Local food guru Jim Embry a model of activism; UK’s John Stempel on the state of the world

January 18, 2012

As the Unity Breakfast began Monday morning in Heritage Hall, Jim Embry was working the room.

Lean, fit and hard to miss in his colorful clothing and gray dreadlocks, Embry was quickly moving from table to table, handling out leaflets to promote his annual Bluegrass Local Food Summit, March 22 to 24 at Crestwood Christian Church.

Breakfast was followed by inspirational speakers and award presentations. But when Embry’s name was called as one of two Unity Award winners — along with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Bluegrass — he was gone. A son accepted the award for him.

“I have to leave by 8:15 to catch a 9 o’clock flight,” Embry had told me as he rushed from table to table, handing out leaflets to the breakfast’s 1,400 attendees. “I’m speaking this afternoon at Yale.”

It was classic Jim Embry. Who has time to rest on laurels when there is a world out there in need of improvement?

Embry, 62, was the featured speaker Monday afternoon in New Haven, Conn., at a master’s tea, sponsored by Yale University’s Pierson College and the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

Jim Embry, left, talks with Richard Knittel of Versailles in October, as they both joined Occupy Wall Street protesters on Main Street in Lexington. Photo by Tom Eblen

Embry now spends most of his time promoting sustainable living and locally grown food. But the Richmond native has been an activist since age 10, when his mother was president of the Covington chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. He grew up attending civil rights events.

As state youth chairman of the NAACP, he helped organize the 1964 March on Frankfort, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Embry went on to become president of the University of Kentucky’s Black Student Union. While he was in college, a summer job in New York City sparked his interest in health and food justice. In 1971, he helped found Lexington’s Good Foods Co-op.

After a four-year stint in Detroit as director of the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, Embry returned to Lexington in 2005 and founded the Sustainable Commun ities Network (Sustainlex.org). He has helped develop more than 30 community gardens and taught school garden workshops for more than 300 teachers.

Embry’s other passions range from the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice to the Interfaith Alliance and Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden. Later this year, he plans to publish his autobiography, Black and Green, and a book of photographs, Through the Lens of a Sacred Earth Activist.

“I come from a long lineage of activists, so I don’t know any better,” he said.

Outlook for 2012

John D. Stempel, retired director of UK’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, doesn’t so much try to improve the world as understand it.

He spent 24 years as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, including a four-year stint in the U.S. embassy in Iran before the 1979 revolution.

Stempel gave his annual State of the World speech to the Lexington Rotary Club earlier this month, saying he expects this year to be even more turbulent than last year. Among his concerns:

■ The likelihood that European debt and American politics will hamper economic recovery.

■ The possibility of cyber attacks on critical U.S. infrastructure. “Our illusion of invincibility serves us poorly,” he said.

■ The potential for an Iranian nuclear crisis, increasing instability in Pakistan and tensions between India and Pakistan.

■ Iraq’s future. “The violent sectarianism the U.S. takeover and occupation provoked has already begun to transform Iraq from a nastily ruled balancer of Iran into a traumatized society under extensive Iranian influence. Not a good trade-off.”

Stempel said he worries about a “crisis of global governance that impedes common-sense solutions to common challenges like climate change, energy and food costs and availability, plus the imbalance between expanding human needs and the limited capacity of the world’s ecosystem to satisfy them.”

The U.S. presidential election is unlikely to help, he said.

“An administration that has delivered on only a precious few of the major promises it made to achieve election in 2008 seeks re-election against an opposition that seems more intent on repealing the 20th century than addressing the real and pressing challenges of the 21st,” Stempel said. “No one expects a serious discussion of the challenges now facing either the United States or the world.”

What could Middle East turmoil mean for U.S.?

March 13, 2011

America has a tragically bad track record when it comes to understanding the political dynamics of the Middle East.

So what should we make of the popular uprisings now sweeping the region? How will they affect the United States? What about oil?

I posed those questions to John Stempel, a career foreign service officer who is now a senior professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, which he directed from 1993 until 2003.

Stempel’s 24-year diplomatic career included a dozen years overseas, five of which were at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran just before the 1979 hostage crisis. He wrote a book, Inside the Iranian Revolution, based on the experience. A former naval officer, he also held senior Middle East policy jobs with the Defense and State departments.

While the turmoil is likely to continue for some time, Stempel is hopeful that change could be good for America — if we play our cards right. “Understanding how the Muslim world functions politically is our basic problem,” he said.

The Internet-enabled uprisings point to an age divide in the Middle East. Young, educated people there tend to be more sympathetic to American ideals, such as democracy. Still, there is less separation between church and state than in Western societies. “Whatever comes out of the governments will involve a religious element,” Stempel said.

Those are just some of the things Americans must keep in mind, he said. Another is the distinct cultural and political differences among nations in the Middle East, which are the results of unique histories of tribal, religious and political strife.

The king of Jordan will likely be able to pacify unrest, because that nation has a political system in which many people feel they have a voice. On the other hand, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi is probably on his way out.

Iran remains “a serious problem,” Stempel said, “But we should back off and let China and the European countries deal with Iran.” China could be especially influential because it has a multibillion-dollar oil deal with that nation.

Stempel thinks America would be wise to maintain good working relationships with all factions in the Middle East as societies change and new governments emerge.

“It doesn’t have to be perfectly democratic, as long as you don’t have ayatollahs screaming ‘death to the infidels,'” he said. “If you see people who want reasonable popular participation dominating the dialogue over the fundamentalists, then things will be going our way, I think.”

The best thing American government and business leaders can do is try to create partnerships that are mutually beneficial, Stempel said. That is especially true with oil. The United States has 4.5 percent of the world’s population, but consumes 40 percent of its gasoline.

“There’s always going to be a shortage of oil,” he said. “The demand is growing so much in India and China, we’re never going to be in a soft market.”

There’s no way America’s domestic oil production can be increased enough to make more than a dent in the increasingly international market, despite what the “drill baby, drill” crowd thinks. America needs oil from the Middle East, but those nations need Western technology and expertise to maximize the value for their oil reserves, Stempel said.

That creates fertile ground for consortiums of American and international oil companies to do business in a reshaped Middle East. Stempel thinks deals could eventually be done with some of the biggest producers: Iraq, Algeria, Iran and Libya.

He also sees opportunities for America in helping the region develop agriculture and, perhaps, even nuclear energy, with proper safeguards.

Stempel, who was very critical of the Bush administration’s disastrous Middle East policies at that time, gives good marks so far to the Obama administration for keeping dialogue open with all factions in the region. He thinks Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is doing an especially good job.

A self-described “radical moderate,” Stempel said he fears that the right-wing elements that have seized control of the Republican Party will make it harder for America to forge good working relationships with these new and changing Middle East governments.

“The important thing is to get people to understand these countries,” Stempel said. “We do have people who understand the Middle East, if they’re allowed to function properly. That’s been a problem since 9/11.”