Part 1: The Secret Life of a Community Change Agent

Part 1: The Secret Life of a Community Change Agent
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Part 1: The Secret Life of a Community Change Agent

How do you pick a project in your community?  Why?  What is the right path?  Who do you need to talk to first… then second?  When is the right time?

Last year, I shared a 6-part series – The Secret Life of a Sustainability Professional.  It ended up being surprisingly popular.

So, I figured I would give people a sneak peek into a community change campaign.

But I wanted it to be more than a typical “How To”… because usually that covers only what went right — not what went wrong.

And that is the best stuff!


I’m going to make posts AS I’m working on a project, to give some insight into the PROCESS.

Which is way more valuable.  And vulnerable.

Not everything will go well.  And not everyone will be happy.  And, this could make it difficult to be successful (which I’ve considered a few times).

In the end, I think the value that it could provide to you — giving you the confidence and ability to launch your own projects… solve your own community problems — will out weigh the potential that my particular project might fail.

Start with a Problem

Des Moines (and Iowa) has a hunger issue.  1 in 4 kids are undernourished, not to mention whole families/neighborhoods.  That means they can’t focus at school, and fall behind further and further most days without assistance.

That’s not news.  The US has a hunger issue, too.  You may have a similar situation in your community.

We also have a childhood obesity issue (albeit improving).  A healthy meal, or cooking at all, has become a lost art.

Busy families, often in poverty, send children to school by way of the convenience store.  They pick up a Cherry Pepsi and bag of spicy Cheeto’s for breakfast.

Don’t get me wrong… a Snackable and a Sunny D is a better alternative than a Twix and a Coke.  But fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, greens, and protein would go a long way.

That’s not what many parents have time and money for.  And kids aren’t learning about where food comes from in school.  It’s not core curriculum.

Brainstorm Simple Ideas

Simple doesn’t mean easy.  It just means, I am a realist when biting off projects.

I’ve learned two important things over the years.

  1. The more complex the solution, the less likelihood (or the longer it takes) to get buy-in
  2. Small, simple solutions have a way of snowballing and then inspiring greater action

For instance, I can’t end poverty.

That would be awesome.  Poverty is at the root of many of Des Moines’ community issues.

But “ending poverty” is like “fighting climate change.”  They are both large umbrella terms that require more granular approaches to actually achieve… where the rubber actually meets the road.

For me, I thought, “Okay, ending poverty.  I’m working on it.  Check.”  For 3 years, I’ve been part of launching a group micro-lending program for women in poverty that kicks off this May.  Think Grameen Bank or a local Kiva.

Moving on, I thought, “Now for some concrete things to help hunger/obesity/food education for families that are still in poverty for the time being.”

Five years ago, we launched an annual conference here to bring together the local foodies and the hunger warriors.  And it’s gone really well (you can read about it in my previous post).

So, for five years I’ve listened and been a part of that conversation… looking for another leverage point for big change.

  • What area has the potential to make the most difference?
  • What do people feel is still missing?
  • What applies to each: hunger, obesity, and education?
  • They all revolve around food… what would really help?

Find Help & Inspiration

I did a few things recently.

First, I left my day job at Kum & Go to launch a statewide association for businesses interested in sustainability.  That afforded me some free time… compared to my regular 8-5.

Second, I used that free time to have lunches with community leaders from all over town.  I asked them what they were working on.  I listened.  I offered my help anywhere I could.  I shared with them my focus on food/hunger.  And I asked for their advice.

In that order.

Third, I got involved: taught a workshop, took a class, and read some books.

The kick-off meeting for Urban Ambassadors in 2014 was a workshop on how to launch your idea.  I co-led that with VP Drew Maifeld and decided to take my own advice.

During that meeting, a fellow member, Evan Frisch, was promoting an upcoming class called The Power of Just Doing Stuff.  Instead of my usual thinking — “Oh, I already know all this” — I signed up and went every Wednesday for a few weeks.  It was great.  We followed the Transition Town model and a few exercises.  Great sharing, with old and new faces in the crowd.  Especially drinks afterwards!  This really jarred my creativity loose.

During my 2 hour road trips around the state for work, I listened to audiobooks… keeping the creative juices flowing.  It helped that today’s radio selection is very lacking!

Find a Solution that Moves People

In the end, I came up with this line of thinking.

There is one type of project that helps all 3 areas: hunger, obesity, and education.

School gardens.

  • Hunger — exposing students and parents to growing their own food provides affordable access
  • Obesity — exposing students and parents to healthy, fresh produce provides better nutrition
  • Education — teaching students and parents the skills around gardening provides a ripple effect

With a garden at a school, that ripple effect replicates itself…  year after year after year.

It’s like a giant machine churning out food-aware people into our community.

Every new class of students and parents will take what they’ve learned home with them.  They will also take it with them from elementary school, to middle school, to high school.  Possibly pushing other locations to start new gardens.

The project that I want to work on is this:

A Garden for Every School

It’s simple.  It’s powerful.  People will understand it.  And I truly believe it can happen.

Now…  we just have to figure out how!  Let the fun begin.



Adam Hammes is the executive director of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, a consultant, author, and motivational speaker. He specializes in helping businesses and sustainability professionals with environmental and social performance.

Check out Adam's new book on Amazon, Audible and Kindle: Sustainable Business in Iowa.

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