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SEEDS, an acronym for Seeking Ecology, Education and Design Solutions, takes a multi-faceted, holistic approach to improving ecological and educational systems in the Grand Traverse area. SEEDS improves and enriches the communities it serves through a diverse array of programming such as after-school cooking clubs, Great Lakes Bioneers, and a Youth Conservation Corps.
Michigan Nightlight: Tell us briefly about your program in terms of it purpose and who it serves.
SEEDS Executive Director Sarna Salzman: One of SEEDS’ areas of focus is on something we call Extra-Ordinary Education. By this we mean to highlight topics that we believe ought to be part of the ordinary education of anyone, yet too frequently are not. So we provide extra bits of “ordinary” education as often as we can on subjects like culinary skills and nutrition, governance and voice, ecology and habitats, and do-it-yourself skills.
One of our most important audiences is found in our afterschool programs that we provide in 13 middle and high schools in northwest Michigan, located in regions of systemic poverty. These programs are free for every school member and provide a healthy balance of academic support, fun and critical skills.
What really differentiates this program?
Another important audience, and something that differentiates our work from many others, is our Youth Conservation Corps. Corps members are drawn from our afterschool programs as well as referrals from courts and social service agencies. With us, they get on-the-job training in green collar skills relevant to the 21st century, such as land stewardship, habitat
The donations help cover the intense supervision necessary to keep historically
restoration, and weatherization work. We use a combination of hands-on learning and a paycheck or stipend to help incentivize academic and behavioral success.
What are the keys to success for your program?
Success is impossible without dedicated staff members who love to provide safe, respectful spaces for youth to inhabit. Also, maintaining staff who are embedded full-time within the communities that we serve – there is no substitute for this.
Another key to our success is the fact that our organization’s mission allows for a diverse array of projects, which then can synergize with each other creating opportunities no one would have imagined possible at first.
What existing challenges remain with this program and how do you plan to overcome them?
I hate to say it, but funding is a perennial challenge. Working in regions of poverty means that we cannot expect the community we serve to be the sole support for the work we do. We also cannot expect volunteers to take over our work any time in the near future as our traditional pool of volunteers are made up of adults who too often need to work multiple jobs to make ends meet for their families.
Our afterschool work has been fortunate to be nearly completely funded by a grant from the Michigan Department of Education for the last four years; however, that funding will sunset in one more school year and I do not have high expectations that the government will continue to pick up the check. We are working hard to increase our sources of philanthropy and we are examining our work with the Department of Education so that we can focus on honing our best niches, even if we will have fewer staff in the future.
On a more positive note, programs like our Youth Conservation Corps have a base of clients who pay for our services making this a viable social enterprise program long beyond the lifespan of any particular grant. We are basically able to match about 60 cents for every dollar that is donated to us for this program. The donations help cover the intense supervision necessary to keep historically “under-motivated” youth coming to work every day and providing stellar academic support and professional development opportunities.
How does your program take a collective, collaborative approach to creating systemic change for children? 
Systemic change is where it’s at for me, integrating the wisdom and experience of the biological world with the practical applications needed by humans. We’re really focused on facilitating effective communications between the people who are
Systemic change is where it's at for me, integrating the wisdom and experience of the biological world with the practical applications needed by humans.
already here and the place in which they live. In particular, I believe it’s very important to build a conduit between the children and the elders of our community. For example, we’re working as part of the Grand Vision, a collaborative impact network with a 50-year vision, in a number of ways including asking youth for input on the questions and issues that come up at the adult leadership tables.
How do you innovate programming? Where do the ideas come from? How do you know if they are going to work?
The programming for our afterschool programs comes from a cyclical evaluative process, which begins with introducing ourselves and getting to know the assets within the communities we’re serving. We invest time in simply hanging out with the kids and listening. We ask them what programs and activities they would appreciate and then we embed some extra "ordinary" education into those activities. For example, we find that many people -- especially students -- are interested in eating and snacking, so we’ve developed a lot of food related programming empowering the next generation to feed themselves whole, inexpensive, real food and also to engage them with where their food comes from.
We are confident in new activities that not only engage a broad base of partners, but also consistently spark an emphatic "yes!" response to the question, “Do you want to be involved?”
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    The mission of SEEDS is to foster local solutions to global issues. They bring a holistic perspective, making connections between ecology and social justice at the intersection of education, ecology and design.


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