Brief Reflection on Winning the "Ideas for Change in America" competition

My response to the question: What went into the process of winning the competition? Great idea, lots of votes, how did you make it to the top 10?

Great question! I submitted my idea in the contest in January 2010, the very same week that I started volunteering with Washington Youth Garden as a weekly assistant in one DC 3rd-grade classroom, where my role was to help WYG teach a 2-month unit about garden science. There was 2 rounds in the contest. The first round was fairly easy, in which I was competing to be one of the top 3 ideas in the "Sustainable Food" category. I was able to win that round (in 2nd place) simply by doing periodic outreach to regional and national networks such as the Community Food Security Coalition's COMFOOD listserv, the Growing Food and Justice For All Initiative (GFJI), etc. Whenever I saw that another competing idea was getting dangerously close to mine, I would do another burst of outreach to secure my lead. The first round lasted about one month, until late February.

I knew that the final round — in which I was competing against the top 3 ideas from all 20 categories — would be a lot tougher, so in late February I planned a strategic social networking campaign. My intuition told me that using Facebook to round up votes would be a good primary strategy to win the contest. First, I needed to create a campaign poster to serve as a banner image. Unfortunately, I am not skilled at drawing images, but I am very good at using Photoshop to "enhance" already existing images. Searching the Internet, I found a number of historic images from the United States school garden movement during World War 1 and proceeded to transform then into contemporary campaign material, including this one — … I also wanted to generate enthusiasm and participation in my campaign from the grassroots sustainable food movement, so I posted these images to COMFOOD and GFJI, asking folks to share any constructive criticism or ideas that they might have. This proved to be wise, resulting in a vibrant discussion with about 30 responses, one of the biggest threads I've ever seen in these groups! Some people said that I should create new art instead of using this old government propaganda, and in my heart I agreed; but since I did not have the time to do so, I decided to run with the image linked above, with "ARMY" edited to neon green "REVIVAL," and "ENLIST NOW…" changed to "VOTE NOW at"

This image became the banner for my new "School Gardens Across America: A Garden at Every School" Facebook group, which grew rapidly during the week before the final round of voting started to over 1,000 members, in part because I spent time recruiting people from other FB groups by posting my image and link on their walls. I also wrote the "Playing to Win Universal School Gardens" essay which I'm grateful the editors at agreed to post, as a way to build more momentum and project my serious intent to win the contest to the national sustainable food movement. Combined with my usual but now intensified outreach to my extensive lists of e-mail contacts, after one week I was running strong in the contest, hovering around 9th to 13th place. Entering the final week of the contest, I knew that I needed another strong boost in order to safely win, so I reached out to a number of allies with a plea for their support. Thus, ultimately, I was able to win thanks to the help of groups including Food Democracy Now, Real Food Challenge, Kitchen Gardeners International, and the WHOFarm Campaign, who all sent notices to their networks of thousands of people for them to vote, which resulted in a noticeable surge in votes during the final week. In addition, since then I have also heard anecdotally from a number of local school garden leaders across the country that they were actively encouraging their friends and colleagues to vote! Thus I would conclude that the strong level of passion and solidarity in the grassroots U.S. sustainable food movement, and my high degree of connectedness within it, was the key to my victory. In addition, I worked hard to win, I never doubted that I would be successful, and although my outreach was focused on the Internet, I also spent some time pounding the pavement to recruit more votes — for example by talking to lots of people and passing out handbills at several national foodie conferences that were happening simultaneously in DC, and by flyering at the largest DC farmers market!

Finally, I would add that I was initially motivated to do this in large part as a response to the vicious essay against school gardens, "Cultivating Failure: How school gardens are cheating our most vulnerable students," that the Atlantic Monthly published in December 2009. This had forced the school gardens movement into a defensive mode; some folks on COMFOOD were pretty angry about it, so when I noticed the contest soon thereafter in January 2010, I saw this as an opportunity to regain (and increase) the school garden movement's momentum. Also, with First Lady Michelle Obama first beginning to reveal her plans to combat child obesity as her signature policy interest, I wanted to give her some "cover" by demonstrating that there really is strong grassroots support for this objective across the USA. In this light, it's interesting to note that when one searches Google now for the phrase "School Gardens Across America," one of the top links that comes up (after my sites) is the First Ladies' website!!

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