September 1, 2020
On July 6, the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture (CSSC) and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Mississippi (UM) released a statement in response to specific and concerning critiques of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) and its director, John T. Edge. In that statement, the CSSC director and the Dean pledged to thoughtfully and deliberately consider the critiques and to assemble an internal review committee composed of faculty and staff of the CSSC, a representative from the UM College of Liberal Arts, and representatives of the SFA staff and board. Over the course of July, the CSSC director heard from many stakeholders in the SFA. Perspectives ranged from avid supporter to vocal opponent, with most people expressing a deep commitment to the SFA and to its future. On August 3, the CSSC director finalized the composition of the review committee. Our names appear at the bottom of this letter.
We write now to outline and clarify the outcome of our work over the past several weeks and to begin charting a path forward. We want to say clearly that this statement—and many of the recommendations therein—marks the beginning of a longer process of review, evaluation, and organizational restructuring for the SFA. A recurring pattern in the feedback we’ve received is that structural change is needed, and needed urgently. We agree.
Based on what we have heard over the past two months, critiques and concerns raised by members and observers of SFA in years past, and our own discussions, we identify three areas that call for both immediate action and sustained attention: (1) a clarification of the relationship between the CSSC and the SFA; (2) problems of institutional racism and patriarchy that suffuse the University of Mississippi and affect the organizational structures and operations of the SFA, as well as of the CSSC itself and its institutes; and (3) the urgent need for the SFA not just to assemble a more diverse leadership team and paid staff, but also to make an explicit and concrete commitment to equity in its mission, organizational structure, and general operations. Below, we detail each of these areas of attention and, where possible, outline what happens next.
Relationship Between the CSSC and the SFA
Although it has always enjoyed considerable autonomy, the SFA began in 1999 as an institute of the CSSC. The SFA’s current mission is to document, study, and explore the diverse food cultures of the changing American South, and this mission resonates with the CSSC’s work to critically study and engage that region. Colleagues in both organizations value each other and the work they have done. Perhaps more importantly, there is overwhelming agreement both among colleagues in the CSSC and the leadership and membership of the SFA that the work of both organizations is not just complementary but synergistic. Because of that, we are hopeful that the potential for shared work will continue.
What happens next: The CSSC and SFA will chart a future together at this time. The longtime viability of the partnership will depend, in no small part, on the outcomes and implementation of the below recommendations. Should the organizational goals of the CSSC and the SFA diverge in ways that make common work impractical, or otherwise not desired, the organizations will revisit this relationship.
Institutional Racism and Patriarchy
The choice to study, document, and explore food—particularly the foodways and food systems of the U.S. South—is an inherently political act that involves not only the well-being of communities today but tracks straight back to enslaved labor within the region, particularly the labor of black women in kitchens and fields. That relationship—between southern foodways, violence, exploitation, and erasure—holds true for communities of color throughout the nation, compounds contemporary patterns of structural inequality, and reinforces the long-standing power and tolls of white supremacy and patriarchy in American society. In order to fulfill its mission, the SFA must acknowledge and address this reality, not just in its scholarly and storytelling pursuits, but also in its organizational structure, general operations, and programming decisions. In our view, this should begin with an audit of the ways that institutional racism and patriarchy have shaped, whether intentionally or not, the SFA’s and the CSSC’s structures and programming.
What happens next: The CSSC and the SFA will engage both the UM Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE) and an external agency to map strategies for increasing the diversity of SFA leadership and staff and the practice of equity in the organization’s decision-making and general operations. Although the SFA has worked diligently to be sure that diverse voices speak during its programming and in its oral histories and publications, decision making itself has remained concentrated within a more narrow register of white voices. We have compiled a list of external agencies specifically well suited to assist a university-based non-profit in such a self-study, and we are currently reviewing these possibilities.
The coming reassessment is not symbolic. It is not review for the sake of review, or dialogue for the sake of discussion. It is a deliberate effort to identify and implement a set of concrete, actionable recommendations that will address what we see as valid concerns about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the composition of SFA’s paid staff; the leadership of SFA’s general operations and year-to-year programming; and the structure of SFA’s leadership, which we believe needs to shift from an organic to a strategic model of growth. Such expansion is appropriate for a mature organization such as the SFA that plans for a robust future.
To the extent that the CSSC and SFA hope to chart a future together, we see the coming reassessment as a moment for the CSSC, too, to evaluate and institutionalize its own commitment to diversity and equity. The director and colleagues of the CSSC agree and will also participate in this self-assessment and implement the action plans resulting from it. In practical terms, we expect to unfold these organizational changes over the next two years, and we expect them to result in new leadership for the SFA, a change for which the current director has been planning for some time.
Immediate Actions to Address Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
We want to say explicitly that gradualism is not an acceptable response to problems of institutional racism and patriarchy; and diversity and inclusion are neither the same as nor acceptable proxies for equity. We are hopeful that the assessment process will begin soon, and that the subsequent recommendations will be implemented with urgency. In the meantime, there are a number of changes that, while piecemeal, we see as absolutely necessary and able to be implemented. Some of these items have been outlined and endorsed by SFA leadership previously. Some developed over the course of our recent discussion. All are meant to begin the work of making the SFA a better, more diverse, and more inclusive organization, and to position the organization for the equity work that its mission requires.
What happens next: We recommend that the SFA make a cluster of hires over the next several years that will diversify the staff and redistribute decision-making power. As mentioned, this process will be guided by the observations and recommendations of the UM DDCE and external review agency. We would be remiss if we did not say outright that the plan to make these hires will be affected by the pandemic-generated economic crisis facing UM. For instance, UM has instituted a hiring freeze, and there is currently no definitive budget for the 2020-21 academic fiscal year. While these factors are challenging in the short term, the urgent and absolutely critical need for such hires is understood by the director of the CSSC, colleagues across the CSSC, the current leadership of SFA, much of the SFA membership, and leadership in UM’s College of Liberal Arts.
Beyond the plan for cluster hires that prioritize candidates from minoritized racial/ethnic groups, the SFA has committed to implement the following items immediately: the SFA will hire a guest curator to develop programming for at least one SFA event each year, and a guest editor to curate content for at least one issue of Gravy each year. The SFA will make the avenues for submitting pitches for Gravy the podcast, Gravy the journal, SFA films, and SFA events more visible and easier to access. The SFA will make brainstorming sessions for symposia speakers open to all SFA members via digital platforms. Recent and long-standing critiques of the SFA have brought the organization to an important moment, and it is not lost on us that it took time and harm to reach it. We, the undersigned, take this opportunity for assessment and restructuring in the organization—as well as in the CSSC—seriously, and we see it as urgent and critically important. We will end how we began, by reemphasizing that this statement and the foregoing recommendations are only the beginning of an extended and intentioned process. The CSSC and the SFA look forward to sharing additional next steps in the coming months.
Simone Delerme, McMullan Associate Professor of Southern Studies and Associate Professor of Anthropology
Kirsten Dellinger, Professor of Sociology; Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, UM College of Liberal Arts
Ralph Eubanks, Visiting Professor of Southern Studies and English; SFA Board Member
Brian Foster, Assistant Professor of Southern Studies and Sociology
Melissa Booth Hall, Managing Director, Southern Foodways Alliance
Andy Harper, Director, Southern Documentary Project; Instructional Assistant Professor of Southern Studies
Mary Beth Lasseter, Associate Director, Southern Foodways Alliance
Kathryn McKee, McMullan Professor of Southern Studies and Professor of English; Director, Center for the Study of Southern Culture
Catarina Passidomo, Southern Foodways Alliance Associate Professor of Southern Studies and Associate Professor of Anthropology
Jodi Skipper, Associate Professor of Southern Studies and Anthropology
Afton Thomas, Associate Director for Programs, Center for the Study of Southern Culture
Jennifer Wallach, Professor of History and Chair, University of North Texas, SFA Board Member