Author: Swati Singh

Peggy

When I moved in with Peggy for almost a year in 2009, she was 88 years old. This past January, Peggy turned 100. I haven’t seen her since 2013 or 2014, but we’ve miraculously stayed in touch over the phone despite her hopping states and retirement communities several times. We talk once or twice a year, usually by accident. I’ll be scrolling through my phone and will stumble upon Peggy’s number. I just hit dial whenever that happens, taking it as a sign to check in. Or she’ll just randomly call. Nobody else from Plantation, Florida calls me, so I answer. Sometime’s she’ll ask, “Now who am I talking to?” Many great conversations have started that way. What I love about Peggy and her whole her generation is that they answer the call. They give human voices primacy over all other forms of communication. I talked to Peggy a few days ago and her memory is slipping. Each time we connect, I’m certain it’s going to be our last conversation. And maybe I’m right. But …

A Beautiful Harvest

I caught up with Louie the peach farmer last week and we talked about the troubling water situation in California. Louie also grows almonds, a mainstay in our state, but also one of our most water-consuming crops. Louie is no stranger to this reality, but it’s tough to transition away from a crop you’ve been working with your whole life. Always looking to the bright side, Louie shared some good news — he was able to buy the water allotment from one of his neighbors who doesn’t use his acreage for agriculture. With the gift of his gallons, Louie was able to have a bountiful fruit harvest. Our conversation hopped to the farm laborers who made it all happen. Louie’s operation is smaller than the farms that typically make the news. He is not the guy getting interviewed by reporters on immigration and farm labor management. Some folks on his crew have been with him for decades and Louie pays them an above market wage. According to Louie, giving people dignity is just good business. …

The Wild Alone

Louie Boer is a college chum of my father’s, a peach farmer, and somewhat of a mythical figure. I remember him visiting the house when I was a kid, driving down from Modesto in his ginormous truck, wearing a thick lined windbreaker and work boots. He is a big guy – towering, Dutch, and agricultural. Louie is the kind of guy you look at and think, “Your mom fed you well growing up.” As gentle as he is big, Louie is a rugged but soft-spoken intellectual. I remember sitting at the dinner table listening to him and my dad talk about the good old days, fishing up the Central Coast, reading, and just being free outdoors. They talked about life, God, and family while my mom served Louie Indian food – puffed up rotis, sautéed vegetables, and my dad’s chicken curry. About a month ago, Louie got COVID, and then a couple of weeks ago, he disappeared. My father grew desolate trying to reach him, and every day he would talk to some friend or …

These Legumes Offer a Leg Up

In 1989, Jossy Eyre was volunteering at a daytime women’s shelter in Denver as part of her master’s degree in social work. There she met dozens of jobless women with little sense of where they were going or what came next. After a period of relative safety and stability at the shelter, the women simply stopped showing up. Jossy worked at the shelter for the entire academic year, and it didn’t take long for familiar faces to reappear. Often, the women had gotten jobs during their time away, but struggled to keep them. Jossy’s talks with them revealed an interconnected web of social and financial challenges that required a more sustainable solution. So she did what all accidental social entrepreneurs do – she asked herself what she knew how to do, and how she could use her skills to create opportunities for others. 500 Bucks and a Vision Jossy knew how to make soup. So she invested $500 of her own money and put two women to work making single pot mixes – 10 Bean, …

Vote With Your Feet to End Youth Homelessness

Sam Harper was thrust into the life of a social entrepreneur early. “I was 18, and my buddy asked me to join a class project,” he recalls. A student at St. John’s University in Minnesota, Sam said yes to an audacious plan – selling warm knit beanies with a give-back model that would provide a free beanie for every child suffering from cancer in the United States. It was a new business model at the time that took off after a few short years, inspiring Sam to search for his own socially conscious business concept as college came to a close. The next opportunity popped up quickly. “One of my friends had this idea for a sock company,” Sam says. “He discovered that socks were the most requested, but least donated item at homeless shelters across America.” The friend was Michael Mader, another Minneapolis-based social entrepreneur searching for a way to help the local homeless community. So in 2016, Sam and Michael joined forces to launch Hippy Feet, a one-for-one social enterprise that sold warm, fuzzy …

It’s a Beautiful Day for Refugees

Where does most granola begin? Probably in a factory, or maybe a sticky bowl at home during an oatmeal cookie project gone wrong. At Beautiful Day, a nonprofit gourmet granola powerhouse in Rhode Island, the answer may surprise you – a classroom. In 2008, Keith Cooper was an educator struggling to meet the learning needs of his refugee students. The decontextualized atmosphere of the western classroom – desks and chairs arranged in neat rows – wasn’t conducive to learning for kids who had just arrived from camps. Since most people learn by doing, Keith decided that one of his personal hobbies might be a perfect hands-on project. So he got together with his friend Geoff Gordon and started teaching his students how to make granola. English improved. Morale improved. Students found something that bound them together and gave them purpose – and Keith saw a chance to make it all sustainable. Honoring Work & Roots Fast-forward a dozen years, and Beautiful Day is a thriving nonprofit with a mission “to help refugees, especially youth and the most …

Unaccompanied Minors Become Unstoppable Women

Tucked away in a quiet unassuming neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya is a remarkable, open green space for refugee girls escaping some of the most troubled regions of Africa. Like a tree-lined cul-de-sac in an American suburb, the lush landscape stands in sharp contrast to the chaos of conflict zones. “We deliberately chose a safer and peaceful place for our campus,” says Emily Snider, Director of Marketing for RefuSHE. “There are fewer triggers here.” Triggers abound throughout East Africa, home to a smoldering refugee crisis where more than 1.3 million people live in blistering, under-resourced camps in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Thousands have spent an entire lifetime in exile, searching for the kind of stillness found at RefuSHE’s sanctuary. Every displaced person is vulnerable by definition, but RefuSHE was founded specifically to serve the most vulnerable of all: unaccompanied girls and young women. Some are orphans, while others become separated from family during the flight to safety. Along the way, many young women get sucked up in militia and sexual violence, leading to layered and complex …

Impact is the Spice of Life

Northeastern Afghanistan might be the last place on earth that you’d expect to find inspiration for a new social impact business – especially in the food industry. With short summers and jagged peaks that soar past 20,000 feet, the Hindu Kush mountains defy any attempts at profitable farming. But once a year, foragers head up the cliffs to gather wild mountain cumin, a favorite local spice that’s largely unknown in the rest of the world. As a young aid worker stationed in Afghanistan, Ethan Frisch surely wasn’t the first Westerner to taste the stuff, but thanks to his background as a chef in New York City, he instantly recognized that it was something special. That rare, tiny seed was the inspiration for Burlap & Barrel, a single-origin spice company that sources unique and beautiful products from smallholder farmers sustaining an ancient trade in some of the most remote parts of the world. The company aims to reduce inequality and exploitation in food systems by connecting farmers to high value markets. Ethan founded the company with Ori …

Vintners with a Vision for Impact

In 2007, when Jake Kloberdanz found out that a loved one had been diagnosed with cancer, he turned to his work friends for support. All recent college grads cutting their teeth in the wine industry, they revisited an audacious idea they’d discussed earlier: Could they sell wine and donate money to worthy causes like cancer research? “Breast cancer awareness typically lasts for a month,” says Kristen Shroyer, one of Jake’s friends. “There was no wine giving back, so we wondered how we could use what we knew to keep a cause going all year long.” “We really had no idea what we were doing,” Brandon Hall admits, but he and the rest of the group — Jake, Tiffany, Tom, Sarah, and Kristen — weren’t about to let that stop them from launching ONEHOPE Wine, the first built-from-the-ground-up, purpose-driven wine brand. “I was selling wine out of my car!” laughs Kristen, who’s now EVP for Partnerships. In an industry dominated by big players, the team’s naivete may have been an asset, and their common mission is certainly …

Artisans with Heart, Gifts with a Conscience

Susan Gomez recalls waiting nervously on an isolated road in southern Arizona for her ride across the border to Mata Ortiz, Mexico. The air was thick, and she could hear thunder in the distance. Her business partner, Mayra Castellanos, had implored her not to go. A native of Juarez, Mayra was familiar with the big-city narcos culture that was seeping into rural villages like Mata Ortiz. But Susan was determined to make her first trip to meet local Mexican artisans whose livelihoods were endangered by the growing drug violence. Just a few years ago, “busloads of tourists were driving into Mata Ortiz twice a day to buy pottery from a thriving collective of 600 artisans. Now they are destitute because people are afraid to travel, and many are leaving their craft.” Preserving traditional Mexican art forms is central to the mission of Amigos Art & Pottery, a retail social enterprise Susan and Mayra founded to help artisans transcend obscurity and poverty by showcasing and selling their wares for a fair price in the US. “Precio justo” …

Squeezable Toys, Teachable Moments

Growing up, Malte Niebelschuetz spent the first few days of every summer in a van with his family, journeying from Kassel, Germany, to the sea. Little did he know how those childhood summers filled with ocean spray and circling gulls would lead to a calling — a social enterprise that recycles plastic bottles into lovable stuffed toys designed to give kids a passion for protecting marine life. His full circle moment began when he moved to San Diego in 2011. “When I came here, I was blown away by the beauty of the coastline, but I was confused by all of the plastic garbage washing up on a supposedly clean California beach.” Malte began researching ocean pollution and connecting with local nonprofits. He discovered Patagonia, a company making high-end recreation apparel and gear from recycled plastic. If they could make useful goods from materials that would otherwise end up in landfills and oceans, so could he. But how, and what? As he reached for a pen, he saw a stuffed seagull he had been toting …

Who are “Opportunity Youth”?

The term “Opportunity Youth” often gets flung around in education and other youth-serving spaces, but it is often misunderstood or conflated with “At-Promise Youth”. While At-Promise Youth broadly refers to under-resourced young people in danger of dropping out, Opportunity Youth are more specifically young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who have already disengaged from school, and who are not participating in the labor market. There are currently 4.6 million Opportunity Youth in the United States. This is 11.7% of all youth between the ages of 16 and 24. The proportion is higher in historically underserved and minority communities. For example, 17.2% of all Black youth between the ages of 16 and 24 are considered Opportunity Youth. Unfortunately, the current economic situation will likely inflate these figures, and amplify their inherent inequity. According to the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, “Nearly 40 percent of our young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are weakly attached or unattached to school and work at some point during that formative stretch of their …

The Overarching Importance of Communication and Basic Digital Literacy

As millions of educators and students around the world shifted to distance learning over the past few weeks, all sorts of incredible virtual tools have popped up. Companies have generously offered free accounts and product trials to teachers, and I’ve already familiarized myself with a few that I plan on using next year: Screencastify, Flipgrid, Esri StoryMaps, and Doodly. I am sure this list will grow. The plethora of tools and services are useless, however, if we are unable to locate and communicate with students. Once again, like most challenges related to our social infrastructure, the problem of broken channels of communication disproportionately affects those who are already disadvantaged. I read a local news story the other day about how the pandemic is revealing just how many households in Southern California lack internet access. I am sure this trend can be extrapolated to communities nationwide. We can huddle all we want as school leaders, and devise and roll out new learning plans, but what is our sustainable strategy as a community of changemakers to address …

New to Food

If you think about it, none of us is “new to food.” Food is something each of us has experienced and interacted with since our first days. However, the growing complexity and commercialization of food in recent decades has distanced us so much from this thing so elemental to our existence, that we sometimes feel confused or like we’re new here. Despite knowing a great deal about food, I too often wander the supermarket aisles, assaulted by trends and market forces, wondering if I should buy this or that. Despite a growing collective renaissance we’re having about food and keeping what we consume as close to the earth as possible, food is still something we largely obtain through corporate channels. Having grown up with a food scientist father in a factory environment, and being an experienced food industry professional myself, I would argue that what we now call food isn’t really food. Since we’ve come down on “big food,” another goliath industry has emerged comprised of “natural, non-GMO, dairy- and gluten-free, small batch, hand-crafted, functional, …

The Disproportionate Effects of Uncertainty

For the past few days, like many Americans, I have watched my nest egg get tumbled along a path of peril and uncertainty. Needless to say, it has some new cracks, and I have suffered. I consider myself young, but I’m old enough to remember what happened in 2008. My friends and I were wee babes who had just entered the workforce after graduating college. I was working my dream job at a global hospitality company in Las Vegas, and my sister was wrapping up law school to move to Manhattan. Then suddenly, everything changed. I lost my job and came home. I planned to take refuge in graduate school, and my sister mentored me from afar. Our family business had taken a hit, but we were still prodding along. My resourceful parents and the relationships they had built in the community kept our company alive. That is something I remember distinctly – leaders within tight ecosystems rising to the occasion and helping one another. I was fortunate enough to work in that business for …