For the month of June, our Activist profile features Bill Aal, one of the founding members of CAGJ who has been with us since the aftermath of the WTO protests. Outside of CAGJ, Bill is figuring out how to convert his suburban, flowery garden into a place that grows food. He also enjoys cooking and teaching how to cook, especially Chinese-style cooking. You can often find him going out into the beautiful countryside of Spokane, WA.
About CAGJ Activist Profiles: Each month CAGJ is introducing CAGJ staff, activists and interns to our members!
What led you to working with CAGJ?
Well, I was involved with the WTO festivities – as I like to call them – and was part of a crew that included Jeremy and Heather, Jeremy being the founder…and several other people. Many of us were working in the People for Fair Trade office which was the organizing NGO. We were right next door to the direct action people but a separate crew. After the WTO protests were over, there were a bunch of meetings of people trying to figure out what to do next. I was one of those people. I felt very honored as one of the founding members of AGRA Watch…I know there were 10-15 of us. I was just excited to see that there was a non-alphabet soup response to a multi-issue organizing in the aftermath, so it was really exciting to think about, “What can we do as a community alliance, including the labor unions, environmental groups, and so on?”…We really were an alliance at the time of different recognitions…And then…I was involved in doing a lot of work for sustainable agriculture and was part of several organizations around the state and region to do that. And when we got to a certain point…the idea that we could actually be based on community issues that were building towards something as opposed to just being in opposition to all of the -isms and to the free trade agenda, that was really exciting. When we came up with the idea of “Strengthening local economies everywhere” and having that first community dinner, bringing social justice folks together back then, it was a thing nobody had really done…before in Seattle. It was just so exciting, and to see what we could start to accomplish. And as a longtime trainer and organizer around issues on race, class, and gender, it was just great to be part of a crew that was committed to bringing that perspective into the organizing around the local economy. That’s what got me going, and the community spirit was the second or third most powerful reason to stay. It wasn’t just about the ideas, it was art and relationship that was important to me…that’s what brought me in, the integration of the interests that I have and the feeling of community and relationship building…
So to me…food sovereignty, I love the definition that La Via Campesina used in the earlier days, it’s women’s empowerment, and the reason why they took that tag was recognizing in the majority world how much of farming and food production is done by women and not recognized. So the empowerment of women and the liberation of women was at the center of food sovereignty. And going beyond that, it’s the right of people to determine what kind of food they eat, what kind of food they produce, to get equitable returns from the community and to be able to engage with the global economy on the community’s terms. So, it’s about the seed and it’s about the relationship of people’s history and the best of new thinking for how to produce and share food or distribute food with others, to me that’s the core. Finally, the right of folks in every part of the system, from the farmers to the folks in the distribution system, to have good lives.
Where do you see CAGJ in 5-10 years?
Good question…I think that the vision I have is…that there’s a multigenerational, young-people led organization that has BIPOC leadership and that the leadership is distributed through the whole set of structures that CAGJ is. That we’re part of a network – or ecosystem if you will – of organizations in the region, around the country and the world that are actually supporting folks directly in food sovereignty, that we have a policy arm and a practical arm as well…that would be my vision for CAGJ. And that…continuing education…to move forward to the next stage…to really support people’s leadership wherever they are, whether it’s in their family or community or other people in food production and distribution, that we keep helping new leadership grow and old leadership continue to develop. I would love to see us as part of a network of folks who are supporting community farming…I think we need to dream big at this point…the world is gonna be very, very different…over the next 20-30 years and we’re gonna need more people who are actively supporting equitable food production and distribution and supporting people to grow more of their own food too because the global systems are not going to be able to work.
Can you tell us one favorite aspect of your work with CAGJ?
I think the most exciting piece of the work is developing relationships with farmers and large networks in Africa and to the extent that I’ve been involved in that. Just to get inspiration from how people see things differently – not just different farming systems – but the way of organizing…I’m sure you’ve heard of the strategic conversation that we had with groups in the US and groups in Africa about 5-6 years ago, it was a turning point for our work with the African groups because we were building relationships…and think[ing] together about how we can work in more solidarity with each other. Each morning, we started with a ceremony that came out of La Via Campesina’s way of doing things, where people brought items from their own communities or something that was meaningful from their ecosystems, put it in the circle and share[d], and also talked about their ancestors. [G]rounding these high level strategic conversations in that way, with music as well sometimes and story was really powerful learning for a lot of us in the US, who are like “Let’s get down to business”…[S]imilar things happen when we’ve been involved with the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa…I just feel really honored that we’re included as one of the few American groups that’s an officially recognized ally and just how they do things…It’s not just about spirit, it’s also about having sharp debate, it’s never about trying to power over folks in this context but to really share ideas, so those kinds of things, those learnings that happen, when we’re able to be in direct relationship with them or with immigrant farmers or native/Indigenous farmers in the US too, the same kind of thing. So that learning is really powerful for me. And just that our tiny little group has been able to have impact around the US, the globe, of putting the Gates Foundation on notice that they can’t just run over us, collectively. We’ve been there from the beginning…We were asking questions on the very early stages, and to bring the idea of philanthrocapitalism forward…[We] started talking about that back in 2008 or 2009, somewhere in there, about what the contradictions were in the Gates Foundation as we were learning about it through AGRA Watch…[J]ust starting to see philanthrocapitalism as a new stage of capitalism, not just the way that foundations do their business in the wake of the neoliberal agenda, which destroyed educational institutions as well as government organizations, left the groundwork for organizations like The Gates Foundation and other big foundations to have even more influence over the…economic development and agricultural development of countries in the majority world.
What is one growing edge you think CAGJ can work on?
I think it’s actually going back to our roots and figuring out how to engage more people in the day-to-day, as we’ve gotten more money. Especially in AGRA Watch…how to really think about mobilizing people to take action, not just protest but to take action in their communities…[H]ow to work with people’s life experiences and stories to do that, not just write about it – with great respect for the E-News and everything else – to go beyond that, is what I’m trying to say. [A]nd…finding ways…whether it’s online or in-person, to really help people see that they really matter in the changes that have to happen and not just leave it up to the “activists”/NGOs to try to do the work…[A]nd like I said, responding to the changing circumstances around climate and the collapse of global economics feels pretty inevitable. How do we help people in our region to find power with each other, to produce food and to take care of each other? I’d love us to lean into that a little bit more.