Changing the Way We Think – For the Sake of Our Future
by Tom Parker
When Pastor Adrion Roberson took the podium at the Kansas Rural Center’s 2017 Farm and Food Conference, his was a singular presence that stilled conversation. He stood out in the crowd not only for his size but as one of three African-Americans in the room—an all too common occurrence especially at farm or rural conferences. In a voice like rolling thunder, he demanded accountability like an Old Testament prophet.
“Why is this conference happening?” he asked. “Where are we going? If I asked you why you do what you do, what would be your answer? Why do it? Because if you don’t have a purpose, everything you talk about means nothing.”
The issues facing him as a pastor in Wyandotte County, as a black man, as a resident of Kansas and of the United States, he insisted, are no different than those facing farmers and food advocates, and the issues are huge. The issues are challenging, he said, and solutions to those challenges have been both ineffectual and elusive.
“I live in a context where I’m not only dealing with inequality over access to healthy foods but with economic inequality, with educational inequality, with racial inequality,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re urban, suburban or rural, we have huge, challenging issues, and we’ve been trying to fix them with a technical fix. Ain’t got nowhere. So here’s the challenge as people who are trying to get from here to there—we need to recognize that there’s a gap.”
Roberson, pastor of Destiny! Bible Fellowship Community Church in Kansas City, Kan., and faculty member of the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita, led an interactive discussion entitled “Recognizing the adaptive challenges of defining our purpose, our values, our vision for the sake of the future.” His presentation was a driving tour de force that alternately left many audience members nodding their heads, scratching their heads and/or enthusiastically clapping. The key term was ‘recognizing,’ he said.
“That means an ongoing process of shifting, moving, of not being happy with the status quo, trying things differently, experimenting, failing, experimenting, having successes,” he said. “That’s what recognizing means.”
As for the gap, one of its main denominators is people, and it will take true leadership—and not authority, for the two are diametrically opposite, he said—to mobilize people to do the difficult work necessary for progress to be made. “I don’t care what system you deal with, you’re going to have to deal with people,” he said. “We have to learn to work with people we don’t know, people we don’t like, sometimes people we don’t understand.”
Traditional forms of labor have always been based on an authoritarian or technological-driven method of governance, he said. In exchange for cooperation, authority provides protection, direction and order. Leadership, on the other hand, is not a position, such as a CEO or a manager, but an act, and it involves collaboration and the pursuit of finding common ground.
“That’s adaptive thinking,” Roberson said. “And that’s what’s been missing. You have to talk to people who may not look like you or talk like you, but that have something you need—knowledge. That’s leading with an adaptive mindset.”
Roberson applauded the role of the Kansas Rural Center and other organizations as well as the farmers for their hard work and adaptive leadership. “This room is full of people who are designed to do something different with this gift, this talent, this passion you have for agriculture,” he said. “You’re doing it, you’re passing it down to the next generation. You want to see something different happen.”
In preparation for his presentation, he had read the KRC’s mission “ To promote the long-term health of the land and its people through research, education and advocacy that advances an economically viable, ecologically sound, and socially just food and farming system.” The idea resonated with him on a personal level. He and his wife live in Wyandotte County, which has been rated the second least healthy county in the state, according to the Kansas Health Institute’s 2017 County Health Rankings. Their church sits in the middle of the least healthy part of the county. Considered a food desert with no access to fresh produce or vegetables, the county proliferates with Family Dollar and Dollar General stores even as grocery stores disappear.
“We have high levels of cancer and mortality, we have high levels of diabetes, we have high levels of everything,” Roberson said. “There has to be an emphasis on the mission, and there has to be an emphasis on the purpose. That’s why you do what you do. That’s your purpose. If you don’t do what you do, guess what happens to us back in Wyandotte County? We die. Truth be told, we’re already dying.”
The work of farmers and ranchers was ordained by God, Roberson said, and their vision of providing healthy food to the residents of the nation inspired by divinity. “Everyone in here has been ordained, from the oldest to the youngest,” he said. “God bless you. You don’t hear thank you enough. You just don’t. Especially from people who look like me.”
Roberson broke the audience down into small groups to discuss four questions about what they did in their free time, how they involved themselves in their neighborhoods or communities, how others would describe them, and what they expected to get out of the conference. The exercise was less about starting open and candid conversations with others than it was about recognizing the aspirations, and the many challenges, that bind people together.
“You’re sick and tired of stuff not working,” he said. “There’s a gap. When you get up early in the morning and it’s cold out, and you’re bringing in the hay, man, that’s hard, that’s hard work. What are your frustrations? What are your aspirations? What would Nirvana look like?”
Answers from the crowd included more people returning to work the land, putting more emphasis about sustainable agriculture into the school system, and investing in the future rather than stealing from it.
When applying those ideas to the perspective of the gap, Roberson said, it often breaks down to people losing position or losing power. People in the gap are tired of losing, and they don’t want to lose any more. The question that needs to be asked, he said, was what they would be willing to lose to see progress made.
In technical work the problem and the solution are clear, he said. It requires an expert or someone in authority with experience. The timeline is ASAP. The attitude is one of confidence and skill. An example would be if he fell down and broke his arm. The technical approach would be to call 911 and to be rushed to the hospital where he would demand to be treated by an experienced trauma physician.
“I give that person authority because they are the authority in the technical aspects of that issue,” he said. “And that’s okay—sometimes we need technical thinking. But when we’re talking about the things you’re talking about, the solution requires learning. That’s why you’re here.”
Adaptive thinking requires a willingness to experiment, he said. It embraces an expectation of failure and a subsequent response of further experimentation. It involves recognizing our inadequacies and our lack of knowledge. As a speaker once told him, “We have to be pushed through the frontiers of our incompetence.” But most importantly, people need to remain curious. “Because if you don’t,” Roberson said, “that system is going to run you smooth over. We deal with systems, and once we understand that, we can get through things.”
The idea of adaptive thinking versus technical thinking is daunting, he admitted, and not easily understood. But where technical thinking is linear, adaptive thinking is circuitous and premised on the act of questioning everything, especially the norms. “What are you willing to lose to make progress?” Roberson asked. “Whose work is it? We can no longer push the work off on an individual and expect them to do all the work. We need stakeholders. We need a leader. How about you?”
The 2018 KRC conference will be held November 16-17, 2018 in Wichita, Kansas, at the Hotel at Old Town Conference Center.
Tom Parker is a free-lance journalist and photographer from Blue Rapids, Kansas.