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John T. Edge to remain director, while Southern Foodways Alliance maps a more inclusive future

Following repeated demands for change at the organization, including calls for its longtime director to resign, the Southern Foodways Alliance announced plans Tuesday to make immediate improvements and launch a long-term strategic review of the nonprofit group to diversify a predominantly White staff and leadership tasked with the study of a food culture created largely by enslaved people.

A 12-person committee, formed this summer after complaints about the leadership of founding director John T. Edge, released a statement outlining the next steps for SFA, which was founded in 1999 and operates under the umbrella of the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. Among the immediate changes, the SFA will hire a guest curator to program at least one event a year and a guest editor to oversee at least one issue a year of Gravy, the award-winning magazine published by the alliance.

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The organization also plans to make it easier for writers and filmmakers to pitch ideas and to give all SFA members a say in the planning sessions for the group’s popular spring and fall symposia.

In the long term, the SFA plans to hire an outside agency and work with the university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement to conduct an audit “of the ways that institutional racism and patriarchy have shaped, whether intentionally or not, the SFA’s and the CSSC’s structures and programming,” according to the statement. The audit will help guide the SFA to hire clusters of employees who “will diversify the staff and redistribute decision-making power,” although the committee points out that the coronavirus pandemic has created a budget crunch at the university. There is a hiring freeze, and budgets have not been set for the 2020-2021 academic year.

“The coming reassessment is not symbolic,” wrote the authors on the committee, which included university faculty, two SFA staffers and SFA advisory board members.

“It is not review for the sake of review, or dialogue for the sake of discussion,” the statement said. “It is a deliberate effort to identify and implement a set of concrete, actionable recommendations that will address what we see as valid concerns about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the composition of SFA’s paid staff; the leadership of SFA’s general operations and year-to-year programming; and the structure of SFA’s leadership, which we believe needs to shift from an organic to a strategic model of growth.”

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Edge and the SFA found themselves on the defensive in June after a James Beard Foundation webinar and the resulting social media posts and personal letters accused the organization and its director of marginalizing women, failing to diversify and serving as gatekeepers on what stories to tell about Southern food and who could tell them. The most vocal critic was, arguably, Tunde Wey, the Nigerian chef and activist who took part in the Beard Foundation discussion, “What Is Food Writing’s Role in a Divided Nation?” moderated by Jamila Robinson, food editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“We need many folks with power to die figurative deaths,” Wey said during the webinar, “and what that means is that power is ceded, that the space that they occupy is taken up by other folks.”

Wey then suggested White power brokers need to quit their jobs to make way for people of color to fill those roles. He specifically suggested, multiple times, that Edge quit as SFA director.

“Tunde said something that really brought me up short, which was, ‘You’re always talking about having everybody at the table. But it’s always your table,’” Kathleen Purvis, a veteran food journalist and a member of the SFA, told The Washington Post. “I thought, ‘Well, yeah, if it’s your table, you’re controlling what’s on the table.’”

“It’s almost like noblesse oblige,” Purvis added. “You know, ‘I’m doing so much good for these smaller groups that have been ignored and maltreated. But I am the one who gets to control the narrative.’”

In the webinar, Edge acknowledged that the White power structures needed to change but argued for a “gradualism” approach, which the committee specifically rejected in its statement on Tuesday. (“We want to say explicitly that gradualism is not an acceptable response to problems of institutional racism and patriarchy; and diversity and inclusion are neither the same as nor acceptable proxies for equity.”)

More specifically, however, Edge noted he was already planning his departure from the SFA. “I’ve been in my position 20 years,” Edge told Wey in June. “It’s time for me to get out of the way. I recognize that and embrace that.” 

The calls for Edge’s ouster were different than those demanding the removal of Adam Rapoport as editor of Bon Appétit magazine in June. There were no damning photos of Edge. There were no charges of pay inequity between Black and White employees. No, Edge was accused of being the White gatekeeper of an organization dedicated to the American South, where Whites have always held power, sometimes through vicious means. Critics say his position has also made him a leading voice on Southern food, earning him book deals, plum freelance assignments and even a TV gig as host and writer of “True South” on ESPN.

The committee does not call for Edge’s immediate removal but instead expects larger organizational changes to occur over the next two years. Among those changes: new leadership, which, the committee notes, “the current director has been planning for some time.”

Wey declined to comment for this story.

I understand and embrace that the best path forward for SFA is if I transitioned out of my job and someone transitions into my job,” Edge told The Post on Tuesday. “I understood that five years ago. I understood that two years ago. I understand that now, and I want that.”

Part of the delay in his departure is the money needed for the position, Edge said. Among other duties, Edge has helped raise cash to pay for his directorship. He doesn’t want his replacement to have to shoulder those same responsibilities. Over the past two years, Edge has lined up about $2.1 million in pledges and matching grants toward a $3 million endowment that would fund the next director’s position.

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“I don’t want to say this is the only path forward,” Edge said. “There may be another path forward that this committee and other folks within the university will work towards. It may be the university decides to pay the salary of the director. It may be that another donor comes in with cash. There’s a bunch of different things. I’m just saying this is a plan we have right now.”

Ronni Lundy is a journalist, cookbook author and a founding member of the SFA. She was one of the leading voices calling for Edge to step down and for the SFA to step into this moment of a national reckoning with race and injustice. She spent a good part of Tuesday evening trying to come to grips with the committee’s statement. While she said she was glad the organization outlined its problems, she was frustrated by the lack of specifics.

“I was hoping for a plan of action or some clarity, even if that clarity was to say, ‘We’ve looked at everything, and we feel that John T. should stay in this job in perpetuity,’ ” Lundy said. “Or, ‘We’ve looked at everything, and John T. has agreed to spend the next two years setting things in place for someone to take over, and this is what we’re going to do structurally. These are the other changes we’re going to make.’ ”

“But there’s really not anything concrete,” she added.

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