The Wisdom Of Frances Moore Lappé

The Wisdom Of Frances Moore Lappé
Excerpt from World Hunger: 10 Myths
Interview by Nadia Colburn


Photo by Isaac Hernández

Photo by Isaac Hernández

Frances Moore Lappé is the author or co-author of 18 books including Diet for a Small Planet, which has sold more than three million copies worldwide. Frances was named by Gourmet Magazine as one of 25 people (including Thomas Jefferson, Upton Sinclair, and Julia Child) whose work has changed the way the United States of America eats. Her most recent work is World Hunger: 10 Myths, which she and Joseph Collins wrote together (October 2015, Grove/Atlantic). She is the co-founder of three organizations, including the Oakland-based think tank, Food First, and, more recently, the Small Planet Institute, which she leads with her daughter Anna Lappé. Frances and her daughter have also co-founded the Small Planet Fund, which channels resources to democratic social movements worldwide. 

We share here an excerpt adapted from Frances’ most recent book, World Hunger: 10 Myths, as well as an exclusive interview conducted by Anchor’s Nadia Colburn.


An Excerpt

For more than forty years we’ve sought to understand why there is hunger in a world of plenty, and to discover the most powerful steps we each can take to end it, once and for all. For us, learning had to begin with unlearning. Cutting through the simplistic and scary clichés about hunger, we arrived at some surprising findings:

The world produces more than enough for everyone to eat well. 

No country is a hopeless basket case. Even countries many people think of as utterly lacking actually have the resources necessary for people to free themselves from hunger.

Population growth is not the cause of hunger. Rather, hunger and continuing population growth share the same root causes.

Climate change does not mean hunger is inevitable.

Increasing a nation’s food production may not reduce hunger. Food production per person can increase while more people are nutritionally deprived.

Our government’s foreign aid often hurts rather than helps the hungry. But each of us can play a critical role in ending hunger.

Unlikely as it may seem, the interests of the vast majority of Americans have much in common with those of the world’s hungry.

Our book explains these surprising findings and many more that have freed us from a response to hunger mired in guilt, fear, and hopelessness. But first we must ask the seemingly grade-school question, Just what is hunger? Many people assume they know—they’ve felt it, they’ve read about it, they’ve been touched by images of hungry people on television or the Internet. But the greatest obstacle to grasping the causes and solutions to world hunger is that few of us stop to ponder this elemental question.

WHAT IS HUNGER?

Television images haunt us. Stunted, bony bodies. Long lines waiting for a meager bowl of gruel. This is famine hunger in its acute form, the kind no one could miss.

But hunger comes in another form. The day-in-day-out hunger of hundreds of millions of people. While chronic hunger doesn’t make the evening news, it takes more lives than famine. Every day this largely invisible hunger, and its related preventable diseases, kills as many as eight thousand children under the age of five. That’s roughly three million children each year. Imagine: Every eight days the number of children dying worldwide is equal to the entire death toll of the Hiroshima bomb. 

Statistics like this are staggering. They shock and alarm. But numbers can also numb. They can distance us from what is actually very close to us. So we asked ourselves, What really is hunger?

Is it the gnawing pain in the stomach when we miss a meal? The physical depletion of those suffering chronic undernutrition? The listless stare of a dying child in the television hunger appeal? Yes, but it is more. We became convinced that as long as we conceive of hunger only in physical measures, we will never truly understand it, certainly not its roots.

What, we asked ourselves, would it mean to think of hunger in terms of universal human emotions, feelings that all of us have experienced at some time in our lives? We’ll mention only four such emotions, to give you an idea of what we mean.

A friend of ours, Dr. Charles Clements, is a former Air Force pilot and Vietnam veteran who years ago spent time treating peasants in El Salvador. He wrote of a family he tried to help whose son and daughter had died of fever and diarrhea. “Both had been lost,” he writes, “in the years when Camila and her husband had chosen to pay their mortgage, a sum equal to half the value of their crop, rather than keep the money to feed their children. Each year, the choice was always the same. If they paid, their children’s lives were endangered. If they didn’t, their land could be repossessed.”

Being hungry thus means anguish. The anguish of impossible choices. But it is more…

In Nicaragua some years ago, we met Amanda Espinoza, a poor rural woman, who under the long dictatorship of the Somoza dynasty had never had enough to feed her family. She told us that she had endured six stillbirths and watched five of her children die before the age of one.

To Amanda, being hungry means watching people you love die. It is grief.

Throughout the world, the poor are made to blame themselves for their poverty. The day we walked into a home in the Philippine countryside, the first words we heard were an apology for the poverty of the dwelling. Being hungry also means living in humiliation.

Anguish, grief, and humiliation are a part of what hunger means. 

But increasingly throughout the world, hunger has a fourth dimension.

More recently in Brazil we spent time with a peasant organization known as the Landless Workers Movement. Since the 1980s, its members have struggled to achieve fair access to farmland to feed their families, for in Brazil a tiny minority controls most of the agricultural land—much gained illegally—while using little of it. Sitting in a countryside meeting room, we were captivated by the enthusiasm of a Catholic nun explaining key details of the Movement’s upcoming national assembly. Suddenly, a young man on crutches, his foot bandaged, hobbled through the door. Everyone immediately burst into emotional cheers of support. “What was this about?” we wondered. At break we learned: The man had been seriously wounded in an attack by landowners on the camp where he and his family waited for legal land title. Later we were told that, since the Movement’s founding, fifteen hundred members have been killed by landowners and corrupt law enforcement officers who’ve felt threatened by the demand for fair access to land by poor landless people. 

Often, then, a fourth dimension of hunger is fear.

Anguish, grief, humiliation, and fear. What if we refused merely to count the hungry and instead tried also to understand hunger in terms of such universal emotions?

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Adapted with permission from World Hunger: 10 Myths by Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins. Copyright © 2015. Published in October 2015 by Grove Press. 


An Interview

Nadia Colburn: Hi Frankie. Thanks very much for talking with me today. 

Throughout your career, you’ve looked at the human faces behind the numbers and the reality behind the myths in relation to food and to the environment. Your work is both courageous and hopeful, two qualities you’ve talked a lot about and that I’d like to discuss with you today. 

You have said, “Hope is not what we see in evidence but what we become in action together.” I love that quotation. I’d like to know about where your own hope and journey of action comes from. Can you tell me about your childhood? 

Frances Moore Lappé: I had an unusual childhood—we all have unusual childhoods, right? I grew up in Texas in a narrow, very racist community—there were whites-only water fountains and blacks-only fountains. And at the same time, my little family—I have one brother—was very gutsy and open-minded. 

Originally, my parents sent us off to the local Sunday school because they wanted us to be part of the community. And one day I came home, and I said, “Mommy, Daddy, what do hellfire and damnation mean?” And they said, “It means we have to found a Unitarian Fellowship.” 

So, they founded a Unitarian church, and we had a really intense connection with the people who shared our values in the midst of a bigger community whose values we did not share. My childhood meant living in these two worlds. Some of my best girlfriends literally cried because they believed I was going to burn in hell.

My parents integrated the church they founded, and my mom’s best friend was African American. My parents were real seekers. They also modeled a way of being in the world based on the confidence that if you care enough about something, you can find out what you need to know to make a contribution. 

Colburn: You set out early to make a difference in the world. Can you tell us a bit about your path? 

Lappé: I seemed to inherit from my parents the quality of being a seeker; of always asking the next question, of not resting with easy answers. 

I thought I wanted to be a diplomat so I could change the world through the State Department. I went to Washington, D.C., and within six weeks, I was clear that path was not for me. So I ended up transferring to Earlham, a Quaker college. 

Influenced very much by the Quaker community, I gained practical experience as a community organizer knocking on doors during LBJ’s war on poverty in Philadelphia. But I was unsure of my own path.

I got married young, and my husband was on his way with a career in cancer research, which took us to California and me to the graduate school of social work at the University of California, Berkeley. So, I found myself in California not really knowing where I was headed. And I vowed to myself not to do anything else to “save the world” until I understood root causes so I could explain to myself why I was choosing a given path. 

Then the question “Why is there hunger in the world?” grabbed me. Food is important. Everyone eats. It’s a quantifiable need that applies to everyone, and everyone likes to talk about food. I thought if I could understand hunger that would pull together all the political and economic threads, and I could find my way. This is how Diet for A Small Planet began.

I buried myself in the U. C. Berkeley agricultural library reading everything I could. It was pretty lonely work—Marc, my wonderful first husband, met people by working at a cancer research lab, but I didn’t really have any group of people to work with. The research was all completely me and a very helpful librarian. So I’d sit there and she’d say let’s look here and there. I had my dad’s slide rule and a typewriter—long before the fancy correctable ones.

I kept on asking the question, “Why hunger?” and putting the numbers together. 

Soon I was startled to discover that there was more than enough food, but that producing meat-centered diets shrunk the world food supply enormously. So the virtue of resource-saving plant-centered diets became clear. Science at the time put forth the concept of “complementary protein.” We can increase our useable protein by combining legumes and grains in given proportions. So I would measure ingredients, figure out recipes, and in general how to make this new diet workable. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my gram scale! (Of course, since then I’ve learned that we don’t have to be so precise. As long as we eat a mix of healthy plant foods, we will cover our protein needs with no effort.)

So, once I realized there was more than enough food in the world, I was desperate to share that information. 

Colburn: Tell me the story of how the book came to be published. 

Lappé: My dad was the only one who believed in the book—he along with Betty Ballantine, who also happened to be a founder of paperback publishing in America! As soon as she heard about my ideas, she was eager to publish the ideas in a book. 

I was very lucky to get my ideas into her hands. It happened because Marc had a friend who had a friend who was going to New York to meet with the Ballantines. 

Initially, what Betty saw was a little booklet that just contained the core ideas of Diet for A Small Planet. It outlined the thesis that there is enough food in the world to feed us all and that we were shrinking that capacity by feeding so much of it to animals. I called all this a protein factory in reverse. 

If we have created scarcity, we can reverse it. A meat-driven diet is an artifact of our society, but there is no physical need for it. In the US we eat on average two thirds more protein than our bodies need, and we can’t store protein.

The booklet began breaking down the myths around hunger and the way we eat. It suggested that we should see hunger as a result of people’s lack of power to access the food they need. 

Betty saw the booklet and decided to take a chance on me. How fortunate for me. I had literally never published anything, not even a letter to the editor. She was a real risk taker, and she told me that she believed in the ideas. 

Colburn: Then your book came out and it was a big bestseller—did that happen right away?

Lappé: No, it wasn’t a big bestseller—Diet for a Small Planet came out in 1971, the year my first child, Anthony, was born. But it had sold a million copies by 1980—now it’s over 3 million. But it was mostly by word of mouth. It wasn’t written about much in the media, just a few articles—a Boston Globe piece called it a “recipe for revolution” and Marian Burrows (later with the New York Times) wrote a 1973 feature that focused on the fact that I said I never turned down my mother-in-law’s chopped liver! I said that not insulting my mother-in-law is more important than making my political point. So the book was featured in two newspapers, but it didn’t make a big splash.

Colburn: From the start of your career, you have been persistently busting myths and misconceptions. What is it like to be able to see through the wrong ideas, in which so many people believe, while communicating your important messages? 

Lappé: It’s frustrating at times! I’ve been talking about misconceptions and trying to deconstruct myths throughout my career. In some ways the theme of my new hunger book is what I began with more than four decades ago: how to re-think our core ideas because if we are caught in misguided concepts, we won’t take the correct path forward. 

For example, the UN system of measuring hunger is really problematic. It measures hunger by calories per year. It doesn’t register short term hunger, for example, if you experience shortages between harvests. And it can’t take into account those cases in which there are enough calories but not enough nutritional value—which is more and more of the problem around the world. 

By its measuring stick, the UN says that this year we almost met the Millennium Development Goal of cutting by half the share of hungry people in the world compared to 1990, but this account is very misleading. Calories and nutrition have been parting ways in recent decades. One can have ample calories and can still be nutritionally deprived. 

Big Agribusiness around the world is cutting down forests and depleting the soil with farming practices and crops that don’t lead either to good nutrition or to good environmental practices. The way we farm is not sustainable for the human body or for the earth. So, I say the answer has to be a transformation of agriculture itself away from monoculture and GMOs. We need to reconnect nutrition and food production. 

Farmers around the world are showing us that agroecology [the ecology of sustainable food systems] can not only produce enough food but can also produce nutritious food, and at the same time provide income for farm families to thrive. But corporations that benefit from the dependency of farmers on their products, Monsanto, for example, work to convince people that they are necessary for us to all eat. Monsanto is working hard now to make it illegal for states to pass labeling laws, which will make it all the harder to shift towards more sustainable practices.

Colburn: I know people often ask you, is it better or worse since you wrote Diet for a Small Planet? What’s your answer? 

Lappé: It is both much better and much worse. The magnitude of the danger is hard to comprehend. For example, we’re really ruining our top soil and our ability to produce nutritious food in a sustainable way. Saying this is unsustainable doesn’t even capture the problem. We have disrupted cycles of key soil nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous, even more than we have disrupted the carbon cycle. And yet people are still defending the model. 

At the same time, many are seeing more clearly than ever the healthy, viable pathways open to us. So we know what is possible—and we also know what will happen if we follow the path we are on. 

We need to point to both the dangers and the hope. Despair over the magnitude of the problem is a big obstacle. I want to help free us from despair, not contribute to it! I work to keep in sight the remarkable breakthroughs that regular people are constantly making. 

We know that it is hope in action that is life-giving. We know that life loves life. That we can count on: whether it is the organism that is struggling to remain viable or the human spirit that is struggling to remain viable, a living being will be drawn to that which nurtures it if it can have trust. 

This is what keeps me alive—meeting “ordinary” people taking risks to show the way forward. To fortify our own courage, we can seek out those more courageous. It’s very hard to be courageous alone. But together we do amazing things. 

Colburn: That is really beautifully said. And very much what we’re trying to do at Anchor: show the positive way forward in difficult times, and show the example of people working together. It’s a very powerful thing when people are doing that. 

I love the way you bring forward the human element of the movement for justice, food equity, and environmental sustainability. For example, in the introduction to World Hunger [quoted at the start of this article], you talk about the ways in which we shouldn’t look at hunger as a problem of numbers, but as a human problem rooted in human experiences. 

As I was reading that section, it occurred to me, partly because you help me see the flip side of human experiences, that behind each of these more traditionally “negative” emotions is also a beautiful positive emotion: behind humiliation is respect; behind grief is love; behind fear is courage.

So, can we also see hunger as a question of love and courage, or at least that our current efforts to eliminate hunger are motivated by these powerful positive emotions? 

Lappé: Yes. Absolutely. Let me share a very personal experience of shifting from a very painful emotion to a calming, positive one. This week my cat was gone for three days. I was really distraught—very, very upset and worried. But on the third day I realized that, no matter what happened, no one could ever take away from me the connection I had to this living being. My relationship with her is real. It was that positive relationship that I wanted to honor. And I could honor it forever. With that thought, my feeling of sadness flipped into that of profound appreciation. 

She came back the next day. It turned out she had fallen from the third floor window. I was overjoyed to see her. I reveled in petting her, in feeling her living body again. But I also realized I learned something by our separation that I never want to forget.

Colburn: That ability to stay with the positive emotions and to see the strength and love and power in a difficult situation seems to be one of the key qualities of courage. Courage is a quality you often write about. Can you talk a bit about it and about the people who have helped you remain courageous and on the path? 

Lappé: My parents were models of courageous citizens throughout my life. In the 1950s, they were enormously courageous to remain loyal members of their church during the McCarthy era. As many did, they could have left the church when the FBI started interviewing people, but they stayed, whatever the consequences.

We do take our cues from each other moment to moment. Science reports that there are special neurons called “mirror neurons” involved. So if we want to change ourselves to be more courageous, we need to bring into our lives courageous people—both in our daily lives and in our hearts.

My lodestar of courage is Wangari Maathai. When Anna (my daughter) and I were in Kenya in 2000 we got to spend real time with her. We were really worried about the survival of her Green Belt movement. Wangari had been attacked by the dictator, bludgeoned and hospitalized. She was arrested again months after we got home. We wrote letters to the Kenyan government to protest, of course. And she kept going. She is a real inspiration. 

Frances and Wangari

Frances and Wangari

She started by planting seven trees on Earth Day in 1977. She had a vision of village tree nurseries that women would care for themselves and teach one another how to nurture. 

Frances Planting Trees in Kenya

Frances Planting Trees in Kenya

She told us that the trees were just part of her work; her most important work was civic education. She talked about what she called the “wrong bus syndrome.” She would take people through a thought experiment: What if you get on the wrong bus—maybe someone misled you, maybe you misread sign, for whatever reason you got on a bus, and now you realize you made a big mistake. If you stay on, you will be where you don’t want to be. So at some point you need to get off the bus. 

The bus driver might be the chief or your husband or your mother-in-law. Deciding to get off the bus is all about responsibility, empowerment, and choice. 

The Green Belt movement tee shirt was a very simple white tee shirt that said, “as for me, I’ve made a choice.” [Frankie gets teary.] It communicates: I have a voice—that step of getting off the bus—I have the courage to be different from what people are expecting of me.

Then in ‘04 Wangari got the call from the Nobel Peace Prize committee—a friend of ours was with her—Wangari said, “We won,” and then she said, “I didn’t know anyone was listening.”

When we got to know her in 2000 there had been roughly 20,000,000 trees planted. By ‘04 there were 30 million. Now, through Plant for the Planet, 13 billion trees have been planted. So think about it: Wangari planted 7 trees and as a result 13 billion trees have been planted around the world.

In 2011, I received a request be in New York City. Wangari couldn’t make it at the last moment, and I was being asked to come instead to a ceremony to present an award in her place. I said of course I can come for her. It was a beautiful event. 

That was on a Wednesday. On Sunday I learned that she was dead. I was in complete shock, as I had no idea she was seriously ill. 

[Tears in eyes again.] I took this experience as a powerful message. I had just walked in Wangari shoes; now I had better step up my game! These days I end every speech I give with her face, her beautiful, beautiful face. She my lodestar of courage; whenever I start to quake about anything, I feel her presence. Being given that honor of standing in her stead that day in 2011 really helped call forth in me greater Wangari courage.

Colburn: It’s wonderful to have a role model like Wangari. One of the things I often find discouraging is the poor decisions and untrustworthiness of so many of our leaders. Even people who at first seem to be doing great things often end up being disappointing. How do you keep courage and faith in the face of that kind of disappointment in leadership? 

Lappé: If we are all connected, we are all implicated; even our inaction has power. We can’t simply feel bad about Barak Obama not living up to our dreams. My goal is to work harder to challenge the system that has taken this very decent person and in some ways changed him. 

I wrote a blog post called “Obama’s Greatest Gift.” I said that Obama reminded us that electing a new leader is not enough. The system that allowed him to be elected is something that we all have to take some responsibility for. Why did Obama appoint someone so closely allied with Monsanto to a powerful position in the Department of Agriculture? Presidents feel the power of money. Pressures are all there, built into the system. So we have to take at responsibility for that system itself. 

Rather than feel discouraged because people behave badly, we can take this as a call to create rules that encourage people to behave well—to be what people really want to be, which is a better person. 

My beloved partner is the most principled person I ever met. Once, he was a businessman in charge of a company with 1000 employees; and his tax accountant said, you really need a Cayman account to pay less in taxes. He set it up even though he didn’t really want to because that was what the competition was doing. He told me he wanted a government with rules that wouldn’t allow businesses to transfer their income to Cayman to reduce taxes. This is one tiny example of how, without fair rules, even principled people feel compelled to go along to be able to compete. We need to have rules that are fair.

With our long cultural history, humanity can now see what brings out the best in us, what keeps the worst in check—and we need to create those rules. The theme of my life’s work is how to create a world aligned with the conditions proven to bring out the best in us. My work on hunger led me here, because I realized it could only be solved through transparent, fair distribution of power. 

Understanding the root causes of hunger and the way we can address those causes led me to believe in what I call “Living Democracy,” bringing forth three conditions: 

A wide and fluid dispersion of power;

Transparency in public affairs; and 

Mutual accountability—so we move from a culture of blame to one of mutuality. 

That’s what saves me from despair in our leaders. We need to set the rules. Yet at the moment there is no visible national or international living democracy movement. So, now I want to spend most of my time listening and creating a map of living democracy. I want to fill in the key pieces of what exists at this moment and find allies with whom I can work to manifest democracy—democracy based on the three conditions I just mentioned that are proven to bring out the best in us.

Colburn: Could we also frame living democracy in spiritual terms? Might one say that living democracy is a movement that recognizes and respects the life force of everybody and even all beings? And could we be living democracy as part of what some people recognize as part of a global turn to spirituality? 

Lappé: When I hear some of my closest friends say something like what you just said—what I hear—though I don’t think this is what you mean—is that the challenge is within the individual human heart. I hear it as a call for an internal spiritual shift. If we could just feel more compassion, then things would be healed. 

While I am all for that, I am more focused on structural change than individual change. If you take the example of the Holocaust, even very good spiritual people got swept up and did incredibly evil things. So my focus is on the rules we create together so that we don’t risk the emergence of Fascism or elect another president who will select a Supreme Court Justice who holds the philosophy that money equals speech. 

I don’t disagree with the obvious truth that we need to be more in touch with our ethical capacities, or that those capacities are vital to a world that is life serving. But my emphasis is that we need to accept the worst in us because we never know what kind of German we would have been under the Nazis. Most of us can’t be sure that we would have risked our lives to resist. And we don’t want to be tested. We never want to be in that place. 

So the only way to be sure we won’t be tested is to do this do this very difficult work of setting the rules and standing up for the rules of a real democracy. 

One of the stories in EcoMind is the story of a teacher who wrote a book called You Can’t Say “You can’t play”, and she created rules so that she could help children walk through and ultimately accept the rule of not being allowed to exclude anyone. Like those little kids, we also need rules. We need civil rights rules, and we need, similarly, economic rules. We need to create a just society with just rules. 

Colburn: This intersection here is exactly the space Anchor stands at because so often spirituality gets into the realm of “I just need to change myself,” and that seems to me overly simplistic. My main teacher is Thich Nhat Hanh, and he says we inter-are, and he puts a lot of emphasis on the sangha—on the community. I wonder if there is some way that we can see spirituality as a way of helping us formulate those important rules. We are the rule makers, so how do we commit to making the right rules? The danger is, if we just talk about creating internal change within ourselves, we won’t see the big picture. But also, if we just talk about making policy change, just talk about numbers, as you so nicely point out, we also won’t see the big picture. It seems we need to do both the inner and the outer work—and do them simultaneously.

Lappé: Yes. If we’re not working internally, we won’t be motivated to create really healthy rules; we won’t be motivated to create rules that create a just society and take responsibility. 

Colburn: Yes—and I think all spiritual traditions ask us to get beyond the individual ego—the spiritual path is about breaking outside of the misperception of the isolated self so that we can live in and help create a more just, compassionate world. And I’d like to see people creating those pathways to do that.

Can you tell me a bit more about how you want to spend the next year working towards this kind of more just society, or what you call “living democracy”? 

Lappé: I want to take the year to do deep listening and to create a map on our website of groups who are laying the foundation for living democracy. One thing that seems foundational is to get private wealth out of its controlling role in politics. The Supreme Court ruling that spending equals speech is very dangerous. 

What is missing is our right to be heard. It’s as if we are all in a giant theater in which a few people have electronic megaphones. Sure, we can all “have the right speak,” but only a few can be heard. That is not freedom of speech. If freedom of speech is not tied to being heard it has virtually no meaning. Democracy at its essence is about listening and co-learning and co-seeking, and that can’t happen if we can’t be heard. We have to protect our airwaves as a public good. 

Recently I heard a report on WBGH—our public radio—about the “middle class solution,” which they claimed was in fracking and natural gas. The show didn’t disclose that the study was not only by a Harvard professor but also by the Boston Consulting Group with strong fossil fuel industry ties.

Transforming the power of money to buy speech and power is foundational. It is a spiritual question. It is not mysterious and it not beyond us. Transforming a rigged system into a real democracy is about respecting all life and all human voices. 

Colburn: That is wonderful. Thank you very much. I look forward to continuing to follow your work. §

ANCHOR

by Still Harbor

 

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Nadia Colburn (Editor) holds a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University and currently teaches writing and spirituality workshops. Her writing has appeared widely in such places as The New Yorker, Yes! Magazine, Boston Review and Boston Globe Magazine.  Nadia is also an OI Aspirant in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hann, a Kundalini yoga teacher, and a Research Scholar at the Ronin Institute. Learn more at nadiacolburn.com.