The Learning Is In the Doing (Feat. LA Compost)

Date: 25 Jul 2019 | posted in: Composting | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Welcome back to the Composting for Community Podcast! On this episode, host Linda Bilsens Brolis is joined by Michael Martinez, Founder and Executive Director of LA Compost. Linda and Michael talk about how LA Compost is building a diverse ecosystem of composting hubs that are facilitating community involvement in and ownership of their local food systems. They also discuss:

  • What is community composting?
  • What makes Los Angeles a unique location for community composting?
  • What keeps Michael coming back to ILSR’s National Cultivating Community Composting Forums?
  • LA Compost’s goals for the future
  • Advice for new composters

Listen to this episode, then check out more episodes of the Composting for Community Podcast.

There’s a lot to learn from the composting process, it’s not overnight. The learning is in the doing and anything worth having should take time.

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. We’ll bring you stories from the people doing this work on the ground and in the soil to support this burgeoning movement. ILSR’s composting initiative convenes a coalition of community composters from around the country and beyond. These next few episodes feature interviews from our sixth national cultivating community composting forum in New York City we talked to them about why community composting matters, how they are transforming the way their communities managed their ways and advice they have for fellow composters. I’m Linda Bilsens Brolis of ILSR’s composting initiative and I’ll be your host. In this episode you’ll hear from Michael Martinez, executive director of La Compost. I talked to Michael about how la compost is building a diverse ecosystem of composting hubs that are facilitating community involvement in and ownership of their local food systems. Michael founded La Compost in 2013 and is a founding member of the community composter coalition. He talks about the wisdom to be learned from the composting process. I like compost future plans and it’s always has some great advice to share. I can’t wait for you to hear.

So today we are recording from the sixth national cultivating community composting forum, which this year is happening in New York City. Uh, we’re joined now by Michael Martinez, who is the founder of La Compost, obviously in La. Oh, we’re grateful for him to join us. So say, say hello.

Michael Martinez: Yeah, thanks. Thanks for having me. And happy to be here.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Great. So for those listeners that might not be familiar with La Compost, tell us about yourself, la compost and how composting fits into your work.
Michael Martinez: Yeah, so born and raised in Los Angeles and I had the luxury of teaching for a few years in Miami, Florida and it was kind of earning those teacher years were the seeds of La compost were really planted. Uh, just really understanding, um, from a student level, allowing them to understand where food came from, how it grows, where food goes, and how it contributes to this closed loop cycle. So when I actually started out like complex, we actually started early on as a bike powered kind of non Brailey company. Yeah. So, uh, it was interesting to see how that model worked early in 2013. Uh, but we quickly realized that as wonderful as it was, la was ridiculously large and the geography was very spread out. So we quickly shifted our model to be more of a decentralized network of community homes. Going more towards, um, educating, equipping and empowering the community to eventually, uh, have a sense of appreciation and ownership of the space and the food scraps that they were creating to be able to process and manage it in their own spaces, in their own zip code.

So we kind of create a community hubs in schools and churches, museums, community gardens, art centers, housing projects, anywhere where the community of gathers and there’s food, um, present. We are able to build both the social and physical infrastructure, physical infrastructure, meaning the compost bins that can process food scraps and the physical infrastructure, meaning the educational platform for people to participate in the composting process and learn through doing a, we’re firm believers that education is only as strong as the opportunity and access that you give someone to put what was learned in the practice. Um, so these hubs kind of are the learning through doing models in the city that maybe you can tell our listeners a little bit more about your community. Like what, what would you share with people about La and what the community is that you serve there? Yeah, I think La is really interesting in that what makes the city and the county beautiful is the collective, the collection of zip codes and the collection of small pockets of communities similar to like here in New York.

But I think what’s special about each communities is the diversity in people who are present, the diversity and the landscapes in nature, the diversity in green spaces, but really finding that common denominator across all 88 sections of Los Angeles County, 88. Yeah. It’s the most populous county in the country, 10.2 million people. So, um, I think from a community standpoint, we’re really focused on building this human network and showing, um, the communities that we engage with, that they’re already doing valuable work, whether it’s at a school or community garden, that the process of composting is just added value and highlights the already goodness that they’re doing. Um, so our communities can range from, uh, university students to, uh, kids that are kids in the middle of the middle school campus to a collection of retired, um, individuals along the La River at a community garden. So I think we’re really fortunate to be able to engage with so many different populations, um, because we’re working with this common denominator of food and the story of food.

Linda Bilsens Brolis: Great. Um, so when someone who maybe new to the concept of community composting asks you, what is community composting? How would you answer that question?
Michael Martinez: Yeah, it’s, I’m sure there’s not like one specific right answer that you would get from any of the community compost. It changes every day. But I think it’s just like composting with four and by the community it’s like, uh, it’s involving them in the process and for me it’s a little bit of a coexisting and inhale, exhale, life exchange process coming into these community spaces where I enter, um, sometimes I, I think I know a lot. And then in Los Angeles there’s just a lot of immigrant communities who are coming from countries where farming is like the way of life and they don’t have to go to school because they have generations on generations of skills and knowledge and experience that we really are able to become students in a lot of these spaces that we enter.

So for us that are like compost, our mission is to connect the people of Los Angeles to their soil and each other. And we do that through focusing as much on the composting process as we do on the human experience and user experience and the community process. So, uh, we definitely speak on this individual actions over time and consistently across the county. I’m going to have a huge impact on. And people do ultimately feel like they’re a part of something much bigger than themselves. If their account, they, if they’re composting on the west side, near beach towns to south Los Angeles to downtown, they do feel like they’re part of this network that’s doing some really incredible stuff. So eloquent as usual. Thank you for sharing that. And I think it’s a beautiful way of thinking about community is that there’s always something to learn. Something that they learned no matter what community you’re working in.

And even if that community doesn’t have like the conventional marks of success and more, um, you know, college degrees or, uh, that sort of thing. So, and really like learning from compost itself in that it sustains, it grows, it regenerates, and it’s naturally part of something that is life giving. And that builds resiliency. So for us, it doesn’t make sense for us to continue to just grow community hubs without the communities eventually being able to take ownership over those hopes. Um, we have a growth plan that as we plan on growing and establishing a new hub, we have to release a hub back into the control of the community. So it’s more of this co-op discipleship plan where we assess the health of the space, how many leads are there, how many, um, knowledgeable like that staff, but like community participants. So it’s, it’s, there’s, you know, and I think it’s really important, um, for this model because as much as la compost grows, we’re not going to be able to manage all of Los Angeles.

It’s going to take collective effort of everyone. So, um, what would I, what I find valuable is every single one of our hubs is in partnership with that community organization. So there’s that level of trust and transparency and buy in from the community. So we get to kind of build on that and we’re really seeing, um, a lot of communities take ownership a lot quicker than that two year window. And we find that fun, a lot of value in that. But ultimately community composting in my opinion, is for communities to be taking on this act. And for the most part doing it on their own with guidance, support and facilitation.

Linda Bilsens Brolis: It seems there’s a lot of wisdom in that approach. To me it seems just knowing your own limitations and being intentional about how much you’re taking on and what you can manage and support. Right. So I think that’s very wise. So this, this isn’t your first time at one of these cultivating community composting forums. How many have you been to now?
Michael Martinez: This is my fourth. I believe I did Jacksonville, Atlanta, LA, and then this, this is the fourth and the first that I’m able to bring some of my team with, which is exciting.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Yeah. How many people did you bring?
Michael Martinez: It’s myself and nine others. So there’s 10 of us.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Yes, they definitely stick out like their from LA, but in the best way possible.
Michael Martinez: That’s good to hear.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Um, so what is it that has kept you coming back to these forums?
Michael Martinez: I think it’s, it’s nice to know that we’re not working in cubicles or in isolation. I think there’s a lot to learn from the very community aspect of what composting is and the diversity of what it is and what’s happening. Um, but I think I always leave these conferences. I’m excited. Um, I think comparison is toxic, so I try not to compare operation with anyone else’s because there’s those feelings of I wish we were further, I wish I had this. And it’s easy to fall into this trust, especially here in New York. And it just doesn’t work that way. You know, everyone’s situation is different than it should be approached, different than there’s really isn’t a universal one size fits all model. But one thing that I do feel like that I leave each conference with is just a new sense of excitement, a new level of knowing that I’m not alone, that this movement is growing, that we have an opportunity, not just in La county but throughout the country to create these types of changes that are gonna have some serious impact, not just on soil health and human health, but the connections that are going to be made, uh, from neighbor to neighbor and food systems and, and how this type of work affects other types of works in other types of systems.

So, um, I dunno, I always feel like coming to this conference, I learned a lot, not only just from the presentations but from the people in the room cause there’s always new faces. Um, so it’s always encouraging to, to see where people are on their journey, provide support when, when, when I can, but also learn from them as well.

Linda Bilsens Brolis: Well, I feel like we’ve had you on a panel, at least at least one panel at each of it. So we clearly can’t get enough. You, uh, you sharing your lessons learned, which are all very real valuable for this community. So thank you.

Are there any top of mind goals that you have for la compost for the coming year?

Michael Martinez: Yeah, I have my eyes on building a little bit of a larger facility. Um, over the years we’ve kind of grown not just in that community hub model, but in three tiers of programming. We focus on the individual, which consists of workshops and farmer’s market dropoffs and focusing on the individual journey and that process. And that’s grown quite significantly over this past year. We’ve continued to strengthen the community model, which is the community compost hub, which has been our bread and butter for the past five years. And then we’ve explored this idea of what does a regional hub look like? Obviously not this huge processing center, but at a park or an urban farm or a space that has the opportunity and is still within threshold limit, under cower cycle to be able to process quite quite a bit of food either with a mission aligned organization like a food recovery agency or receiving materials from farmer’s markets.

And we really found that these sites and spaces are really incredible. Not just in the sense that they’re able to support the space in which we’re composting with beautiful compost, but it’s a great large classroom for people to really make those connections as the story of food and how their individual actions relate to that story and how it makes it positive or negative impact. So this year we’re trying to establish a pretty significant site at a state park in downtown Los Angeles. It’s not gonna process a ton of material across us, maybe two times a week, but it’s right next to one of the main metro chains. So every five minutes there’s going to be quite a few Angelenos seen what’s going on and spring. That curiosity of wanting to know what we’re doing, whether it’s turning windows or teaching a workshop, and when people can come to this space, they can feel excited and wanting to participate in this type of work and we can point to the map of Los Angeles and show them where there’s opportunities for them to engage at both the individual level as well as the community level.

So what am I big goals for this year is to not only establish a decent regional site specifically in that location, but improve on our both best management practices at the community level as well as establish that strong co-op model that’s going to allow us to continue to grow well and release community hubs, um, out and give, give the power of compassing back to the community. Because at the moment we have three, three regional hubs, two at urban farms and wanted to park. But this one at the state part would be our largest and kind of the heartbeat of our operations with health centrally located is in relation to Las geography. It’s beautiful. I mean, it sounds like you are embodying like all scales of community composting. Yeah. ILSR has a really beautiful hierarchy of food and I think it’s really important for you to define where you play and where you want to play well and not try to tackle everything.

We’re not food recovery, we’re not commercial composters, but we feel like we can do a really good job on three, um, three rings of that scale.

Linda Bilsens Brolis: Definitely. We’re going to be excited to check in with you again next year. So for any new composters that might be listening to this, what would be some advice that you maybe wish somebody would’ve given you when you were first getting started or any thoughts that you’d like to share?
Michael Martinez: Yes. Um, I think patience and grace are two words that come to mind. Patients in that there’s a lot to learn from the composting process, that it’s not a microwave approach where something magical can happen overnight, which perhaps it can, but even on our own journey, it’s taking quite a while for us to get to where we are now. Seeing New York’s model, understanding that they’re just celebrating their 25th year.

Even some of these larger organizations, they all started somewhere. And I think one word of advice I’d give to a composter is have grace for yourself as well. Don’t be upset that you don’t have full time staff or that you’re not retaining volunteers or that you don’t have more sites like others do. What works for you. The learning is in the doing and anything we’re having should take time and there’s going to be different variations of this model along the way. You know, we started off as composting on bikes because that was the model that was out there and we thought it made sense but it didn’t. But it’s okay. We, and I think it’s really important for you to establish that mission, vision and values. So those are the cornerstone foundational pieces of your organization that aren’t wavering and changing. But the how and the deliverables perhaps could be different.

But the last thing you want to do is keep reinventing yourself year after year. Um, I think it’s really strong. It’s, I think it’s really important for you to take the time to reflect on why you’re engaging with this work and the how it’s going to be changed. Just like our college major was perhaps three times. So patience and grace for yourself is really important.

Linda Bilsens Brolis: Sounds like good life advice in general. Um, so are there any resources that you might recommend, uh, folks checkout that you think are inspiring, that maybe have inspired your work and also, uh, how can people learn more about LA Compost?
Michael Martinez: Yeah, um, it’s fitting that it’s the institute of Local Self Reliance. It’s hosting these podcasts, but you all have done a phenomenal job of creating resources for us to really glean from both in English and Spanish, whether it’s infographics of the hierarchy of food to the best management practices for the, for the neighborhood soil rebuilders program that you launched to, uh, the community composting book that just came out, who the author was.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Oh, James McSweeney.
Michael Martinez: Yeah which is an incredible resource for any community  so thank you James.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: We can’t take credit for that. But Brenda, definitely read it.
Michael Martinez: As far as like understanding that like compost and getting involved on social media, La Compost, La But as a former teacher, I just honestly feel like the learning is in the doing. You know, you can come to these conferences, you can read the books, watch the youtube videos. But the reason why I get to teach workshops is because I’ve had the luxury and had been fortunate enough to fail at composting several times and learn from those mistakes to then teach from experience. And I think nature is very forgiving and when you engage with the process of composting, it’s very humbling and you learn a lot. So, um, I encourage, um, people who are trying to glean resources. Yes, they’re out there and yes, definitely read and absorb those, but the best teacher is the pile so dive in.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: That’s one of the things you have to do in order to learn it. I also love following you guys on Instagram. Just like most of our community campus, there’s a, uh, very picturesque type settings.
Michael Martinez: I also can’t take credit for that anymore.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: I’m glad. That’s great that you’ve been able to hand that off.
Michael Martinez: That’s the one thing I don’t have to do so I’m excited that the team is doing it.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Well, thank you, Michael, for joining us and thank you all for listening.
Michael Martinez: Thank you.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Composting for Community podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This episode is produced by myself and Hibba Meraay. We’ll be back again next month, with a new episode. Our theme music is I Dunno from Grapes. Be sure to check out the rest of the ILSR podcast family, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Eules 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.

Photo Credit: Boulevard Sentinal