- Max Elliott
- Executive Director
- Urban Roots
- Years as Executive Director
- In the spring of 2008, Max co-founded Urban Roots as a program of YouthLaunch. Due to its tremendous success in the community, Urban Roots transitioned to become its own independent nonprofit organization four years after it was founded. Max became the Executive Director of Urban Roots in the fall of 2011.
- What does your organization do?
- Urban Roots gives youth opportunities to serve the community and become leaders and empowered advocates for equitable food access and hunger relief. As a result, Urban Roots has an exponential impact that dramatically transforms the lives of young people while providing over 35,000 pounds of produce for the community, donating 40% to local soup kitchens and food pantries, and educating thousands of youth and community members about food, farming, and healthy lifestyles.
- How did you become interested in this work?
- After graduating college, I became a teacher; however, as much as I loved teaching, I felt that the classroom was not the best environment for me. In my mid-twenties, I started working on organic farms and quickly became inspired by the words of Wendell Barry and the burgeoning sustainable farming and food security movements. After I gained some farm experience, I considered starting my own farm, but ultimately, I decided that growing and selling produce as a business would not feed my passion for education and service. I am truly honored to be a part of Urban Roots as this is the perfect blend of my interests, passions, and skills.
- What drives your passion?
- I am inspired by food and the power it has to transform lives and communities. Not only does food provide basic calories, but it also brings people together. At Urban Roots, we provide youth with a very hands-on way to give back to the community through growing food for those in need. Honoring and celebrating this spirit of service is one profound way we can nourish each other. I also love giving people the opportunity to cultivate healthy relationships with their food; watching a young person pull a carrot out of the ground for the first time. These "food firsts" connect us with our food, land, and with our own health.
- Did you have a mentor or role model?
- One of my role models is Amy Mills, the CEO of Emancipet. Before she became the CEO of Emancipet, she was the Deputy Director of YouthLaunch. She actually hired me and she helped me pitch the idea of Urban Roots to the YouthLaunch board. When we decided to become our own independent organization, she eagerly joined the board and continues to provide invaluable strategic visioning and support.
- What's the biggest challenge in your work?
- The biggest challenge is navigating the organizational transition from being a program under an umbrella organization to becoming an independent nonprofit agency. Even though we have six years of program history, we are a start-up in many ways. We are eager and excited to grow our organization; however, our bigger focus is building sustainable organizational systems.
- What's the best advice that you have ever received?
- Find something outside of work that can nourish, engage, and inspire you. Lately, I've been having a lot of fun with improv.
- What are your top tips for new Executive Directors?
- Admittedly, I still consider myself to be a new Executive Director. I learned very quickly that there is no way that I can be the expert in every aspect of the organization. It is critical to surround yourself with exceptionally smart people who are eager and excited to contribute their skills to your team.
Alongside staff, I have worked to create a positive organizational culture by clearly defining organizational guiding principles. This has helped everyone on the team have more ownership over the organization and hold each other accountable for how we want to achieve our mission together.
I have also found it incredibly valuable to build organizational capacity with thoughtful board selection and board training. I look for board members who possess a great diversity of talents and skills, but who are also deeply passionate about our mission.
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