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American Activist Promotes Democracy Worldwide


Frances Moore Lappé spent three decades helping people find solutions to the world's most intractable problems. The activist and author says there is a way for our small planet to support its growing population, and she is fostering a social movement, avocating democracy, to do that.

Frances Moore Lappé grew up in Fort Worth, Texas in the 1950's and 60s, at a time when racial segregation was the norm for the nation.

"It was a very racist community," she says. "All of the public places were segregated, yet my parents were so courageous that they founded a church and they integrated it, black and white together. They made friends, personal friends with African Americans and brought them into our home as friends of our family."

Lappé says her parents' actions, doing what they believed was right, had a profound effect on how she has lived her life.

"I think the greatest blessing in life is to be a child of courageous parents that show you that the good life is taking risks for what you believe in," she says. "My parents were not celebrated as heroes by anyone, but to me, they are my heroes, because they lived their values and taught me that good life is to be fully engaged in creating real democracy."

Searching for causes of hunger

Getting involved in social work right after college allowed Lappé to see first-hand the daily struggles of the poor to provide for their families. Her compassion and curiosity motivated her to begin researching the real causes behind hunger and poverty worldwide.

In 1971 Lappé wrote a book that shaped the ethics of eating for a generation. In Diet for a Small Planet, she argued that it was not over-population, bad weather or technological inadequacy that caused human beings to go hungry. Rather, it was the unfair distribution of the world's resources and a lack of democracy. Lappé says she believes her claim is as valid today as it was more than 3 decades ago.

"Today, we're being told again that the problem is scarcity, that there is not enough food in the world," she says. "This is a disempowering and a distorting myth. In fact, there is more than enough food to make all of us chubby in the world. The problem is not scarcity of food. The problem is the scarcity of power in the hands of those who need it. The problem is deepening poverty because of the powerlessness that is enforced through the system that concentrates wealth. That's what we got to tackle."

Advocating social change through democracy

To translate her beliefs into reality, Lappé co-founded a number of organizations dedicated to social change. The Institute for Food and Development Policy, known as Food First, works to eliminate what it calls "the injustices that cause hunger" and bring control of food production back to farmers and communities.

The Small Planet Institute supports grassroots democracy movements around the world. They provide education, publicity and money for Lappé's main focus: spreading the concept of democracy as a way of life, rather than simply a set of institutions.

"Democracy is the voice of people really shaping their own future, shaping the policies that create our world, sharing responsibility and accountability," she says."That's the emergent understanding of democracy that goes into every aspect of our lives: economics, cultural, educational. It's not just a political structure."

Lappé believes that democracy can be taught. If people around the world share their experiences, they can learn from one another. Through democracy, she adds, people can bring hope back into their lives. She says, "hope is not what we find in evidence, it is what we create in action."

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