Joanna lives in Old Town.
Enthusiastic Joanna had been telling me how she learned the hand signals used on the trading-room floor during a slow day at work. Things have changed since they were the primary means of communication, however.
It’s almost tragic to go down to the floor of the exchange now, because even the guys that are standing in the pit have what look like Blackberries and are trading on their electronic terminals more than half the time, and then flashing only every now and again. So even now, they’re still trading on their electronic platforms because that’s where the liquidity is in the market. That’s the number-one rule, you always go where the liquidity is.
Do you see any connection between changes in food production you’ve become interested in recently and the changes that are affecting your work place?
Debbie Hillman is explaining how, in her mid-fifties, she decided to start working exclusively on food issues in Evanston, and how she was able to convince others to work alongside her. And she’s paging through an information packet she’s brought with her, documentation of her work on food issues. Her handouts.
We want to be engaged in—we don’t want somebody to be telling us to keep narrowing our vision. I think that’s what we do in our educational settings, we limit the things that children can see and experience. We take them outside where it’s almost impossible to limit experience. The metaphor is, look at what we do with horses in traffic. We put blinders on them. That’s what school walls sometimes are. But the minute you take people outside, any of us, the sensory things that are going on—wind, sound, taste, smell, the ability to move: school gardens are a incredible classroom.
And then I do have handouts, cause really the main thing is how we’re gonna change the food system. These urban farms and school gardens are very good places to talk about things, but we really have to change our federal policy. So we took a first step in Illinois.
Her long dark hair is streaked with grey and collected in a braid down her back. Debbie Hillman has brought handouts.
I always bring a lot of handouts for people because sometimes it just does help. So I will tell you what I have, and in the process I’m also telling you what I’m doing.
Five years ago, I co-founded the Evanston Food Policy Council.
I’d always been active in the community. I’ve lived here in Evanston 32 years. I was a professional gardener for 25 years, and was always interested in sustainability, although when I was growing up we called it the environment, not sustainability. Some of us five years ago in Evanston, and then other people across the country, had this realization that if you only work on food, you’re basically addressing all of the other issues that are in the headlines, because our food system—the fact that we need food and we have farms and we have grocery stores and restaurants and waste management, sewage treatment plants—it’s all because we need food.
Joanna and I meet in a north side coffee shop, an interview tip from a friend. I know only that she is a commodities trader, and so when she walks in fresh from the farmer’s market in an outfit more suited to a gardener than a financier, —All-American-style cute and quick to laugh—I’m immediately intrigued.
She’s telling me about changes at the commodities exchange, where she’s worked for seven years, since she was 19.
[In June of 2008,] Bear Stearns started to crumble and so the pattern of what works in that world, which had worked very well since the early ‘80s—the pattern of, you invest in things and it usually always works out—that was broken somehow in 2008. That stopped working as well.
I’m one of the younger people that’s doing this job. I’m surrounded by people that are in their 40’s and 50’s and have been doing it forever, and it’s been interesting to see their reaction. They’ve reacted a lot more strongly and I can see how hard it is for them to try to reinvent, to try to figure out these patterns again. It’s been palpable to see how that’s affected people. There’s been a lot of self-doubt.
What’s it like being surrounded by male peers around twice your age?
It’s hard. It’s empowering and feels limiting all at the same time. Most of the time I’m cocky enough to think that it’s a good thing and I don’t think I could have done this job for this long if I didn’t have that sort of mentality. But it’s almost frightening sometimes to think, There something that I’m missing here. Is there a reason that there isn’t anyone that’s my age that’s here? Is it because there’s no future here? Is it because it’s that difficult to get into? There are a lot of questions like that I wrestle with, but most of the time it feels pretty cool [laughs]. Most of the time it feels like, Wow, this is quite shocking that I’m here and that I can do this. I didn’t have any idea, when I walked in, what I was walking into.
The old-school guys that used to flash their hands in the pit—that’s who I am, the modern version of that. I have access to eighty exchanges globally, which means that a client can call me up and say, I want to trade the Singapore Stock Index versus the London Stock Index, and I can trade Chicago wheat versus Kansas City wheat versus Paris wheat versus the wheat that’s traded in Canada. So I facilitate trades when I can trade on an exchange.
Through that the modernization of the markets, rather than just being a broker that can trade one product, now we have access to all of those. Obviously, the more you can trade, that’s a better position to be in. So a client will call and say, I want to trade this market, and sometimes they’ll say, What do you think about that? Or, Knowing my style and what my position already is, how do you advise that? I’ll respond and say, OK, I think you should do this or do that, and then facilitate the transaction. Now that the markets are all electronic, I’m on a computer, so I have a bunch of different computer screens that I’m trading through electronic platforms. I’m in Chicago, so we have the fastest connectivity to the Chicago markets. It’s still sort of antiquated enough that you have to be close to the markets to actually trade as fast as you should be able to.
It’s also just part of the older version of trading, that you’d think you’d want to call somebody in Chicago to trade Chicago markets rather than somebody in London, because they know it better. They’re there, right? There is still some idea of proximity, and proximity is knowledge. I can trade London, but do I pay as much attention to the London interest rate market and what their central bank is doing as much as I do to the US? No not really. But I can trade it.
I read about the fundamentals of the market and commodity reports, crop reports and things like that. Stock analytics of different companies. Being a broker, you’re sort of an information gatherer, all the time. You have to be well informed.
I recently started reading about farm legislation. Through reading some of the agricultural reports about crop production and what was happening, I started reading a lot about Monsanto and GMOs* were effecting crop production. I spent some time thinking about the way that food is produced in the US, and through understanding that on a really global macro sense, I wanted to be more interested in how it happens locally. So then I started reading what happens with GMOs and what that’s doing to our farmland and what that’s doing to crop production. I started thinking about how I could be an advocate for that, as a person who’s totally involved in helping that market continue, which is a little bit of a catch-22.
It feels like a conflict for me. I don’t think that I’m going to be brokering when I’m 50, so part of what I’m doing right now is exploring other avenues in my life. Well, sometimes it feels like a conflict, but sometimes I think my personal role is not so grand for it to be a conflict except just for me, so the conflict is my own. My tiny universe isn’t as big as I sometimes think that it is. But it feels conflicting that I’m helping extremely large corporations make more money and manage their finances really well, and then not doing anything for all of the smaller farmers and the people that are being employed on those farms and things like that. When you start to talk about immigration and worker strikes and things like that you’re talking about large corporations, so it feels very conflicting that I only want to buy small, locally produced meat and I don’t want to drink soda and I want to help small farmers work together and sort of fight against big corporations. Then during the day, I’m helping those big corporations hedge their production, and I’m helping soda companies hedge their sugar-buying and things like that. That feels pretty conflicting to me.
*”GMO” stands for Genetically Modified Organisms, or genetically modified foods.