Alica Diehl is an exceptional professional and human being. As one of our contributing authors in our publications this month, Alica gives us her personal journey to social enterprise, and how she stays connected to creating access in her community. You won't want to miss Alica's message in our rapid-fire Q+A. It will change the way you approach your day!
Want to read more? Check out Alica's article, When Enemy Becomes Opportunity, in our October issue of En Root!
Tell us about your personal and professional journey, and how social enterprise has played a role.
Social *enterprise* has only recently become a driving inspiration for me, but it feels like every step of my journey was leading me here without me realizing it. I was always focused on being a vehicle for positive social impact, but it took me a little while to figure out exactly how I wanted to do that.
First, I geared my undergraduate studies towards being a physician, but then I realized that I wanted to channel my energy towards helping people before issues arose, rather than managing their illnesses after the story was already written. Then I launched into the non-profit realm, designing and implementing preventative wellness programs in disproportionately disadvantaged communities.
Though I was able to provide a foundation of skills and knowledge there, I became really frustrated seeing how geographically and financially inaccessible the tools for a healthy life were to many of the people I was working with. There were non-profits around to provide sustenance for people who were in crisis mode and truly dependent on free food programs, but looking at the path from charity to social change there wasn’t much around to help people transition from dependence to independence and food scarcity to food security.
Now I’m on the team at Hungry Harvest -- my first foray into social enterprise -- helping people bridge that gap. First, we’re stepping into the food system at critical moments when quality food would otherwise go to waste and instead mitigating costs for farmers and making sure that food ends up on tables instead of in landfills. Then, we’re innovating new market models to provide that food more conveniently and affordably to eaters.
It was a big mental transition for me, moving from nonprofit to for-profit, but a for-profit with a social mission is definitely the place for me. I’m getting closer to the type and level of impact I want to be making. Sometimes the most efficient way to create change isn’t by constantly cleaning up messes after they’re made, but instead by going into the belly of the beast and fighting from the inside out.
At OutGrowth, we are committed to giving access. Tell us what access means to you, and how you achieve access in your professional path.
This present piece of my professional path is all about access; it’s even in my job title! At Hungry Harvest, we talk about access all the time when we talk about our Produce in a SNAP community markets. These markets are all about improving economic and geographic access to healthy food. By purchasing produce that would otherwise be a loss in farmers’ books, partnering with community based organization hosts, and shrinking our own margins, we’re able to offer fresh produce at a much lower rate than grocery stores. By bringing these produce markets to schools, hospitals, rec centers, YMCAs, and community colleges -- places where people are already going to learn, work, and play -- we’re eliminating the need to make an extra trip and travel a long distance for fresh food.
And there’s lots of other access points we’ll address as we grow -- access to food literacy, nutrition education, culinary skills, functioning kitchens.
And those are just the access points for the consumer. We’re also providing our farm partners with new access to compensation for their efforts!
Explain a time when you were impacted by or had an impact within social enterprise. Why was this experience significant?
Back when I was still in college, I read an article in the City Paper (R.I.P.) that I’ll never forget. The author challenged herself to feeding her family on a “food stamps budget” for a month. She calculated what a family of 4 could receive in benefits, withdrew those funds from the ATM, put them in an envelope, and used only that cash to purchase food for a whole month, documenting the endeavor for the article. The piece crescendo-ed with her making the difficult decision of purchasing coffee for herself or breakfast cereal for her kids and wrapped up with her declaring that, lack of caffeination aside, it was officially possible to feed a family using only government assistance; case closed.
I was livid.
Her viewpoint was so limited, so negligent. She had access to reliable personal transportation, flexibility to travel to multiple stores and bargain shop, paid time to commit to the effort, the financial security to know that all of her other needs were taken care of, and the support of another adult. She didn’t consider any of the compounding barriers that people facing food insecurity might be facing and had no authority to make the final declaration that she did.
How did this experience change the course of your life, your career or your outlook?
At the time, I didn’t even know the term “food access” or realize it was something that I was passionate about, but the intensity of the emotional response I felt after reading that article made it clear that addressing these issues was something I needed to pursue. It actually sparked the idea that eventually evolved into the healthy and affordable bulk-cooking workshop series that I designed for The Institute for Integrative Health years later, which laid an important foundation for the work I do now.
What would you say are the top three most important steps that students and young professionals can take today in their journeys to build a life and a career connected to social good?
Do the inner work.
As agents of change for social good, we’re often advocating for and acting in the interest of others who have been oppressed and marginalized. (Sometimes we’re a part of those groups; other times not. Either way….) Before we can or should extend ourselves outwards to do that work, we need to confront, understand, and sit with what’s within us. We need to reflect upon how our experiences have shaped our perspectives (and how those are different from others’), acknowledge that we show up with all of that in tow, and recognize that that affects our impact no matter our intention.
Listen and include.
You can’t do social good from a position that’s just adjacent to those you mean to do it for. You need to be attentively listening to and including in the process the people and communities that you’re working to uplift if they are to be meaningfully and positively affected.
Society is deeply rutted. We have these expectations about the way things work based upon the way we’ve always seen them “work." (Are they really working? For whom?) It’s hard to do things differently, so we need to push boundaries, take leaps, get uncomfortable, and try new things that sometimes seem crazy in order to break out of those ruts and onto a better path.
Given your current passion for social enterprise, if you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
I actually sort of appreciate the comparative naivety of the perpetual “younger self” because without her, I wouldn’t have tried all the things that provided the learning opportunities and reflections that landed me in the here & now. You know?
I almost want to say that I’d tell myself not to distrust and eschew capitalism so much, because then I’d have opened my mind earlier to what business for social sustainability can be. But if I’d just received that sentence of advice 5 years ago, I wouldn’t understand it and live it the way I do now after grinding in non-profits for so long and having an epiphany based upon my own experience and reflection.
So maybe the advice would be something like, “define and hold true to your values as you forge ahead, but be open minded about the tools you use to carve your path”.
What are some words of wisdom that you would offer students exploring the possibility of an immersive experience as a component of building their own way forward?
DO IT! You will learn so much more about yourself, the world, and the content you’re pursuing in an immersive experience than you will in a classroom. We are more capable than we know, and sometimes need to throw ourselves into the deep end to realize that we can swim.
What is your favorite quote?
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” -- Marcel Proust
**So these aren’t Proust’s exact words, but rather a frequently cited paraphrasing of a longer passage in The Prisoner. I still love it! (Even more than what he actually wrote... Don’t tell him.)
What's next? What are your next steps toward growth in 2019?
I have so much more to learn! I’m grateful to be in a position now where my goals and values are shared and supported. Looking long-term at making larger impact though, I can only go so far with a small company of like-minded folks trying to change the world. To really be influential and heal a toxic system, I’ll need to go in deeper, where my ideas and ways forward aren’t so welcome, but are all the more needed. To go up against the machine for disruption like that, I’ve got to really understand its inner-workings. So staying curious, paying attention, asking questions, and actively learning are on the docket for me.
Alica is a gastronomy nerd, health nut, and Mother Earth enthusiast, ever-balancing a drive to contribute to her local community with a serious case of wanderlust. She developed the Five Times a Feast program for the Institute for Integrative Health , teaches at the Baltimore Chef Shop, and is expanding and evolving the Produce in a SNAP program at Hungry Harvest.