Fasting for Social Justice

Cesar Chavez

Daniel, a friend and ally in social justice work around the Denver area, emailed me in March, asking me if I would like to participate in the 2011 Lafayette Cesar Chavez Celebration.  There were lots of ways to join in the celebration, but particularly, he asked me and my friend Zach if we would like to join in a 46 Day Community Fast where individual fasters would refrain from eating for 1-3 days while reflecting on and recommitting themselves to their social justice activism, then passing the fast to the next activist in line.

Now, I’ve done some fasting in the past, but usually that has been a sun-up to sun-down, single day fast as part of my own centering process or as a way to stand in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters during Ramadan.  I’ve never fasted longer than a day, though, and I was pretty intimidated by the undertaking.  Zach and I decided to fast together as a way to support each other through a two-day fast.

On Tuesday morning my shift in the fast was to begin, so I awoke before the sun rose and ate a hearty breakfast, knowing that I would not eat again until sundown of the following day, 38 hours later.  Now, I did consume some water, sometimes with honey and lemon (something done by both Chavez and Gandhi in their respective fasts), as I would likely need a bit of water to keep functioning throughout the days.  Even with the water and its supplements, though, the fasting experience kept me present, kept me reflecting every time I had a pang of hunger.

One of the things that I love about fasting is the way that it forces me to think more intentionally about everything from the foods I eat and the ways I consume to the reasons that I am fasting and the ways in which I am so incredibly privileged.  Over those two days, every time I found myself particularly hungry, I tried to think of the privilege I have to live at a social status in a country where I have the option to eat nourishing food pretty much all the time; literally, I could never stop eating if I didn’t want to!  By contrast, over 1 billion people worldwide don’t have enough nourishing food to eat on any given day, and more than 6 million children die each year as a result of hunger.  It’s not just a global problem either!  In the land of plenty, the United States, nearly 7 million households struggle with not having enough to eat.

On any given day, most of us don’t know, don’t care to know, or don’t think about this grim reality.  Now, I don’t mean to say that I think it makes any sense to guilt anyone into the whole “finish your food because there are starving children in Africa” cliche (though I do think that we need to work on decreasing our waste).  Instead, if we force ourselves to sit with the realities of world hunger, to consider the ways that we are privileged, it is a lot harder for us to remain inactive, to sit idly by while this is occurring.  Volunteering at your local food bank or supporting the World Food Programme is a simple place to start.  I figure that on any given day, I spend anywhere from $8-$25 on food.  As a result, I encourage you to join me in contributing anywhere from $16 to $50 (representing my two days of not eating) to the World Food Programme.

In thinking about my relationship to food, it was fascinating to remain present and think about the ways my body viscerally reacted to the lack of food.  In my incredible privilege, I forget that my body is evolutionarily designed to function for quite a while without food!  Our bodies store nutrients in fat and muscle for the times when we cannot access food.  I am fortunate that my body almost never has to access these stores!  I found, though, that after I got past my initial hunger in the middle of the first day of fasting, I was not nearly as hungry as I expected to be.  My body had ways to take care of me, particularly as I eat such nutrient-rich food most of the time, allowing for plentiful stores.

Another phenomenon that surprised me was one described well by Zach as he fasted.  “I find myself not even being that hungry but wanting to just put food in my mouth as a habit!  I pass a sample in Whole Foods, and I want to reach out and pop it in my mouth!”  It’s true!  I discovered my literal habit in eating!  I wanted to eat simply because the motion felt right, felt good.  Only through challenging myself not to actually act on this habit could I better understand it and its root in my incredible wealth privilege and access to food almost 24/7.

For me, though, fasting goes beyond simply encouraging me to think about the hunger I am privileged to choose to experience from time to time.  It gave me a chance to reflect on the work that I do and the reasons that I do that work.  The White Privilege Conference gave me a lot to think about, so I was happy to take the time during my fasting to reflect on the privilege that I bring, for better or for worse, into social justice work.  I spent a lot of time thinking about what role I play in social justice work as a white, straight, able-bodied male from economic privilege.  I thought a lot about what right I have to do the work at all, let alone do the work for profit.  I spent time considering how I can build more accountable coalitions in my work.

More than anything, though, I’ve thought about the words of my friend Julia: ”

Regardless of who (black white brown red, rich/poor, literate/not, English-speaking/not, [traditionally-]powerful/not, American/not, skilled/not) shows up, we need as many people as we can get to do this work, to revolutionize this work, to edit and transform and break and make again, we need a group of committed people who will not quit when it gets harder than it’s ever been.

Maybe I gravitate to her words to help myself feel better as I wrestle with my role in the work, but in thinking about the other fasters of many backgrounds who are all fasting together in solidarity, I think of Julia’s words.  With the challenges facing our country and our world, the work is only likely to “get harder than it’s ever been.”  In that, we must lean into one another, build relationships, build coalitions, and realize that our liberation, the liberation of each and every one of us, is bound up together.  Am I always clear of my role in this work? No.  But I know I must continue to commit and recommit myself to the struggle for justice.

“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.
You cannot un-educate the person who has begun to read.
You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride.
You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”
– Cesar Chavez

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One thought on “Fasting for Social Justice

  1. […] sisters.  I’ve fasted on occasion during Yom Kippur, and a few years back, I participated in a 38 hour fast to honor the legacy of Cesar Chavez while recommitting to my own social justice […]

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