Profile: Max Finberg (NY ‘90)

Finberg

In this month’s Scholar profile Max Finberg (NY ’90), Director of the United
States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Center for Faith Based and Neighborhood
Partnerships, was interviewed by Jeni Lamb (CO ’09), a current participant in the Truman
Summer Institute and intern for the American Seed Trade Association.

Max Finberg has spent his career working on domestic and international
hunger issues. Prior to his appointment at USDA, Max served as the Director for
the Alliance to End Hunger, a collaboration of nonprofit organizations,
religious bodies, universities, corporations, and individuals dedicated to
eradicating hunger at home and abroad. He also spent 12 years in the service of
former Congressman and Ambassador Tony Hall (D-OH) as the founding Director of
the Bill Emerson and Mickey Leland Hunger Fellows Program at the Congressional
Hunger Center, a senior legislative assistant working on domestic hunger
issues, and as an advisor and special assistant to the UN mission in Rome.  Max holds a Master’s in Social Ethics from
Howard University’s School of Divinity. 
A 1990 Harry S. Truman Scholar from New York,
Max attended Tufts
University to study
International Relations, German, and Political Science as an
undergraduate.  Today, Max lives in Washington
D.C with his wife and two young children.

Jeni Lamb graduated with degrees in Agricultural Economics and
Political Science in May 2010 and is currently finishing a Master’s in
Agricultural Economics at Virginia Tech. She is a 2009 Truman Scholar from Longmont, Colorado.

Edited Question and Answers with
Max Finberg (NY ‘90), Director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood
Partnerships, United States Department of Agriculture

Lamb: Your early career
experience is extremely inspiring—how did you come to serve as the founding
director of the Mickey Leland Hunger Fellows Program just out of college?

Finberg: Actually, I spent a year interning in the Office of
Congressman [Tony] Hall (D-OH). As a sitting Congressman, he had just finished
fasting for 22 days to raise awareness of hunger issues. From there he founded
the Congressional Hunger Center, a separate nonprofit organization, and I was
one of the first employees to move from being an intern in his Congressional
office to being the director of this nascent Mickey Leland Hunger Fellows
Program. I am thrilled the program is still going and training the next
generation of hunger fighters.  We have
even had a couple of Truman scholars go through the program. It was great
because here I was only a couple years out of school running a program, only
because I was the only one there. Still, it was crazy to trust me with that
kind of responsibility. Honestly though, it was just great, great stuff
bringing folk together, creating an experience where fellows could spend six
months in the field with a food bank or shelter and six months back in DC
working on hunger and poverty policy. Back then at least, there was nothing
that combined the field and policy experience.

How did you establish that
relationship with Congressman Hall to where you think he was willing to put so
much trust in you to develop such an innovative program?

When I was a sophomore at Tufts, I came down to DC for the National
Prayer Breakfast and I heard him speak for the first time. I thought “wow”,
here was a politician who cared about hunger and hungry people and loved God
and I would like to work with him. So I wrote him a letter asking for an
internship and never got a response. I wasn’t from Dayton, Ohio
or anything like that.  I came down my
senior year to the same breakfast, heard him speak again, and still thought
“wow,” again, this would be great if I could work with this man. I had a friend
who knew his wife, and tried to get an internship that way through giving him
my resume. It didn’t work, that path didn’t open. I moved into a group house
with a bunch of guys in DC trying to love God, love each other and figure all
of that out. It turned out that the house was a block away from where
Congressman Hall and his family lived.

So the line that I usually use is that I stalked him until he gave me a
job, but what really answers the question is I started by learning about him,
getting to know him and started to serve him. 
Soon after I had moved in, his son, who was 12 at the time, was
diagnosed with leukemia. So some friends and I would cook extra meals, mow his
lawn, visit his son in the hospital—things that allowed us to interact but in a
way that wasn’t…oh, can I go with you to your meeting at the White House?  When that paid off was nine months later when
an internship opened up and he hired me in the Congressional office and then as
Congressional Hunger Center staff. It worked out. I was able to deliver what he
wanted—“a domestic Peace Corps focused on hunger” was the one liner—with the
help of a lot of people. I never would have predicted that I would serve him
for 12 years, but one thing led to another and the relationship was
built—partly due to my willingness to serve him and his family early on.

Wow, fantastic. Can you talk about
your decision to study at the Howard School of Divinity and pursue a Master’s
in Social Ethics?

So after three years of serving as the founding director [of the Mickey
Leland Hunger Fellows Program], I took advantage of the wonderful gift that is
Harry Truman’s legacy and went to graduate school in divinity.  I loved it. I really couldn’t get excited
about a law degree or even a degree in public policy. So when it came down to
whether I should study more macroeconomics or the Old Testament, I said, “Give
me Moses any day”!

I wanted to stay in DC and keep working with the Hunger Center
part-time, so I went to study at Howard [University]. As the only white guy in
my class, it was a wonderful experience in [understanding] how the Bible could
apply to both political and social issues.

How do you think the decision to
study divinity impacted your career, especially in terms of being able to move
across domestic and international hunger issues?

It is a fabulous foundation. Personally, my motivation to help hungry
people, wherever they live, is rooted in my faith. Professionally, it gives me
the language to relate to other people also motivated by their faith as to why
they want to help others.  Being able to
quote from the Bible as to why we should help hungry people helps build an
immediate rapport.

Certainly, this seems especially
important as international hunger, domestic hunger, and domestic obesity tend
to be placed into silos in academic and public debate. How do you see these
issues as interrelated?

Absolutely. It’s all about caring for our neighbor.  Whether you go back to the story of the Good
Samaritan or the preface to that parable or the most important prayer in Jewish
life, “love your God and love your neighbor”. How do you do that when your neighbor
is starving? How do you do that if your neighbor, even if they may not live
next you, contracts diabetes because of obesity at an early age? All of that,
for me, relates to caring for your neighbor. 
It gets even more basic when it’s very specific, scripturally or
otherwise, that this is about hunger. Maslow is pretty clear: after breathing,
eating is up there as a human priority. Anything else is built on the pyramid
of having enough to eat—you can’t learn, you can’t be fulfilled. 

Is that what you find most
exciting about your current position—to mobilize groups behind this idea of
caring for your neighbor?

Certainly. It’s already happening. That’s what is great about hunger as
an issue, it’s very bipartisan, it’s not liberal or conservative. You’ll have
very politically conservative people who are willing to help hungry people.
Maybe not through government, maybe they don’t agree with that. It allows for
an intersection with a variety of different folks and it’s a fabulous part of
my job to be able to work with such a vast array of folks. Yesterday, I got to
meet with the Jewish Council on Public Affairs on work they are doing with WIC
[Women Infants and Children] and the school lunch program and call Islamic
leaders to congratulate them on the great job that they are doing with domestic
hunger efforts.  That’s a great part of
my job.

Along with enjoying your work,
you also have a young family. Can you offer advice to other Truman Scholars on
how you have been able to maintain a life balance while working to make a
difference in public policy?

Life has seasons, just like years do. It was hard for me to see that
early in my 20s, because I was running all out. Put the petal down and do as
much and accomplish as much as you possibly can. That changed almost nine years
ago when I got married, but it changed really five-and-a-half years ago when
our daughter was born shortly before we left Rome, and now, with a two-year-old
son, even more so. I am glad that my new job doesn’t have me traveling
internationally anymore. It was fabulous to get my passport stamped all over
the world and see some things in Sub-Saharan Africa especially and to travel
all over Europe, South America and Asia. That
season was fabulous, this season with young kids I want to be home.  My wife has made even more of a sacrifice;
she is in public health and used to travel all over Africa, and her season as a
mom is challenging and very different. But again, it’s seasonal. When the kids
are a little older, she’ll go back to work and we will go back to putting in a
few more hours.  Also, it’s about the
decision to work in public service. It’s not private sector salaries, but we’ve
made life choices so she can stay home, even in this expensive neighborhood of
Washington, DC.

Thanks for being willing to be
so open and share such a candid perspective. It’s been a pleasure talking with
you today.

Thanks Jeni!

For more information on the
Congressional Hunger Center and Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellows
Program, please visit: http://www.hungercenter.org/

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