Blog: Amanda Edmonds

Thorny social issues are what perpetuate inequitable access to farm-fresh products. This week Amanda Edmonds, executive director of Growing Hope, talks about the ways in which her non-profit empowers communities to grow and eat heathy food. Ground zero: a seed squadron.

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