Statement from Dr. Kathryn McKee, Director of The Center for the Study of Southern Culture and Dr. Lee Cohen, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Mississippi
July 6, 2020
The past few days have brought rising criticism of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) that questions past action, its current state, and its future direction. We take those concerns very seriously. In the coming days, we will be assembling a planning committee that will include faculty and staff of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture (CSSC); a representative from the University of Mississippi (UM) College of Liberal Arts; and representatives of the SFA staff and board. We will also consult with purposefully diverse voices from broader constituencies, including the world of non-profit institutes, food studies, and other academic organizations with similar missions.
By mutual consent with the SFA, the CSSC will play a leadership role in this process, working to clarify the precise nature of the relationship between them. As the academic home of undergraduate and graduate programs in Southern Studies and in Documentary Expression, the Center is committed to principles of equity and inclusiveness, and it does not take lightly the implication that these have been inconsistently applied.
On or before September 1, we will share the first steps of a plan for the future of the SFA. We will work within the framework of UM employment guidelines, as well as within guidelines from the College of Liberal Arts regarding individual unit reviews. Parts of that plan will necessarily require time for us to develop and implement so that we do not jeopardize the future of the organization as a whole. Clearly the SFA inspires deep feeling and what comes next for it matters to a great many people, including the two of us.
Kathryn B. McKee
Director, The Center for the Study of Southern Culture
Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Statement from John T. Edge
Since 1999, I have worked with sincere intent to tell new stories from this old place. Narratives that change the South for the better. SFA founders, board, staff, and collaborators have aimed, since inception, to address inequities, including the historic and contemporary impact of racism. Over the last decade, we have expanded our focus to address inequities grounded in gender, class, ethnicity, and other differences. Because we began and continue our work in that spirit, SFA members and audiences expect more from us. And they expect more from me. This week I learned, in conversations with members and collaborators, and through a New York Times article, that the people of SFA demand more of me still. I welcome and accept that challenge. I promise to listen, absorb, reflect, and act. And so do my colleagues, with whom I work in a consensus-based office, and whose dedication to drive progress in the South inspires me. Part of carrying our plan of work forward will mean a future change in SFA leadership. I welcome the positive impact that change can have on SFA.
—John T Edge
Statement from SFA Staff
To Whom It May Concern:
The Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. Based at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, we share oral histories, produce films and podcasts, publish great writing, sponsor scholarship, mentor students, and stage events that serve as progressive and inclusive catalysts for the greater South.
We believe in our mission.
We stand by our work.
And we stand with our founding director, John T. Edge.
— Melissa Booth Hall, Mary Beth Lasseter, Sara Camp Milam, Annemarie Anderson, and Claire Moss
Statement from SFA Advisory Board
June 28, 2020*
Dear Southern Foodways Alliance Staff,
In light of recent criticisms of the leadership of the Southern Foodways Alliance, the advisory board believes it is appropriate to send this letter detailing our thoughts on the state of the organization and its structure to evolve toward a healthy future.
As an organization that “documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South,” we believe that the past and current work of the staff speaks for itself in constructively achieving that mission. That very much includes John T. Edge, the SFA’s founding director, and all the other members of the leadership and staff. They have collectively assumed the responsibility to create an organization that recognizes and honors diversity in every part of its work.
We have heard the recent calls for John T. Edge to step down as director immediately. Some have suggested that it’s time for a different kind of leadership—a woman, a person of color, or both. This is a call we do not take lightly. No one on the staff of the Southern Foodways Alliance or the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, its parent entity at the University of Mississippi, has indicated to us that they take it lightly either. As a reminder, the Center has sole authority regarding the SFA budget and hiring practices. Our board serves solely in an advisory capacity, and we are steadfastly committed to the thoughtful stewardship of the SFA’s future.
In the past, numerous members of our board have discussed a succession plan for John T. Edge and the organization. The subject has been formally discussed in board meetings for at least five years. To date, however, no clear plan for this succession has emerged. We propose the following in our advisory capacity: that the Southern Foodways Alliance proceed immediately with ongoing succession planning that includes a pathway and timeline for replacing John T. Edge as the director. We do not propose that he step down or end his tenure in any way that puts the organization into crisis. Our recommendation is for the SFA to work closely with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture to outline a plan of healthy transition that includes a widespread recruitment effort to seek the most qualified candidate, broadening the diversity of the SFA staff.
We recommend that John T. and SFA leadership are part of the transition planning, to honor the good work of the SFA to date and to create an environment that will nurture the long-term health, continuity, and success of the organization. In order for this undertaking to be genuinely successful, we recommend defining timelines for the events surrounding transition.
We also commit to making our 16-member board more closely reflect the people the SFA serves, studies, and celebrates. With this letter we commit to work with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and SFA leadership to bring our number to half or more people of color by 2021, intensifying our active recruitment efforts to achieve this long-standing goal.*
We appreciate the SFA and CSSC’s careful consideration of our recommendations and look forward to our role of assisting however we can toward a bright future for the organization.
The Advisory Board of the Southern Foodways Alliance
By unanimous consent
*The Board of Advisors’ inserted additional language on 7/12/2020 to reflect their ongoing commitment to increasing diversity in board composition.