
We will strive to create this understanding, and to bring to fruition the miracle that is in our hearts: a society that has moved beyond hunger. We know that this won't be easy. In fact, we came out of the conference with a 9-step call to action, with plans for mobilizing others and advocating both locally and nationally. Each of these actions requires a coordinated effort, not only by the "usual suspects" of anti-poverty advocates but also among people across all segments of society who believe that hunger must end. It is only by working across boundaries and beyond our individual perceptions that we can begin to create a whole community of open dialogue, progress and shared success. Dr. King’s vision was relentless and his aspiration unending… so is ours. We hope you continue to join us.
--Aishah Miller and Jenny Rabinowich