Our Heroes: Leah Mayor of Taking Root

photo from Leah Mayor

Leah Mayor is the sweetest force to be reckoned with you'll ever meet. A community leader in food sustainability and eco-travel, Leah has just launched her newest project combining the two, Taking Root.  Leah has also developed leadership programs for a variety of partners including The Cloud Institute and the No Impact Project.

A travel enthusiast with a PhD in Adult Education and Cultural Anthropology, Leah combines her expertise and passions to promote sustainable community development and influence people to better synthesize their lives with the environment. The Brooklyn-based “tour-de-force” took the time to tell me more about Taking Root and the inspiration behind her eco-centered wanderlust.

You can listen to the episode by clicking on the audio player (above, left) download the podcast here or read the PDF transcript. Here’s a snippet of the call:

Q: So tell me about your new project, Taking Root.

Our mission is to carefully design programs that connect travelers to farms, to artisans, to main streets and more to rural character and conservation initiatives.  Ultimately we're looking at tourism as a way to stimulate local economies, build relationships and celebrate our connections and we do this mostly around culinary adventures or artisanal tours.

Q: What are your hopes for changes or progress, in terms of food, policy and sustainability, for the upcoming year?

My hope, in terms of our niche with Taking Root and what we want to do, in terms of changes and progress and food policy and even food consumption, is to really connect people -- to connect citizens to their food system -- in really important ways. I mean, I think some of our biggest challenges is that food is a really devalued commodity in the industrial world. And we've lost touch with the value and the importance, not only of our food, but also of our decisions around buying food and buying commodities. And if we can – I mean, in Hungry City, Carolyn Steel says it the best. She says, “We stuff ourselves with chicken without a single thought. But if we were locked in a room with a chicken and a sharp knife, we'd all starve.” And I think if we can connect people to the fact that—if we can connect people more clearly to our food and to our environment, then we're going to make better decisions as consumers, we're going to make better decisions as communities and we're going to make better decisions on a national policy level.

Q: What, in your upbringing, led you to work in sustainable food and travel?

The travel piece happened first, you know. When I was 19 I moved to Nepal, and I lived with a Nepali family and I drank tea and I ate food with my family and I really just learned a lot about being in Nepal and being in a whole new culture. And what happened was, I started to think of travel as a really potentially transformative experience for people and I saw it all over, with my friends and colleagues all over there, and that became the focus of my dissertation research, was looking at transformative learning through tourism and adventure tourism. And I mentioned I worked mostly in Asia, so I was working Nepal and ultimately did my dissertation research in Mongolia. And the food piece actually happened in Mongolia when I was working to do intercultural competency development and looking at, how do you connect Mongolian tourists to American tourists, and American tourists to Mongolian tourists over in Mongolia, where I was working. And some of the most powerful connections that I saw were not only around eating food, but also around making food together, specifically making dumplings, making this incredibly powerful way for Mongolians and Americans to connect, and that was a really exciting sort of new piece for me. So I ended up writing a whole chapter on the power of dumpling-making as a way to sort of bridge cultural divides in tourism and creating more engaged tourism. And that, I think, was the beginning of the end.

Q: Who are your heroes? Who inspires you?

That’s a good question and I think one of the best things about the work that I do is that I am inspired by people, everyday people, all the time. And I think the most inspiring people are people that you've never heard of, people that you just meet along the street who are working in different ways to create a better future for our environment, for our communities and for individuals. They pop up all the time and I live here, in New York, and we definitely have this image of being, you know, hyperactive and creating all these things. And I meet new people every day who are working on incredible, incredible projects, who are making incredible change, and just really being authentic to what they think of as their mission and their work. And so I feel like I'm meeting everyday people all the time that are making the world just a little bit better every single day, in some small ways and in some really big ways. I mean, it’s been great to work with Colin Bevan, he is fantastic and he is certainly one of my heroes and friends. People like Patrick Martins from Heritage Food, USA, is just he’s really a force of nature. And Anne Saxelby from Saxelby Cheesemongers. These are not necessarily your stereotypical heroes, but yet they are really, really inspiring people doing really, really inspiring things. And of course, Tanya, who as I mentioned, who has been taking this project on; she’s also one of my heroes. Everything that she works on is done so well and it’s done so right, and so I'm always inspired to be like a little bit better the next time I write a blog or talk to somebody. I'm like, I'll just be a little bit more perfect.

Check out Leah’s Huffington Post blogon sustainable travel.