Catalyzing Greater Equity Through Composting

Date: 19 Sep 2022 | posted in: Composting | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

How can a community reeling from multiple economic shocks use composting as a tool to build a more equitable and resilient food system? In this episode of the Composting for Community Podcast, we are joined by Renee V. Wallace, a food systems and composting entrepreneur from Detroit who leads three entrepreneurial entities, Doers Edge LLC, FoodPLUS Detroit, and ReMark Composting Solutions. Renee shares her wisdom from having spent over a decade connecting diverse stakeholders to cultivate a systems approach for advancing community-based composting in Detroit, Flint, and beyond.

We talk about: 

  • The importance of pilot projects and training for catalyzing community and local government action to drive composting forward
  • Our collaboration to adapt ILSR’s Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Composter Training Program to Detroit via The People’s Compost Initiative
  • Making space for meaningful public participation to cultivate equity in food and waste management systems
  • The need for diverse, distributed composting infrastructure and other lessons learned from the closure of Detroit’s incinerator

Whether we’re talking about change in the food system, or we’re talking about environmental change, or we’re talking the specifics of food waste diversion…I say compost is a superpower…because you’re going to get a bigger impact when you can take one thing and cut across so many systems that need solutions.

When you start talking about change in a food system, and change in climate, and change in environment, people tend to want to go big immediately…However, to be equitable you have to open up these opportunities and take some decentralized approaches in order to get to equity, in order to get to equitable access, in order to get to equitable participation, in order to get to equitable realization of benefits of the work.– Renee V. Wallace

University of Michigan College of Architecture and Urban Planning student capstone project, Envisioning a Decentralized Compost System for Detroit: A Framework for Community-Scale Composting (2020) 

Wayne State University’s Compost Pilot Program

Michigan State University’s Humanities Without Walls/New Ethics of Food Project, Taking Back the Narrative: A Dialogue with FoodPLUS Detroit’s Renee Wallace about Culture Change, Consciousness, and Compost (2018)

ILSR’s Community Composting 101 Online Certificate Course 

US Composting Council’s Compost Operations Training Course

The 131° School of Composting

Linda Bilsens Brolis: Across the country the community composting movement is growing. Small scale composting provides communities immediate opportunities for reducing waste, improving local soil, creating jobs, and fighting climate change. You’re listening to the Composting for Community Podcast, where we’ll bring you stories from the people doing this work on the ground and in the soil.
Welcome back to the Composting for Community Podcast. I’m Linda Bilsens Brolis, Senior Project Manager at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Composting for Community Initiative. In this episode I talked to Renee V. Wallace, a food systems and composting entrepreneur from Detroit. Renee shared her recipe for catalyzing community and local government action to drive composting forward, which earned her the H. Clark Gregory Award from the US Composting Council earlier this year. We talk about our collaboration to create a community composting training tailored to Detroit, we also explore lessons learned from the closure of Detroit’s incinerator, and the intersections of racial equity, food systems policy, and food waste diversion. Let’s tune in.
Welcome everyone, I’m joined now by Renee V. Wallace, who leads three entrepreneurial entities, Doers Edge, FoodPLUS Detroit, and ReMark Composting Solutions. She’s worked for over a decade to build more equitable and sustainable food systems and advocate for community composting in Detroit and beyond. Her multifaceted work includes policy advocacy, strategic planning, operations analysis, farm food safety process development, youth food entrepreneurship program development, and public and community engagement. She’s using food system modeling to advocate for improved community outcomes, she facilitated a national racial equity in the food system work group, and is cultivating a decentralized citywide network of community scale composting in Detroit via the People’s Compost Initiative. What a great name. Renee partnered with ILSR to adapt its Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Composter Training Program to provide the training backbone for her community composting efforts. Welcome, Renee.
Renee V. Wallace: Hello everybody, good day to you, and it’s a pleasure to be here. Linda and I have been hanging around in this space for a number of years, and it has gotten exciting, this season right now, it’s all coming together, Linda. I mean, those conversations we had six and seven years ago, it’s all culminating, and I feel like there’s an explosion coming soon.
I’m Renee V. Wallace, I am an entrepreneurial leader. I specialize in strategic initiatives, strategic change initiatives. Wherever I show up, we’re changing something. So the consulting work I do for general businesses, the work I do through FoodPLUS, which focuses heavily on food systems, but now also broader environmental, they’re in the plus, and now you can’t jump into this water in this composting work and eventually not evolve your engagement. So I do that work to help leaders lead, to bring forth emphasis around how to facilitate change in a strategic way, looking at it from a systems standpoint.
A lot of times we look at things as projects and as task, so I approach this work, all of my work, from a systems perspective, looking at, at a high level, what do we need to do to create environments to allow for it? Then drop down to an operational level to say how do we design the way the work happens to facilitate it? And then how do we engage also stakeholders, folks who have to play roles in it, or who are impacted through service, or impacted because of the work it’s happening. So across all these different platforms, I know it sounds like a lot of stuff, but those are the through lines, those are the things that will show up regardless of what’s on the plate in that work.
And I’m having fun, and this work around composting has really opened up so much space in my life and brought perspective on a host of things. It started out as work as a food system initiative here in Detroit, when we first started FoodPLUS it was one of the key initiatives that we chose was composting, because there was such a huge gap. Imagine that back in 2014-15, you didn’t hear much about food waste and that, you had to go back 15, 20 pages on Google. Now it’s in everybody’s face, now it’s a globally known issue. But when we first started working on it that was not the case.
So it’s been amazing to watch the evolution, and to also be a part of it at diverse levels, both locally at the state level, and to be engaged in national associations that are moving to do this work as well. So it’s really amazing to have the privilege, I consider it a real privilege to be involved in the kind of work that I get to do.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: That’s amazing. I think I knew that you were involved in a lot of different aspects of this field, but I don’t think I realized until I was writing up a bio for you, so it’s super impressive. And I’m thinking, for listeners that might not know the Detroit community very well, if you could explain how these issues of racial equity, food systems, food waste, and community composting intersect.
Renee V. Wallace: Well, the thing about, anytime you talk race it’s going to be an intersection, because when you look at majority, minority communities of African Americans and people of color, inequity, injustice, disparities, all those things have been systemically present, and the efforts to address that are ongoing. In this work many of us are being very intentional about how we address it so that when we facilitate change through that lens of race and equity, now you’re talking about how does that impact quality of life on an area because the way you approach doing something is done from an equitable perspective, how you create access to opportunities, whether it’s opportunities to be served, or opportunities to provide service, you need that lens in order for you to really look at every opportunity along the way so there is equitable participation.
A lot of times when you get into these big initiatives like this, when you start talking about change in a food system, and change in climate, and change in environment, people tend to want to go big immediately, they want to go big and do what I call shiny object type projects. And that’s not a negative, but it’s just big and it’s like, okay, everybody likes big and shiny. However, to be equitable you have to open up these opportunities and take some decentralized approaches in order to get to equity, in order to get to equitable access, in order to get to equitable participation, in order to get to equitable realization of benefits of the work.
That’s why I always say we need diverse scales, so it’s not a this or that, it is a this and that solution. And my hope has been to hold space for that so that we can approach it in that way, and we can have much greater impact when we do a this and that and we do diverse scales knowing that we need large operations, we need smaller operations, we need people who get down to the very doorstep, nooks and crannies, and everything in between.
And so whether we’re talking about change in the food system, or we’re talking about environmental change, or we’re talking the specifics of food waste diversion and using composting as a viable soil based solution for a host of things, for our air quality, for our food production, for our storm water management, to backfill all this new development and old development to be able to address a host of things. That’s why I love compost, I say compost is a superpower, it has the ability to be part of system solutions that are soil based for our cities, and our cities need solutions that can cut across, because you’re going to get a bigger impact when you can take one thing and cut across so many systems that need solutions.
And that’s what I love about this, so I don’t just talk about composting as a process, I talk about compost the product as a soil based solution to many city systems problems, many city solutions that are touching us every day, all of us. Everybody eats, so nobody gets to opt out around what happens to the food we don’t eat, because everybody eats, and we don’t eat everything. So we all have a vested interest, we all have an interest, the question is how do we choose to engage? And we need to make engagement accessible to everybody through diverse ways according to where you are, what you can do. There’s a variety of ways, there’s no opting out unless you just too small and somebody’s got to help you, and that’s okay, even the little people can help.
I was hanging out with younger people two weekends ago and they were learning about all the microbes and the worms that are in the soil that are eating this food, they started out with yuck, and at the end they were excited. I think that we have to open this up in ways that people can see how it affects our everyday life, and then determine, based upon your own capacity, your own interest, your resource, just how you fit in. That’s why I talk about creating pathways. There’s no one way, there’s diverse pathways of participation for all of us in this major work, because it affects all of us.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: That was great. So much of what you said resonates with the lens that ILSR takes when it’s looking at composting infrastructure, and needing a diverse distributed infrastructure that’s more robust, and the strengths of community composting being something that is tailored to all the nuances of a given community, because there is such diversity in the needs and barriers that need to be overcome, and opportunities that can be met, so that was a beautiful way of piecing it all together. So in the many things that you’re doing you’ve been collaborating with the Michigan State University, including consulting on creating pathways for community participation and collaborative modeling efforts, as well as the capstone project that looked at diversified community composting for Detroit. Can you talk about that work a little bit?
Renee V. Wallace: Sure. The beautiful thing, because I am a process and change consultant, I have a predisposition toward work that requires people to work together. So long before it became this popular thing that we talk about, you can’t do systems change work, process change work, without engaging the diverse stakeholders who have roles in implementing a process. You also can’t exclude the people impacted by the process. So participatory work has been a part of my way of working for 40 years, 40 plus years. What was interesting to me in engaging with academic institutions is that folks that do research, they talk about things like participatory research, community engaged research and evaluation implementation, and it’s a skill set that has to be developed. And what I found in working with them, you typically are always engaging with students, students who are in a learning capacity.
So in both of those instances, the modeling projects that I’ve been involved in from a food system standpoint are happening in Flint, Michigan right now, we just had to get started there first, and it was how do you engage the local knowledge, the community knowledge, and also engage the academic knowledge together in a way that respects and builds off of that collective integrated knowledge in a participatory way? It allows everyone to get a better understanding of the system that you’re evaluating. Because nobody has a full look at a system, nobody, so you need the diversity of the people who live in it, breathe it every day and experience it, but they too often need away, a process, to see the whole system.
Because we’re surrounded by systems all the time, but we’re not aware of them, and even if we’re talking about it, we’re probably talking about a part of it that we are impacted by most, or we’re engaged in, but we don’t see the whole thing. So when you start to talk about that, the thing about academic research is that there’s a process and a way in which they do research that brings some value to the table, coupled with that local knowledge, now we’ve got a much broader palette here to look at one, the knowledge that’s available that we learn about the system, the ways that we can analyze it, and we can work together from a decision making standpoint because we can see the system and we can use some of these methodologies, in addition to the stuff that we do every day, we can use some of the methodologies that are often found in these academic environments. And oh, by the way, they’re trying to get these things into community to help create greater impact. So these kind of projects are perfect marriages. Let me just say they can be perfect marriages.
So as we engage as community leaders, what I have found, I’m a natural learner, I love learning, I would be in school forever in 14 days if I didn’t have to do all this adulting stuff, so I combine it. So for me it’s the learning and then the transference of knowledge back and forth between our community experience and the academies, because the academies exist to help improve quality of life. That’s the whole purpose. They’re not there just to create stuff in labs, they’re there so this stuff ends up in our public, and improves the quality of our lives, so these kind of projects allow us to do that intersection.
The work with the students at U of M, they get to choose. They invite community partners in, and they listen and hear about our work and decide, what do they want to apply, the things they’ve been learning for several years, to a particular project? And they chose, the students that worked on that project chose it. Out of all the choices that they had, they elected to do this work, and they decided to not only explore what was happening in Detroit, but I was able to give them ILSR, and SCC, and a bunch of folks doing this work, able to serve them a portfolio of options to go out and learn for themselves, and the report that they created is a resource to us, but it reflects more than what I’m doing,, or my perspective about how the work could happen in Detroit, it was much broader for them as a learning experience, and it was really good to be able to work with them and to be part of a learning project that culminated their full academic experience.
So it was very exciting, I find that those things always grow, everybody, you learn and grow in the process along with students, and with professors, and they learn and grow with you, because being out here in the real world doing this, when you’re hanging out in classrooms sometimes you can get a little dull around what real life is really happening, and I just love reminding people that you live in a community yourself, and so therefore let’s put that lens on while you’re doing this great work together. And I get great joy with that, and I look forward to implementing a change systems lab in Detroit is what I’m working on now, in fact.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Wow, super exciting. We’ll have to add that student capstone here in the show notes that go along with this episode, but you’re a connector.
Renee V. Wallace: Yes.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: You see all the connections that could be made and you help make them.
Renee V. Wallace: Yes, I love doing that, I am absolutely a dot connector, I just help people see where those intersections are, where the overlaps are, where the gaps are, where the new opportunities are, I love that, because a lot of times people can’t see it, they’re in their own view. But I can stand back, and I’m listening to everybody, and I’m like, well you guys are, this is where you’re agreeing, and this is where the genius is right here, so let’s hang out in here and you can learn about each other on these parts over here that you don’t know, but let’s get to this part where you already are overlapped, let’s lean into the place where we share some things.
People tend to want to go out to the edges where they don’t agree, it’s like, no, no, no, no, no, let’s hang in here where we’ve got some overlap first, and then you can learn to value my difference, and I can learn to value your difference. So for me, that’s how we get to innovation, and that’s how we get past some of the barriers that tend to separate us as opposed to bring us together to create more power than we would have individually.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Mm-hmm, we certainly need more of that today. So it’s something else that we touched on earlier in conversations that I’d love to hear your thoughts on, because I know there are other communities that are looking at closing down their incinerator, in Detroit it was closed down in 2019 but I believe it’s being demolished this year. Can you tell us about the transition that resulted from that and how composting helps to create alternatives to disposal, and how that fits together?
Renee V. Wallace: Yeah, and that’s a perfect question because we’re always transitioning and changing. So we’re doing things one way and then we realize, hey, there are better ways, there are ways that produce better outcomes. And so planning the change and then managing the transition is really important to do. Big victory to have the incinerated closed, the plan and the thing where we’re working now is now we have to ramp up even faster the alternative of composting because when the incinerated closed, the materials moved to the landfill. It is one win, but as we think about change going forward you think about, okay, where’s that next move happening? So for those who are fighting to close incinerator now I say, you need to be ramping up your composting alternatives, whether you’re doing AD, or composting, or whatever your alternatives are, you need to focus on that change at the same time that you’re focusing on closing this down.
So both change efforts need to be moving simultaneously so there’s no gap when that win happens. When that win happens it’s like boom, in this second, flip that switch off, this flip is already on, because we had an overlapping transition. We, right now in Detroit we had a gap. So the incinerated was in Detroit, so burning in Detroit, not a good thing, but the landfills are not in Detroit, so now the materials are going somewhere else, creating methane, so that’s a double loss in the sense that the resource is not here, we need to get our resources back, we need the capacity to produce product from our resources, and then applying that product in our community.
So that’s a triple win, as we bring composting infrastructure, as we build it from right outside your house, or whether you want to do it in your backyard, do it with your neighbors, do it with somebody entrepreneurial that wants to do it on behalf of in-service too, do it for the larger, work with the larger organizations that are going to deal with the large volumes, but that’s going to be a triple win as we move that back into the city, bring that resource back. Because right now it’s a double loss, because not only is the resource leaving, the compost we need, we got to buy it from external to bring it back. So this is a triple win as we work on really building out a very comprehensive, diverse scale, networked and integrated compost system in Detroit.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: That’s fabulous, and so many lessons learned. A big victory like that definitely needs a plan.
Renee V. Wallace: Quite honestly what I found, because I do change consulting, is that people typically focus on the task or the thing, but plan for change management has to run parallel to that. We’re generally focused on the what, the thing, the thing, but we’re not managing the change itself. And that’s a big gap, and that’s a part of what I’m focusing on in this third act, you’ve heard me talk about being a third act citizen, you know that I’ve been on the planet a while, and so I’ve honed in on the need to focus on change itself as we’re moving through so that we can get the system built well, but we also manage the change from where we are to the next place well also, and those are really two different things.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: We’ll be right back after a really short break.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Composting for Community Podcast. If you’re enjoying it, please consider supporting our work with the donation by going to Your donations, Make this show and all the work we do here at ILSR possible. Visit to make your contribution today. Any amount is sincerely appreciated. And if you’re looking for other ways to support us, consider rating or leaving a review of the show wherever you listen to your podcast. These reviews help us reach a wider audience. Thanks again for listening, and now back to the show.
So at this point I want to talk about our collaboration in replicating the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Composter Training Program, with you leading that effort, adapting it, incorporating it into what is now called the People’s Compost Initiative. Can you tell folks about that?
Renee V. Wallace: Absolutely. First of all, I just want to say yay, hallelujah, congratulations, let us just applaud for a moment because it took time. We began talking about this six years ago, and we just kept talking about it and moving forward toward it. The Soil Builders Program, for me, is very foundational. What I like about it is it helps people understand from the standpoint of the common denominator that we our people and community ourselves, and that as we learn and understand how to do composting I tell people, if you do it well in your backyard, or you do it poorly in your backyard, ain’t no difference than if you do it poorly at large scale, or you do it well at large scale because the process just becomes more intense with the size of the system that increases. So if you do it well, you do it well, if you do it poorly, you do it poorly.
And I found that the Soil Builders Program had a very, very strong foundation, strong foundation in the science of composting, and the methodologies, but also very strong in the community side of what does it mean to us as people to be doing this with each other in the areas where we live, and bringing that consideration. So when you start talking about doing it as a business, for example, even if it’s a small business, don’t always take the same approach to community. We talk about research, but it’s like okay, you do basic demographics, and some other stuff, but when you’re in it from this community perspective, it’s the people to people, it’s the heart to heart, it’s that part, and that has great value when you’re talking about something that requires both behavioral and cultural changes.
And you need that level of connectivity, my belief system is that you need that cultural and behavioral desire, awareness and desire built in and us as human to human as we start to then do it as enterprises, you can also bring greater depth to that experience that goes beyond the typical kinds of things that you do when you’re building. That was one of the things that was exciting to me when I first started hanging out in this composting community, because as you know, I was bouncing back and forth between both the large scale and the community side all the time because as a process and change consultant, I want to see what’s the same, I want to see what’s different, I want to understand where the levels are between, and how people might be transitioning through this work, the Soil Builders Program is as extremely strong foundation.
The pandemic, as bad as we might want to say it is, it opened up lots of new possibilities, and one of those possibilities was that ILSR created the compost 101 online program. That is fabulous to do our programming, I’ve been talking to Marvin Hayes for six years about, “You coming to Detroit to help me do this work?” Out of Baltimore, and Jeffrey Neal out of DC, brought them both in, because they’re masters at this work. And they both have different ways of doing it, because they work in different communities, and I wanted that diversity, I wanted us to have that diversity. And their response to our group, because we required folks to go through the compost 101 before we even got the hands on stuff and their responses as instructors were that people were better prepared than they’d ever seen people prepared to come into the hands on part of the training.
So I’m a firm believer in establishing based upon strong foundational pieces, and the ISR Soil Building Program is very, very strong foundationally, from a learning standpoint and building community, so thank you guys for that amazing work and the opportunity to actually implement it in Detroit. Our training system is beautiful, we’re going to use it not only to have gotten an inaugural group through, but we’re using it to continue a training process. So a couple times a year we’ll take people through, some folks may only do the 101 and they’re like, “Okay, I’m good,” they go off, do their thing. People that will do the hands on version, we’ll get the hands on. Those who want to do a capstone, so we have a capstone version where you can work with us for six months while you really put this to practice, and we have an intensive, like I already know what I’m doing, but there’s stuff you don’t know, so we’ll do that deep dive intensive with folks who just need to get the science shored it up.
So we’ve got a portfolio that we’ve developed from being introduced to this way of doing work, so I had to bring process and change and ways to figure out how to do it and meet diverse needs of people in our community here in Detroit, so thank you guys once again, I love partnering with you, I’m excited about this next round.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: That’s great, thank you for laying that out and for the kind words, you are certainly an ideal partner. As you said, we’ve been talking about this for a very long time, and you have seen our program through the changes that happened during the pandemic with the online community composting 101 course, which then we’re using as our foundation for hands on training, so people have a common vocabulary when they come together, a common understanding. Tell us a little bit about the hands on portion, how it fits into the composting infrastructure that you’ve helped to establish, and the partners that you’re engaging with.
Renee V. Wallace: One of the things that I had begun before this happened, before the pandemic and before you all developed that program, was I took an approach encouraging people to do pilot projects, and pilots were used to help facilitate what I finally like to call the three EPs. The three EPs are enable policy, enable public, an enabled practice. So you use the pilot to begin to inform how do we create an enabled policy environment for diverse types of composting? Well, the pilot projects looks different in every community, because they’re tied to the capacity of that community, and the needs, and who wants to do the work.
Enable public is we have to as citizens recognize when something is beneficial to us, whether it’s provided by the city itself, the municipality, or other citizens like ourselves who are functioning as engaged leaders in community, or as business and service providers. So we have to have folks that are aware of what this thing is and how it benefits us so that we can use our voices to help inform decision makers and people who are doing the businesses on what it is that we understand that we need.
And then we have to have an able practice. People have to know how to do what they’re doing. I tell people, “Compost doesn’t just happen, only with Mother Nature, she know what she’s doing.” All that stuff works together by design, but because we do stuff with food, we have to handle it different, it’s a process. So we have to build, like recipe, you got to add this, you got to add that, you got to water it, you got to give it some air, you got to check the temperature, you got to turn it, you do all that stuff in your kitchen when you’re cooking stuff, so to do composting, there’s a science and an art to that, and so people need to learn it, so we need an able practice.
So the ILSR program, the 131 School that James McSweeney does, USCC compost operator training, all of those ways provide us the ability to build strong composters, and haulers, and people who know how to collect clean in those kitchens and other places. So we need all of that, all three of those EPs have to be working together. We have to have an able policy, we have to have an able public who understands, willing to commit, willing to participate by diverting their scraps, stop throwing them in whatever color your can is that gets trash out the door, and move it to the processes that will give it another light, because it’s not waste unless you throw it away, it’s a resource, we just need to redirect and reuse those resources to give us a better next, as I like to say, what does our next look like? Well, it looks very different when we put these systems in place.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: That’s a beautiful formula that you have for moving composting forward, it’s observing the ecosystem that exists, and what needs exist, and connecting things. But yeah, the other two trainings that you mentioned we’ll link too in the show notes as well. Every time you do a training you’ll learn something new, that’s for sure. Everybody has a slightly different lens, and there’s always something valuable to be learned in some of the policies that you’ve helped to move forward, are there any that you feel are relevant that could be shared with others?
Renee V. Wallace: We’re actually still building on that. Again, contextualizing things. Detroit has been through many shocks, we were shocked economically, so the shock of emergency management, followed by the shock of pandemic, which had economic implications, food system implications. And for us, our capacity was shocked. When a pandemic happens and you’re shuttering places, it decreases your economy, it decreases your flow, so we’ve had to step back from some things and come back to them to move forward. So our state is still trying to move to a sustainable management approach at the state level, so all these things have to align. So where we are now is we’re engaging with diverse stakeholders to talk about how each part moves forward. We have an urban ag ordinance that has composting in it, that needs to be revised. Now that’s primarily executed by urban ag and gardens and farm based.
Well, not all composting happens inside of that realm, the rest of it is held in the solid waste ordinance, which only deals with big systems, it doesn’t have the pathway there for diverse. So I say I want to do something that’s small, and I still got to do the same thing as somebody who’s doing something that’s big? So we have to really look at that. And if I learned one big lesson in policy change when we work to bring the urban ag ordinance on, it’s one thing to create an ordinance, it’s a whole nother thing to operationalize one.
So we’re working with those knowledge and learnings, and understanding that because all of our capacity was shaken by emergency management, or bankruptcy, and COVID, we have to give grace, have patience, but yet still have urgency and be pushing to advance as much as we possibly can. And that is an elegant balance, that’s an elegant tension that we have to manage together, and to do that with respect and regard for one another. So that’s where we are, that’s how I see it.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: I feel like a lot of decision makers would be benefited from taking that approach, and us as advocates, having compassion but not losing the urgency.
Renee V. Wallace: Exactly, it’s a tension to be sustained.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Mm-hmm, yes. So at this point, I’m wondering if there’s any advice or lessons learned that you’d like to share with those that might just be getting started in this field, or resources you just want to point people to?
Renee V. Wallace: Absolutely. So I’m going to say be a learner. Just be open to learning everywhere. Don’t be afraid to lean into I don’t know, it’s a perfect place to be, because as you encounter people you’re going to learn. Ask questions, don’t be afraid to ask questions, ask great questions, ask lots of questions, and allow people to share what they know with you. Be curious, authentically wanting to understand, well how does that work? And acknowledge people for the things that they’ve done and that they know how to do. Be a dot connector.
Also be your own architect, because nobody can tell you how to do precisely how it needs to be done where you are. You have to understand your own vision, your own context, all of that to know how to pull all those pieces together in a way that’s going to work for you, the person, and you, your community, because we all bring our genius, our desires and things together, and that looks different. With different people it’s going to look different, so do that, join the association and the communities.
So I hang out with everybody, ILSR, 131 with James McSweeney and the folks in Vermont, US Compost Council, you’re going to learn from everybody, and you’re going to be in community with people who care about similar things. Now you may be doing it at different scales, but you care about the same things, and so it’s always good to have those kinds of relationships and be able to see the connecting points and to appreciate one another. This is not a this or that, this is not a this is better than that, we need all of it, and the deep appreciation that we can show one another is going to evolve and show others how this all can work together, that’s a huge opportunity for us.
I would also say pilot things, try stuff on. Because you can think, oh big grand idea, we want to do it like this, you want to be the big bang, I say be a little bang first, and pilot stuff so that you can lay out processes and try stuff and say, well oh, this works like this, and we need to tweak how that works. That’s easier to do when it’s this big than when it’s this big. So pilot and practice some things before you scale it up, it’s going to tell you the truth about your own capacity, because you think you have more capacity than you do, and we all have things happening in our lives, so we need to know what is our starting capacity and what kind of capacity we have to grow in order for us to even scale up.
But a lot of times we just wanting to go fast to get some place and we don’t give ourselves the grace and the time and use the processes to help us determine what all we can do, and I can say that from firsthand experience. I started out being an advocate, trying to help everybody else do it, and then developing a training system, and now I’m an operator? My world is all together different than it was six years ago when we met, and I recognize I can’t go fast as an operator. I’m developing, I’m still learning, there’s stuff that I need to know before I build something big, so it’s going to take a little bit longer to do that. It’s going to take a little bit longer as we roll out additional trainings for people to understand how to actually do that in their own neighborhood.
So I say practice, practice is important. Practice well, learn from people who know how to do stuff well, and emulate them. There was a guy named Darnell So, he used to say it’s okay to be a copycat as long as you copy the right cat. So in this case, ILSR, 131, USCC, right cats to copy. You can add your little secret sauce on there, but get the base down first, please.
What I would say to people who are starting, you don’t have to start from scratch, start from the highest point of achievement that others have already done and make that your base, make that your base. That’s smart, you can leapfrog, you know what I’m saying? So I would say to people, and staying true to your own thought process and your own passion about why you’re doing it. Your why is your why. Nobody else can tell you why you should be doing this, or why you shouldn’t be doing this, or your reason is not, no. Whatever is your why, hang on to that, and respect when other people find their own connecting point.
I remember when Mark found his, my friend and partner Mark Covington, when we first started working on the pilot with Wayne State University and Georgia Street, I brought them together, and FoodPLUS, to develop the composting programs, and we built Wayne State’s program, we built Georgia Street’s program, people’s compost evolved in that process. We did a pilot to start moving Wayne State’s materials, and I’ll never forget, I invited Mark to take a class. He’d been composting as most people, he’d YouTube and guess at it and just do the thing and this is going to happen, right? When he took his first class, and he learned about pathogens, he will never be the same person again, as in never.
So because for him, he cared about his community, he was growing food, because the seniors and insecure people needed food. When he found out that if he didn’t do his composting right that he could make the very people he loves and serves sick, changed person. Who would’ve known that that was going to be the thing that flipped him? Now he’s building systems all over the place. I told him he got a whole compost complex in his place now, it’s not even just one system, we got four systems over there now. So you don’t know what’s going to ignite somebody, let them find their passion point, you just keep bringing that conversation, you just keep opening up the opportunities for people and that click will happen for them for the thing that’s going to get them in it.
Your job, as I say, this is my thing, this is how Renee Wallace, Renee V. Wallace does it, I create exclusive invitations, and if people find their way, and when I find out what lit them up, you just feed that fight, feed that fight. Not the one you think, but feed that fight. But for those of us who are out here doing this, just continue to hold the passion in your own heart, the reasons for it, they will evolve over time, mine have, I would say mine have, and I’m grateful for that, and the amazing beautiful people that you get to be a part of their lives in that evolution.
And composting really is, compost is a superpower. It is solution to so many of the issues that are affecting the quality of our life, and I feel it’s a privilege and an honor to be learning and sharing and doing this work, and I really pray and hope that we do see an explosion in this. And I tell people, do not get discouraged, just keep getting back up and keep moving, because it’s changed a lot in six years, and we are at a place where it can change very quickly, and we want to be opportunists, we want to jump in and be able to move. So learn all you can, practice and do it, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and correct, but keep moving, keep composting.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: What a beautiful closing to this interview. Renee, it’s been an honor and of privilege to get to work with you, get to know you over the last few years, and to share this space, and to share some of your wisdom with our listeners, so thank you so much, Renee.
Renee V. Wallace: Yeah, thank you, I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of these communities, I’ve always appreciated the welcome. You all just made it so comfortable and welcoming when I showed up on the scene and I started asking 14 dozen questions about how stuff works, and how do we do this, and when are we going to do this in Detroit? And I would just say that the love exists in this community, and it’s there for all of us. And again, thank you and Brenda for being just amazing partners, and continue to do the great, great work that you’re doing all over the country to help people to implement this in community, as well as engaging our municipalities in this work.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Thank you, and getting to work with people like you is what keeps us going, for sure, so very inspirational. Thank you again, Renee, thank you all for listening.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Composting for Community Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This episode was produced by Drew Birschbach and ILSRs composting team. Our theme music is I Don’t know from Grapes. Be sure to check out the rest of the ILSR podcast family, including building local power, local energy rules, and community broadband bits at



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Audio Credit: I Dunno by Grapes. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Image Credit: Renee V. Wallace

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Linda Bilsens Brolis

Linda is the Senior Program Manager for ILSR’s Composting for Community Initiative and Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Composter Training Program.