PSU Alumni Amelia Pape shares her wisdom on social entrepreneurship and food systems practice

Headshot of Amelia Pape, she is shown with long hair and a black jacket

In February 2020, the Cultural Sustainability Task Force and other members of the Student Sustainability Center had the opportunity to attend the Washington and Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference (WOHESC), where they heard Amelia Pape, PSU alumni and network consultant and systems strategist with a background in social entrepreneurship and food systems practice, speak on a panel. Amelia’s intersectional relationship with environmental justice, business, and community engagement inspired everyone to think more deeply about holistic system solutions and leading community intervention.

Amelia’s work was previously reported on by the PSU Vanguard in 2016 when Amelia was featured in a Portland State of Mind PDXTalks event where she reflected on her inspiration for initially becoming involved in food security work. Currently, Amelia is working with Tribal Nations in Spokane, largely supporting multicultural and multi-stakeholder collaborations that are working on complex challenges. She emphasizes building trust, working through creative tensions, and the freedoms in creativity that comes with working in a network.

In December of 2020, Cami Ort, Cultural Sustainability Coordinator, was able to follow-up with Amelia about her work. Read the interview to learn more:

How is your current work changing the idea of food disparity?

The work that I do now is really less specific to the food space, and more broadly about supporting multicultural and multi-stakeholder collaborations that are working on complex challenges. And I came to that because food insecurity is a complex challenge that cannot be solved by one particular business, or organization, or even sector. It just requires a deep understanding of needs and a deep collaboration in order to really provide holistic support. And so I think that, from that perspective, working in systems and being able to see whole systems is helpful in understanding disparities that exist, because you can't really identify causes of things like food insecurity. With thinking in systems and thinking about root causes and understanding the structural inequities that exist that lead to things like communities that are considered food deserts or populations that are more disproportionately affected by food insecurity. Just being able to really work in systems and thinking systems and support systemic efforts to create solutions that engage with complexity, rather than that tried to solve one specific element of the problem is really, really helping my understanding.

And then I think my work with Native American tribes is more specifically really influencing my understanding of how to provide the right type of support. And that's, I'll just probably repeat what I just said, really about thinking deeply about the causes and conditions that have led to the lifestyles that Native Americans are living on reservations. It is really important to understanding how to support the right type of intervention.

Example. So healthy food can be a bad word. There's a lot of negative reactions to it that feel very culturally inappropriate, in some cases, in the tribes that I've worked with. And again, to sort of think about traditional food as something that people really need to get back to is a misunderstanding of what's traditional for different people in their lives. It creates this sense of kind of judgment, that it’s really a barrier to providing true solutions, so I guess that's what comes to mind when you ask that question.

What did your company My Street Grocery kind of try or aim to do, and like its projections and addressing food disparities that exist in our communities?

My Street Grocery was my first foray really into this work. It was a mobile grocery company that I launched in 2011. The idea was to bring affordable, culturally appropriate fresh food options into communities and to populations that were experiencing food insecurity.

The evolution of the business kind of reflects the evolution of my thinking and understanding and learning from the communities that we worked in. Originally it was populations of people in communities that don't have access to the foods that make them healthy and happy. So can we bring it to them?

And then quickly, we learned that simply bringing food in was not the end of the work. It was maybe the beginning, maybe the sort of pre-work needed, to really provide a supportive holistic solution. So that was the very early stage understanding of the need for cross-sector collaboration in order to provide the right kind of intervention. One of the examples that I'm particularly proud of and excited about that we were able to do was to partner with a health care provider, Legacy Health here in Portland, and to pilot the Portland metro areas First Food Prescription Program, where patients have legacy health clinics who were experiencing food insecurity, and who were impacted by food related illnesses like diabetes, were able to shop at our mobile grocery store. We would bring the mobile grocery store to the parking lot of the clinic, and their healthcare provider, their nurse practitioner, social worker would be in the parking lot for them to connect with and they would get food. We call them food prescriptions; they were really vouchers to shop. So they could get fresh foods right where they already were. They didn't have to spend their own precious resources. We also accepted SNAP benefits, and cash, and card.

What we learned was, yes, it was important for people to have access to healthy food. Yes, it was beneficial for them to have financial support.  And having informal interactions with their providers, being able to just have chats that felt really conversational rather than clinical in a in a doctor's office, surfaced more needs and built trust that wasn't being built inside of the clinic otherwise. So in the parking lot, there is this trust being built between provider and patient that allowed the patients to ask for the type of help that they needed in a different way. It provided a new understanding of what their needs were, and it just started to build community in a really surprising way in which we were able to measure.

In one of our studies, the depression quotient of patients who had participated over a certain number of months, they were reporting lower depression, emotions - getting out of their house and having somewhere to go and to chat with people. It was almost like the food sort of brought them there, but the sense of community is what kept them coming back. And that was a really big learning for me. Those were the seeds that helped me think more broadly about systemic solutions, and really, ultimately realize that a mobile grocery store is one of many needed interventions in order to really make an impact.

What kind of advice, if any, would you give to those who want to work or start similar projects within our communities, given the positions that they're at?

You know, I think that we tend, in Western culture, to have a bias for action, which is not necessarily bad. But when we think about action, we're very task and outcome oriented. So, what thing can I do that will provide this outcome, that will make a change? And what I think is critically important in particular is community, you know, community social impact work. Really any type of collaborative work is to take the time to build relationships of trust, and that is not traditionally plopped into the category of taking action. But I think if we reframed our thinking about what it means to really provide solutions, and to co-create in partnership with the communities that you want to support, so to be of service rather than to be heroic and swoop in and provide a solution and then leave, to allow the communities to lead their own interventions by providing the right type of support begins with trust.

So spending a lot of time doing things that don't feel like doing something, just hanging around having conversations, getting to know each other, continuing to show up. All of those things have been really critical elements of my work. I certainly have learned that trying to get to solutions, and to get to action too quickly, has negative impact. So I'm referencing my work with tribal nations a lot. I've been working with the Spokane tribe for a number of years, and that is one of the biggest examples of the need for trust. I live in Portland, and Spokane is about a five and a half hour drive away. I was trying to work with them remotely, and it was not successful. So I started just making a commitment to drive up there once a month, even if I didn't have a meeting on the books, even if there was nothing to do, I would just go and like, just hang out. And it transformed the work.

I think it triggered my feeling of I'm not doing anything, or I'm wasting time, or I should be creating something or seeing different outcomes. But reprogramming that thinking to realize spending time building trust is a really critical action step toward true support and true solutions.  I think regardless of what the program is, or what the cause is that you're passionate about, you want to work with the community. Understanding that community and building relationships to help that community lead its own intervention is really critical.

We have been reading and learning about common barriers that indigenous nations face; we hear a lot about working with large land companies or just large corporations and fighting for protecting indigenous rights. What are some common barriers that you've faced, if any, and stuff like this. Or like just working with large systems, or large companies, that just seems so far out of reach to be able to connect with and work with barriers to connecting with large companies within like large groups of people that have different agendas.

My first answer would be that all large groups of people have different agendas. That is the nature of large, especially across sector, groups. Inherent in group dynamics, and in large cross sector collaborations, are tensions that we are sort of more traditionally programmed to want to fix. So I would say that mindset is often a barrier - around needing to solve, to resolve tensions, and to kind of have in some ways a zero-sum mindset. One person wins, and thus the others lose. We have to choose a perspective and go forward. That can be a really big barrier to making progress with a group of people with diverse perspectives. 

We also talk a lot nowadays about the importance of diversity of perspective and experience and background in groups. If we're inviting diversity, but we don't have the mindset around the value of the tension that arises because of diverse perspectives, then we find ourselves in this sort of stuck pattern where we want to resolve the tension. So we either leave the group, or we concede and feel like our voices hasn’t been heard, or we kind of lower our expectations of the vision or the outcome. I'm pulling some language here from an old book that you might know called the Fifth Discipline by Peterson. He talks about creative tension as this sort of birthplace of creativity and innovation. If we can cultivate our ability to stay in that tension, that's when we come to really innovative solutions. But we don't naturally want to do that, we naturally want to get out of it. In collaborative groups and in my work with colleagues around this, we see so many common tensions that we can name them and see patterns there. There are many tensions around. For example, building relationships and taking action. That's one that we reference a lot. People want to get to action, but we know that we have to kind of go slow to go fast, start with relating, and then get to action. And all of these things are an inevitability.

The reason that we start by building trust is in order to navigate conflict and tension with grace. Because you don't build trust so you all like each other and so you will never have a conflict. You build trust because you will have conflicts, and trust allows us to deal with that more effectively.

So now you work in a network, what are some of the benefits of being in a network with other creative voices that you found?

I love working in a network for a lot of reasons. I think that there are many benefits to network participation. It depends on your personality as to which ones you really resonate with.  But for me, the network that I work in is a network of 14 consultants, including myself. We are not a firm, so we're not employees of anything. And we are not obligated by any sort of formal job contract to do any specific thing for the network. Our obligations, our social contracts, and all the things that I'm saying about building relationships have been based on practice.

Our practice in the network is to build a lot of trust and over time to begin to work together. It means that I get to have the benefit of colleagues, and thought partners, and resources, and sort of the collective intelligence of a group, without the rigidity of being an employee of a firm. I think I have a sort of entrepreneurial archetype. I really like the idea of working for myself. I like creation, I like flexibility,  and I like convergence. I like to gather information, and then take a step forward based on that information to gather a little bit more, and then take a step forward. I don't thrive in highly structured environments with predetermined outcomes and KPIs and things. So in a network, we really cultivate our ability to engage with complexity and to allow emergence to guide our thinking. And it's fun. I feel like because we have these close relationships that I get to work with my friends all the time.

It allows us to really have a type of flexibility in our work that I really look to, and also to have community and collective intelligence and to build things together. So it's really, really exciting for me. The work that we do is also in supporting network cultivation for others. We're kind of a living laboratory, and we get to practice on ourselves. Then we get to share that learning with others to help complex collaborations, who were like really working on amazing social and environmental goals, we get to support that effort. I feel like I get to engage with so many really, really amazing service oriented people who are working on wonderful missions. But I don't have to be a content expert anymore. I get to have exposure to all kinds of really great projects that I otherwise wouldn't sum. I love it. I'm very excited about it.

How did you feel about working at PSU as well, in your role working at PSU?

I feel similarly about PSU in terms of my relationships, but it's obviously a very different structure - it's clearly an organization, a university. I went to PSU to get my MBA, so I got to know a lot of the professors there as a student. I worked really closely with Impact Entrepreneurs even though it was not officially a thing when I was there. It was new, it was it was becoming a thing, but I got to know the founders of that really well. Then when I graduated, they were just there. Everyone was just such a huge support to me when I was launching my business. I felt a sense of community, and I felt a sense of care. That has always made me feel really, really grateful for PSU. While I don't get to spend a lot of time there anymore, I just teach one class now and it's virtual, I still feel a lot of closeness and a lot of community with the people that have been supporting me since I was a student. I feel lucky in that way, and I feel like I hear that from others. I feel like one of the benefits of Portland State is that sense of care and community that you don't necessarily get in other institutions. I think that it's a real tangible part of the culture. They're there - that I really value.

Has there been any ways that you found in the virtual environment that have been successful in building community or those relationships of trust? Like you were talking about?

Yeah, it's different there. I think the first step in figuring this all out is just to acknowledge that it's not the same. There are things that we can achieve virtually, that we couldn't in person. And there are things that we can achieve in person, that we just can't virtually. Acknowledging that upfront felt helpful, rather than to try to replicate exactly what happens in a room. It's difficult, you know?  So much of that relationship and trust building happens in the in between spaces, right? If you're at a conference, it's when you have happy hour or have snacks in a break or something, and you just start chatting with people. That's hard to recreate on Zoom. However, I and my colleagues always work practices into every single meeting that are solely for building trust. For example, in online spaces you can open every meeting with a connecting question, and depending on the number of people in the group, Zoom’s wonderful breakout room function is really useful. You can open with a framing question that's really just anything from something really personal to broad, like, how are you feeling this week?

That's a big one this year because it's like, you know, crisis after crisis. It's been an intense year, and so just giving people space to check in and say, “I'm not doing great,” or “I'm feeling really good,” or “I don't know, I'm tired.” It creates a sense of humanity, even online, and then doing it in breakout rooms where you can have one on one conversations is really helpful. One of the benefits of being online is its accessibility. In some cases, it means that people who weren't able to travel to participate in something, but do have internet access, can now participate. That can be beneficial. I like sometimes, in larger groups or in online retreats, to do group agreements in the beginning. One of my favorite ones is, “Come as you are.” In the beginning of all of this, I feel like there were a lot of Zoom backgrounds, and I would like to position my computer so you could only see a blank wall behind me. Now it's like, my cat's gonna walk across the screen at some point, or I'm renovating my house so you can see that I have a piece of plywood up against the wall. It's like we were trying to pretend we're not at home, like we're in a lockdown. We're all at home, so let's just be at home. Then you kind of get to know people in a different environment. That's where we are. I think that creating space for this type of acknowledgments does build a sense of trust. That is harder to do when you're in a meeting space  where you're not surrounded by your stuff. So that's another thing you can kind of achieve online that you can in person. It's an ongoing learning journey, though, as I'm sure you all are in as well.

Have you ever come across any challenges working in sustainability as a woman in particular? And if you have, how do you overcome those challenges? Or what discussions do you think that you need to have? And like that time in place?

Hmm. It's an interesting question. The short answer is yes. I think that there are challenges inherent in being a woman. I've only had my experience, so I don't know what it would be like if I weren't a woman, which sounds like an obvious thing to say, but it's just a limitation. I do think that when I reflect back on owning a business... I was 27 when I launched my business. I was a woman, and I was young, and I felt it. I felt like I had to prove something extra in order to be taken seriously. Even if that wasn't true, I felt it. I don't know if I was creating that expectation of myself, or if there was a societal expectation of meter, or probably a combination. I did feel like I had to kind of know everything, and anticipate every question, and really, really prove that I knew what I was doing because I was a young woman. I kind of guess that a young white man may not have had to do or may not have thought to do that. So that's not necessarily a solution, that was just an experience I had when I was young and in the business world.

I think that maybe since then we, at least in this bubble of society that I find myself in, are a little bit more aware of different types of leadership and the value of different types of leadership. The alpha, hierarchical sort of strong men leadership approach is not the only recognized leadership approach anymore. There is, I think, increasingly more conversation in the value of feminine leadership. I don't mean gender wise, I mean sort of more archetype like - what are the qualities of leadership, the feminine service, collective care, community orientation, distributed leadership approaches - things like that, which are really common in network approaches. Decentralized leadership, and co-creation, and creating space for participation is extremely essential to a network approach. It is what leverages the power of the collaboration in order to engage with complex challenges. I do think there's more of an awareness of that value, so I feel a little bit less under the thumb of the traditional lead singer singular leadership style that used to be. I am also older, now I'm 37. So after 10 years, I feel a little bit more comfortable in my own skin.

Historically, women, and women identifying people, and really lots of people who are not white men, cisgendered white men, probably feel a sense of having to prove themselves in a different way. I think true belonging is an experience that who you are is valuable and what you bring is valuable. You don't have to hide or be someone else. My hope is that we continue in that direction and leadership is valued in different ways, but you know, of course, we have a long way to go.