Alma College Common Table Project
Creating dialog between Michigan agriculture and farmers in the developing world.
The Common Table Project seeks to pioneer a dialogue between rural
residents in a “developing” region and those in the “breadbasket” of
the U.S. Grounded in the rural community of which Alma College is a
part, the Common Table Project will initiate a global perspective on
the cultural, economic, environmental, political, social, and
technological pressures on agricultural practices and rural life and
their impact on broader community sustainability. This project is
focused on developing processes that empower communities (rather than
starting a new institution) to address the global rural changes linked
to the New Agriculture and made most noticeable in human migration
between Mexico and the U.S. and within the U.S. The Project will test
a process that will facilitate the collaboration of local communities,
the college, its students, and experts, reconciling social and
technological knowledge, reflected in the transformation of the rural
lifestyle and agriculture in North America. As a consequence,
recommendations should be developed to make rural life, migration, and
agriculture more humane, with renewed respect for life, human
communities and human rights, especially of indigenous migrants.
Students of the college will gain from the project a refined
understanding of their world and the relationship of diverse cultural,
social, economic, and political systems.
The needs of rural communities in the light of changes from the new
agricultural revolution are not well represented in the curriculum and
conversations related to the changes from globalization of
agriculture. While understanding that change is inevitable, the Common
Table Project will presume that it should promote sustainable
practices. The new agricultural revolution is marked by:
1. industrialization of many forms of agriculture,
2. rationalization of land tenure,
3. increased use of chemicals,
4. full globalization of the food supply, and
5. the related revolution in bio-technology.
Although there is much theoretical research on related issues, the Common Table Project will take a distinctive approach, grounding its work in two very different yet specific communities to gain an accurate and empirical understanding of representative challenges to modern rural life.
The globalization of food systems necessitates that the Common Table
Project focus not simply on a rural community in the United States.
Yet, there are obvious problems of loss of focus inherent in trying to
understand continent or world-wide trends. Consequently, the Project
will limit concern to two representative sites in North America:
1. Chihuahua, Mexico, and
2. Michigan, USA.
Since a core rural issue is the dislocation of traditional rural
communities and the resulting migration of people, as well as of plants
and other animals, a central concern will be with the impacts of
migration and defining the social justice issues linked to it. While
committed to treating all people equally, of special concern will be
the impacts of change and especially dislocation and migration on
A. The Field Sustainability Conferences, or Common Table, will be used to bring together residents of varied yet representative rural communities, especially rural youth (such as Future Farmers of America in the U.S.) and college/university students, especially from Alma, and people with an indigenous background. Topics for conferences will vary, but focus on achieving sustainability in the midst of pressures for radical rural change, including:
1. Population dislocation,
2. Land tenure rationalization
3. Industrialization of agriculture,
4. Bio-technology innovation,
5. General environmental degradation,
6. Cultural modification, and
7. Weakening governance structures and processes.
Consequences of Common Table meetings may include:
1. Sponsorship of school and higher education curricular innovation (modeled both at Alma College and in schools in rural Mexico and mid-Michigan) to respond to rural changes,
2. Research and service projects (modeled at Alma College but developed in conjunction with community representatives in Mexico and mid-Michigan) that address needs and interests of affected communities,
3. Dissemination through the participants of relevant knowledge in forms useable by community residents, and, ultimately
4. Modeling the restoration of greater balance and sustainability in rural communities.
The benefits of the working in interior Mexico will be to increase the likelihood that the proposed responses to change will incorporate the perspectives of a broader subsection of the global population than would be possible if only first world people and non-migrants were participating. Travel for selected people from the two regions will be subsidized for general Common Table meetings, allowing for personal contacts across regions.
B. Facilitation of the Common Table Advisory Groups: Through the Common Table Project the College and representatives from each region (Mexico and mid-Michigan) will develop a process for the formation of non-governmental “Common Table groups” in each of the two regions. While each regional group will need to create and structure the groups to fit with local conditions, the minimal standards will be openness, representative membership, and local control. Funds will support student/youth internships with the project.
C. Production of Community Information Reports: Both the proceedings of the conferences and the results of any technical studies will result in publications for the “lay” public. These publications intentionally will be made understandable to the residents of the participating communities. The College’s faculty and students may also convert these lay research reports into more formal publication.
D. Residency of Participants at Common Tables: Because of the inherent dissolution of community roots by many migrants, the Common Table will maintain a mobile structure for gathering information on those displaced by the new agriculture (migrants), reactions from host communities, and special needs, such as for health access, human rights protection, and education service provision. A goal of the program will be to recruit former migrants from Mexico to work with Common Table staff and students, offering migrant/indigenous perspectives at meetings and in publications.
A. Globally linked, informed, and empowered community leaders (to face challenges of
globalization and the new agriculture);
B. Wiser youth (especially Alma College students and local students in both regions);
C. Accessible (useable) lay reports and supporting research on issues arising from new
D. Technical assistance to communities, focused on rural sustainability;
E. Identification of human rights concerns of migrant/indigenous communities;
F. Invaluable experience with community service and research for Alma students and
faculty, fitting with the College’s commitment to training globally responsible leaders; and
G. Better informed rural/indigenous leaders in Mexico with invaluable exposure to global
factors (especially institutions and policies) impacting their lives. .
Given the historic role of land-grant universities related to agriculture and Alma’s small size, we want to explicitly explain why the College is specially qualified to lead this initiative:
1. Alma College faculty and students have hands-on experience with community empowerment, having facilitated the development of the most effective community advisory group (CAG) for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force;
2. Alma already has border contacts and has had students, faculty, and staff visit indigenous groups in rural Mexico;
3. Alma has already hosted community agricultural forums, most recently in December 2005; and has contacts with global agricultural institutions such as the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico;
4. Alma students have won recognition for their work in community development and global sustainability, including Shannon Finnegan [currently a Presidential Fellow]; Cardell Johnson [currently with the Government Accountability Office]; and April LaCroix, a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Toronto, studying North American water issues, each of whom have worked with the existing Alma program in Mexico;
5. Alma is located in a rural area, whose primary local agricultural product, navy beans, have as their largest market, Mexico; and
6. Unlike the state land grant universities, Alma has no bias in favor of large industrial agriculture.