"Everything is an experiment."
For the last 20 months, board members, donors, team members, and volunteers have heard me say these words over and over like a broken record.
You know it's true: Life is an experiment! We're all just making it up as we go.
Mission organizations like VEJ are in the experimentation business. Think about it: We are trying to solve some of the world's biggest, most "wicked problems" on shoestring budgets and working with unskilled volunteers.
And "wicked problems" don't stand still. They keep changing and so we have to keep changing, too.
Yes, experimentation is what we have to do at VEJ.
From the first time the board interviewed me for the leadership role at VEJ, I knew we would have to do two things to have a chance at making a difference:
So, we made a program plan for 2019 that we thought would help us do those two things. We didn't know what would happen, so we called it an experiment and jumped in.
As with any experiment, some things are working well and some things are not working.
When things don't work, we ask why and try something a little different.
One thing that is not working the way we planned is our Eco-Eating Tours and Wonder Walks. We created these to see what would happen when we mashed up fundraising, mission work, and public outreach into one dish. Some very successful nonprofits in southeast Michigan raise funds by charging $25, $35, $55, or even $75 for tours at points of interest around the region. I thought we could do this, too.
It hasn't worked and I have to ask myself why.
Two things come to mind right away:
The more I thought about that, the more I felt like asking people to pay $20 to come to one of our nature hikes or tours was just wrong for us. It works for other organizations, but maybe not for VEJ.
The main reason being: The Wonder Walks are supposed to be interfaith prayer events. Am I really going to charge someone $20 to come pray in nature? I hadn't thought of it that way before.
So...we are dropping the $20 fee to attend Eco-Eating Tours and Wonder Walks. It will now be "donate what you can" or nothing at all. We are a faith-based organization, so I am going to have faith that God will take care of VEJ's financial needs through the kindness of our many friends new and old.
I am sorry this experiment didn't work out the way I thought it would. Not because it didn't raise a lot of money for VEJ, but for those who felt like they were not wanted because of the fee we put on the programs. While we never meant to exclude anyone, I should have seen that the fee would make some people feel excluded.
If you were one of them, I'm sorry.
The experiment goes on.
We are trying to find the best way to help people of faith do Earth justice.
We are trying to find the best way to run a small organization to support that mission.
We make mistakes, compost them, and grow something new. This is what it's all about.
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions to share with us, please call or send an email. After all, you are the real voice for Earth justice.
Grace and peace,
BT Irwin, primus inter pares
Voices for Earth Justice
The Adrian Dominican Sisters recently announced their selection of VEJ as a recipient of a Ministry Trust grant for 2019 - 2020. The funds will support VEJ's programs that focus on hunger in Detroit's Brightmoor and Old Redford neighborhoods.
"It's always good news when someone is kind enough to give to the work we do, but this grant is really special," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "Two Adrian Dominicans started VEJ back in 2002 and the Sisters have contributed tens of thousands of hours, over a hundred-thousand dollars, and a million prayers to VEJ over the years. This is very special relationship that is such a blessing to those VEJ works to bless. It is so gratifying to have a strong partner who sees us fit to keep going with us. Everyone this touches is very, very grateful."
In particular, the Adrian Dominican funds will support VEJ's programs that address hunger, nutrition, and self-sufficiency in Detroit's Brightmoor and Old Redford. VEJ's Hope House & Gardens stands on the border between those two neighborhoods.
"The Adrian Dominican grant will expand and improve our Community Meals and Organic Sustainable Gardening programs at Hope House & Gardens," said Irwin. "Through those programs, we are trying to take on hunger by helping people become 'food sovereign' and self-sufficient in terms of what they eat and what they feed their families. It just so happens that the 'food sovereignty' we teach is also good for the environment and personal health."
The Adrian Dominican Sisters are a congregation of more than 600 vowed women and 200 associates ministering in 22 states and four countries. The Sisters their ministries on education, health care, pastoral and retreat ministry, the arts, social work, ecology, and peace and justice advocacy. Their vision is to "seek truth, make peace, reverence life."
Learn more about the Adrian Dominican Sisters here.
Lydia Hsu will join the Voices for Earth Justice team for the summer of 2019 as an intern through The University of Michigan Community-Based Research Program (DCBRP). Hsu has recently completed her third year of undergraduate studies in Movement Science with a minor in Food and the Environment.
For the past year, Hsu has engaged in work at the U of M Campus Farm. Starting as a volunteer herself, she quickly fell in love with the work and became more engaged as a crew member. She currently works as the Student Engagement Manager, coordinating and leading volunteer groups.
“It never felt like work. I was basically playing with plants, and getting paid for it,” Hsu stated about her time working at the Campus Farm.
U of M’s campus farm has been recently GAP Certified (Good Agricultural Practices), and now sell 99% of the food produced back to the dining halls to be consumed by students. With her experience on the Campus Farm, she will bring much joy & assistance to the staff at VEJ.
While Hsu has been engaged her in growing food, her experience with food culture is rooted in her childhood experiences.
“I grew up with very traditional Chinese food, and it was just such a big part of my childhood. Our holidays were centered around what food we’d eat during them. So, just thinking that people don’t have that is incredibly sad to me. And, how do we bring that back, like that culture?,” Hsu evoked.
Hsu’s own story with food, her personal connection to what she grows and eats, exemplifies the connectivity and complexity of what we eat that we want to spark in others. VEJ cannot wait to swap stories of food with Lydia as we work together towards a more just and sustainable food system.
While we will definitely be getting work done in the garden & engaging with our neighbors, Hsu will also have the opportunity to explore Detroit, learn about its history, and engage in several events. Hsu grew up in Grosse Ile, just South of Detroit, however, she is excited to get to know Detroit up close and personal for herself.
“When we moved to Michigan, we moved pretty close to Detroit. You hear all these stories of Detroit, the stereotypes, but I never really got to be in the city, live in the city, or know the city. And I just feel like it is so rich with history that I want to be able to experience it for myself and see it with my own eyes, not through anybody else’s,” Hsu stated.
VEJ staff looks forward to welcoming Lydia Hsu to Detroit, and sharing what we do and learning alongside her in the garden and in the city.
It is a well-known fact that one of the most important factors in the health and impact of any nonprofit organization is the health and strength of an active board.
For that reason, board development is a top priority at VEJ.
"The board is crucial and that is especially true at VEJ," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "A founder normally does the work of about ten people. So, when a founder retires as Patty Gillis did in 2017, you have to find ten people to take her place. That's where building a board and professional staff comes in."
Irwin believes that board development may be VEJ's most important accomplishment over the last year.
"One year ago, we were down to three board members and all three of them had been on the board for seven years or more at that point," said Irwin. "Obviously, it's hard to have a diverse board with a lot of depth and range when it is that small. You need a constant flow of new board members to keep accountability strong and thinking fresh."
Irwin and board president Sister Janet Stankowski (who co-founded VEJ with Patty Gillis in 2002) worked hard to recruit and orient new board members over the last year.
"Board composition, recruitment, and training is something that few nonprofits actually do well," said Irwin. "Some organizations go for the 'big names' or people they think will bring them big bucks. Some organizations go for 'warm bodies' to just fill seats. Neither one of those approaches work well for a small nonprofit like VEJ. We need people with passion and skill who are ready to go to work to build something for the future."
Irwin said that when looking for new board members, VEJ focused on depth of board and nonprofit management experience and diversity of backgrounds.
"VEJ is going through a major change from a founder-based organization to a mission-based organization run by professionals under a board's guidance," said Irwin. "That makes board composition critical. We need people who understand how to build an effective board and run an effective nonprofit organization. Equally important is representation from the diverse communities we serve. If it seems hard, it is! But it's coming together now and picking up steam."
Since June 2018, VEJ's board has grown by seven members. As of today, VEJ's board is:
Irwin said one of his favorite things about VEJ's board is how many of its new members are putting their years of board experience elsewhere to work for VEJ.
"A year ago, we were on the front end of the 'forming' phase," said Irwin. "We actually needed to form a board. This year, we're well into a 'norming' phase. That is, we're seeing new board members use their experience to design a board culture and board habits that will grow VEJ's capacity to accomplish its mission. This is really exciting because it means VEJ is about to turn a corner and enter a growth phase."
What comes next?
Irwin said that good boards never stop cultivating and recruiting new members.
"As long as you're being intentional about who you're bringing on board and you're honoring your term limit plan, there is no cut-off number," said Irwin. "If you don't have a pipeline of future board candidates and you're not constantly bringing a few of them up to the board each year, you're already backsliding. A good, healthy board is a dynamic board. It's always changing, always getting stronger."
Irwin said he sees VEJ's board adopting new bylaws, electing new officers, and getting new committees up and running over the rest of 2019.
From there, big opportunities await.
"The biggest opportunity for any board--including VEJ's board--is grappling with questions of missional and strategic importance and imagining the possibilities for the future," said Irwin. "When a board is healthy and strong and when it is handling its 'day to day business' well, it opens up a lot of space to take on the 'fun' stuff: Exploring the world, imagining the future, working with the professionals on the staff to lay out a strategy for growth and impact."
About 60 friends gathered for food, inspiration, and prayer at VEJ's first Interfaith Prayer Breakfast on May 2.
Hosted by the Congregational Church of Birmingham in Bloomfield Hills, the breakfast featured food by Chef Annabel Cohen and prayers by clergy from four faiths (Baha'i, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim). Rev. Faith Fowler of Cass Community Social Services delivered keynote remarks.
"Of all the things VEJ can do, I think bringing people together for prayer is the most important," said BT Irwin, VEJ's executive director. "When we pray together and share our lives with each other, we become an answer to our own prayers for the world."
The event also served as the starting point for "RISE UP for Justice," a 30-day statewide interfaith prayer initiative led by The Poor People's Campaign.
Rev. Fowler's talk mixed humor and a prophetic voice that challenged, entertained, and inspired the audience at points along the way. The gist of her message was that we cannot hope to care for the planet if we don't first learn how to care for each other.
The main work of the morning was the work of interfaith prayer for people and planet. Clergy who offered prayers were:
Chef Annabel Cohen's food won rave reviews in surveys sent to guests after the event. Edward Jones financial advisor Darrel Quinn sponsored the food.
"One of the main things we set out to do this year was increase the opportunities for people to come together to pray, reflect, and share across faith traditions and walks of life," said Irwin. "That's another way of saying that we want to practice what Rev. Fowler preached. The first step toward VEJ helping people care for the planet is helping people care for each other. This event was a good start."
VEJ will seek to build on what it started at the Interfaith Prayer Breakfast by hosting a series of five Community Meals at Hope House & Gardens through the end of summer. Other interfaith prayer events will be on the calendar later in the year (including the return of a Winter Solstice service in December).
What is your favorite source of sustainable energy?
Biomass? Geothermal? Ocean waves? Solar power? Wind?
These are energy sources we hope will someday (soon) power our economy and the tools we use in our daily lives. Even people I know who vote different from me still seem to agree on this point. Where we disagree tends to be on how to make it happen.
It seems like sustainable energy will be a big talking point in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.
And while this has me thinking about which candidate has the best plan for powering our economy using sustainable energy, it also has me asking a question of myself:
What powers our movement?
Does our walk match our talk about sustainable energy?
I'm not talking about driving electric cars and installing solar panels.
I'm talking about what powers the spirit of our movement.
Is that energy source sustainable?
Anger is a powerful source of energy for a movement. An explosive energy source. Look around at the American political landscape and you cannot deny that anger works.
But fossil fuels work, too. In fact, they still power most of our economy.
And we all agree: They are not good for people or planet in the (not so) longterm. Neither fossil fuels nor the lifestyle they power are sustainable.
And so it is with anger. It burns hot and strong and can move millions of people at a time. But anger poisons and pollutes. It burns those who kindle it as well as those at whom they direct its fire. And it is not sustainable. Anger cannot power a healthful and long-lasting society at peace with itself and prospering for all.
So, we have to ask ourselves the honest question: What is powering our movement? Is it good for people and planet? Is it sustainable?
I believe one of the reasons VEJ exists is to ask questions like these and to call people back to the heart of what environmental justice is all about.
And I believe the heart of environmental justice is love.
Love for people--all people. Love for planet--all of the planet.
Love is the most powerful sustainable energy source in the universe. When we cultivate love, it can go on and on and on. It can keep growing to power a thousand generations to the ends of the cosmos.
Sure, VEJ will speak up for sustainable energy sources like solar, waves, and wind.
But the the sustainable energy source we practice and preach the most has to be love.
Grace and peace,
BT Irwin, primus inter pares
Voices for Earth Justice