Somewhere across the heartland of America right now, a group of four change-makers from North Carolina is on the move.
With the goal of driving 10,000 miles across 35 states in an old bus, their road trip would make Jack Kerouac proud. So would their tale of ingenuity and youthful possibility.
The trip is the fruit of a dream born 10 years ago among friends in the eighth grade at Durham School of the Arts. Despite not even having driver’s licenses at the time, they talked about buying an old school bus and driving it from city to city to help connect urban dwellers with local farmers. By 12th grade (licenses in hand), they had even pooled $900 and attended a bus auction by Durham Public Schools.
But then life, and college, intervened. Reid Rosemond headed off to AmeriCorps, where he volunteered in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and later earned a certificate in sustainable design at the Yestermorrow Design-Build School in Vermont. Ellen Duda went to the University of Arts in Philadelphia. Dylan Hammond studied environmental studies at Eckerd College in Florida, where he was the founding member of the campus garden. Eliza Bordley focused on studio art and environmental studies at College of Charleston.
But back in Durham late one August night in 2011, the foursome returned to their original vision. With more maturity, resolve and focus, they drew up their plan. Now it was about getting others to believe.
A perfect match
One of Bordley’s first stops was her mentor, Jill Staton Bullard, the executive director of the Interfaith Food Shuttle in Raleigh. Recognizing a potential collaboration, Bullard introduced Bordley to Belinda Chiu, the founder of Zomppa, a local nonprofit whose mission includes “transforming relationships between food and people through awareness, dialogue and education.”
It was a perfect match. Inspired by the team’s vision and seeing the connection to a mobile education platform that she was developing, Chiu offered to buy the bus. With this significant investment secured, the wheels started to roll. Two months later a bus was found at Dartmouth College that had been converted to run on vegetable oi l but which had fallen into disrepair.
On the way home from New Hampshire, the bus broke down – seven times. As Bordley says, “it was the first true test of our commitment. It helped us all realize that we were going to see this through.”
Partnering with Zomppa to develop programming and using their mechanical skills to retrofit the bus, the team started fundraising. On June 21, the newly named Sol Food Mobile Farm team hit the road with $15,000 in their account raised through a Kickstarter-based Internet campaign, friends, family and local grants. Their goal by the time they return to Durham in December: help build or renovate more than 10 urban gardens and hold more than 40 workshops on nutrition, urban gardening, and the joy and benefit of eating local food.
So far, Sol Food Mobile Farm has helped build gardens in Asheville, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Detroit, and held 10 education workshops at farmers’ markets along the way. For the team it has been a significant learning experience. “Each of us studied environmental science, and we were daunted by the huge challenges facing our world,” says Bordley.
“But it’s been amazing and humbling to see all of the inspiring work happening in each of these communities,” Bordley said. “When you break it down and bring it down to the simple things, you realize how direct the solution can be. For us, this entire journey has been like that – just taking a step at a time and building something we hope will make a difference.”
It’s this ethos of the next generation that inspires. There’s of course some youthful naiveté. There’s also innovation, courage, collaboration, resilience and a go-get-’em attitude that deserves attention and support. To learn more about Sol Food Mobile Farm check out www.solfoodmobilefarm.org.
What’s next for the road trippers? Perhaps recruiting a new team to continue the bus odyssey. Or focusing their work locally in partnership with Zomppa. Or building a fleet of buses to continue the mission. What seems beyond doubt: The life lessons, relationships and confidence gained through this experience will serve these young change-makers and their communities well for years to come.
Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.