Kirby Edmonds, speaking at a TedX Talk at Cornell last year.

Kirby Edmonds, speaking at a TedX Talk at Cornell last year.

Ithaca is a city of passion, teeming with people willing to confront social issues through whatever means present themselves, be it protest or policy. 

These people form groups, the kind that organize powerful rallies on short notice or draw thousands of people to the Commons on a chilly Saturday morning in January. But people are people, and when there’s that many voices in the crowd some opportunities for growth or collaboration are bound to get overlooked or misunderstood.

Kirby Edmonds, a native of Ithaca since 1969, noticed the disconnect in the community and took action of his own. He founded Building Bridges to form a network that would connect local organizations which were working towards common goals, but weren’t communicating with each other very much. Many of these organizations dealt with protection of the environment as well as general social justice, but as interconnected as those issues are the groups themselves were not. 

“So much of what they care about overlaps, although they have different frames for how they understand their work,” Edmonds said. “We thought that any process that changed that would be a good idea.”

Now, Building Bridges is involved in the ongoing maintenance of that network of people, facilitating their work for the community and “putting equity and sustainability at the center of what we do,” Edmonds said. The network has grown to include 65 organizations around the area. 

The work is challenging, he said, especially because Building Bridges initially set out to connect groups all around Tompkins County, a county that includes complex differences in demographics and interests even just while moving geographically; a farmer in Lansing has different concerns than a professor in Ithaca, who has different concerns than a business owner in Groton, and so on, with constantly shifting issues and people that Edmonds needs to keep track of. 

This can all be a tough message to communicate, Edmonds said, but he doesn’t let that discourage the mission of Building Bridges. For him, it all goes back to showing people that the collective impact tactic is the more efficient and more effective way to instigate change in a community, moreso than the efforts of any single group. The more people he can impart that upon, the more results will show. If those results are indeed positive, the message will spread naturally. 

Currently, Edmonds’ organization is looking at the returns of what Edmonds calls an “experiment,” and it could end up being a crucial time period to analyze the fruits of their efforts. Building Bridges distributes a small monthly stipend to six select organizations, called Community Educator Organizers, for projects or initiatives they are working on with check-ins every three months to update progress. This, Edmonds said, is a way to shift decision-making to people who are more directly involved in the everyday struggle to reach economic and environmental goals. 

Edmonds describes Building Bridges’ efforts as having no end-point, but differentiates that from having no actual goals. But Building Bridges is meant more to try to change the system.  

He thinks the outcomes of efforts for social justice will remain essentially the same as long as people make no effort to create connected structures that work together in order to solve society’s problems. When they don’t work in congress with each other, the different interests of each group can become tangled and counter-productive. Then it’s back to square one. 

“If we really want to solve these problems, then we’ve got to find new structures to work on them,” he said. “It’s about really trying to figure out how to make people able to work across our organizational silos in a way that’s more effective.”


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