Growing up, Amanda Edmonds couldn't get enough of those books with titles like "50 Simple Things you can do to Help Save the Earth."
It wasn't that she was looking for easy solutions. Co-director of a youth run environmental nonprofit when she was still in high school and a board member with the American Community Gardening Association by the time she was in her 20s, Edmonds is happy to dig in and do the work.
But those "50 Simple Ways" reinforced an idea Edmonds has come to exemplify. One person's actions can make a difference.
Edmonds, founder and executive director of Growing Hope in Ypsilanti, leads an organization that has established some 25 school and community gardens in and around Ypsilanti since its earliest beginnings in 2000. Growing Hope oversees the Downtown Ypsilanti Farmer's Market one of the first in the state to set up a way for people on public assistance to buy fresh produce with their Bridge cards.
The organization now has a 12-member board of directors and 13- member advisory board and about 500 volunteers – started by one person and one, simple good idea that took root and thrived.
"Five years ago, if (people) didn't know what community gardening was, you had to explain it to (them). Now I feel like, in Ypsilanti especially, there's been a real landscape change."
In this case she's not talking about the plants.
"You can say community garden and people have a general sense of what you're talking about. They know about us and what we're doing and they value that."
Edmonds, 30, grew up in St. Louis,with a strong sense of social justice thanks to the Unitarian church and a strong family ethic of not wasting what you've got.
"(My background is) different from the assumptions that people make about people in the environmental movement. I didn't go backpacking all the time or anything like that. It was more about understand the relationship between the consumer and the environment."
She loves plants and gardens, so as a teen projects like public plantings, fixing up an old green house or helping to start a garden at her old elementary school were natural fits. But it wasn't until college at the University of Michigan that she realized there was a community gardening movement.
After earning a master's degree from U-M's School of Natural Resources and the Environment, Edmonds began growing hope – in the form of the Perry Learning Garden on the city's south side – in 2000. The project at Perry sparked an interest in other gardens, and by 2003 she recognized the need for a nonprofit that could make the most of the energy and enthusiasm that had grown up around community gardens.
"It's interesting to see how we've become more than just a community gardening organization," she said. "It's expanded to food security and food access and I think that's paralleled the movement across the country. We didn't mean to become an organization that runs the farmer's market, but it's become a big part of what we're doing, and we're really glad."
Last year, Growing Hope bought a 1.4 acre property on Michigan Ave, just four blocks from downtown Ypsilanti and began the renovation of the Growing Hope Center, 922 W. Michigan Ave., which will include demonstration plots, hoop houses, teaching space and the organization's offices.
It was a bold move in uncertain times for a nonprofit that raises its $150,000 budget from scratch every year, but Edmonds says the move felt right – and still does. It put Growing Hope right smack in the heart of the community, on a big, visible lot on Michigan Ave. Edmonds calls it a dream come true.
"There will definitely be more community support needed to get us to the point where we're fully operating, but the center is kind of the realization of what we do and what we hold dear," she said. "It represents so much of who we are, what we've become and our hope for the future."
Edmonds, who's also been involved with the Ypsilanti Healthy Food Access Initiative and Slow Food Huron Valley, envisions a future where Growing Hope is a center for entrepreneurial training, and where local growers learn to meet the community's food needs, providing for everything from local restaurants to food pantries.
For someone who runs a community gardening organization, Edmonds doesn't spend as much time getting dirt under her nails as you might think.
If you see her working in the garden at Growing Hope, she's probably taking a break – or avoiding something she doesn't want to do.
In her rare free time, Edmonds shoots vegetables. Fruit too. She sells the resulting photography – much of it super-close images that celebrate the shapes, colors, textures and shadows of the garden world - as prints, cards, buttons and magnets on her website, amepix.net and at art fairs like the Shadow Art Fair and the Detroit Urban Crafts Fair.
And lest you think she's all garden, all the time, Edmonds takes off four or five times a year – in the October-March off season, and often in conjunction with urban garden related conferences – to indulge her passion for swing dancing at weekend long Lindy Hop events.
She does garden a lot at her Ypsilanti home, but at work she's an administrator, a manager, a trainer. The whole point is to teach others so they can reap the benefits of working the earth.
And while she's proud of having built something from nothing and passionate about the good that can come from people having access to good, fresh food, Edmonds understands that she started out with an advantage.
"I'm privileged to be doing the work that I do," she said. "Because I have the socio-economic background that I have – white, middle class, college educated – that already gives me a lift. It gives me the opportunity to do this."
Growing Hope's offices are still downtown for the time being, but Edmonds is excited about the ways – some of them unexpected – that the the Growing Hope Center has already become part of its neighborhood.
A homeless family that lives across the street in their car has come over to help out. When one neighbor from Paradise Manor saw volunteers working on the first hoop house, he dropped by to donate some metal rods from his salvage business. And older residents from other parts of town have stopped to share their depression-era stories of living or working in the neighborhood.
"I'm hoping in the next few next years we can figure out an active way to capture that," she said. "It's so powerful to hear about the history of our community. I'm so excited that this is eliciting that kind of reaction."
When the center is up and running, Edmonds would like to use it to host neighborhood block parties and street outreach days.
"I think people see us as (a group that) just makes it happen," Edmonds said. "We're not super highly funded; there's not a lot of big administrative support. We just have done it. We're making things change, and I think that's rubbed off. I get speaking invitations all the time, and it's fun to get that recognition. It's like, 'Oh, you're the one out there doing stuff.'"
Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit News and Seattle Times. She is a regular contributor to metromode and Concentrate. Her previous Concentrate article was MASTERMIND: James Steward
Amanda Edmonds Looking Very Comfortable With Her Surroundings-Ypsilanti
The New Home of Growing Hope-Ypsilanti
Amanda Edmonds in Growing Hope's Urban Garden Overlooking the Hoop House-Ypsilanti
Some Sage, Mmmm-Ypsilanti
The Leafy Greens of Growing Hope-Ypsilanti
Amanda Edmonds Overlooking Her Peppers-YpsilantiAll Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. His Father grows some killer tomatoes in his urban garden.