We are conducting interviews for our upcoming documentary addressing inequity called I Could Be….
Robert Egger is a nonprofit leader, author, speaker and activist. He founded the DC Central Kitchen, a nationally recognized “community kitchen” that collects leftover food from hospitality businesses and farms, and uses it to fuel a culinary arts job training program and provide meals to local service agencies. He is also the founder of Campus Kitchens Project, CForward and L.A. Kitchen.
Egger stepped down from his position at DC Central Kitchen in January 2013 to launch L.A. Kitchen in Los Angeles, CA. The L.A. Kitchen will recover fresh food and fuel a culinary arts job training program for men and women coming out of foster care, and older men and women returning from incarceration. He speaks throughout the country and internationally on the subjects of hunger, sustainability, nonprofit political engagement, and social enterprise. He writes blogs and editorials to share his ideas about the nonprofit sector and the future of America building on his more than 24 years of experience in this sector.
What is your favorite accomplishment from your work at DC Central Kitchen?
I opened lots of doors for people!!!
After spending over 20 years building DC Central Kitchen what inspired you start over with LA Kitchen?
There are three kinds of leaders. Those who have their head down, and just work hard to keep the machine moving. That’s cool. I get the need.
The second kind see the future coming, and wait for it to come to them….and too often, make whatever they are doing now “bigger” to meet future demand.
The third kind marches out to meet the future. I’m drawn to try to meet the future NOW, and change things NOW so they don’t get worse.
I see a huge issue on the horizon (aging in America) and I want to challenge every assumption about how we include, engage, uplift, and speak about this issue. I wanted a new “stage”, and LA has so much of what I need to create a bold new program.
You’re also President of CForward, an advocacy group that champions nonprofits and elects smart people. Tell us about it.
Nonprofits rep 10% of the US economy, and we are the 3rd biggest employer…but few, if any, candidates for office (at any level) speak about our role in economic recovery. THAT must change if we are to march into this new century with any real vision. I’m trying to help make that happen.
Does sexism keep nonprofits out of politics?
CHILLO…yes!!! The gender origins of modern philanthropy are mired in the whole “women’s work / nurturing” thing. This archaic notion that what we do is “nice” but not necessary is boring, wrong and economically dangerous.
The city where I live, New Rochelle, has an election for Mayor and City Council in 2015. Any suggestions?
They should all speak to 1) how they would channel the energy of nonprofits and help them attract new money (via grants or contracts) to create jobs, and 2) what is their plan to support the aging community.
FYI–NO city has a plan, and the costs associated with a rapidly aging society will really put a dent in most communities. We need a real plan NOW…and nonprofits are key to any plan!!!
Your work, reminds me of the work of Ted Howard. Have you ever met Ted?
Not yet….intro us.
What’s the key to enabling nonprofits to use their collective economic might to create positive change?
UNITY…I’d never use the term unionize..but strategic unity, and key moments (like election time) is key to community strength. There is NO profit without nonprofits. NO community thrives without healthcare, education, arts and culture, communities of faith, etc….
We need to help communities (and elected leaders) get that what we do is essential.
In another interview you said:
I was walking along this morning and thinking about how nonprofit leadership is in the hands of association presidents. That’s one of the giant reasons we are in the state we are in; associations, by their very nature, aren’t leadership groups. They bring people together for conferences to discuss problems, but when it comes to responding to the problems, they are usually risk adverse.
In fact, many of the people who lead these groups, or their boards, are lawyers or accountants, who have been trained to be risk adverse. At the very moment the sector needs dynamism, innovation, bravery…the leaders of these organizations, the leaders of our movements—whether it’s the academic, foundation leaders, or association presidents—none seem equipped or prepared (intellectually or economically) for the type of leadership not only our sector needs, but our society needs. Our society needs an elevated nonprofit sector, but to get there, we need people who are prepared to challenge antiquated ideas about the role we play in the economic and political process.
If we look at a list of the largest U.S. grantmaking foundations, what we find are organizations created by very wealthy people and large corporations. Isn’t it in their interest to maintain the status quo? And considering all of this, what is the way forward?
The great leap…something I’m working towards….is for one big foundation to say in their grant agreement “10% of this grant MUST be used for advocacy”. Currently, most grant agreements prohibit advocacy…yet that’s what it takes to move past charity. THAT will be a great day for the sector.
You have also said:
Too often, charity is about the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver.
Can you explain what you mean by this?
I think it says it all.
In The Status Syndrome, Sir Michael Marmot writes:
Autonomy—how much control you have over your life—and the opportunities you have for full social engagement and participation are crucial for health, well-being, and longevity. It is inequality in these that plays a big part in producing the social gradient in health.
How are you addressing autonomy and social engagement for seniors at LA Kitchen?
Choice in meals. Inclusion at every level. Plus..and this is big…I want to gain huge visibility, but use our visibility to draw people into a conversation about how we value our elders…not just make charity bigger.
John Taylor Gatto wrote on his website:
Since bored people are the best consumers, school had to be a boring place, and since childish people are the easiest customers to convince, the manufacture of childishness, extended into adulthood, had to be the first priority of factory schools.
Gatto spent nearly 30 years as a New York City school teacher and you often write and speak about the damage of a materialistic belief system. Have you given much thought to how schools instill consumer attitudes?
We have been raised to consume. When you watch MadMen…you have to realize, we are the children of that generation…and their goal was to convince us we needed all this junk to be happy. Buying all that junk kept America running, and the Milton Freedman school of thought is that THIS is the only way to interpret capitalism. I think there’s another way….a consumer driven economy, versus a consumption driven one. My work is about challenging that…and showing people they have a choice…a real choice, but one that involves re-evaluating what success means to them, personally.
It’s a C-R-A-Z-Y agenda…but that’s the tune I march to. Vive la Difference