In a letter to staff and the Farmers' Market Transition Sub-Committee, Jennifer Hompoth argues that bureaucratic transactions do not make for real inclusiveness.
By RTH Staff
Published November 30, 2010
A group calling itself Friends of Hamilton Farmers' Market (you can contact their mailing list) held a meeting last night at FRWY Cafe, 333 King St. E., to discuss the way the City has managed stallholder applications at the renovated Farmers' Market. On behalf of the group, Jennifer Hompoth sent a letter of concern to Anna Bradford, the culture division director in the City's community services department, and the members of the Hamilton Farmers' Market Transition Sub-Committee.
Writing of "tenuous handshakes and teary embraces" with stallholders concerned about their futures, Hompoth argues that the stallholder application process did not adequately take issues of ethnicity, language, literacy, and technology access into consideration.
In her recommendations, she notes that "consultation does not equal participation" and argues that a bureaucratic process does not equate to true inclusion. "Emphasize face-to-face transactions rather than only paperwork."
The full text of the letter follows:
Dear Ms. Bradford,
I write as a member of the Friends of the Hamilton Farmers' Market, and seek to address my concerns to you with reference to issues of equity of access as these relates to literacy, language issues, and technology as pertaining to the application and appeal processes.
Understandably, I can only imagine that you have had a very difficult task of overseeing and providing direction to the Hamilton Farmers' Market Transition Sub-Committee decision-making.
I want to appreciate this, in all sincerity. Your recent endeavours to meet with stallholders to complete each applicants' profile and information are surely signs of flexibility, movements which can only inform a more complete picture of each vendor, their contribution to the market, and their products.
In framing this request, I share with you that I have personally spent perhaps over 100 hours in the last few weeks attempting to gain a thorough perspective on the issues affecting the vendors through this difficult time of transition. This has meant doing the clumsy work of translating documents and conversations in languages other than English for vendors at once grateful and embarrassed by their language skills.
It has meant extending tenuous handshakes and teary embraces to people whose livelihoods and sense of dignity have been precariously hanging on a fine balance in recent days.
For me, the human dimension of those affected has been at the centre of my attempts to creatively devise solutions that uphold the history, diversity, and sense of community that form the heart of the Hamilton Farmers' Market.
As a consumer and resident of Hamilton, the market is a burgeoning heart of cosmopolitanism; its raw beauty, its richness is woven from the multitextured threads of the unique vendors and diverse cultural communities who have created this place as their home.
There are two related issues with respect to ethnocultural and linguistic diversity which figure centrally in the Hamilton Farmers' Market transition process.
Let me try to explain the first, the issue of language and literacy, by way of a story. Concerned that some vendors might face barriers submitting the request to speak to a committee of council form on the City website, a group of three of us - all twenty-somethings with macbooks and PCs in hand - ambled into the market early last week. We invited vendors to join with us, in a huddle near the only location with acceptable free wifi, to fill out their forms and submit their appeals requests online.
One vendor shyly approached, eager to give her name and information, as if to hinge all hope on the complex process set out before her. Not wanting her to spend precious moments waiting for my clumsy data entry, I absent-mindedly replied, "oh, just write everything down on this piece of paper."
Minutes later, following some time spent diagnosing my misbehaving laptop computer, I looked up at her. She shook her head, "I don't know." Inscribing her address, as I had requested, was a moment of shame and confusion. She had only managed to write her name, in large, clumsy print.
Although I have extensive training in anti-racism and have worked all my life with people from a range of cultural backgrounds, it was this moment which made me realize that I had placed my assumptions of literacy in the foreground, without considering the person with whom I was speaking. All while attempting to intervene in an access issue!
I believe that similar kinds of assumptions - but with much greater weight - have operated in the application process to systemically exclude those who lack access to technological or language skills necessary to receive equal consideration.
Several other vendors have shared that they do not own computers, and most do not maintain their own email addresses from which to receive correspondence from the Clerk's office regarding their appeal.
While I believe certain provisions or open invitations were made to assist individual vendors with their applications, the process itself was designed without these people in mind.
People with very little power, who are already intimidated by a process from the outset will find it difficult to ask the same staff whom they perceive to be invested in decision-making for assistance.
Sometimes the offer of help needs to be communicated, translated, and made real through actions, and not just words - this is an insight which I gather you, personally, are attempting to act upon recently, for which I offer my thanks.
These considerations should be useful in light of decision-making with regards to the situations of the Tran family of Lee Fresh Produce and The Troung family, of Truong Produce.
I hope I have adequately outlined my concerns regarding the "equality of opportunity" issues inherent in the applications and appeals processes faced by people whose livelihoods are rooted in the stuff of agrarian and mercantile transactions, by languages and cultures other than English, and not by the language and movements of bureaucracy (like my own penchant for waxing academic, at times, for which I appreciate your good humour).
I have worked alongside vendors, and have accessed language-specific translation to better communicate together where neccessary. I have the personal benefit of holding several academic degrees, and the ability to speak English, French, Hungarian, Spanish, and Chinese.
I believe that some of these issues are addressed through strategies to increase cross-cultural and linguistic differences. My second major concern for diversity reflects a deeper problematic concerning the idea of who is "in" and who is "out," based on an uncritical celebration of the local, at the expense of anyone, or anything, which appears to be "foreign/imported/other."
I need to express my deep discomfort that a discourse of localism, hinging on cultural exclusion and tinged with racial overtones, has been whispered amongst all of the conversations justifying the application process. I do not locate the city alone as the locus of these whispers, although its documents have, at times, amplified the language: "international" used synonymously with "disqualified," (correspondence with the office of Councillor Bratina, Nov. 17th, 2010), "local" meaning "not those others."
The worst of these whispers has moved from a discussion of international produce itself, to generate a "type" of unwanted person or vendor: "those Asians" who resell food from the food terminal. At best, this is a misguided nostalgia for a time and "purity" of culture which some feel to be lost at the expense of global change.
At worst, this is a xenophobia which refuses to recognize the contributions of successive generations of immigrants - be they from Scotland, England, Holland, Hungary, Portugal, Vietnam, South America, Italy, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Iran, Lebanon, Poland, or the Philippines. (This list, though not exhaustive, is drawn from the cultural heritage of the current market vendors).
A walk through the market reveals that products like samosas, garlic, panini, mozzarella, chestnuts, ginger, and bok choi (not to mention coffee and tea - the stuff of wars and conquests) have become venerable parts of a gastronomy enjoyed by all.
The reality of our global economic and social framework is this: in an urban centre such as Hamilton, these historic interchanges, settlements, and contributions actually form the local. Furthermore, the seduction of the local as inherently better than larger-scale spatial approaches is hollow; cities need to consider a holistic analysis of food systems planning, in the context of national and global food production, sustainability, urban/rural economics, and consumer food needs.
In many ways, the term "local" means the people who are already here; the market is a common space, for the common good. Food is at the heart of our cultures - all of them - and the Hamilton Farmers' Market is a vital part of our history, and key to our future.
It would be deplorable to see Hamilton's emphasis on the "local" as a way to divide the market merchants, and consumers, whether this be based on ethnic, racial, or class lines. I urge you to examine how the lens of the "local" has been employed to dismiss or exclude particular types of goods, and more importantly, the cultural groups and vendors to whom these products belong.
Considerations for inclusion and diversity:
1) Consultation does not equal participation. While the former approaches decision-making from a mode of "consent and input given," the latter seeks true inclusion. The questions and goals are established through shared consensus, and power-sharing amongst all stakeholders to define the process is maintained through systemic commitments and structures. I.e. cooperatives, participatory budgeting, community-based participatory research.
Elected representatives are given terms of reference that are crafted through community support, and flexible to respond to change if the outcomes do not match intended shared goals.
2) Be vigilant about our own assumptions: since it is difficult to see one's own assumptions, listen to others. If what others experience is lack of clarity, or exclusion, chances are there might be something to this which originates in our own assumptions, manner of communication, our own cultural norms, etc.
3) Standards are never neutral. Criteria always reflect the deepest values and identity of the groups who have the power to craft these standards. To move to true inclusive standards, we have to be able to accept that several standards might operate simultaneously, and that differences are beneficial to a robust democracy and marketplace.
For example, one may purchase top grade "Canada Extra Fancy" apples for eating, producing still life portraits, or gifting to teachers, while seconds may make great applesauce. Similarly, I may choose to purchase regional, seasonal produce at times, and also choose to enjoy tropical fruits, vegetables, spices, and products grown only in other latitudes and climates.
Specific Considerations through the market transition process:
Contact individual vendors to make appointments to discuss their individual application results. Make it evident to them that their applications are not merely descriptive, but aspirational: what would they envision their business to be, in order to grow? Allow them enough time to arrange for translation and/or representation. It is very scary for some to approach the market office; think of approaching a superior towards whom even a single mistake could mean the difference between your livelihood's continuation, or termination.
Emphasize face-to-face transactions rather than only paperwork. Forms, applications, and letters can be very difficult to navigate for stallholders for reasons outlined above. Be aware of the power differences structuring some vendors' willingness to nod their heads in agreement, or to comply with requests. They may not understand everything, and could be agreeing so as not to offend their interlocutor.
Try to see how each vendors fits into the "local" entity that is the Hamilton Farmers' Market. Each successful vendor has a particular niche, a particular clientele, and usually, some little quirks which make Hamilton, and our Farmers' Market, a diverse, vibrant place. Some vendors refer to longtime neighbours in terms of family - some are "born in the market" characters, some are grouchy neighbours - but all are like a family. Or, better yet, a microcosm of society - one in which I hope democratic process, empathy, and mutual appreciation of our differences will prevail.
Beyond this transition period, the Council needs to seriously entertain suggestions to make the governance of the market work; this could include a move to a Board structure, including citizen and stallholder participation, to a social economy organization such as a cooperative, and/or the possibility of placing the market under an organizational structure that will allow it to easily refer relevant immigration, employment, poverty, food security, and other Community Services concerns.
An understanding of the Hamilton Farmers' Market as for belonging to the people is central in advancing any type of agenda around its development and future.
Thank you for your attention to the many issues raised in this correspondence.
Friends of Hamilton Farmers' Market.