Our History: An interview with founder Adam Hammes

Urban Ambassadors will celebrate its 9 year anniversary later this year, so we thought it was a great time to connect back to our roots!  In this three part blog series, we’ll highlight where we came from, what we’re up to now and what we dream for UA in the future.

Up first, check out this great interview between current UA Board Member, Amy Luebbert and UA founder Adam Hammes.  Adam Hammes is an author, speaker and consultant in Des Moines who helps businesses tackle sustainability – from local restaurant chains to international media companies. He founded and staffs the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, and sits on the Solidarity Microfinance marketing committee. He coaches other sustainability professionals around the world and is a motivational speaker at sustainability conferences.

Adam Hammes, Founder Urban Ambassadors

Adam Hammes,
Founder Urban Ambassadors

Amy: Hey Adam, thanks for taking some time to stroll down memory lane with us! I'm so curious to hear about the origins of Urban Ambassadors. What was the inspiration behind starting Urban Ambassadors?

Adam: I was working as a Community Outreach Coordinator for the Catalina Environmental Leadership Program (CELP) on Santa Catalina Island in 2007.  It is the pilot of a worldwide program and curriculum created by Jean-Michel Cousteau and Richard Murphy called Ambassadors of the Environment.  

Jean-Michel and “Murph” were both hanging out with our staff one evening in a cabin on the beach after training and we were discussing their vision.  After starting CELP, they had been targeting their programs in places like Ritz Carlton of the Cayman Islands, and it rubbed our staff the wrong way since we targeted diverse clientele that included inner city schools.  Their answer was that they thought children would go home and influence their parents with what they learned, and so they wanted to influence big decision-makers around the world.  When we asked if it was working, they said not really.  Parents more often than not determined the extent the children would stick with lessons they learned or implement ideas based on those lessons at home, school, or in the community.

Murph said something like, “We can’t just wait for a whole generation to die and hope their kids feel differently than they do.”

I asked, “So, how do we target adults with sustainability education?”

Murph said, “That’s a great idea.  I don’t know, I’m a marine biologist who runs camps!”

And that was the origination.  We talked quite a bit that night brainstorming ideas for how to reach adults on environmental and social issues.  There were many ideas.  I personally had the conviction previously that I would like to move back to Iowa and make a difference.  From all my travels, it was clear to me that real change came from local leadership, not outsiders.  Although my traveling was very fun, for the first time, I saw an opportunity to move back to Iowa and “educate adults about sustainability.”

Adam with Jean-Michel Cousteau on Santa Catalina Island in 2007

Adam with Jean-Michel Cousteau on Santa Catalina Island in 2007

Amy: What need did you see UA filling in DM?

Adam: When I showed up in Des Moines, I tried to learn as much as I could about the local sustainability movement.  I volunteered, I went to workshops and conferences, I researched to find any groups that I could… and it was difficult and took way too long.  My experience was that if someone like me who was super-passionate about sustainability had such a hard time, the average adult that I wanted to reach probably didn’t think there was anything going on.

My first thought then was to save everyone the time and share my research through a directory specific to Des Moines.  I wanted to create a one-stop-shop for anyone interested in sustainability, where they could show up and choose one of several categories and find 3-5 organizations they could connect with to get involved (donate, volunteer, learn from).  Those became the 7 focus areas: financial security, volunteering, waste reduction, local food, alternative transportation, renewable energy, green building. We had carbon-neutral as an eighth originally but later decided it was covered by all the others.

I also loved starting projects, so I began immediately working with Drake University to plan a Sustainable Spring Break for the Drake Environmental Action League – our first seed project.

Sustainable Spring Break 2009

Sustainable Spring Break 2009

Amy: What 1-3 main goals did you hope to accomplish starting the organization?

Adam: I really wanted to start somewhere and grow to serve a great purpose in the metro as we learned.  Mapping was going to be just a place to start.  Seed projects came next because people saw that we had cool ideas and were aware of many of the organizations/groups doing work already – so we weren’t competing with stuff already happening.

My overall goal was to figure out how to create a sustainable city by educating and energizing adults.  Des Moines was the playground to test out ideas, but I was clear that the world population now lived mostly in cities and that trend continued.  So, if we could figure it out in Des Moines, then we could share with everyone else.  We also targeted young professionals, because it became clear that cities were really beholden to YPs and trying to cater to them in policy choices, business recruitment, etc.

Objectives:

  • Engage a groundswell of young professionals into the sustainability movement by finding one area they care about
  • Once they join, they will naturally get introduced to 6 other areas of sustainability
  • Connect the 7 different industries together to make one large sustainability movement in Des Moines

Amy: How many people were involved in the early days?

Adam: I did all the paperwork, the website, and our first seed project alone.  But quickly realized that would never go anywhere.  Suzet Nelson, Lee Wagner, Nick Martin, and Nick Donovan were our first board of directors.

Suzet Nelson, Adam Hammes and Lee Wagner. Not pictured Nick Donovan and Nick Martin

Suzet Nelson, Adam Hammes and Lee Wagner. Not pictured Nick Donovan and Nick Martin

Amy: What audience were you hoping to target/influence?

Adam: Young professionals in the city were a big target, but anyone interested

Amy: Why the name Urban Ambassadors? Any special meaning behind the color blue or tree logo?

Adam: Urban Ambassadors was a play off of “Ambassadors of the Environment” – the program in Catalina.  And I wanted to do that kind of work in the city, so “Urban Ambassadors.”  Nick Donovan mocked up several logos trying to combine sustainability and the city.  The tree was the result of several attempts.  I chose the electric blue to be uplifting, positive, and exciting.

UA_Logo.jpg

Amy: We’re so grateful for your vision and hard work with Urban Ambassadors over the years! We hope to continue moving the mission forward and educating adults. Thanks for your time Adam!