Social and Environmental Justice in Philly

Early one beautiful summer morning Sylvia and I sat down at the Greenline Cafe in University City for our Philly Girls Do Good June conversation around Social and Environmental Justice in Philly.”  The PGDG! members we brought to the table were Ann Karlen, Executive Director of Fair Food, Jamie Gauthier, the new Executive Director of the Sustainable Business Network (SBN), and Maitreyi Roy the new Executive Director of Bartram’s Garden.I kicked off the conversation by asking, “What is going well in your overlapping communities of engagement with nature, local economy and food access, and sustainability?”

Ann Karlen is encouraged by how much the field of local food has grown, “everything from new organizations over the last five years that are coming into the field, in addition to new organizations that have entered into the food space.”

Ann Karlen, Executive Director of Fair Food

Jamie Gauthier echoed Ann’s enthusiasm and acknowledged the essential role Fair Food and SBN’s founder, Judy Wicks, a sustainability and local economy champion, played in establishing this movement.

Both Fair Food and SBN play vital roles in Philadelphia’s blossoming sustainability scene. Jamie said that while in the beginning “[SBN was] one of the few groups focused on education around the triple bottom line… I don’t think that is a new idea any more.” Moving forward, Jamie sees the future of SBN as the go-to place to cultivate the full potential of aspiring triple bottom line entrepreneurs.

Jamie Gauthier, Executive Director of SBN

There is clearly a tight knit bond between these change-making women. This stems both  from hours of conversation around organizational collaboration, as well as from shared values and goals. At one point in our coffee hour, when Ann announced that she had accepted a part-time faculty position at the University of Vermont, Maitreyi jolted forward with alarm, “Are you leaving!?” Luckily, Ann calmed our fears, “No, no, no!” The course is distance-learning and online, so Ann will remain at her post at Fair Food. An audible group sigh of relief was released. These are Philly Girls—just spreading their good works far and wide.

I asked Maitreyi what her goals for Bartram’s Garden look like in the long-term. She said that she sees the garden becoming a real anchor—both within the immediate and broader community—as an outdoor classroom and “a place for beauty in the southwest,” something sorely needed.

Maitreyi Roy, Executive Director of Bartram's Garden

Bartram’s residential neighbors are increasingly interested in opportunities for outdoor adventure and learning, Maitreyi explained. The key to capturing that spark and turning it into return visitors and engaged horticulturalists is meeting them at their interests. “If I say come and garden with me, or come and learn—bring your kids and let’s learn how to fish or get on a kayak—that is relevant, and people get excited,” she said.

In order to build interest in science, history and art­—a door to open opportunities—Maitreyi is diligently learning about her community. “I am trying to figure out what those connections are that are relevant to their lives. There are many places to go now,” she said. Murmurs of agreement echoed around the table.

I wrapped up the conversation asking these remarkable leaders, “Who inspires you?”

What I realized only then in that moment was that I was sitting with some of the women who most inspire me and my work. Ann Karlen, Executive Director of Fair Food, has taken the local food movement light years beyond where it was when she began 14 years ago. Jamie Gauthier is poised to take this already essential and innovative organization at SBN to the next stage by serving mission-focused entrepreneurs (like me!). And Maitreyi Roy is connecting Bartram’s Garden, in all it’s rich history, with a community that has for too long been deprived of nourishing environments and stimulating relationships with nature. 

Maitreyi, deeply focused on the people in Bartram’s neighborhood, talked about the inspiration she draws from visitors to the historic site—she called them her “small, everyday inspirations”—as well as the “the big and bold and scary ideas” that keep her going. She said both have their place.

“There was a kid who came from a daycare across the street and they were harvesting carrots and the sheer delight of this little kid’s face pulling the carrot out of the ground …it was absolutely breathtaking!” she shared. Just the other day some kids came out of their kayaks after being on the river for the first time, with big smiles. “Those [smiles] validate what you are doing,” she concluded.

A carrot!

Appropriately enough, Maitreyi also draws inspiration from the past; Bartram’s family’s past to be specific. Apparently John Bartram’s granddaughter, Ann Carr, was a botanist in her own right. In addition to serving as “a resource in this region for people who wanted to learn about how to grow plants, she was also an artist who did beautiful illustrations.” Clearly the incidence of strong Philadelphian women leaders in the sustainability and design scene is not a new trend.

In answer to my question, Jamie saw her father as one of her main sources of inspiration. He raised her to value community and social activism above personal profit. He is a lawyer by trade, but made it his life’s work “to stand up for what he thought was right: helping people in the community, …equality in education, and civil rights.” Jamie acknowledged the deep impact his strong principles had on her, recalling her decision to leave a steadier accounting career for one of service.

Likewise, Ann also indicated her father, but added, “the person, in terms of professional life, who inspires me the most, is a guy named Michael Rosin (President of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State). The reason he inspires me is he has the ability to explain very complex things in really simple and relatable ways.” The importance being, communicate the mission clearly, in order to broaden its potential impact.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that I wasn’t the only one inspired by Ann’s leadership, Jamie said that she too looks up to Ann, “She’s so strong and resolute.” All of the women of Philly Girls Do Good are examples of strong leaders dedicated to their communities, but I can’t help but say these women are some of my favorites*.

* This is just my view, but PGDG obviously admires them too!

—Morgan Berman

Morgan Berman is a Philadelphia based sustainability designer and entrepreneur. She is the Founder & CEO of MilkCrate, an app to help people live more sustainably.