Tom Eblen: Unity Award winner not letting grass grow under his feet

Lifelong activist has a world to improve

Herald-Leader columnistJanuary 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.

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."

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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