Source: Merrimack Valley Magazine!
Community Spotlight – May 2015
By LIZ MICHALSKI | Published: APRIL 27, 2015
Chef and Made in Lowell Founder Tobias Marx’s Efforts to Strengthen the Local Community Started Halfway Around the World.
For many nonprofits, a meal is a way to raise money to fund other events. For Made in Lowell, the meal is the event. But it took a trip halfway around the world for organization founder and CEO Tobias Marx to figure that out. Marx, 42 and a chef by trade, visited East Africa as a volunteer in 2006. On his first day there, he spotted two women cooking over an open fire.
“Being a chef, I wanted to fix that right away,” Marx says. So he and a few others built a beautiful kitchen — only to return a few days later to find the women still cooking over the open flames. On the last day of the trip, the group’s leaders persuaded the women to use the new facility. But in photos Marx took to document the day, the women didn’t look happy. “We hadn’t asked questions, just imposed our view,” he says.
The experience opened Marx’s eyes to how aid and development can be done the wrong way — even with the best intentions. An event later that day at a rural church service, where people who couldn’t afford to contribute to the collection plate donated everything from corn to a live chicken, reminded him that everyone needs to feel like a valued member of the community. “These two events really started me on a journey,” he says. “I’ve been a chef my entire career, and as the memories of that trip percolated in my head, I realized my ultimate image of community is a kitchen table. I wanted to create that.”
So Marx and a handful of like-minded friends got to work. Their original impulse was to give back overseas, so they started a school in Kenya, which they transitioned over to local leadership in 2013. With the school functioning on its own, the group looked for a new project.
Marx says 2014 “was a soul-searching year for us. We redefined our role to focus on our immediate community — how do we build a community here?” The organization changed its name from One 27 Global to Made in Lowell in order to better reflect its mission, and then strategized ways to make a difference.
For Marx, the obvious way to draw people together is through food. So last September the organization hosted the two-day Lowell Food & Wine Festival in the city’s Lucy Larcom Park. Pulled together on short notice and with minimal marketing, the event attracted more than 1,500 people. This year, the festival — sponsored in part by Merrimack Valley Magazine — is expanding to three days, Sept. 11-13.
More than 18 separate events are planned, including an opening reception, a food truck night, a pastry and cocktail party, craft beer and wine tastings, farm dinners, and a late-night tacos and tequilas pairing. Events will be staggered so people can attend as many as possible, Marx says.
The festival may be Made in Lowell’s showcase event, but it’s just one piece of a five-part initiative. The organization also holds monthly conversations with people across the city to gather information on projects that should be tackled in Lowell. It’s trying to expand awareness about available services in the city by using photo journalism to capture the stories of area nonprofits. It’s creating criteria for a “Made in Lowell” seal of approval — possibly to be launched this spring — so consumers who want to buy locally can look for the label on websites and in store windows. And it’s planning to release an app this fall that will help people learn what’s available in the Lowell community. The app will be paired with a loyalty rewards program, so users can earn points by attending nonprofit events and shopping locally. Points will be redeemable through area partners for things such as a free cup of coffee, Marx says.
“We love Lowell and want it to be a better place,” Marx says. “We don’t think we have all the answers, so we want to invite others in and become the connector for people to engage. We are living in a very divided culture. Lowell is so much better than that, I think, because there’s so much community already established. Imagine what we can do when we connect it all.”
Made In Lowell: Lowell, Mass. / (978) 364-1132 / MadeInLowell.org
Lowell Food & Wine Festival: Sept. 11 – 13, 2015 / TLFWF.org
Main photo by Adrien Bisson.