Getting Our Hands Dirty To Make A Change: An Interview with Debbie Schmill

Debbie is an environmentalist and the founder and past president of Boston suburb, Needham’s very own Needham Community Farm (NCF). She is also one of the founders of Green Kids Needham, an elementary school environmental awareness program, as well as a past steering committee member of the Green Needham Collaborative and former member of the Needham League of Women Voters Climate Action Committee. Since 2008, the NCF has been providing hands-on, outdoor educational opportunities for children and adults. These experiences are meant to connect participants to the source of their food and promote an appreciation for the natural environment. The harvest is donated to the Needham Community Council Food Pantry, providing food to over 200 Needham families in need annually.

While Debbie grew up in Massachusetts with my father, it was not until I became involved with environmental efforts at Needham High School that she and I truly connected. It became evident that Debbie was a resource for social change. Outside of her many leadership roles, Debbie’s radiant conviction and passion for environmental justice, health, and poverty alleviation is deeply rooted in her role as a mother. “When I think about what sparked me to take action on climate change, I think of my children,” Debbie shares. To ensure her daughters’ rights to a lasting and healthy supply of food, clean air, water, and decent shelter, her environmental efforts always remain a top priority. Just as much, she believes “we all owe this to our children and to future generations.”

H: What connects you to your cause and how did you come to embrace your current career/project? Do you feel that any past experiences, personal attributes, or other individuals have influenced you work? 

D: My desire to give back to my community was probably seeded well before having kids. I grew up in a household where caring for your community was strongly emphasized. My father, Ted Mann, was a public servant for as long as I can remember. He was an Alderman, a State Representative, and the longest serving Mayor in the City of Newton’s history. My mother, Florence, was not a politician or an activist, but she has always been a defender of all who are oppressed—and very opinionated. If you came for a family dinner and said anything disparaging about a group that was disadvantaged… Watch out! My mother would be all over you. So I guess I had this desire to make my community better baked into my DNA.

H: Was this an envisioned life goal or a beautiful plot twist? 

D: Starting the NCF  was definitely a beautiful plot twist. I never envisioned myself in a leadership role, and certainly not starting a farm education program. I’m an introvert who had never gardened before. But, when you are truly moved by an issue, stepping out of your comfort zone becomes a small sacrifice to make in the name of what you feel is right– even if just for a short while. Today, after many years of working with a wonderful and committed group of volunteers to build and maintain the NCF program, I’m thrilled about what has been accomplished and amazed to have been the person who initiated it.

H: Through my own experience, there lies several realms of contention surrounding social change terms like “activist, “advocate,” or “feminist,” and the implications they hold both rhetorically and conceptually. How do you define these terms and do you identify your work and/or yourself with any or all of them. If so, why or why not?

D: I like the term “advocate,” because to me, it feels more personal and expresses the desire to be a voice for people who don’t have one. The work I have done on behalf of the NCF and other local environmental organizations has allowed me to speak on behalf of those who are, and will be, most impacted by climate change. That said, I really see myself as an “activist.” The focus of my efforts has been on action that is meant to make connections between human health, environmental health, and our short and long-term lifestyle choices.

H: The concept (not the color) of “going green” has gained mainstream exposure. However, this has occurred far more in vocabulary than in action and habit. Where do you think the disconnect lies and how have you seen it adapt over the years?

D: I think the phrase “going green” has become more of a marketing concept than a call to action. Product marketers have done a great job using “green” marketing to sell their products. The government, on the other hand, has not had the will to incentivize people to truly embrace a “green” lifestyle and make what may be seen as the sacrifices we need to create a more sustainable living situation. I have several theories why there is an overall disconnect between the dangers we are facing with the climate crisis– and the action, or lack there of, being taken by individuals and the government. I believe part of the problem is that climate change is just too big a problem for people to get their heads around. There are so many pieces to it and no one simple solution. This makes people feel helpless and they tune out. It is also hard to change habits that have been a part of our nature for years– especially hard if you feel like you are the only one making the sacrifice. If individuals don’t see that their friends, family and neighbors are making changes, they are far less likely to take action. I believe this crisis requires strong governmental leadership more than anything to get people on board. We need a unified national government with a clear message about the urgency of climate change. Without this, I believe the majority of people are not likely to buy-in to the solutions and sacrifices that are needed to mitigate and adapt to the crisis.

H: Has being a woman in any way positively or negatively influenced your work, your identity, your experiences, your empowerment?

D: I don’t think being a woman has positively or negatively impacted my work as a local climate activist in any significant way. Other personal qualities have had a much greater influence, such as perseverance and patience. I have also had to overcome qualities that are a detriment to being an activist, such as shyness.

H: Have you met hurdles, doubts, or derailment to your plan/vision? How have you overcome struggles? ‘

D: For many, many years the environmental movement has faced major pushback and condescension. It doesn’t help that actions to protect the environment often require some sort of inconvenience to one group or another. Environmental goals don’t always align so well with the goals of some very powerful industries. I have definitely experienced frustration as an environmental activist, particularly feeling as though people just don’t care about the issues that mean so much to me. In regards to the NCF though, most of the obstacles I faced were more logistical. The biggest being finding land to farm on. There is not a lot of available land in Needham. We were very fortunate that the Needham Historical Society agreed to let us run a pilot program next to their site, and after two years of looking for a permanent home, the Needham School Department agreed to license us an acre of a school-owned site. The piece of land had been sitting idle since the cold war when it was used as a Nike Missile launch site. If Needham had been attacked during the war, we were prepared. Thankfully, no missile was ever launched from the site.

The next obstacle was how to turn this idle piece of land into a working farm. The land had never been farmed before and the soil needed a lot of amending. We needed to put a fence around the site, and if we wanted to grow during the first few years, we knew we would need to build raised beds and bring in new soil to fill them. All of this was going to require a lot of volunteer hours to physically build the farm, and significant financial support from Needham residents and businesses. For me, this meant getting out in the community and talking about our mission. Requesting opportunities to speak to different community organizations and houses of worship. Soliciting funds from banks, local businesses and individuals. None of this was in my comfort zone, but it had to be done. This was the most difficult part for me and if I ever doubted the possibility of the farm getting built this is when those doubts were the strongest. There were often times when I questioned whether we would recruit as many volunteers as we required or raise all the funds needed to start and maintain the program… But thankfully, we did get the volunteers. So far, we have been able to raise the funds needed to keep the farm going and to employ two part-time staff members– a farmer/educator and an administrator.

Another example of overcoming an obstacle occurred before my work at the farm and during one of the first community projects I worked on with others. It was an effort to get elementary school students to walk to school, rather than being driven. We had a smart and energetic group of mothers at our school dedicated to changing attitudes about walking to school. The first thing we needed to figure out was why kids weren’t walking despite all the known benefits– exercise, reduced emissions, reduced traffic congestion around schools, students arrive better prepared to learn, the social benefits, etc. We partnered with a state program called Safe Routes to School and learned from their data (and our own observations) that one of the primary issues in Needham was that parents were afraid to let their kids walk–not because the routes to school were not physically safe. They just felt their kids were too young to be on their own. These are the same parents who probably walked to school when they were in kindergarten. Our solution to overcoming parents’ fears was to start a Walking School Bus program. Parents in the different communities that fed into our elementary school created a revolving schedule where at least two adults accompanied a group of kids on the walk to and from school every day. Over the course of several years, the kids in the Walking School Buses started walking on their own. As more parents realized that lots of other kids were out walking, they became more comfortable letting their kids do the same. Sometimes finding out the root of the resistance and simply addressing it can be all it takes to find a solution… but that can require deep commitment and persistence to achieve.

H: What is an example of a moment you have seen tangible change within your audience– a client, a colleague— large or small scale? What was that experience like?

D: Many people in Needham don’t realize that there are families in our community who do not have enough food to eat. They are noticeably surprised when they learn how many families rely on the Needham Community Council Food Pantry and that up until the Needham Community Farm began growing food for the pantry in 2008, the Pantry did not have a regular source for fresh, healthy produce. When I see this reaction, I feel proud of what the Needham Community Farm has accomplished.

H: Do you believe that you have accomplished what you set out to do? What are your current hopes and pursuits?

D: At some level, I believe we accomplished what we set out to—Needham now has a community farm. We haven’t met all of our goals; for example, I think we can still have an even greater impact on environmental education. But our impact on local food justice has been greater than I had hoped. When we began growing food in 2008, we decided to donate our harvest to the local pantry. At the time, we did not realize the depth of the need for fresh produce. We were the first to donate fresh produce to them. Food has become a mainstream issue over the past decade with dozens of movies and other media coming out about the awful American diet and the realities of what agribusiness has done to our food system. The NCF has helped to build awareness about these issues and has given people the opportunity to learn how to grow their own healthy food. Needham now has a community farm focused on education and food justice. That is definitely something that I’m proud of.

H: What is your message that you hope to send about your perspective cause? 

D: Climate change is a universal problem. Everyone’s actions have an impact. Therefore, each of us has a responsibility to be part of the solution. At some level, we all need to become climate activists. Anyone can do this by making climate change part of his/her daily consciousness and decision-making. Become a climate conscious consumer, eat less meat, walk and bike more rather than choosing to drive, learn to grow your own food. All these things are good for your health, your pocket-book, and the environment. Turn ‘going green’ into an actionable trend, rather than a commercial one. Also, most importantly, become a climate advocate. Speak to your friends and family about their choices. Especially, speak with your vote to hold your elected officials accountable.

H: Outside of your career, what is your message that you hope to share as a human?

D: Get involved!

H: What is your advice to other women pursuing their visions?

D: Be persistent and patient. Anticipate obstacles and prepare for them ahead of time. Stay focused on your goal but avoid tunnel vision. Unexpected turns are sometimes a good thing. Step away periodically to gain perspective.

Readers: Environmental concerns are controversial yet increasingly relevant with each and every passing day. Let’s talk. Do you consciously or subconsciously distance yourself and/or feel overwhelmed by the subject matter’s daunting nature and complexity? How can we each engage in our civic duty to make “going green” into an “actionable trend, rather than a commercial one”?

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