Backyard Eco-Activism: Local mother's passion for the global work of Vandana Shiva
It was spring and Leah Stella Stephens was restless. But she wasn’t suffering from spring fever. Nor was it the usual boredom this award-winning artist and social media strategist experiences when performing routine jobs to supplement her creative work.
Something more profound was nagging the then 41-year-old single mother. “I felt lost and had serious doubts about raising my daughter on my own,” Stephens says. “I wanted to know who was changing the world. So I did a Google search.”
Among the various names that populated her screen was one that particularly resonated with her: Vandana Shiva — an Indian quantum physicist, environmentalist and food justice activist who was named one of the seven most influential women in the world by Forbes magazine in 2010.
“But why hadn’t I heard of Dr. Shiva? If she’s so powerful, why isn’t her work being covered in the news?” Stephens says. “I did more research and learned there’s a huge effort to cover up her research findings on GMOs — genetically modified organisms — in corn and how toxic they are to our health. I found this all really disturbing.”
Shiva’s clarion cry impacted Stephens all the more because of her child. “Here was this pure baby and what was I going to feed her?” Stephens says. “I felt that I simply had to do something about the vast ignorance on the topic of GMOs and Monsanto’s plan to patent seeds and control world food production.”
Stephens embarked on a local, one-woman crusade to inform everyone she could about Shiva’s work. She spoke at Occupy KC rallies, repeating Shiva’s exotic-sounding name like a mantra. On a cold, blustery day last October, she addressed a small crowd huddled in front of the fountains in Mill Creek Park on the Country Club Plaza at the first World Food Day KC Flash Mob, an event she organized. And she continues to create Youtube videos and art postcards to raise awareness (one postcard shows her with a bundle of broccoli in her mouth).
An eloquent speaker with a husky voice, Stephens commands attention. Frequently, she’s seen at gatherings wearing colorful clothing and makeup, ornate headbands or flowers adorning her salt-and-pepper hair, balancing her daughter on her hip or pushing her in a stroller. But she does more than speak out.
In a year’s time, she’s expanded her efforts to work with other local initiatives. She’s the videographer for Emerald City, an “urban eco-art village” focused on revitalizing the Troost Avenue area; teaches Youtube classes to youth at the Kansas City Public Library; and is a social media manager for the Kansas City Sweet Potato Project. In its fifth year, the project seeks to grow 20,000 pounds of sweet potatoes throughout the city in both public and private spaces, with half of this amount donated to Harvesters Community Food Network.
“Vandana Shiva is my university and the Sweet Potato Project is my homework assignment,” Stephens says. “Sweet potatoes require low upkeep but offer high-yield nutrition.”
Stephens also is working with Philadelphia filmmaker Zofia Hausman to create a film about Shiva’s work. Stephens admits that it’s not a life path she would have predicted for herself when she graduated 20 years ago from the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in Japanese. But it’s one she says she’s now compelled to follow. “One lesson I learned from Vandana Shiva, is that you have to start with yourself. You have to start local to create sustainable agriculture. It’s about changing the world in your own backyard.”
Photo by Megan True