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Social Movements and Food Lab Detroit: Sara Soderstrom

What is a social movement? Sara Soderstrom explains what are and how they can be related to environmental justice.
Hi my name is Prisova. I’m a graduate student at the University of Michigan and I’m here today with us is Dr. Sarah Soderstrom, she’s a faculty member at the University of Michigan. So, her research focuses on bringing change to businesses using community level interventions such as those as part of the Detroit based Food Lab. Thank you for being here today Dr. SoriStrom. So, my first question is your research is unique in that it studies how to create change through social movements and businesses, to help frame our discussion today can you provide us with a definition of what social movements are and under what circumstances they come about?
So, social movements occur basically when we’re in a situation where there is a grievance and when we think about this from the lens of environmental issues, climate change, the grievance can be that certain expectations aren’t being met, that there are issues around environmental justice or that people broadly feel strongly about themselves as environmentalists and are active in trying to make the environment better. But there’s this grievance that something should be different than what it is today and we want to see that improved. But it’s not a solo actor working alone, it’s a group.
So, social movements are when we see than mobilization of people who are aligned about their grievance, working to enact that change, and they have a specific target. So, they have another, in my case I often see businesses or industries. Historically when you think about social movements people have thought about legislative change. So, groups of people lobbying against business to try to enact regulatory changes that protect the environment. What we’ve seen more recently is movements actually working either against or with business directly to try to address environmental issues. For climate change we’ll often see things like shareholder resolutions that social movements work with shareholders to petition businesses to say that they have to engage with climate change through this activist petition.
So, we see social movements in all different ways with how they target business, how they act, it can be something from you get an email and you sign a petition, it could be coming to an event to protest, it could be actions that you take through your own spend. So, things that you boycott and don’t use and the work that I look at quite a bit looks at how social movements are influencing business decisions by bringing attention to environmental issues and that can be again directly or indirectly as how they make businesses more aware of environmental issues were in the past we may have thought of business and the environment as being contentious.
If you’re doing something good for the environment it’s bad for business. Now what we’re seeing is more of this integrated lens. Not all social movements, but some movements that are engaging with seeing how we can bring business towards more environmental action and how social movements can help businesses become aware of that and put pressure on them to do more than what they might have been doing historically. Thank you. Into that and can you speak to what are the key factors in helping sustain and grow movements? Yeah. So, it’s hard often to think about what this looks like from a sustained perspective because you have this challenge of collective agency.
You need a lot of people working together in order to do this. You need it continued, yet movements are often voluntary. Movements are often in addition to efforts that people do elsewhere. So, people need to have a clear understanding of what can be the impact, they understand what the target is and agree with that and feel like the commitment of their time or money is worthwhile and moving forward in addressing those needs. So, there are a lot of different mechanisms that movements do that and often variety of levels of which people can be engaged. When I’m just signing a petition that is potentially sustained engagement.
Now if I am contributing funds every month or every year, that’s an additional level of engagement in the movement. If I’m showing up for planning meetings, that’s an even greater engagement within the movement and we see mobilization at all of these different levels and you often need to see that continued engagement across some really large groups of people and sometimes smaller but more active groups of people to sustain and mobilize that. Movements use what we call framing processes. So, ways of talking about the grievance, ways of talking about how you mobilize, and the outcomes that you’re looking for too often frame themselves as against someone who is in power and motivate action through those processes.
So, it’s a combination of action and framing that work together over continued time to see movements and if moving forward with trying to achieve their goals and bringing people together in that way. I think something that I didn’t ask and that’s coming up in your discussion is the role that networks and partnerships play in social movements. So, can you speak a little bit more about that? What we’ve often seen in research around social movements and intuitively make sense, is that people are mobilized to act through their personal networks and relationships. So, if I get a random piece of mail in my inbox or my mailbox, it’s really easy to click Delete, to send it to recycle, and to ignore.
Now, if someone who I know from work says, “Oh, how this group is planning a protest this Saturday? You should go.” I’m more likely to go. If my spouse or a close family friend is talking about how they’re going to a particular protest and I should come, then you see even more motivation to act. So, you see this process often of mobilization through networks and that helps then drive growth of the networks but one of the challenges that we can see in social movements is that often also replicates a lack of diversity in movements.
So, if you start with a group that is really active but reflects only women or only whites or only African-Americans, their personal networks often reflect those same social identities. So, it can be difficult if you’re not thinking about something like diversity whether that be race or gender, political party, different interests or experiences that you then see too much homogeneity within movement reflection itself. For those who are interested, Rosita Taylor here at University of Michigan does a lot of research around diversity and social movements particularly in the environmental movement and talks about this challenge of the benefits of networks in building and mobilizing that some of the challenges and risks that we see in that space as well.
You just spoke to this but can you describe other key factors that help create success within social movements? I think success in and of itself within social movements sometimes becomes difficult to define and often isn’t a unified view. So, when we think about this from the lens of business, if we were protesting a company that is using a product that has a really bad implications in waste, you think about something like PVC. Is success getting one company to stop using that? Is success getting a company to stop using that and having an alternative that works successfully? Is success stopping that at the industry level?
Is success educating people so that they understand the risks of PVC and you see other alternatives coming in? There are numerous ways of defining success. What helps with the long term sustainability of movements is having successes at various stages. So, you’ll see some movements that are active over long periods of time, have multiple goals at various levels, some might be local, some might be state, some might be particular companies versus others, and they continue to interact and engage. Some movements have one specific goal and they are in place to address that and when you meet that goal, the movement actually dissipates.
So, it really depends on this question of what is the movement’s reason to be and how do you see the steps to get there, how do you think about what success looks like in that lens and what does it mean to succeed and be done in that space. Thank you for that. You raised really important questions when thinking about social movements and just to move forward, so you’ve studied social movements within the context of Detroit based Food Lab. So, first can you tell us what Food Lab is and how its member businesses are addressing climate change whether directly or indirectly.
Food Lab Detroit is this really inspiring non-profit that operates in the city of Detroit and is itself a member organization and their goal is to build an equitable and accessible good food market within Detroit and when they talk about that, they are addressing their grievance is around lack of fresh food, healthy food, not prohibitive food within the Detroit city. So, their grievance from that lens as saying, we have an issue where there are thousands of people living in the city of Detroit who can’t easily access food that they can afford, that is healthy, and that is environmentally safe.
So, they thought that the way of trying to address that is partnering with business, in this case, but helping businesses think about how they can work in a way that they’re developing products, that they’re operating, that they are partnering with others who themselves reflect environmental goals, social goals, higher Detroitors, sell to Detroitors at a price point that people can afford. So, they offer a number of different resources to food businesses that want to become members.
Businesses pay a membership fee and then they can get training from something as business oriented as how do I write a business case, to as movement-oriented has how do I compost within my operation and they have over 100 different businesses within Detroit who are members and have a number of different programs that they offer an intensive multi-week business development program, we have monthly conversations when people come together and talk about some of the challenges they’re facing, they have workshops that focus on specific issues that are important to the entrepreneurs who are members, and they have office hours where you can come in ask whatever questions you might have and each year they work as a membership to think about what is one critical issue that we want to address this year.
So when we come back to this question of movements and what is success, they have this long-term goal of saying we want to see an equitable food system in Detroit, but they also work to say what does that look like in pieces. So, one year they were talking about how they wanted to improve licensing processes for all of their members within the city and they built out a better understanding of if I’m a new entrepreneur and I want to start a business, how do I get licensed in the city.
Well, now instead of trying to navigate this potential chaos on my own, Food Lab and the membership work to develop a map of what you do, they worked with the city to make some of the programs more accessible. When it comes to thinking about climate change, another here what they were working on is this challenge where Food Lab members wanted to use locally grown organic safe food but there were so many different urban farms, there are so many different local agriculture spaces that any one smaller scale entrepreneur couldn’t make sense of navigator understand when certain produce might be available, how it might connect with their business, and use that.
So, Food Lab worked with other organizations and Detroit to build this network that matched entrepreneurs with locally produced food. Now, entrepreneurs wouldn’t say that they were doing this to address climate change. Entrepreneurs were doing this to support Detroit businesses to get things that were fresher, more healthy produce, to get produce that they felt had a cleaner environmental footprint. But by doing that they were decreasing their impact on climate because they were buying local, they weren’t having pesticide space. So, all of these things were more of an indirect impact and I think it brings up an important point when we think about social movements, is that often we see social movements that themselves sound like they have distinct goals. Right?
Food Lab saying that their primary focus is around a good food system in Detroit, climate change activists talking about addressing climate change at a potentially global or national or state level. But we might have overlap in what is success for both of those in actually achieving some overlapping goals and so as people are involved in different activists roles as people are climate change activists, recognizing and seeing where there might be overlaps and interests, where a dressing two ways of success, actually can help to better both movements and not needing to see them as two separate spaces but two complimentary areas.
So, finding this space of shared interests becomes really key and I think we see that particularly with issues like climate change that are so large, can at times feel incredibly overwhelming, connected a global scale, and where there’s not necessarily clarity on what is success and if we only are looking at success, it has not rising above two degrees, that’s really hard for people to wrap their hands around. So, finding some of these smaller accessible goals makes this seem like a movement I can take action around, I can inform and as one person I can still make an impact.
Just to explore that a little bit further from what you’ve learned through Food lab about social movements, what can be helpful for our learners in thinking about social movements and Food Lab when it comes to climate change, adaptation, and mitigation? One of the important things to recognize is that there are lots of different ways that you can attack a problem and I see too often an approach in movements where people end up all wanting to address climate change but fighting over my way is right. “No, my way is right” and then not moving either way forward, right?
So, you could have imagined a scenario where Food Lab because their engagement with climate change was viewed as more indirect rather than direct. Was perceived negatively. I don’t think that many food lab members would say that they are engaging in climate change activism. But by being more inclusive in how we view the movement, we think we can help move that forward. But there’s also a space and a time and an impact of being much more aggressive. So, some other relatively recent research that’s come out of Michigan hereby Andy Hoffman at Ross and Todd Schifeling who used to be a post-doc here at Michigan and is now faculty at Temple University, they studied the organization
So, this is a social movement organization launched by Bill McKibben who is amazing climate change activist. I think he’s brought this issue to the table for many conversations, but many view him as more extreme, that his message around divestment from oil and gas, his expectation or hope that universities like U of M would divest might have been viewed as failure because even though here at the University of Michigan, we had a student petition around to fester, it was supported by our Central Student Government, it went up to the administration, it was not adopted. We did not divest as a university. Well is that a failure?
But what was interesting in Professor Hoffman and professor Schifeling’s work is that they were able to show that just by being part of this broader conversation around climate change and being really aggressive about what their expectations were, moved the dialog around climate change and opened up the view of what we can do to tackle this wicked problem into a more aggressive space. That impacted the whole group of social movements that were talking about climate change and it helped push the envelope even though from the lens of and what they initially outlined as goals, you might have said that it was failure, right?
Some universities adopted this but not many, some other investment groups adopted this but not all yet when you see about an indirect effect on the broader movement and conversation around climate change. They’ve had a huge impact and I would argue a very significant success. Thank you for that. I think something that’s related to our conversation is talking about the triple bottom line. So what does that refer to? So if you can provide us with a definition, and how might we think about it within the context of climate action and social movements? Great. Triple bottom line stems from a business norm I think of a single bottom line being economics.
So, in general, a business is only operating if they make a profit. So that’s your economic bottom line. Am I getting enough revenue without paying too much in costs that I have a profit? The idea behind a framework of a triple bottom line is to say, yes we want to focus on that economic bottom line but we also want to be thinking about what is our environmental impact and what is our societal impact.
There may be ways that businesses can both increase their profits and be more environmental or be more social, maybe they’re in conflict but if we’re at least thinking about all three, we can be much more strategic in understanding where there are potential trade-offs and how we address that. From the lens of climate change, this is a space where there are so many easy wins.
It’s better for our climate if we have a more efficient distribution network; fewer trucks making fewer stops without as much of a round about to it and it costs less because we’re not buying as much fuel, we’re not paying for as much time on the roads, it’s a win win, good for environment, good for climate, good for finance. Similar with what we see often around all of these energy efficiency changes. If we’re paying less for our electricity because we’re using less, we’re spending less money and we’re making less of an impact on climate. So, I think the triple bottom line framework can help us think about these issues.
I think movements play an important role similar to what did around the movement movements do for business, around the triple bottom line. So, movements help to make it so that businesses have to be thinking about environment, they have to be thinking about society. 20, 30 years ago, there were companies who were talking about in reporting on environmental issues, but it wasn’t the majority, it wasn’t the norm, and now it’s hard to find a company that is in the Fortune 500, operating in Europe or North America or Australia who doesn’t issue a sustainability report, who doesn’t talk about their environmental impact and their societal impact of their business.
I would posit that that’s due in large part to social movements indirectly changing expectations for society that businesses are playing a more positive role indirectly through their boycotts and protests and partnerships with businesses in thinking about that. Thank you. Then just to conclude our interview, if you can give one piece of advice for learners about how they can mobilize collective action for social movements within their community in collaboration with or without businesses to address climate change, what would that advice be? I think mobilization processes in your communities come towards understanding what is the grievance that exists, and you can’t understand that without listening and engaging with those who are impacted.
I think too often people might look at a grievance from a more academic lens and not actually engage with the community outside of their own personal network, right? So, recognizing again this connection about how we often see our own network but not others, how do we recognize what that grievance is across a number of different potential stakeholders? How do we engage to understand their grievance to think about different ways that we might see success, different impacts that we might have as a movement, and then consider who do you partner with and try to mobilize to target that change. When might be something like a petition sufficient? When do you need a protest?
When might you be able to cooperate and work together in a way that is potentially not as contentious? I think the other piece outside of the lens of again listening and engaging respectfully with others is really a part of recognizing that with an issue as challenging as climate change, we’re going to need a lot of people attacking this problem in a lot of different ways.
So, rather than getting into a philosophical debate about what is best and what is worst, tackle it, move forward and as we see some wins, they mobilize other wins and we need a lot of people addressing this in a number of different ways, and so the more the merrier rather than only one sheep going in that direction. Well, that concludes our interview. Thank you for sharing your expertise with us doctor SoriStrom. Your research on community level interventions and food systems is truly fascinating. Learners also are able to gather from your insights and apply that with other beings in our modules. We really appreciate your insights and again thank you for joining us today. Thank you for having me.

In this segment, Sara Soderstrom explains how social movements work and provides an inspiring example from Food Lab Detroit.

Sara Soderstrom is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Studies and Program in the Environment. Sara’s bio here.

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