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Social Change through Non-Profits and Elected Office: Amanda Edmonds

Benjamin Morse and Ypsilanti Mayor Amanda Edmonds discuss food sustainability and justice in the context of Ypsilanti.
Hello everyone and welcome. My name is Benjamin. I’m a graduate soon at the University of Michigan sitting in Environmental Behaviour and Public Policy. I’m here today with Amanda Edmonds, mayor of Ypsilanti and founder and director of Growing Hope, a non-profit that is dedicated to helping people access and grow healthy foods. She is also a graduate. She also holds two degrees from the University of Michigan, an undergraduate and a graduate degree in environmental justice. Thank you so much for joining us today. » My pleasure. » Great well, let’s jump right into it. So in 2003, you founded Growing Hope correct? » I did. » Wonderful.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your commitment to helping people access healthy food? » Yeah, Growing Hope was founded in 2003, based on work I’d been doing since 1999, when I was actually still an undergraduate at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. I was studying environmental education, environmental justice, really the social science side of environmental issues. And I came to gardening, community gardening, youth gardening, bringing people together on gardening as really a way to advocate for environmental justice in a positive and proactive way. » Wonderful, that’s really great. So what led you to establish a non-profit in this space?
I actually was a co founder and co director of a non profit when I was 18 years old in high school. So I had been versed in the non profit sector at a young age and really saw the opportunity and the energy that was around people coming together around growing. So at that time and in our founding, it was really around gardening and growing, especially in community and youth spaces, as a vehicle to many different types of kind of social and environmental change. Whether that was healthy food access, health and nutrition, the learning that can cross so many lines of class and culture and age in a garden, etc, etc.
As well as community especially urban, revitalization, etc of turning vacant lots into productive spaces. Our frame shifted within the first few years and broadened a little. And so the frame really became around healthy food access, with gardening as one of those ways we do that gardening and then more broadly urban agriculture. So working with Euphen schools has been, of course since the beginning continues to be. But we also work very strongly in farmers markets, and ways to increase access to healthy food through that direct to consumer to producer. Producer to consumer, excuse me, interactions as wells as a whole world of economic development.
And the role of economic development or anti-healthy food access, food system business development plays in making the sustainable system that can ultimately assure healthy food, local when possible, for all of our residences. » So you mentioned that environmental and social change is something that you take to heart within your work at Growing Hope. So can you tell us a little bit more about how this relates to the mitigation and adaptation of climate change? » Well my work both at Growing Hope, and really, at the city of Ypsilanti, comes from a sustainability frame. And so when I talk about that three-legged stool, sustainability.
There’re many different labels and words people call each of those stools, but I talk about equity in justice as one of those main legs of the stool. Environment and probably about that. So in our community that’s about safe housing and quality schools and drinking waters. As well as the natural features that we may think and that also includes economy. So having the economic viability, whether its about food system businesses or overall in the City of Ypsilanti, it’s talking about our economic ability to exist as a city to provide services. That sustainability is all about those things being in balance and recognizing that those things build on each other. Rely on each other and all have to be strong and thriving.
You can’t have a place that is truly sustainable if it is not providing, say, access to healthy food, or equitable opportunities for employment. Or access to parks and natural resources, unless we look at all of those factors together, we can’t really look at a sustainable community. So it is about those interplay between those things when we think about adaptation to Climate Change and what that means and who’s affected by it. And we can think from a food system perspective about that. So while our work is more so in the Urban area, we do support every year at our two Ypsilanti Farmer’s Markets 85 Small Businesses. Which includes urban and rural Farmers.
Farmers and those folks who rely Very much on environmental conditions being as predictable as possible, to be able to grow food, have viable businesses that, of course, then feed into people’s access to healthy food, and the strength of our food system economy. Those are some of those that we are seeing most acutely affected right away by climate change. So again, we think from a systems perspective of how all of these things interact with one another. One of them gets off kilter Climate change and the effects of it, and all of the others are affected. » Wonderful. That’s really amazing insight.
And I think a lot of us today are very interested in the politics, especially around climate change and how we can go out and make action within the community. So, kind of a follow up to that, kind of looking at now your political career, kind of transitioning a little bit into the role of mayor in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that process kind of unfolded and what really motivated you to run for an elected office? » I had been and I continue to work full-time at Growing Hope and making change with a team of people and leveraging an amazing community of volunteers and supporters to make change in our realm.
So sustainability In the realm of food system. But I fell in love with this community that I was not actually a native to. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, moved to Michigan in the mid 90s to go to the University of Michigan. But I fell in love with this community that is some ways was the underdog, was struggling financially. It’s still struggling financially, as many communities in southeast Michigan, especially impacted by the downfall of the auto industry very much are. I fell in love with this community that had such a spirit about it, such a pride about it, and such a diversity. That is what people’s pride is really about, Ypsilanti is truly a diverse place.
In the community is small enough, it’s only 4.3 square miles, 20,000 residents. The community is small enough that you can really get your head around it. You can really get your arms around it. And we have seen in our time at Growing Hope the ability to landscape change. Through up to 1,000 people coming on a weekly basis to two weekly farmer’s markets. That’s no joke in a community of 20,000 people surrounded by a broader, sort of metro, area. So we found the ability to make change.
Really tangible in a community of this scale. So as I was looking personally at this media I had really fallen deeply in love with and all of its struggles and all of its, on the other side, opportunities. I felt like using that same social justice and sustainability frame was a way and an essential thing at this point time as the community is. I’m still struggling but very much on the rise. To use that frame to ensure that as the community grows that we are looking at sustainability. Whether it’s building of our amazing parks, and here on river and beautiful historic architecture that this part of the richness of the environment in Ypsilanti.
Or it’s looking at our economic opportunity of a place still largely dominated by locally owned business including many people of color owned businesses. Or it’s looking from an equity and a diversity standpoint. How can we develop in ways we need to and we have to economically to sustain ourselves and literally still exist as a city. In our economic environment, in a way that keeps equity and social justice and those other environment conditions at the forefront. » Yeah, so I think it’s really interesting today. So looking at current political climate. The word climate change the words climate change, the phrase climate change. It’s something that is a very heated topic, right, it’s very politicized.
Can you tell us a little bit more have you used that term, have you used that concept and idea within political office. And has that helped or has that hurt your efforts. » It hasn’t been the dominant sort of narrative or framing that we’ve used. We’ve talked about sustainability more broadly. But our city did develop a few years ago a really strong climate action plan. And here’s a thing about a community of our scale and in our financial conditions, which is rough. Where our staff are each doing four jobs.
We have a lot of strong values, where there is a considerable amount of alignment, both among the elected and the appointed folks in our community, as well as our community as whole. So sustainability, for instance, is a strong and core community value, and plays out in many different ways. So we’ve had a climate action plan, and we’ve had no staff to help carry it forward. So we just actually adopted our first sustainability commission that will start, but the struggle was, what staff person is going to staff this commission. So, unlike, some neighboring, in other communities in the region. Bigger cities, that they have an office of sustainability or a staff person. We believe in these things.
We have a pan that was community driven, about how to change. But the financial resources aren’t necessarily there. So actually our fire chief is going to be the one who cares a lot about sustainability, who’s going to be the staff liason to our sustainability commission. They just installed, actually helped in the installation of 175 solar panels on our fire station. So we walk the walk even without the institutional offices and things you often see at bigger cities or institutions around sustainability. We have an amazing initiative that is entirely community driven called Solar Ypsi. We have one of the highest per capita number of solar kilowatts of any city in the country.
And that is because a grassroots organization that is really one volunteer, not even incorporated. Solar Ypsi run by someone, by Dave Strenski, who’s even been featured on a national Google commercial. Has been out there for years now giving presentations, helping people with kind of barn raising, pay it forward style, installing solar on their houses. Finding and leveraging funds from anonymous donors to get solar panels on some of our schools and our senior center, and now our fire station, non-profits, etc, etc. So we’re doing it and that’s the way it works and that’s the way sustainability is carried out in communities like Ipsi, kind of grassroots way.
It happens because people in the community make it happen, and our city government is very supportive, even without the resources. Many moons ago, many years ago, there was a grant program that needed matching support, and it was for getting small solar installations, so it was before there were many around. The city didn’t have the funds for the matching support, so community members each pledged 50, 100 kind of dollars. To make up the necessary matching support so we could apply for solar panels, which are now been for years on our city hall, installed largely by volunteers. That’s the way sustainability plays out.
And it really, climate action plays out in the community by kind of hook or crook, we make it happen as a community coming together. » That’s really amazing and super inspirational. I think a lot of our learners out there are really energized around these ideas, a lot of the values that you bring up. So what advice would you have for learners that are really interested in getting involved in the political spectrum of things. Whether it’s at an individual, very small scale level, or whether they want to run for office? What advice would you give them? » Well the first advice I would have is run for office and get involved.
So people have a lot of barriers to running for office. And often that barrier is they don’t feel they’re qualified or they don’t look like the people who are already in office. So particularly women people of color, younger people, LGBT individuals, find many barriers and reasons why they’re not quite qualified. We can look at many examples at the local, state, and national level of people, who one might say that don’t have the qualifications that we would guess that someone needs. Or a law degree or a public policy degree, or something like that to run for office. People who are in office at every level really matter.
When I think about the food system and strategies around changing food system and the way our kids eat and what our kids have access to. I think about why don’t we make a nationwide campaign to get people to run for the school board? That matters so, so much. So I encourage people to look at resources that are out there now. In particular, around getting people to run training, etc. But I had never held political office before, although I was on the school board as a student representative when I was 16 years old. But I had never run for office and people said why don’t you just run for city council first, not mayor? Here I am. I ran for Mayor.
I think that part of political engagement around these issues is thinking both as an insider and an outsider. I think that activist movements overall, I think that environmental movement is one other movements. The food movement definitely has really matured in being policy advocates. That’s something I’ve seen over my time in the food system world is that people are better and better at thinking about what policy change do we need. So I serve on the Washington Food Policy Council. I previously served on the Michigan Food Policy Council. Sitting at that table, and talking about policy. But we too much advocate from the outside, it’s really important for people who are passionate and knowledgable about whatever the issue is.
Climate change, or related things, to be on the inside. Because here’s what happened, or at least happened for me. The moment you’re elected to office, this key turns and it’s called political capital, and you suddenly have it. You suddenly have access and connections and relationships with people who can make decisions that impact climate and climate change and sustainability and so many of these things. In a way that in all of my years as a respected nonprofit professional the access was not as easy as it was when I suddenly had a title in front of my name. So I think people need to recognize just how powerful that political capital of being an elected office is, what doors it does open.
And that’s why it is that much more important to not only get to know elected officials and recognize the power that is intrinsic and those systems of government and policy. But also, step up and be in. And, the other thing is, I think that, folks who live in a place where their representatives, their mayors, their councils, etc vote the right way. Are sort of less inclined to step up and actually support. And step up and say thank you. And step up and say, what else can I do to support you in this office? Because it’s not easy, especially those of us in local office, many of whom like me, hold other full time jobs.
It can be a pretty difficult job to decide to stay in and keep moving this work forward, just because of all of the things, social media and slandering, and all of the difficult work it takes. So I think that even if you’re a representative at whatever level votes the way you want. You know, already believes in these things. Stand up and say, how can I support you? Instead of just being that advocate from the outside. Also, I’d say that there are, at every level, appointed boards and commissions that people can step up and serve on. There’re many, many ways to serve on whether it’s a sustainability commission, or a water research commission, or a planning commission, or a school board.
Special kind of commission. Those are all things that have interactions with decisions being made whether it’s a city council deciding what kind of garbage truck we are purchasing and what that does to greenhouse gases and carbon, etc. Those are, sustainability more broadly, is effected through many, many, many, decisions that you may not think are as directly about we’ve made a policy about our energy sources, right? That’s a common one. But if you look through that lens and we need more and more people in elected office and serving on boards and commissions who’ll look through that lens. Which to me also includes a strong lens of equity. Somebody asked me in an interview recently.
Well what does that mean when you’re at the table? You know what, certain people have more, in our communities, political and economic capital, right? People with more time and more access to come to a city council meeting or talk to their representative have more likelihood that their issues are going to get heard, right? So whether that relates to which neighborhoods are more likely to have their streets fixed first. because whose had more economic and social capital to raise more of a ruckus, these things make a difference in every decision. So again, sustainability, climate adaptation is not just for some, for communities that have the ability or the financial resources to make changes, to do extra things.
It’s about looking through this lens about how everyone is affected. So we think about something like childhood asthma, right, which is so affected by air pollution which is affected by the types of fuel, by the types of energy we’re producing. It affects much more so urban, low income young people, right. And affects how many days young people are missing from school which affects so many other things which affects success in school, which affects school to prison pipeline, etc, etc. And that may not be the thing that’s on the minds most broadly of a climate change advocate, but it all relates, right. And that is just as of a current equity issue as well.
Yeah, I think that’s an amazing connection that you make there. And I think that if we can bridge those gaps right. If we can consider all those different variables in the equation. We can really make change. So this last question as we kind of wrap up here, is going to be a little bit challenging for you I think. Because you have a wealth of experience. You’re wearing multiple hats. So what is one piece of advice you would give to all of our learners that they can do to act on climate change, and why is that one specific action of particular importance?
I think that for people who feel very strongly about an issue, right, their frame very much comes from that issue. And I think that the one piece of advice I would give every one is don’t assume that they’re framing and their belief and motivation around that issue is where other people are coming from. Recognize where other people, especially other people, whether it’s a person, their neighbor, or their employer, or their policy maker. Don’t assume that the reasons behind your belief and passion and motivation around an issue are going to be what resonates with someone else.
So I think in activism and advocacy and policy change, so much is about listening and understanding where people are coming from, and finding that point of connection and common ground. And thinking about the framing, and the passions, and the things that dominate someone else’s life, especially people without the same privilege that many in certain especially traditionally environmentally activist come from. Think about the framing listen to the framing, don’t make assumptions about where someone’s coming from and find that common ground where you can make what you care about meet with what they care about. And work on things together.
I think that’s crucial for moving issues, especially issues that have been dominated by people of certain class, certain race, certain ethic, and cultural backgrounds. Finding that common ground is what’s most important, moving forward. » Wonderful, thank you so much. » My pleasure. » Our guest, today, Amanda Edmonds, mayor of Ypsilanti, and founder and director of Growing Hope.

In this segment, Amanda Edmonds speaks about her experiences founding and working in community-based nonprofit organizations as well as her experience successfully running for Mayor of Ypsilanti Michigan.

Amanda Marie Edmonds is a consultant, AM Edmonds LLC, Artist & Owner of AMEPIX, and former Mayor of the City of Ypsilanti, Michigan (2014-18). She is also the Founder and Former Executive Director of Growing Hope, a 501c3 Non-profit working to foster sustainable and equitable food systems. Amanda’s bio here.

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