Downtown Chicago’s Federal Plaza bustles with life. Almost every day of the week the speckled white and black marble opening, nestled between office buildings, fills with workers, shoppers, and performers. On Tuesdays, this crowd is treated to a lively farmers market, filled with fresh produce, food vendors, and advocates conducting the Gaza Unlocked strawberry survey.
The strawberry survey is based on the idea that issues of quality of life and opportunity are instrumental to understanding the impact of conflict and oppression. This is part of Gaza Unlocked, a project of the American Friends Service Committee that tells the stories of Gazans, including joys as well as struggles, passions as well as pains, and human potential as well as oppression. Working at AFSC in Chicago this summer, I had the opportunity to conduct this survey which helps advocates learn what the public knows about the situation in Gaza and about all Palestinians, and spreads awareness by providing information and having conversations with people of various backgrounds and experiences.
Conducting the survey goes like this. A couple of us walk around with an 18” x 24” poster and information flyers or postcards. We politely ask people whether they would like to take the simple two-question survey. Sometimes people pass us by or turn us down politely, and we move on. But most of the time people become interested enough to pause and talk. We ask them two questions: Did you know that Gaza produces strawberries? Have you heard about Gaza recently? As they answer, we record their answers on the poster using stickers.
Almost everyone answers no to the first question. In fact, while I surveyed over one hundred people over the past eight weeks, only four people answered “yes.” For a person who may not know much about Gaza, this easy first question offers an opening for conversation - and a positive one at that. Not to mention, even for people deeply knowledgeable about Gaza and Palestinians, learning something new about Gaza builds empathy and awareness, and reminds people that there is more to Gaza than pain and suffering. Just as important as examining the plight of Gaza under the blockade is remembering that Gazans are not only victims and survivors. They are farmers, teachers, entrepreneurs, sports fans, parents, and siblings. Palestinians in Gaza are people who deserve the dignity to control their own lives and pursue their passions, like farming strawberries.
The second question lets us measure how much a participant already knows about Gaza. Many respondents have not heard of Gaza recently, or have limited knowledge. We might hand them a flyer or postcard, and if they are interested, we talk to them about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The process is a careful testing of boundaries, trying to inform and engage the respondent, while respecting their boundaries and comfort level.
One man responded eagerly, telling us that he was himself Palestinian and held a lot of concern for Palestinians in Gaza. We learned about his parents who are from Yaffa and Beitunia, who moved to Chicago from Lebanon. He told us of his experience attempting to return via Amman, and how his family was caught there as a war raged, and barely made it out. He told us how he longed to return one day. Another respondent, a Black man, spoke at length about his experiences visiting Israel and Palestine, and the connections he saw between the injustices there and here in the United States.
Although we are eager to answer people’s questions, we also do a lot of listening. We sit back, ask questions, and provide a space for the person to tell their story and be heard. As we share conversation, the plaza turns from a casual space for produce and commerce to a center of discussion and connection.
We also meet people who are unsympathetic or even hostile to our message. These conversations, which range from polite to confrontational, represent an opportunity for us as advocates to try to understand and counter people’s misunderstandings and misconceptions. I can relate to them; I grew up hearing misguided, paternalistic, and even propagandistic explanations for the situation in the region. But with help from my parents and a Jewish sense of curiosity, I began the process of challenging the narratives presented to me by researching, arguing, and listening.
Working hard to be the best advocate and ally that I can, I feel a responsibility in these situations to help people think about these issues differently.
As a white, Jewish, straight, cis man, I am privileged and know that I can engage in even difficult conversations without feeling personally attacked or having my humanity challenged. It is important to me that I stand up for Palestinians from my position of privilege against modes of occupation and oppression.
Some people seemed to doubt anything could be done to help the people of Gaza – and these conversations were especially challenging. They seemed to project either apathy or fatalism. Wasn’t the situation effectively impossible to resolve? And why were we out here, doing this advocacy, and what did we think would solve it all? Effectively responding required digging down into my motivations and my knowledge. Speaking to people with some knowledge about Gaza and an ingrained sense that the problem was intractable created great opportunities for learning as well as for frustration, showing that constructive challenges are critical to creating effective advocacy and advocates.
The survey, I realized, served mostly as a conversation starter. We are not selling strawberries from Gaza, nor are we conducting a rigorous statistical survey of people’s knowledge of the issue. The value of the project is in the conversations that we have and the connections we make. We connect the mundane activity of eating a summer strawberry to cries for justice and freedom that exist halfway around the world, but that matter in our own communities as well. Many doubt the ability of a conversation to change the world.
What the strawberry survey tells us is that every conversation represents an opportunity to bring the world closer to justice. Whether that means informing the uninformed, challenging opposition, and everything in between, no push for dignity and freedom is a waste of time. Change comes on multiple levels, and through multiple avenues of advocacy. The strawberry survey opens a new avenue, by creating new spaces to inform, listen, teach, learn, discuss, and most importantly, connect.
If you’d like to conduct the strawberry survey, there’s still time. We are collecting information through the end of September. You can find all the materials here. And as we told survey participants this summer, think about Gaza the next time you eat a strawberry.