Blog: Amanda Edmonds

Amanda Maria Edmonds believes in living one's beliefs through positive, proactive acts.  She was that passionate, directed kid from age 10.  

Born and raised in University City, Missouri-- an old part of St. Louis-- to an artist and an architect, she began putting her values into action at a young age.  In middle school, she spent her babysitting money to join environmental nonprofits-- excited at that point to receive their (junk) mail because she was so eager to plug into national and world movements .... From recycling campaigns to food drives, sitting on the school board to co-founding a nonprofit while in high school, Amanda heeded early opportunities for leadership and learning about how to affect change.  When she moved to Michigan in the mid 1990s to attend the School of Natural Resources & Environment at U-M, she dove into environmental justice and environmental education, involving herself in both campus and community advocacy campaigns.  That work led to the development of the Perry Learning Garden in 1999 and the next chapter....

Fast forward a decade-plus, and this now loyal Ypsilantian is the founder and executive director of seven-year-old nonprofit Growing Hope.  An active community member, she serves on the Ypsilanti Parks & Recreation Commission, the MSU-Extension Advisory Council, and the leadership team of the Ypsilanti Health Coalition.  She was profiled in the book, Practical Idealists: Changing the World and Getting Paid.   A former board member of the American Community Gardening Association, she facilitates trainings nationally with her peers in organizational development, community organizing, and marketing.  She also puts creative energy into running a side business, AMEPIX, making and selling photography and button-based products.  

In the cold months and in spare moments, she travels to warm places to lindy hop-- a form of swing dance-- with friends from across the continent.  She sleeps eight hours a night, and does not drink caffeine.  She used to be an avid estate sale-r, finding excitement in the treasure hunt among old things of every life, but in more recent years has developed more self-control and rarely attends.  She has very strong brand loyalty, to her hometowns and otherwise.

See a video featuring Growing Hope here.

Amanda Edmonds - Most Recent Posts:

Post 2: Good Deeds = Good Seeds

Our approach at Growing Hope is about win-wins.  And, when we're lucky, they may even go three ways -- win-win-win, we call it.  Win-win is about getting and giving in both directions, so that everyone comes out ahead -- it's one of those core values I talk about.  Let me describe with an example and then pontificate a bit after.

Last year we were faced with a challenge.   We needed seedlings-- and specifically a way to grow a lot of them.  For non-gardeners out there, in February, March, and April green thumbs and brown thumbs fill every egg carton and peat pot and yogurt cup with a growing medium, stick seeds in that soil, and find the lightest spot to help them grow.  That way when it's time to plant later in the spring we're all set.  Growing Hope grows seedlings to plant at the Growing Hope Center, to donate to partner families and gardens, and to sell at our spring plant sale and at our Downtown Ypsi Farmers' Market.  Early spring seedling production needs to happen in heated space, and ideally under artificial lights (a south-facing window might work, but may still not be quite enough).  Our seedling needs began to far exceed available space.  Heated space with lights became a limiting factor.

We also know from experience that the physical and mental barriers to getting growing are things that limits people growing their own food.  Every tried to hand a jankity shoplight from the back of a chair or balance those seedlings on top of the fridge, only to have the family pet or toddler knock it all down?  Or, the seedlings that grew well at first but because of the drafty window and cloudy days became leggy and limp?  If you've started seeds you've probably had this sort of experience.  We looked to the commercial marketplace at seed-starting light stand set ups, and price is a huge barrier-- easily $150 to fit just 1-2 trays of plants.  

Our enterprising spirit kicked in -- in fact, it was our social enterprising spirit.  With volunteers and partners from the Washtenaw Community College Residential Construction Program, we made it up.  We designed a simple wooden light stand structure with an A-frame that fits two standard four-foot shop lamps.  There's room underneath for four flats, which generally hold 192 seedlings.  We wanted to create something simple and sturdy with materials anyone could buy at the store.   For about $45, when all is said and done (wood, bolts, screws, two 4-ft shop lamps, four bulbs), we birthed a light stand for seed starting.  We don't have shop drawings for it (we hope to eventually), but you can see photos here.

Then came the Seed Starting Squad.  This was our way to organize people using these stands to help us and help themselves grow seedlings.  We put out the call and people applied to be a part of the Squad.  Have you ever met a gardener or a garden-wanna-be in February?  Eager describes all of them, and 75 overwhelmed us with applications to participate.  We only have so much time and space to cut and assemble wood, so we were able to accommodate 45 households that year.  A Squad household could buy the light stand on a sliding scale (we really like these and trust people to pay where they can) from $50-$100.  Or, if that wasn't affordable, you could borrow the light stand, making the personal investment just about free.  To be in the Squad, you agreed to come pick up your stand and grow two flats of seedlings for us, leaving space under the lights for two flats for yourself.  Everyone wins.  When your seedlings have grown up, you drop them off and we put them into the mix in our plant sales, giveaways, or into the ground.  In year 1, about 3,500 viable seedlings were returned to us.  This year, the participation rate and numbers were even higher. 

It's a win-win-win: Families have learned or honed a great skill, resulting in seedlings for their own gardens, and have overcome the barrier of getting started inexpensively; Growing Hope has seedlings for sale, planting, and donation; the light stand is a replicable, scaleable model we can share with others, and the borrowed light stands are a resource we can lend or sell to future participants, share with schools, etc.... and, our community has a way to engage early in the season, participating in something that's satisfying -- and, as confirmed by our evaluation of the program this year, is making people more likely to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

We budget that this program breaks even in terms of material costs (volunteer labor not included in the calculation).  We consider this a social enterprise because it both furthers our mission and brings in revenue.  The Seed Starting Squad is structured to be affordable and accessible, transparent and replicable, not require any prior knowledge (we plan for some loss in our calculations), be family-friendly, use volunteer support, and a vehicle for community engagement.  As Growing Hope has assessed what social enterprise opportunities to pursue, these are all important qualities.  In fact, we made a matrix by which we judge mission-related earned revenue opportunities, weighing both traditional business planning considerations (start up costs, ROI, et al) with these and other principles (VALUES) that are important to all that we do.  

Other enterprises we've taken on also further our mission but are designed to earn more revenue to support programs or areas of our work that don't bring in funds.  Our raised bed kits, for example, which we sell in the spring (and we'll tell you how much we paid for materials and how much the mark-up is,  and we'll train you to build it yourself) are simple and affordable, yet our profit margin can still support our free Raised Bed Installation program for low-income and no-income families.  In fact, for every six raised bed kits we sell, we can fund the materials for one family's raised bed garden installation.  Again, it's a win-win-- an affordable solution for people in their homes that directly supports subsidizing for those without any.  (Note: our Raised Bed Installation program was modeled after one in Olympia, Wash. at a rockin' organization called GruB which was so open and willing to share their best practices with us).  And, while they haven't all come from us, you may have seen (particularly in Ypsi) more and more four-by-four-foot raised beds popping up all around town.  Our "what can you grow in a square" message has taken ground, literally, as the interest in local, healthy food and gardening has skyrocketed in the last few seasons.

My own advice to nonprofits and for profits working to better the community while also earning revenue -- think hard about win-wins.    Whether we've strategized or stumbled into them, when we've hit upon something that just really works from so many angles, it's been amazing to feel how the impact radiates throughout Growing Hope, and throughout our communities.

Post 1: Not Your Average Rosy Speech

I like talking about values.  One of the thing I often say when presenting about Growing Hope is how our organization's core values play out in how we choose the best strategies for furthering our mission.  We use these values as a lens and guide.  

Before getting into a discussion about particular values, though, it's important to share where I'm coming from.   I was born white, middle class in the United States in the 20th century.  These attributes, none of which I had anything to do with, put me in a place of privilege compared to many of the rest of the people in the world, including many of those in the United States.  For me it's important to recognize that to myself and others -- I started "the race" much farther ahead than many others.  While I have worked very hard for what I have or have achieved, others may also have put in that effort, only to be held back by barriers of race or class or geography, et al.  Teddy Roosevelt once said, "Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing."  I was born incredibly privileged to have the chance to do work that I believe in.  

I grew up in a diverse community, where the public school district I attended from K-12 had a lot of white flight.  Many of my friends fled to private or parochial schools before middle or high school.  I often took it personally, and struggled not to pass judgment on these friends or their parents.  As a white person, I was in the privileged minority in our high school, which was about 87% African-American.  This experience gave me a pretty unique perspective on race.  From a young age, I thought about race -- and among a racially (though less-so socio-economically) diverse group of friends, we talked about race pretty openly.  I think it's incredibly important, even when not dealing directly with "racial issues", to be willing to talk about how racism, classism, sexism, and plenty other -isms play into what's happening in our neighborhoods and our society.  This doesn't equate to using the history of injustices as excuses or blame, but it does mean creating dialogue where such issues can be honestly brought forward.  

In fact, I gave a graduation speech about privilege and equity.  And, while that sounds like a heavy subject for a speech usually recounting shared antics and favorite professors, I figured that this platform was an opportunity to impact people -- classmates, professors, families -- and that I should take advantage of it to drive a point home.  My message was about having the privilege to not care -- that by having a U-M degree there was (at least before the recessions hit) an opportunity to live comfortably in a place where it could be easy to ignore or forget about the challenges so many in society face.  The challenge to my classmates was to not stay in that comfort zone and become complacent about injustices to the environment or fellow humans.  I think I drove the point home fairly well without being depressing.

Fast forward to now and I think I've tried to continue on this path of opening honest dialogue about social justice and privilege and race and class.  I've gotten up in front of groups of people locally in the food movement (and colleagues now almost expect me to) and brought up the often unsaid issues of equity that from my lens are essential when talking about healthy food in communities.  When giving talks to garden clubs, I don't shy away from speaking about how structures in society have reinforced disempowerment of people based on class and race.  It's definitely not your average rose talk, but somehow they ask me back.  And, if you know me, my m.o. is not negative at all-- amidst this honesty about inequity, I paint a positive picture about how neighbors and kids and others are coming together in proactive ways to grow healthier, safer, more equitable food and communities.  I think it's that balance that makes people listen and engage.

I credit my being willing and able to open this dialogue to my education and grounding in environmental justice while at the School of Natural Resources & Environment.  Environmental justice is about fair access to safe environments, about equity in our food and human rights to safe water and land, about community ownership and empowerment over the places we live.  For me, that all comes to fruition in a garden.  In another post this week, I'll say more about why gardens and food are such powerful and positive agents of change.

What does this talk about values and open dialogue mean for our organizations, businesses, and community?  Internally, I think it's about conscious creation of culture.  I've been lucky to build something from scratch where -- along with figuring out how to build a budget, infrastructure, programs, systems, et al -- I've also been able to help shape a culture.  That can be difficult in some ways when your staff is transient. Growing Hope's has been made up primarily of Americorps*VISTA members and interns -- and you need to re-invent things each year.  But, it also gives you a chance to rethink your message and approach when orienting new people to your organizational culture... I think it's made us better each year, and not let us take things for granted. 

A few years ago, as a staff team we conducted an anti-oppression analysis and discussion for about six months.  Each week in our staff meeting we had a reading assignment, and we rotated in leading discussions about those issues of racism and other -isms that many people would think off limits, particularly in a workplace.  We tried to create an open dialogue about these things in a safe space. The process reinforced that we aren't always perfect (and I will take ownership and say I am not always where I want to be in terms of anti-oppression mentality and actions), and the process wasn't always without tension, and we didn't always like what we learned about how we were doing.  But, it helped us grow and was just one way that in our organizational culture we've tried to live our values.  So, for Growing Hope values aren't about being preachy or claiming perfection-- they're about being honest, and being self-reflective as individuals and as an organization.  Having led this organization for much of my professional career I don't have a huge amount of experience in other places-- but I think our proactively doing such introspection and dissection may not go on in every business or organization.

...To bring it home to Growing Hope and how we carry out our work: Our mission is to help people improve their lives & communities through gardening.  For me the difference between that statement and "improving people's lives and communities through gardening" is immense, and represents one of our values... doing something for someone is very different from sharing resources, partnership, and support for someone to do for themselves.  There are many valid approaches to community and school gardens, but ours come out of the belief that sustainable change is about  empowerment and capacity building for self-reliance.  As the old adage says (sort of), "Teach a woman to grow a tomato, and she'll eat -- and feed her household and her neighbors -- for a lifetime... and she'll can and freeze and become a tomato-sauce entrepreneur."   It's something like that, right?

Tomorrow: Good Deeds  = Good Seeds