Building connections through big questions

People talking and eating outside on a sunny dayby Alex Slaymaker, Master of Sustainability Solutions Typical events include people who know each other talking about the weather and their to-dos. But ASU’s School of Sustainability is far from typical. A group of undergraduate and graduate students decided to elevate the conversation to topics that matter during the School of Sustainability’s 10-year anniversary celebration on April 14, 2016. The all-day celebration included a Rescued Food Feast, featuring food with approaching expiration dates or small bruises that was "rescued" from the landfill by a local grocery store. The event was hosted during lunchtime in the middle of campus, where the School of Sustainability offered the free food to engage students, staff, faculty, alumni and community members in the celebration of sustainability efforts at ASU and beyond. Due to the inclusive nature of the event and the rescued food component, a small group of student leaders decided to foster dialogue around topics like food security, personal health, food waste, culture, workers' rights and more. They not only tried to connect attendees to these complex topics, but to each other. Building interconnectivity across different departments and viewpoints is important for helping society transition to a more sustainable future. Prepping for table talk How did the students guide conversation toward these atypical questions? First, they brainstormed a list of prompts on four levels, escalating in scale, controversy and sensitivity. An example of this escalation is: 1) What is your favorite meal to cook?, 2) Where do you get your food?, 3) What does food justice mean to you?, and 4) How would you improve an aspect of the food system you are concerned about? Students were also prepared to mediate conflict and overpowering perspectives, increasing the chance of all attendees having a fulfilling dialogue – no matter how diverse their opinions were. Putting questions on the table Students eating and talking at checkered table outsideA team of six student leaders sat at different tables on Hayden Lawn and started the conversation at level 1. Some tables went quickly to level 3 or 4, while other tables took longer or had difficulty surpassing level 3. Some thought-provoking discussions arose around not having the privilege to question food decisions pertaining to quality or sourcing due to economic limitations. A common feeling among attendees was that American society is out of touch with the food system, and most viewed this as a major concern for health and community well-being. Attendees thought rescuing food from the landfill and serving it to people was a great idea, and didn’t understand why this isn’t done with all food destined for the dump. Student facilitators helped attendees understand the barriers to this type of solution, as well as pathways to breaking down hurdles. Many attendees expressed frustration at the amount of food waste produced in our country. At the household level, some attendees thought parenting styles are a major determinant of waste production. Some parents at the event took pride in having a clean-plate requirement at home, while others admitted that if their kids don’t like a food option, they don’t make them (or anyone else) eat it. Hungry for more information Overall, attendees were aware of food system problems and wanted to know more about solutions at every scale – from local to global. This interaction suggests that the School of Sustainability, and ASU as a whole, should explore more stakeholder-centric, solutions-oriented and applied-research opportunities for improving the food system. Due to the great levels of interest expressed by students, engaging both undergraduate and graduates in this research would be optimal. Reflection is key to change, so starting dialogue where attendees have space for communal introspection is critical to moving our global food system toward a more sustainable model. The students who led these activities think the event was a success, and suggest that other groups train leaders to ask Big Questions at their next event.  Open dialogue – where attendees are seeking shared understanding around problems and solutions – has the power to shift the conversation on many topics including human rights, health, conflict and religion. Questions about the Big Questions activity should be emailed to Neda Movahed or Alex Slaymaker.