Walking Through Fear

An interview with Frances Moore Lappé by Sarah Ruth van Gelder

Her book Diet for a Small Planet sold 3 million copies. She co-founded organizations to fight hunger and bolster democracy. Along with her daughter, Anna, she traveled the world to gather stories for Hope's Edge. Yet, like many of us, she experienced a time when her world crumbled ...

Frances Moore Lappe and
her daughter Anna Lappe
Frances Moore Lappe and her daughter Anna Lappe
photo by Sarah Putnam

Sarah Ruth van Gelder: It's a real pleasure to be interviewing one of my heroes. I've admired you for a long time, so I was surprised to find you describing, in the book you co-authored with Jeffrey Perkins, You Have the Power, times when you felt afraid and lost. Why did you decide to share these experiences?


Frances Moore Lappé: Because we are living in a culture increasingly dominated by fear where many feel blocked. But fear doesn't have to stop us. I learned this when my world came apart. I was living a life-long dream of a family life combined with an organization to promote living democracy—all on a gorgeous 45-acre compound in rural Vermont. I'd spent a decade building my dream, and then it started to crumble, piece by piece—my marriage, my organization, my confidence."


Sarah: How did you respond? What did you do?


Frances: The first words that come to mind are those of Wangari Mathai, a woman my daughter Anna and I met in Kenya, who suffered terribly during her divorce, and she came through it to found the Green Belt Movement. Her refrain to us was basically, "I just kept walking."

I thought about her during this time when fear seemed to grab me by the throat. Sometimes it was so tight it hurt, my mouth was often dry, and I felt awful pressure in my upper chest.

Then my children threw me a life line: "Return to your roots—food—and rewrite your first book, Diet for a Small Planet." I learned that if I could just show up, in this case, if I could just get myself out of bed, get to the computer in my tiny office at MIT, and start writing, help would start arriving. For me, just showing up for the traveling and writing gave me the power to overcome my fear of fear.


Sarah: You tell the story of Diane Wilson, the shrimper from the Gulf Coast of Texas, who stood up to some of the world's largest polluters. I loved the moment in your book where she says she was "outrageous for so long that they could not predict or control me."


Frances: I get goose-bumps when you talk about Diane Wilson. Who knows where she found that courage? When she was a child, she would crawl under the bed when a stranger came to the house.
But in 1989, she found out that her county in south Texas was ranked worst in the country for toxic waste. She wondered if the effluent, dumped into the waters where she and her family had shrimped for generations, might be responsible for the dwindling fish populations. And she suspected that her son's autism might be related to the pollution.

She asked, "Why aren't people upset? Why aren't people protesting?" The mayor and county commissioners told her to keep quiet, and everybody else was afraid to speak out against the companies, which included some of the country's biggest chemical companies. There were even attempts on her life. Family members abandoned her, and certainly none of the other shrimpers stood with her.

Finally the other shrimpers did come around, and together they formed a boat blockade of commercial traffic in the main channel. Then came an embarrassing Associated Press story about the pollution. Finally in 1997, Formosa Plastics signed a zero-discharge agreement, and Alcoa Aluminum soon followed. These agreements became a national model for environmental protection.

So what gave her the courage? If you look at someone like Diane, it's easy to say, well I could never be like that. But we don't know. We do know that it's possible for a woman, who didn't grow up as a world changer, to find it in herself to take a stand.

What was so moving for her, and also for me, is that she felt the Bay itself was like her grandmother. She said, "I don't think there's a woman alive who would give up fighting for her child, or her mother, or her grandmother."

Recently, she went on a hunger strike to protest Dow Chemical's refusal to accept responsibility for a 1984 chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, caused by a company they now own, Union Carbide. In the past, Diane's hunger strikes had been lonely affairs, but this time friends and co-conspirators from around the country took turns joining her on her flatbed truck under the hot Texas sun, greeting Dow workers as they entered the plant.


Sarah: You mentioned in your book that one of the greatest fears people have is the fear of embarrassment. People avoid venturing out of accepted roles or suggesting a better way, because doing so might subject them to ridicule or humiliation.


Frances: I think that fear of embarrassment is the essence of the human challenge. On the one hand, our social nature is our greatest beauty—it means that we have natural empathy and sympathy. But our social nature also means that we may let ourselves be controlled by the judgments of others, precisely because we care so much about our status in community.

Few of us can go it alone, but we can choose who we bring into our lives. We can choose who will reinforce our risk taking. That's what happened when my own life crumbled. The people who came into my life bolstered me to take more risks, to be even more true to myself.


Sarah: You and Jeffrey Perkins suggest that sometimes we think fear is telling us to stop when it actually means "go!"


Frances: I think we are at a new evolutionary stage. We evolved in tight-knit tribes in which we faced death if we didn't have the support of the rest of the tribe. So little wonder that it can seem unthinkable to say "no, thanks" to the modern-day equivalent of our tribe—our fear-driven culture.

The problem is that our whole tribe—if you will, the larger community of humanity itself—is on a death march ecologically and in terms of the intensification of violence and conflict. So breaking with the pack may be exactly what we should be doing. Saying "no" to the dominant culture that is trapping us in destructive ways of living might be the most life-serving thing we can do. Fear doesn't necessarily mean that we have to stop. It doesn't mean that we are failures. It doesn't mean that we are cowards. It means that we are human beings walking into the unknown, and that we are risking breaking with others for something we believe in.


Sarah: You use the word "power" in the title of your book. A lot of people are uneasy with power, feeling it is suspect and inherently corrupt. Are you thinking of power in a different way?


Frances: Very much so. A teacher told me this story some time ago: She asked her students to line up in order of how much power they thought they had relative to the others in the class, and they all fought to be last in line. They didn't want to acknowledge that they had personal power.

I like to think of power back in its Latin root, its meaning comes from posse—to be able. We didn't evolve to be passive victims or shoppers. We evolved to be problem-solvers, to create, to be choosers of our own future!


Sarah: This issue of YES! asks what is the good life? What is the good life to you?


Frances: I think back to when I was growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, in the 1950s, during the McCarthy era, with two parents who founded a Unitarian Church. We lived in a little frame house, and my bedroom was just down the hall from the kitchen. My favorite memories of childhood are of the smell of coffee wafting into my bedroom as my parents and their friends talked about the big, important things—about racism and about how to move our country to live its values. So the good life for me always meant connecting with those big, important issues that grown-ups get so excited about.

A life-long mission has been to counter the notion that political engagement is the spinach we must eat in order to have the dessert of freedom. Engagement is the good life. What could be more exciting than getting involved in something that you care about and joining with others and seeing something change? What could be more thrilling?

I read a book in the late 1990s called The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, by Erich Fromm, and it had a profound impact on me. Fromm takes Descartes' statement, "I think, therefore I am" and changes it to "I effect, therefore I am." Humans need to feel effective—to feel that we can "make a dent," as he puts it. So the art of living is to find expressions appropriate to our own uniqueness in which we can experience effectiveness.

The good life may mean doing some things that do not feel comfortable. It may mean sitting long hours just with yourself as you begin to listen to your own questions. That was the reality for me when I was 27, and it was really terrifying. I wasn't sure where I was headed. I had no identity—I was terrified that somebody would ask me what I was doing, and I would have no answer.

My path has not been smooth. But the great thing about getting to be an elder—Sarah, I just had my 60th birthday—is that you can look back and see the intense times of confusion and challenge, and see that if you keep walking through them, they can lead to times of great satisfaction and reward. The good life is not about avoiding fear. Just the opposite.


Sarah: Are you talking about the time that led to your writing Diet for a Small Planet?


Frances: Yes. I had left graduate school, determined that I wasn't going to do anything else to "save the world" until I understood how I could get at the underlying causes of deepening suffering. To do that, I had to start by admitting that I didn't know.

My intuition told me that food would be my key. In the late 1960s, there were alarming predictions that worldwide famine was around the corner. I wondered if humans had already lost the race, overrun the Earth's capacity. I let one question lead to the next, and unearthed information that would forever change my life: Not only is there enough food in the world to feed every man, woman, and child on Earth, there is enough to make us all chubby. The experts were wrong. Hunger was not, and is not, caused by a scarcity of food; it's caused by a scarcity of democracy—by people being denied a voice in their own futures.


Sarah: In the United States we have an epidemic of obesity and we also have a giant-sized diet industry. We are turning food into something that makes us sick. Yet enjoying food is a foundation of the good life in most cultures.


Frances: Yes, food has always been at the center of community bonding, of family life, and simple pleasure, but it is becoming more and more an obsession, a source of pain. This was my experience, because I was a compulsive eater in my late teens and until I wrote Diet for a Small Planet, so I know what it feels like when food becomes a threat.

What we do in the book my daughter Anna and I wrote, Hope's Edge, is to give people a glimpse of food as a source of nourishment, health, and community, rather than a threat. That means reconnecting with food as it comes from the Earth and with those who produce food. Many families participate in the Community Supported Agriculture movement, which allows a family to buy shares in a farmer's produce so that they know where their food is coming from, and they can take their families out and see the farm and meet the farmer. That movement has helped create a new culture around food.


Sarah: When you think about our situation in the United States today in mid-2004, are your feelings hopeful? Pessimistic?


Frances: I never like to use those terms. After the journey around the world, writing Hope's Edge, I began to see that it is not possible to know what's possible—and therein lies our freedom. If we cannot know what's possible, then we are free to do that which is pulling our hearts and that which is life serving.

I think of Wangari Mathai in Kenya. If she started out saying she wanted to plant 20 million trees, she would have been laughed at. In fact, the foresters and the government did laugh at her. They said, "Villagers? Un-schooled villagers? Planting trees? No, no, no, it takes foresters." So she planted trees anyway.

History doesn't proceed in incremental little notches. There are surprising turning points; there is the straw that breaks the camel's back, and you never know if your action could be the straw. We can't see ahead of time what actions are going to be the ones that move history in dramatic ways. Who could have predicted Nelson Mandela's triumph?

What we see today is a world movement represented by the World Social Forum, involving all sorts of interactions across cultures, not to create some new "ism," but to learn as we walk and to create more democratic forms of social organization that re-embed economic life in community.

So I don't rule anything out, and I couldn't underscore more the importance of what YES! is doing to show that there are people who are pushing the edge of hope, who are stepping into the unknown and taking risks, because that will then enable others to do the same.

We are very much social creatures who model ourselves on one another. Every time you take a step and walk with your fear, you'll never know the impact. But you can be certain somebody's watching, and that courage is contagious.


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