This fundraiser always has its heart in the right place

Len Kahn from Kahntact Marketing and I were pleased to be asked again this year to provide live music in support of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Thanks to Joey Sabljic and Matt Gans for taking part too. We hope to see everyone Friday at 11:30 a.m – 1 p.m.

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What’s “right” can be a matter of perspective

People dump on the media when things are reported incorrectly. That’s understandable.

Despite deadline pressures, journalists are supposed to get things right. They go with what they know to be right at the time. That may change as more facts come to light.

Ukraine journalist Iurii Mykhailov, SEEMO’s Oliver Vujovic and me. Photo by Steve Werblow.

But in an era of increasing subjectivity and opinion in the media, do you find it more difficult to determine what’s “right” and what isn’t? Does something seem more right if it matches your own point of view, and less right if it doesn’t? Does it look right if it’s eloquently written by professionals in conventional media, and wrong if it’s emotionally espoused by a blogger through social media?

It’s a conundrum. In my last post, Prof. Ajay Heble, an improvisation researcher at the University of Guelph, spoke of a world where hard positions give way to discussion, where polarized perspectives grow closer through respect, dialogue and listening. In this way, arriving at what’s right might be more of a drawn-out process. But the end result should be more balanced.

The same goes for agriculture. Trying to figure out what’s right is a pressing matter for farmers, and for consumers.

More and more, people are exercising their democratic right to chime in about choices being made for them by the agri-food sector. What people think is increasingly influencing what farmers produce. I’m not sure the sector realizes how much it relies on the public to support what it believes to be “right”— the right way to treat animals, the right place to raise them, the right crop protection and production technology to use on the farm.

Given the degree of dependency, the sector puts next to nothing into explaining itself to people. I’ve said before that well-intentioned and effective initiatives do indeed exist. But they’re the small dogs in the fight.

Their counterparts, the big dogs, were out in full force last month at Green Week in Berlin, Germany, at what’s become the world’s largest consumer show for agriculture and food. More than 400,000 people and 4,800 media from 70 countries converged on this 10-day-long show, now in its 87th year of operation, and it just keeps breaking attendance and participation records.

Each year, Green Week hosts the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists executive, which makes it possible for me to take part. This year, I was fortunate to moderate a freedom of the press discussion with a journalist from Ukraine and the director of the South East Europe Media Organization, which is likewise dedicated to press freedom.

As we spoke inside, and as the anti-technology protesters predictably gathered outside for the cameras, it struck me how press freedom in a democracy must still be fiercely guarded.

Protesters mock German agriculture minister Ilse Aigner at Green Week.
Photo by Per Henrik Hansen.

Protesters want their voices heard, but I’m not so sure they want other dissenting voices aired out, such as those who are pro-technology. They’re quick to jump on anyone who takes that position, which has a bullying effect on people, governments and farmers. A spokesperson for the German crop protection industry told me “green” groups’ success in raising and maintaining fear in the public over genetically modified plants has made governments reluctant to allow such crops to be grown inside their borders, and muted farmers’ interest in them.

When that happens, the public is left wondering what’s right, and what isn’t.

To me, talking is right. Shouting and intimidation are not. When it comes to food and agriculture, the media has a vital role in helping all peoples’ voices be heard and in presenting balanced stories. It’s heard from protesters; now it’s waiting for farmers and others to pick up the phone.

This column originally appeared in the Guelph Mercury Monday, February 4.

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Creative solutions can solve big problems

One night, unfortunately in a dream, Eric Clapton and I were onstage somewhere, jamming 12-bar blues, Chicago-style.

Of course, he was playing lead guitar. After a bit, he gave me the head nod universally understood by musicians to mean “your turn.” So off I ventured into an improvised solo, playing a few bars, then sent the spotlight back to where it belonged. Graciously, he again nodded, this time with his approval of my solo. That’s one way I knew it was a dream.

Rock and blues legend Eric Clapton.

Switch to real life, on a Sunday night in St. Louis. I was out for a business dinner with colleagues, and being the hometown of Chuck Berry, we wanted to hear some music. We asked the cab driver to take us to any blues bar he could find, and ended up someplace we weren’t very welcomed, wearing ties and sports jackets.

But the bar did indeed have a great blues trio, Little Jimmy, whose band leader cautiously visited us during a break. He found out I was also a guitarist, invited me up to play lead on a few improvised bars of Who Do You Love? with his band, and the nasty looks from our fellow patrons turned to handshakes and pats on the back. It was the most localized and welcomed example of music’s healing power that I’d ever experienced.

Flash forward again, this time to Kitchener last week. There, the first of a province-wide series of discussions took place about the value of university research and innovation, its significant influence on society and how it will shape the future — specifically, the year 2030. Among the featured speakers was University of Guelph Prof. Ajay Heble, a fine jazz improvisation musician, who took the stage to talk not about scales, notes and other aspects of music, as you might expect. Instead, he spoke of hope.

Guelph jazz musician Ajay Heble.

To him, musical improvisation offers a foundation for hoping and dreaming of different and better days ahead. Sharing the spotlight speaks to a scenario where people get along through flexibility, trust and mutual respect. Those principles can lead to dialogue and a future where activists don’t need to shout to be heard, and to policy creation where artists are as involved as bureaucrats.

At the Kitchener gathering, which I wrote about in my Urban Cowboy column in the Guelph Mercury, Heble cited cultural studies scholar Ien Ang’s position on the future. She says one of the most urgent predicaments of our time can be described in deceptively simple terms: that is, how are we to live together in this new century? Indeed, before we figure out how we’ll exist in the next century, we’d better figure out how we’ll get through this one.

The early part of this century, the part we’re in right now, is pivotal for the future. Perhaps most notable is that we face the pending need to not only feed an estimated two billion more people in 40-ish years from now, but just as pressing, we must figure out how to do so. By 2030, the year chosen as a focus for last Wednesday’s discussion, it won’t be good enough to simply have plans in place. We’ll need to be actively working on them, too.

This doesn’t mean everyone involved in policy formation and food production must suddenly agree on everything. But more voices must be heard. The Idle No More movement shows what happens when people are ignored. They, too, are part of the future. They deserve the chance to shape it.

Heble’s approach has as much relevance in rural Canada as urban Canada, onstage or off, in municipal councils or boardrooms. Musicians take risks when they improvise, and for the most part the results are new and fresh. To Heble, that’s the way to the future.

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