In the last week I’ve discovered two of the most inspiring changemakers I’ve ever encountered.
Both are leading grassroots change from their respective (and very different) communities – one in the UK, one in the US – and both are doing this through growing food.
So who are these people? What are they doing in their communities, and what makes them effective change agents?
In under half an hour, you too can learn about their initiatives, feel inspired, and consider how their approaches and techniques could be used in your own work.
Let me introduce you to Pam Warhurst and Steven Ritz.
Incredible Edible emerged when its creators were thinking about the most effective way to get people involved in having some agency over their own lives, right where they live:
We tried to answer this simple question: Can you find a unifying language that cuts across age and income and culture that will help people themselves find a new way of living, see spaces around them differently, think about the resources they use differently, interact differently? Can we find that language? And then, can we replicate those actions? And the answer would appear to be yes, and the language would appear to be food.
Warhurst’s group initiated the growing of food on unused public land. They started with a seed swap, and then turned a verge into a herb garden. Now food is being grown in a wide range of places, including in the railway station car park and in front of the police station. To accommodate the tourists the group’s work attracted, they established the Incredible Edible Green Route, a walking tour of these and other sites, which takes people through the town and past local businesses.
They started with a small, practical action, created a visible success, then attracted other people into their conversation, their story.
People are ready and respond to the story of food. They want positive actions they can engage in, and in their bones, they know it’s time to take personal responsibility and invest in more kindness to each other and to the environment.
They’ve since established a partnership with a high school, with whom they are designing and building an aquaponics system. The high school is now teaching agriculture as a result of the community wanting to work with the students. They’ve turned some donated land into a market garden training center, and as a result, local academics offered to design a commercial horticulture course.
Warhurst acknowledges that what her group is doing is not original or clever – however it is joined up, and it is inclusive. Their motto is: ‘If you eat, you’re in!’. She understands that an holistic approach for change is necessary – for example, if you can get people interested in local food because they can see what’s growing all around them, then you have a better chance of them spending their money to support local producers.
To engage local farmers and producers, her group established the ‘Every Egg Matters’ campaign, where the availability of surplus eggs has been plotted on the Egg Map. There are now 64 local egg sellers on the map. Imagine doing this with everything that people produce in backyards! People began asking for ‘Todmorden eggs’ in the shops ie. looking for locally produced product. A survey conducted by local students revealed that half of all food traders in the town said they had experienced an increase in their bottom line as a result of Incredible Edible’s efforts.
Further, its not just about people who are growing food:
…we all are part of this jigsaw. It’s about taking those artistic people in your community and doing some fabulous designs in those raised beds to explain to people what’s growing there, because there’s so many people that don’t really recognize a vegetable unless it’s in a bit of plastic with a bit of an instruction packet on the top.
A number of projects have spun out of Incredible Edible, including a commitment from the local authority to make everywhere ‘incredible edible’, starting with creating an asset register of spare land that communities can use to grow food. The group is calling for planning authorities to bring food growing sites into the heart of towns and cities, not relegate them to peri-urban areas where few people encounter them.
More than 30 towns in the UK have adopted the Incredible Edible model, along with communities from the US to Japan to New Zealand, where citizens of Christchurch visited Todmorden with a view to incorporating these ideas in the post-earthquake rebuilding of their city.
Warhurst has a sense of dogged determination about her, and is no-nonsense in her approach, with a very English sensibility of just getting on with it:
We’re starting to reinvent community ourselves, and we’ve done it all without a flipping strategy document…
We’ve not asked anybody’s permission to do this, we’re just doing it. We came up with a really simple game plan that we put to a public meeting. We did not consult. We did not write a report. Enough of all that.
This will resonate with anyone who has ever been hamstrung by risk-averse or officious authorities, or become frustrated with groups where the need to create some universally-agreed to master plan with every last detail planned out (but that all parties can never quite agree to) stymies action.
The can-do approach Warhust embodies has resulted in a remarkable list of achievements in a short time, especially, as Warhust pointedly said:
And we’re just volunteers and it’s only an experiment.
In showing how her group of volunteers brought about change, particularly with limited resources, it gives people a real sense of hope and possibility that they too could do the same.
Warhurst’s delivery is matter-of-fact, yet witty, and her presentation is rich with images of the people and places associated with Incredible Edible.
She tickles the crowd by referring to the group’s work as ‘Propaganda Gardening’ and noting that they’ve invented a new form of tourism – ‘Vegetable Tourism’. Creating vivid phrases for concepts like these are effective ways to marshall and promote ideas, and enthuse others about becoming involved. The idea of ‘planting verges’ may interest a few folks, but framing it as ‘Propaganda Gardening’ both connects it to a bigger idea and makes it sound more appealing.
All through her talk, Warhurst conveys a feeling that all of this has happened not because it is a kind of miracle, but because doing it was just plain common sense, and that everything that has been done is perfectly normal, including growing food in the town’s cemetery where, she informs an amused audience, ‘the soil is extremely good!’.
Steven Ritz teaches at-risk kids in the South Bronx, where the unemployment rate is 25%, poverty is at 40% and the median income is $20k a year. Most of his students are homeless, and many are in foster care.
Now that’s a challenge for a changemaker. How has he turned those starting conditions into this?
…Ritz believes that students shouldn’t have to leave their community to live, learn and earn in a better one. Moving generations of students into spheres of personal and academic successes they have never imagined while reclaiming and rebuilding the Bronx, Stephen’s extended student and community family have grown over 25,000 pounds of vegetables in the Bronx while generating extraordinary academic performance. His Bronx classroom features the first indoor edible wall in NYC DOE which routinely generates enough produce to feed 450 students healthy meals and trains the youngest nationally certified workforce in America. His students, traveling from Boston to Rockefeller Center to the Hamptons, earn living wage en route to graduation.
Ritz has formed a community around the gardens students are designing and the food they are growing, which provides them with food, skills and jobs. He’s found a way to help the students meet pressing personal needs, and contribute to something bigger than themselves, both of which foster self-esteem.
He’s created a highly visible example of something that works, and can demonstrate success, which has attracted the attention and support of media, foodies and politicians.
Ritz understands that he is merely the enabler, the ‘conductor’ of an orchestra (*meaning himself):
…when you put big kids together with little kids, you get the big fat white guy* out of the middle, which is cool, and you create this kind of accountability amongst peers, which is incredible.
He’s constantly searching for new ways to build on the existing body of work. He celebrates achievements and ensures his students get that positive feedback.
And where it counts? The results of how Ritz has helped students change their lives speak for themselves:
Forty percent attendance to 93 percent attendance. All start overage and under-credit…my first cohort is all in college, earning a living wage. The rest are scheduled to graduate this June.
It’s not just about the gardening and food growing – it’s about raising expectations and expanding horizons.
On a personal level, Ritz is an absolute dynamo. His enthusiasm and confidence is contagious, his energy leaps off the stage and out of the screen – as he himself exclaimed ‘I’m the oldest sixth grader you’ll ever meet!’
He delights the crowd with his self-deprecating wit and uses comedy to get people to laugh with him. He tells his stories in a way that makes the apparently unlikely seem perfectly normal:
…I met nice people like you, and they invited us to the Hamptons. So I call this ‘from South Bronx to Southampton’. And we started putting in roofs that look like this, and we came in from destitute neighborhoods to start building landscapes like this, wow! People noticed. And so we got invited back this past summer, and we actually moved into the Hamptons, paid 3,500 dollars a week for a house, and we learned how to surf.
Part radio DJ with his rapid-fire delivery, part Baptist preacher as he responds to the reactions of his audience in the moment, Ritz explodes preconceptions of what life options are available to poor and often homeless kids. He is deeply emotionally invested in what he is doing, and one gets the impression he would not give up easily or take ‘no’ for an answer.
Ritz delivers not so much a presentation as a performance.
As a speaker, he moves along at a rapid pace, and can do so because he knows his content inside out. And because he’s telling a story, not delivering information, because he’s using images (not bullet points) to illustrate his talk, the audience can keep up.
He uses rich metaphors, such as when he explains how the green wall in his classroom is there to be grazed: ‘if you’re hungry, get up and eat – my kids play cow all the time’.
He uses vivid language to highlight the stark difference between what is, and what would have been, if it wasn’t for these initiatives:
The borough that gave us baggy pants and funky fresh beats is becoming home to the organic ones.
Brook Park feeds hundreds of people without a food stamp or a fingerprint.
Nothing thrills me more than to see kids pollinating plants instead of each other.
Thank God Omar knows that carrots come from the ground, and not aisle 9 at the supermarket or through a bullet-proof window or through a piece of styrofoam.
How could you not warm to a character like Steven Ritz and want to get involved in whatever he is doing?
Although from very different communities, Pam Warhurst and Steven Ritz are both leaders who ignite in people a passion and belief that they can change their world and themselves, and they tell their stories as empathic and inspiring communicators.
Have you worked with a great change-maker? What personal attributes and leadership skills did they have that made them effective?
Can you identify people around you who are creating change through practical action? How can you help support their efforts?