ENGAGE sits down with Daniel Cohn, a current Emerson National Hunger Fellow and alumnus of CIEE Thailand’s Spring 2011 Development and Globalization Program. Daniel gives us a window into what this next year will look like for him as he explores hunger and poverty issues through community development and public policy. He also shares his thoughts on studying abroad in Thailand and the value such an experience can have.
ENGAGE: Since returning from Thailand you were selected to be an Emerson National Hunger Fellow through the Congressional Hunger Center. What does the program look like?
Daniel: The Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship is a yearlong leadership development program committed to social justice and anti-racism. Established and directed by the Congressional Hunger Center, the program aims to train and inspire leaders to bridge the gap between grassroots movements and national policy development as they pertain to anti-hunger and anti-poverty.
For the first six months of the program, Fellows are placed with community-based organizations throughout the country to learn about a variety of community approaches to addressing hunger and poverty. The Fellows return to Washington, D.C. for the second half of the program to work with national organizations that address hunger and poverty from a public policy perspective.
ENGAGE: Tell me about your field placement in Boston. What kind of work are you doing there?
Daniel: In Boston I work for an organization called Community Servings, and the project I’m working on there is two-fold. First, I am executing a feasibility study for an on-site and online Food Policy and Resource Center by benchmarking other food- and nutrition-related policy centers throughout the country. I will compare other organizations’ resources, staff, and structures with our own in order to strategize the development of our own policy center. Second, I am writing the first ever white paper to be published on behalf of Community Servings. The paper will review existing literature on “food as medicine” and will explore the connections between medical nutrition therapy and improved health outcomes for people who are homebound by critical and chronic disease.
ENGAGE: How great is the need for an organization like Community Servings?
Daniel: Community Servings is a service organization that delivers medically tailored meals to people who are homebound by critical and chronic disease. The most common primary diagnoses among our clients are HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Our clients need our services, and without these meals, many would face food insecurity, malnutrition, and poorer health outcomes, perhaps even death. Our work targets the most vulnerable people in the Boston community and arguably the least visible – a population whose needs are so often overlooked by local, state, and federal institutions.
ENGAGE: What do you hope to do, learn, accomplish over the course of your fellowship?
Daniel: Through the fellowship, I hope to gain hands-on experience in connecting real issues and real people with the representatives who have the power to change the circumstances that disadvantage some and privilege others. I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the legislative and political processes and to reflect on my skills and interests so I can navigate a career path that’s right for me. By the end of the fellowship, I’d like to have applicable skills that can be developed more through graduate-level studies, which I can in turn apply to making change in my own community back home in Cleveland, Ohio.
ENGAGE: How did your study abroad experience influence your path into this fellowship and this type of work?
Daniel: If it weren’t for my study abroad experience, I never would have thought to pursue this fellowship. Before the DG program, it was difficult for me to imagine what it meant to contribute to my community without the letters “M.D.” or “J.D.” at the end of my name. It wasn’t until studying public health at the University of Rochester and human rights abroad that I recognized that contributing to my community can mean lots of different things. DG opened my eyes to other possibilities: community organizing, education, public policy. This fellowship is a logical progression of my interests in public health and community-based work, and it would not have been possible without CIEE.
ENGAGE: Why is this work important to you and what impact has it had on you personally or professionally?
Daniel: So far, the fellowship has helped me refine my identity as a white anti-racist, an identity which only began to emerge in Thailand. On a personal level, then, the program has helped develop and solidify many of my values in social justice. It has also allowed me to see that large-scale change can be really strong when a variety of viewpoints are included in the discussion. Historically, both conservative and progressive leadership has led to effective anti-hunger measures at the national level. Recognizing that presidents like Richard Nixon, for example, have signed into law some of the most progressive anti-hunger legislation provides me with a bit of perspective and re-enforces the importance of collaboration.
ENGAGE: What does it mean to be a white anti-racist? What does this look like in practice?
Daniel: As a white anti-racist, I am committed to deconstructing racial oppression within my sphere of influence. In practice this means raising consciousness of those around me through critical discussion. It means promoting institutions and practices that support racial equality and social justice. It also means holding myself accountable for not using my racial privilege unfairly and taking steps to actively deconstruct unearned advantages.
ENGAGE: What advice do you have for newly returning study abroad students, particularly from the CIEE Thailand programs, who want to continue working for social justice in their home communities?
Daniel: I think one thing some of my DG peers experienced upon returning home was a cold, almost hollow, sense of disillusionment. It was as if we had created something beautiful abroad only to return home without any indication of how difficult it would be to recreate that same beauty in our “real” lives. I guess one piece of advice I’d give is that the CIEE Thailand experience is only as detached from reality as you want it to be. If you want to make the lessons you learned abroad part of your daily life in the U.S., do it. Seek out organizations on campus that share your values. Find friends and loved ones who are willing to listen while you stumble through nonsensical stories about what happened abroad and what it all means. Don’t expect everyone to understand or be okay with “plus, minus, deltas,” but don’t forget that it took you some getting used to as well. Be patient.
Beyond seeking organizations that affirm your beliefs, I’d also recommend finding situations that challenge them as well. The Emerson Fellowship, for me, is a way to solidify my values and beliefs, but next year I fully anticipate working for an organization that may not have an overt social justice or anti-racist mission. I need that challenge. I need to learn how to merge my own values into a larger system whose mission is not necessarily my own. I think we all need this sort of experience, too, if we expect to be effective in the work we do.