Reflections on the Life of Kirby Edmonds

Many members of the local community have worked hard to bring the environmental and social justice movements together in common cause. They understand the crucial need, as I wrote recently, “to break out of our silos and build a broad-based, multiracial coalition to fight for both climate and racial justice.”

No one grasped this necessity and worked harder and more effectively to accomplish this difficult task than Kirby Edmonds, who passed away on August 22 from complications of a heart attack he suffered in July. None of us who worked with Kirby — and there were a lot — doubted that he would recover and rejoin us at the table (in the form of Zoom most recently) to help us carry on. His sudden death came as a tremendous shock and left a huge hole in the soul of our community.

Among his many leadership roles, Kirby was Managing Partner of TFC Associates (Training for Change), Senior Fellow and Program Coordinator of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, and Coordinator  of the Cradle to Career collective impact initiative. Most recently, he had helped to organize the Tompkins County COVID-19 Food Task Force, established to ensure that those in need have access to food and that food producers stay in operation during the pandemic.

Kirby spearheaded the effort in 2011 to launch the Building Bridges Initiative, whose goal is to create a “socially just and ecologically sound local economy” in the Tompkins County area. TCCPI joined with many other organizations and coalitions to be part of this effort, and Kirby met most recently in June with the TCCPI members, along with longtime community activist Anne Rhodes, to discuss the current status of the Ithaca Green New Deal, in which he also played a key role.

Kirby knew in his bones that the old notion of top-down, command-and-control leadership was no longer effective or desirable in a world facing complex, interrelated, and seemingly intractable problems. In his profoundly calm and wise fashion he modeled a new way of exercising leadership, one in which a leader created the space to build a network of relationships, inviting people from all parts of the system to participate and contribute to the process of developing solutions.

“If we really want to solve these problems, then we’ve got to find new structures to work on them,” Kirby said in a 2017 interview. As Irene Weiser, coordinator of Fossil Free Tompkins, observed upon news of his death, Kirby “brought us Building Bridges. In so many ways, Kirby was that bridge.” Connect and collaborate were his watchwords.

Dismantling structural racism and poverty, establishing food security, affordable housing, and good paying jobs, and ensuring that our environment and climate could support the generations that come after us: these were the driving forces in Kirby’s all-too-short life. Equity, justice, inclusion, stewardship, and wisdom: these are the values that animated his actions.

Kirby was our very own John Lewis, who once declared, “We do not live on this planet alone. It is not ours to hoard, waste, or abuse. It is our responsibility to leave this world a little more clean and a little more peaceful for all who must inhabit it for generations to come.” As did Lewis, Kirby left us a vision and blueprint for building a better, more just world; now we must bring about the fulfillment of that vision and blueprint, keeping Kirby close to our hearts and never forgetting what he stood for as we do so.

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