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.”

Foreign policy needs more finesse, less force

November 14, 2008

John Stempel insists that the title of his new book, Common Sense and Foreign Policy, is not an oxymoron, even if it seems like it lately.

In fact, the veteran U.S. diplomat, senior professor and former director of the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce is optimistic that President-elect Barack Obama can repair some of the damage wrought by the Bush Administration’s so-called neoconservatives.

“What will definitely be gone is American unilateralism — the idea that we’re so powerful we can do whatever we want,” said Stempel, who is among 220 authors who will be signing books Saturday at the Kentucky Book Fair in the Frankfort Convention Center. “The neoconservatives will be anathema — as they deserve to be.”

John D. Stempel

John D. Stempel

At a recent signing party for the book (The Clark Group, $29.95), Stempel discussed what he thinks is needed to repair America’s relationships around the world. Mainly, he said, leaders must stop the “with us or against us” bluster of the Bush years and return to traditional principles of international cooperation and diplomacy — “the art of letting the other fellow have it your way.”

Stempel’s book is a concise tutorial on foreign policy, filled with common sense. He even seems to have discovered a secret that few writers like to admit: The shorter the book, the more likely people are to read it.

Stempel defines common sense in foreign policy as “creating balanced and moderate policies and carrying them out in a competent and consistent manner to maximize their effectiveness.”

In Stempel’s view, American foreign policy ran off the road after Sept. 11, 2001, because radical Islamic terrorism was a threat our top leaders didn’t understand and weren’t prepared to confront.

Stempel, whose 23-year U.S. Foreign Service career included five years in Iran before and during the 1979 Islamic revolution, said the neoconservatives brushed aside people in government who had expertise in Middle East politics and culture and made decisions based on ideology. The result: We bungled the job in Afghanistan, let Osama bin Laden escape and started an unnecessary war in Iraq that fueled terrorism.

But Stempel, a self-described “radical moderate” who served both Democratic and Republican administrations, notes that arrogant cluelessness is bipartisan. Remember Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs? Johnson’s Vietnam? Carter’s Iran hostage crisis?

In addition to radical Islamic terrorism, Stempel notes that the world is full of challenges and potential crises, including North Korea and the relationship between India and Pakistan.

So what should we do?

America is the world’s acknowledged military superpower. But, Stempel notes, nobody likes a bully. By flaunting its power, the United States has made itself unpopular with friends and foes alike. Obama’s current popularity overseas offers a window to start repairing the damage.

The U.S. government would have far more influence if officials worked harder to understand the motivations and dynamics of other cultures. “We especially need moderate allies in the Islamic world to refute and tamp down radicals,” he said.

He notes that, when Europe and Japan faced terrorist threats in the 1960s and 1970s, they brought them to heel through international cooperation, good intelligence and police work, not by declaring a “war” on terrorism.

“We currently treat terrorism as a concrete enemy, not as the tactic it truly is,” Stempel writes. “We emphasize the military response out of proportion to the necessary police and political efforts that would bring in more allied help. We are too focused on the ‘American Empire’ concept.”

Stempel thinks we should pay more attention to international public opinion and seek to understand the motivations of other governments, cultures and religions rather than just dismissing them as irrational or evil. “Awareness of the new and complex is essential for effective common sense,” Stempel writes.

And he suggests we follow the advice of former Baltimore Oriole manager Earl Weaver: “It’s what you learn after you think you know everything that really counts.”