Category Archives: [eco series]

Interviews with people leaving light footprints on our earth.

meet melissa: milwaukee compost entrepreneur

Melissa Tashjian - Compost Crusader

One of Melissa’s proudest moments was taking the kids from McKinley Elementary School on a field trip to Blue Ribbon Organics, where her food scraps and compostable materials turn into rich compost. The kids saw the mountains of compost in various stages, felt its warmth, got to touch it and play. ”They were so into it!” Melissa says.

“I’m not here to point the finger and tell people they have to change,” says Melissa Tashjian. “It has to be something they really desire.”

I appreciate Melissa’s perspective, as she scales up Milwaukee’s composting capabilities. Certainly I’d be fast to admit I wish there was a way to more quickly help people care. Composting, growing food, remaining on the cutting edge of true sustainability—and regenerativity—of our food system are several of the big things that drive my life and career, so I am especially grateful to get to share this week’s wisdom, Melissa Tashjian style.

Melissa, 35, launched Compost Crusader in April 2014 to give food waste and other residuals a higher purpose: creating compost that helps grow more food. She’s trying to close the loop!

Starting with five customers, Compost Crusader had 15 by end of its first year and 40 by the end of 2015. Now, Melissa helps more than 60 current customers—from local restaurants to national corporations including Harley Davidson, Kohl’s and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin—turn “trash” into earthly treasure, keeping it out of our increasingly overstuffed landfills. Continue reading

alysse’s trip to africa

When I think of the best trips of my life, moments from each come to my mind in specific snapshots. I do this on purpose; in special moments, I’ll do a little sensory check-in, feeling what my feet are touching, how my skin feels, what I taste, little details of what I see, what sounds are passing by my ears. That’s how I can still vividly recall lazily floating in the ocean, the warm sea holding me as I tasted the last drops of fresh coconut water on my yoga retreat in Costa Rica. I can smell the pine needles under our tent in central Wisconsin on my first camping trip with my boyfriend. I can still see a hummingbird breathing at the speed of a fast-beating heart in its cocoon-like nest in the Amazon.

Especially since it was just two weeks ago, I can also still hear the trumpet of a teenage male elephant as he ran toward my family in a “mock charge.” My parents and I were on a safari—definitely among the very coolest weeks-and-a-half of my life—and “mock peed our pants.”

Check out a few of my favorite snapshots from my family’s trip to southern Zimbabwe and northern Botswana. Which are your favorites? Please share in the comments—I might even enter some of these into a photo contest to win my way back to Botswana! (I thought that trip would be once-in-a-lifetime, but I really, really hope I’m wrong.)

PS: If you’d like any of my photos for your own use—hello desktop backgrounds—please ask first. Include your email, and I’ll do my best to send photos promptly.

Alysse in Africa 01[ellie on the move] Continue reading

meet atieno: detroit community organizer, farmer and sangoma-griot

Sometimes it feels like we are powerless.

  • Families in Flint, Mich., reach for bottled water, now painfully aware that they have already, unknowingly, poisoned themselves and their children with one of life’s basic necessities.
  • Refugees, now in the press less, still struggle to redefine home, reconnect family and find some semblance of stability.
  • People of all colors, genders, religions and cultures check the calendar to confirm that yes, it is actually 2016, and yes, we are actually still as a country pushing forth a presidential candidate that unabashedly and loudly discriminates against a wide and beautiful part of our population.
“Some of these foraged foods I’m talking about tend to grow where the soil isn’t so rich—they’re hardy, less intensive,” Atieno says. “My position when it comes to this farming movement is to advocate for the inclusion of these other greens and vegetables and flowers into our diets. They are indigenous, Native American, culinary heritage crops. For many of us in different parts of world, you see so much more continuity in our diet over generations.”

“Some of these foraged foods I’m talking about tend to grow where the soil isn’t so rich—they’re hardy, less intensive,” Atieno says. “My position when it comes to this farming movement is to advocate for the inclusion of these other greens and vegetables and flowers into our diets. They are indigenous, Native American, culinary heritage crops. For many of us in different parts of world, you see so much more continuity in our diet over generations.”

Holy mother of pearl, this is dire. It truly is no time to give up—so bowing to perceived powerlessness just can’t be a thing. We all have different levels of resources and connections, but we also each have a voice, a heart, a purpose.

Atieno Nyar Kasagam, 25, shows us that we can rise above our situations and come together with others for a common goal. Our leaders can only put their political gains ahead of the public good for so long; people like Atieno are bringing their voices together to be louder, to be challenging, to be visionaries.

Atieno is changing the world by changing her world, starting in Detroit’s local food scene. I met her this fall at her home and urban farm. While we talked and spent time with her sharp and funny little girl, my boyfriend, James, helped her husband, Lorenzo, install the next section of their roof. Nothing cures powerlessness like picking up a hammer. Continue reading

meet bethany: revolutionizing education in milwaukee (escuela verde series 03)

Bethany Vannest

“I’ve always felt the education system is unfair the way that we assess students,” Bethany says. “I’ve always worked in Milwaukee, and I wanted to teach here. It’s made me look at the education system and just say, ‘What’s “wrong” with MPS? What’s “wrong” with students in Milwaukee?’ Nothing inherently—a lot of students have been traumatized! Trauma totally affects the way brains take in learning, affects the ability to sit in a desk and feel like you can ace this test, affects the ability to sit in this chair and listen for 60 minutes.”

Today, we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In workplaces and churches, community centers and homes—blogs, too!—we all honor and continue his quest toward justice, equality and peace.

Just as I was writing this, I got a text from my boyfriend, James:

“I want to live in a world that is not controlled by money and greed; where kids can play in the streets and be safe; where individuals can work in collaboration and help one another rather than fighting over political, racial, religious and monetary differences; where we use resources given to us thoughtfully, rather than destroying the one planet we have.”

I want to live in that world with him. (Don’t you? We’re getting chickens!)

Well, this wasn’t random. Last night, I returned from a retreat for the Food Leader Certificate Program, in which I am a mentor. The weekend was about turning dreams into plans (and task lists), organizing communities to meet common goals, and servant leadership. And changing the world starting with changing ourselves. To me, it was bliss and filled my heart and mind with ideas and hope. It also seems like an effortless transition to MLK Day. Continue reading

meet nayla: revolutionizing education in milwaukee (escuela verde series 02)

Nayla Bezares 02

How Escuela Verde works: They have a lot of open project spaces in their schedule, and students complete projects to earn credit to advance from one grade to another. If you’re a student who wants to go to medical school, for example, there’s a medical workshop where they bring in professionals from the community.

Kate and I were so pumped to feature Joey Zocher and Escuela Verde, we decided to turn her story and others’ into a series. Please check back over the next few weeks for more Q&A’s with the advisers, educators and overall awesome humans who staff Escuela Verde.

Nayla Bezares, 28, has been an adviser at EV for 5 months.

“My dream was to work for the bad guys and change their perspective,” says Nayla. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, she always knew she wanted to save the world. Now, Nayla’s working with the Good Guys, I’d say, but she got there in a roundabout way.

Nayla and I met at one of our favorite places in Milwaukee—Outpost Natural Foods—to talk about dreams, education, and yes, trying to change the bad guys to change the world.  Continue reading

meet sara: yogini, teacher and nomad

Sara and Alysse at Cathedral Square in Milwaukee

Koha (as in Koha Yoga) is the Maori word for gift. After missing a flight from L.A., Sara headed to Venice Beach and caught eyes with Whakapaingia. It was “love at first flight,” as they say on their website. An instantaneous partnership and Koha Flying Yoga were created (in 2009). Baby Kotahiataahua, meaning “Beautiful Oneness,” followed soon after. Most of us call her Tahi!

A big part of Sara Laimon Luke’s story begins on a farm in Zimbabwe.

But we’ll get back to that in a minute.

Instead of 8,456 miles away, I first met Sara at a park 4 blocks from my apartment. In 2013, during Milwaukee’s Bastille Days, Sara and her husband Whakapaingia (Whaka) were sharing their acroyoga moves on the grass, inviting anyone to play. Together, they own and run Koha Yoga, and what I experienced was basically grown-up gymnastics mixed with the airplane move you do with your mom when you’re little, infused with some realllllllly good-feeling back stretches, and I’m so happy I joined in! From there, I went to my first-ever Koha Yoga acro workshop with Jessy, and I spent a week-long retreat with Sara and Whaka in Costa Rica this March. It was a trip of a lifetime.

And yet, until a couple weeks ago when I met Sara at the home where she grew up—above a bait shop on a lake halfway to Madison—I didn’t know about Africa or a huge section of her path. Continue reading

meet jazz: alternative agriculture advocate in columbus

Whenever new friends discover our blog for the first time, they invariably ask: How do you find these people?

Jazz Planting a Tree

How does Jazz stay disciplined being back in school full time? “Being my own supervisor, all my time is my own, and I pretty much work during the day like a normal person,” she says. “I work from home, so I’m eating constantly.” I feel ya, Jazz.

Here’s one story: Back in 2012, I was working for Reader’s Digest as a copy editor. I loved my team (like Deb!), but I was trying to figure out how to unite my passions for the environment, health, animal welfare, social justice and community into the next step of my career. The food system was the place I thought I could blend all those things and use my skills to make a difference, so I reached out to Jazz Glastra about Victory Garden Initiative’s (VGI) Food Leader Certificate Program. On a chilly winter night, she met me in the Saint’s Snug at County Clare Irish Pub in Milwaukee, which will forever hold a special place in my heart. Jazz told me all about how I’d learn to grow food, organize groups of people, and make a difference starting in my own community. I signed up for the program the next day.

Two and a half years later, I’m now working full-time at VGI, and Jazz has moved on to pursue her Master’s of Science in Environment and Natural Resources with a specialization in Rural Sociology at the Ohio State University. I miss her more or less constantly, so I’m so glad to share part of her story with you.

Jazz went to high school in an agricultural area of Washington state and hated it—the FFA kids in their big trucks blared country music and made it seem like farming was about not caring. After graduation, she went off to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, planning to get into environmental action or law—until she arrived. At Kenyon, Jazz totally fell in love with religious studies and became disillusioned with the policy world. Before she veered too far, though, she started her first farming internship at an organic farm in Ohio during her sophomore year. It was there that she became intrigued with agriculture and the local food movement. Continue reading

meet beth: milwaukee river adventurer

Beth Handle at MKC

“Once you get someone on the river, they just stop thinking about whatever they were worrying about,” Beth says.

I spend most of my days in the Milwaukee Environmental Consortium. Yeah, it’s still the fluorescent-lighted cubeland so many of us try to avoid, but Victory Garden Initiative (where I work) is situated in the middle of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Milwaukee Water Commons, Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association and a bunch more—all small groups making a big difference for southeastern Wisconsin’s environmental movement. The MEC houses all of us.

Just imagine a group of like-minded people all working on behalf of something you really, really love. Yeah. The MEC is the best.

Through this wonderful office of earth-loving people, I heard about Beth Handle, owner of Milwaukee Kayak Company. She worked with the county parks, did graphic design and, right before launching Milwaukee Kayak Co., she was marketing manager for outdoor adventure company Laacke and Joy’s for six years. Beth organized kayaking events, worked with community organizations and writers, and got people to experience Milwaukee’s rivers. Like many people, she always thought: Wouldn’t it be cool to open my own little business like this someday? She launched MKC in May 2013 and will start her third season in a month: Friday, May 22!
Continue reading

meet jessy: sustainability champion in milwaukee

Jessy Servi, peoplewithpanache.com

“Integration is important to career success—when your work becomes a living breathing extension of yourself,” Jessy says. “I want my work in the world and my family to be an extension of who I am.”

Jessy Servi and I started our conversation talking about fearlessness. We talked about a thought I heard recently from Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous international artist and domestic critic: He took risks not because he wasn’t afraid, but because he was actually more afraid of what would happen if he didn’t. He had to act. Have you ever had this experience? This feeling? Continue reading

update: it’s the great milwaukee victory garden blitz!

Alysse says this year's best record so far is 15 gardens built by one team on Monday morning. "So far on Tuesday when we start we’ll have installed over 207—that's a little behind, but we’ll catch up. We’re doing over 500 beds, and still have to fill most of them with soil. We started with 40 garden beds in one day in 2009 and are now up to 500 in two weeks." Here are Gretchen and Alysse on either side of the Wisconsin senator and representative.

Alysse says this year’s best record so far is 15 gardens built by one team on Monday morning. “So far on Tuesday when we start we’ll have installed over 207—that’s a little behind, but we’ll catch up. We’re doing over 500 beds and still have to fill most of them with soil. We started with 40 garden beds in one day in 2009 and are now up to 500 in two weeks.” Here are Gretchen and Alysse on either side of the Wisconsin senator and state representative.

“We believe growing our own food will create a more sustainable, community-based, socially just food system than what we’re currently offered.” —Alysse Gear

The Blitz has begun! This week was the start of Victory Garden Initiative’s Great Milwaukee Victory Garden Blitz. The team has planned for months and gathered tons of volunteers to help install 500 garden beds in yards, schools and businesses across the county. Continue reading