Jerry Greenfield Discusses Social Activism, Business, Fire Eating

You know Jerry Greenfield, OC ’73. At least, you know him by his first name. Ever heard of Ben & Jerry’s? That Jerry. Mr. Greenfield — who gave off a low-key, almost grandfatherly air during our conversation — stopped by campus for the Oberlin Illuminate kickoff and helped distribute free ice cream on Friday night. For half an hour in Slow Train Cafe, however, he elaborated on his experience with everything from social justice to fire eating. He began by recounting the best of his Oberlin experience.

William Passannante, Staff Writer

Jerry Greenfield: I was here from ’69 to ’73, and … the best thing about Oberlin for me was the social and political activism. I came here as a suburban kid from Rhode Island and I was not really involved in social activism. During my freshman year here, there were the shootings at Kent State, which is just down the road, and there was a student strike at Oberlin to shut down the school. … There was all sorts of civil rights activity, so it was just a very active and stimulating and turbulent time. It sort of helped instill values in me that have become very important — both to me personally and to Ben & Jerry’s as a company.

What values would you say those are?

Social justice, environmental justice, issues of basic fairness. In this country there are a lot of privileged people and there are a lot of people [who] are marginalized. … You need to fight for justice for marginalized and underrepresented people.

There was a statement on the Ben & Jerry’s website in support of the Occupy movement. Why did you take a specific stance on Occupy? Why is that important to you?

So that particular statement was done by the Ben & Jerry’s Board of Directors but it’s something that Ben and I both agree with … because [of] what Occupy stands for about helping [to] address the economic inequality in this country. … I think it’s pretty unusual for a corporation to be publicly supporting Occupy. Most corporations would be running away as fast as they could.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to have [a balance making a profit and social justice] work?

I think there is this conventional thinking in business that if you want to be successful financially that you can’t be a caring business, a business that has values, and that detracts from your ability to make money. And in our experience, exactly the opposite is true. … The more Ben & Jerry’s has been community-involved and supporting community activities, the more successful it’s been. … And as I said, it’s counter to conventional thinking. But it turns out that when you’re working for community interests, you’re supporting the community, and it’s no real surprise that the community in turn wants to support your business. It just kind of makes sense.

How did you end up making test batches of ice cream in the first place? Where did all of this start?

When I graduated Oberlin, I majored in Biology [and] was trying to get into medical school and never got in. And [Ben] had probably dropped out of college probably three or four times. So at that point [Ben and I] were probably about 26 years old, and we were pretty much failing at everything we were trying to do … so we thought we would just try to do something with food … for a couple of years. We never thought of ourselves as going into business. … We talked about becoming cross-country truck drivers together. We never had any business training because as you well know, Oberlin does not have a business school.

So you had no idea at all what it would be.

Absolutely. … It’s a total shock. It’s not only a shock to us; it’s a shock to everybody who knew us. … I mean, when I was in Oberlin, I took an ExCo course in carnival technique [taught by Bill Irwin, OC ’73]. … I was the best fire eater in my class.
Is that something you still know how to do?

I don’t do it often, but very infrequently I will eat fire. The other thing we learned how to do in class was breaking a cinderblock with a sledgehammer on the bare belly of another person who is lying suspended between two chairs. … I did the cinderblock within the last year. … So this is part of my Oberlin education.

In the video posted to the Ben & Jerry’s website, you stated that the foundation is interested in looking for radical groups, implying that you’re interested in grassroots organizations. Why is that?

I believe that the only way to have long-term change in this country is to organize the real live people that are involved in issues, … the grassroots in communities, because the established players who are the politicians, the corporations … [are] not interested in serving the community interest. It’s a system whereby money and politics — whether it comes from wealthy interests or … corporations or big businesses — really control our communities. And so lower-income people, immigrants, non-documented immigrants … don’t get a fair shake.

Hypothetical opportunity. You get to serve ice cream to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. What ice cream flavors do you serve them?

J: Pretty sure Mitt gets vanilla, don’t you think?

Jerry’s friend sitting at table: Poison!

J: [Laughs.] Poison! That’s good! …When Barack Obama got elected, Ben & Jerry’s … changed the name of their butter pecan flavor to “Yes, Pecan!” … So I think that’s what I’d be serving Barack.

What is the craziest ice-cream flavor you’ve ever developed?

You know, it was an awful flavor. It was Lemon Peppermint Carob Chip. You familiar with carob? This was in the earlier days when we were still dabbling in health food alternatives. And it was actually a mistake. A bunch of different flavors got mixed together that were not intended to be together. It had a small, very loyal following, but not enough to keep it in production.

Are we talking cult film status, or less than that?

Less than — very, very small cult.