Member Profile: Sustaining Biodiversity, From Kenya to Cleveland

Cleveland members Marilyn McHugh and Chris Kennedy are creating a global initiative to sustain the planet’s biological diversity and its food supply, one seed at a time.

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She’s clad in a bright red top and wearing an eye-catching, colorful necklace, her brown hair pulled back into a loose bun and her glowing skin completely makeup-free. He’s dressed in blue jeans and a loose-fitting plaid shirt, sporting a newsboy cap and glasses and holding their adorable (and squirming) infant son.

It’s July 2015, and a roaming interviewer has caught Marilyn McHugh and Chris Kennedy—cofounders of the nonprofit Hummingbird Project—on tape during a break at Seed Savers Exchange’s annual Conference and Campout. What, the interviewer asks, has brought them to Decorah for the popular annual gathering of seed savers?

“Networking,” replies Marilyn without hesitation, in a soft, lilting voice. “There are so many old-school, oldtime seed savers here—it’s inspiring to talk with people who have been saving seeds for more than 50 years, and really helpful too as we recently opened a seed bank in Cleveland.”

Fast forward to October 2017, and the Cleveland Seed Bank (an initiative of the Hummingbird Project) is not just up and running, but thriving, with more than 500 active members and hundreds of seeds listed online for exchange. And its founders, Marilyn and Chris, have once again graciously agreed to be interviewed—this time at their small, just-leased office in the up-and-coming North Collinwood neighborhood.

It’s a rare chance to catch these movers-and-shakers on their home turf. They have recently arrived back in Cleveland after having spent a month in India teaching about living soil at Navdanya’s Bija Vidyapeeth (“School of the Seed”) and then a weekend attending the Living Soil Symposium in Montreal. And while they have become adept at traveling the globe with their son Cormac—now a toddler—it’s certainly not the lifestyle they envisioned when they were carving out their career paths after graduating from Xavier University (Marilyn) and Ohio State University (Chris). 

A scientist at heart, Marilyn earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and went on to Case Western University to earn a master’s degree in global public health. For more than a decade, she worked as an infectious-disease biologist, studying malaria in a Case Western research laboratory. Chris, on the other hand, discovered early on his calling lay in teaching and earned a master’s degree in education from Ohio State before joining the Peace Corps, where he was assigned to one of the most remote parts of Micronesia (read: no electricity).

It was while home for the holidays that Chris met Marilyn while hanging out downtown with friends. “It was incredible,” she says of that first meeting. So incredible, in fact, that despite Chris having to return to Micronesia and Marilyn being immersed in her own work at Case Western, the two would tie the knot in 2005. For the next five years, the couple scrimped and saved, as Marilyn finished up work on a five-year project to help develop a new smallpox vaccine and Chris, after completing his Peace Corps assignment, devoted his time to teaching school kids in the Cleveland area.

 Marilyn and Chris pose with students at Daraja Academy in Kenya.

Marilyn and Chris pose with students at Daraja Academy in Kenya.

One might logically guess that scrimping and saving was to build a nest egg for a home. But Chris and Marilyn had other plans: to embark on a yearlong (and muchdelayed) honeymoon that would take them to Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. “We wanted to get that travel bug out of our systems,” says Chris. “And we were super excited to leave, having saved up for so long.”

Departing in 2010, the couple quickly checked Europe off their list and then headed to Kenya, where they planned to volunteer at Daraja Academy, a secondary school for impoverished girls started by friends. There they were (quite literally) stopped in their tracks. “We had never seen a landscape like that,” reflects Marilyn. “There was so much desertification…and they were really struggling to grow their own food for the school.” Determined to improve the bleak landscape, the couple put their travel plans on hold—two weeks turned into three, and, ultimately, into two months as Marilyn tapped into skills she had learned in 2009 during an intensive permaculture-design course taught by Darren Doherty, an Australian who specializes in regenerative agriculture. (She later studied permaculture with Elaine Ingham, a noted soil biologist.) “We first set up a composting program, and once that was done, we dug swales to slow the water rushing down from Mount Kenya,” recalls Chris. “That work was extremely rewarding and also kindled a deep interest in service in us both.” Did it ever: From Kenya, the couple changed their itinerary once again, traveling first to Uganda to design and set up a greywater system for outdoor irrigation at a local orphanage under the auspices of the United Nations Green Warrior Permaculture Aid Project and then to India, where they would ultimately spend five months.

"We wanted to give back and be of service,” says Chris. “And in India we finally allowed ourselves to forget about the plane tickets we had purchased because we really felt like we were making a difference."

There they met Vandana Shiva—a renowned advocate for seed saving and farmers’ rights—and learned more about how to use biogas to curb environmental destruction while also working with farmers to cultivate healthier “living” soil. “We were changed from the inside out in India,” says Marilyn. “We derailed our honeymoon by spending five months there, but we also discovered how to live a deeper, more impactful life by giving back.”

In 2010, equipped with little more than enthusiasm, energy, and that desire to give back, the couple launched the Hummingbird Project. “It was scary, looking back,” says Marilyn. “We jumped in with both feet and started a nonprofit even though neither one of us had any experience running one.”

Initially the couple focused their work well beyond Cleveland, continuing to educate farmers in India about how to cultivate healthy soil and save local seeds and to equip students at Daraja Academy in Kenya with the skills they need (like creating biogas and greywater systems) to steward their land more sustainably. But they soon found that there was also a void they could fill in their own backyard. “We would come back to Cleveland and talk to people about the plight of the Indian farmer and East African erosion, and their eyes would kind of glaze over,” says Chris. “They wondered how it applied to them and what we were doing locally.”

And thus the Hummingbird Project’s third initiative, the Cleveland Seed Bank, was born. In 2012 Marilyn attended seed school at Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, Arizona. (“Over five days, I learned so much more about how to save seeds and what is happening to our seed supply,” she says.) Then, in early 2013, the couple drove 10 hours to Heritage Farm to learn all they could about establishing a seed bank. “We got a tour of every nook and cranny of Seed Savers Exchange, and it was so empowering,” says Marilyn. “We thought, we have a phone number and an e-mail from someone at at Seed Savers—we can do this with that lifeline.”

 Seed savers flock to the Cleveland Seed Bank's annual winter seed swap, held at St. John's Episcopal Church.

Seed savers flock to the Cleveland Seed Bank's annual winter seed swap, held at St. John's Episcopal Church.

So they did. Later that year, Chris and Marilyn piloted seed libraries at five branches of the Cleveland Public Library. In 2016 they added two more at libraries just beyond the city limits. Through the Cleveland Seed Bank, patrons “check out” seed packets from the library, plant the seeds in their garden, and nurture the fruits or vegetables to maturity. Then they save seeds from their plants and “return” a packet to the library at the end of the season.

The seed bank also has an online presence, where seed savers can post the seeds they have—and those for which they are looking—and then swap with other members. “We call ourselves the Cleveland Seed Bank, but we say that the actual bank of seeds is in the farms and fields and gardens of our members,” says Chris. “We have had more than 500 people sign up for our online exchange, and that is helping to bring seed saving back into the hands of the people.”

Saving seeds, explains Marilyn, helps build seed resiliency at the community level to withstand the risk of disease or climate change wiping out an entire crop. “I’ve been asked so often what one person can really do to combat climate change,” she says. “And I always reply that we have a beautiful, powerful, and achievable solution, and that is to start saving seeds.”

Recently the Cleveland Seed Bank added its first (part-time) employee to help manage the seed bank’s daily operations so Chris and Marilyn can focus their efforts on grant writing, fundraising, communication, and education for all three Hummingbird Project initiatives. (“Marilyn’s more the big-picture thinker, and I’m more the action guy,” Chris says when asked about the division of labor.) They continue to travel to India every year and Kenya every other year—and see the next logical step for the local seed bank as acquiring some land where they can grow out seeds for their seed libraries and seed swaps and conduct educational workshops. It’s tiring work, but also fulfilling, and that’s what helps keep them going.

“There’s not an indigenous culture of seed saving in Cleveland so sometimes people still look at us like we are the craziest people in the world,” says Chris. “But that’s OK—we know we are making a difference, and it just feels like we are on the right side of history doing what we’re doing.”