Powerful Women Let's Talk - 037: Tami VandenBerg

Mar 15, 2021

Tami VandenBerg

Community activist, entrepreneur, Business woman, Introducing Tami VandenBerg. Tami co-owns and co-founded The Meanwhile and The Pyramid Scheme - two businesses that have made substantial impacts in the community. She also co-founded the Eastown Bizarre Bazaar, LadyfestGR and the West Michigan Cannabis Guild. She has spent substantial time and energy working to end homelessness in our community and ran Well House for several years. In addition, she has helped lead the marijuana policy movement in West Michigan through decriminalization, medical marijuana access and legalization in 2018. And one day maybe she'll run for President! We'll ask why.

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Full Transcript:

>> Produced by women about women. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world, transforming who we are and how we live. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real.


Shelley Irwin: Community activist, entrepreneur-business woman introducing Tammy Vandenberg. Tammy Co-owns and co-founded The Meanwhile and The Pyramid Scheme, two businesses that have made substantial impacts in the community. She also co-founded the East Town Bizarre Bazaar, Lady Fest GR and the West Michigan Cannabis Guild. She spent substantial time and energy working to end homelessness in our community and ran Wellhouse for several years. In addition, she's helped lead the marijuana policy movement in West Michigan through decriminalization, medical marijuana access and legalization back in 2018 and one day, maybe she'll run for president we’ll ask why. Welcome to Powerful Women, Let's Talk. Tammy

Tammy Vandenberg: I'm very excited to be here Shelley. Thanks so much for having me.

Shelley Irwin: You're welcome. Now there's a lot of co-founding and co-owning in your introduction so, I'm understanding that teamwork is probably important to your being.

Tammy Vandenberg: Yes, I was thinking about that as I was writing lots of co-things and you know, many of these projects and initiatives and events came out of late night conversations, walking, coffee, what do we want to see? What do we want to do? What's missing? How can we uplift various communities, whether it's Lady Fest spotlighting women, whether it's West Michigan Cannabis Guild spotlighting locals and providing access to everyone or whether it's Bizarre Bazaar, which was to uplift artists that were not able to access traditional markets yet and needed a place to start. So, a lot of the things that I worked on and started have been about how do we give people opportunity? How do we shine a spotlight on people that are not getting that spotlight? And how do we organize? How do we get together? And so often these were just wouldn’t it be fantastic if we did this and then okay, well we should do it if nobody's doing it, then maybe we should do that.

Shelley Irwin: Where did it come from Tammy? This need to, for lack of better words help?

Tammy Vandenberg:  I think when I decided to stay in Grand Rapids after University, I went down to Louisiana and I did Americorps for a year and I absolutely loved it and I was very, very torn whether I was going to stay in Louisiana or whether I was going to come back home and I eventually decided to come back to Grand Rapids and at that time, you know, 25 years ago the city was very different and there was a lot of need in terms of businesses, in terms of activities, in terms of just bringing people together and so that's what I just decided in my head, I said if I'm going to stay here if my family's here and I'm going to live here, then I'm going to need a little more in this city. So, I think some of it is altruistic as a lot of it was there's definitely some self interest in there in terms of OK, I need some activity, I need some more things going on and I just I guess I'm just not the person that's just going to wait for other people to do it. I feel like, well, why not me? Why not me? Let’s just try.

Shelley Irwin: Yes, but obviously there is team participation as again you are co-owner, co-founder but, yet in addition to helping others, you're helping yourself. How did you become a successful entrepreneur business wise?

Tammy Vandenberg: Yeah, very similar story and back to the team, I think I have always recognized that I have skills, I have talents but, they're limited and other people have other skills and other talents. There was a time where I thought, oh, yes, I  can learn how to do almost everything and that's just not realistic. That doesn't mean I don't always want to learn, I never want to stop learning, I always want to know more but, realistically speaking, there are just other people that know how to do certain things much better than I do and I'm better at focusing on what I'm really good at and then pulling in people that I just really love to work with that have complementary skill sets. So, in terms of the businesses, it was very similar. My brother and I lived in East Town at the time, I still live in East town and we wanted a place to gather with our friends. We wanted a place for entrepreneurs, for activists for artists to get together and come up with schemes and ideas and just build community because, you know, this city has some very conservative streaks and that's fine and there's a very strong establishment that isn't necessarily really easy to break into sometimes and so I think we just wanted to try to build a movement and we did that through building spaces like The Meanwhile and The Pyramid Scheme and also, we aren't great employees, me and my brother, we aren't really great at working for other people. So, it was also OK there were all these vacant buildings on Wealthy Street at the time when we opened The Meanwhile, it was probably 80% vacant store fronts and there was a little bit of activity coming in Wealthy Theater and there are some businesses that had held on for many years and were still there, which is which is fabulous but, okay we have all these empty buildings, we have people that want to gather, what can we do to bring people together and also possibly have a livelihood?

Shelley Irwin: You joked that you're not a good employee, but I bet you're a good boss.

Tammy Vandenberg: I try very hard to be a good boss and it's interesting. I talk to a lot of other women business owners who have a hard time delegating and or just business owners in general, they really like to, you know, it's their baby it's their livelihood, they put everything they had into this thing and they err on the side of not delegating enough. I have the exact opposite issues where I’m an over delegator. I just say you could do it, just try it and if you need help just let me know and so I work really, really well with people that like to have a lot of responsibility, a lot of creativity, a lot of control and then I will absolutely pay them every dime I can afford and so that's how I always like to be treated as an employee and so that's how I try to treat my employees and that's not for everybody but, I have had people with me a very, very long time who just have very, very good styles that mesh very well.

Shelley Irwin: Testament to your leadership. Let's put your activism hat on, especially when it comes to working to end homelessness.

Tammy Vandenberg:  This has been one of my greatest life passions. I started this work in Louisiana when I was doing AmeriCorps in my early 20's and I knew I wanted to do something around human rights but, what a vast field, right? So many different issues, whether it's criminal justice reform, whether it's women's rights, whether it's immigration, mental health, there’s so many things and so I really found in Louisiana working with folks that housing was really the key to everything else without a place to live it was virtually impossible to address any other issue in your life. You are just completely focused on getting through the day, not getting hurt, being safe, not freezing to death and so I just had this epiphany “housing,” housing is what I want to work on and so I did that for many years. I did that for about 10 years before I opened The Meanwhile and discovered the housing first model which I had spoken to you about before, which really which is that exact epiphany, housing first. You have to address housing before you can address whether it's substance use, is whether it's mental health issues,

whether it's reuniting the family back together that's been separated and that has just been one of the greatest joys of my life getting people off the street that have been on the street a long time and that have not found access to housing. So I was at Wellhouse for about 5 years recently 2012 to 2017 or 2018 around there and it was one of the best projects I've ever been involved with and we got 200 people off the street and specifically we targeted people that could not get any other housing so lots of folks that had been in the criminal justice system jails, prisons, folks struggling with addiction and we specifically looked at all the applications and took the folks least likely to get into any other housing and the level of success these folks had was just I still can't believe it. You know, 90% of the folks we brought in either remained housed or moved on to housing of their choice, which just blows my mind.

Shelley Irwin: Well, you change lives and most likely saved lives. Let's talk about leading a policy movement Your journey, your medical marijuana niche. Where do you start?

Tammy Vandenberg: Yeah, they're a fascinating journey. Sometimes people think like how is all this stuff related it is all related. Interestingly, I got involved with the drug policy movement and specifically the marijuana policy movement through my work around homelessness because I saw that only certain people were having any kind of consequences for using marijuana and it was generally people that were very poor People of Color and utterly unfair and so initially, I tried to do a lot of policy work around changing access to housing. Okay, can we just say if it's just marijuana, if it's just it's really old can we just let people still get that housing. This was prior to Wellhouse, Wellhouse did not discriminate based on any of that stuff and we just could not get it done. We could not get people to change their policies and so then I started  thinking, you know, why? Why is this even illegal and started connecting with lot of national folks and attending conferences and getting connected to the drug policy alliance and realized there was this entire movement all over the country to legalize to decriminalize, to legalize. So in 2012 we successfully decriminalized marijuana in small amounts in the city of Grand Rapids and people thought we were insane. They thought we had no chance. In fact, there wasn’t even really much of an opposition because folks that were against it just thought this is bananas, nobody's going to vote for this and we won overwhelmingly in the ballot initiative. You know, it was it was a massive victory, a huge shock. So many folks, I still hear from people regularly that said, that changed my life, you know, because I did not end up with a misdemeanor, I did not end up with a felony therefore I did not lose my financial aid, I did not lose my housing, I did not lose my children and as more and more research came out and all the medical benefits and how there really was no value whatsoever to criminalizing marijuana, then, you know, folks moved onto legalization. So I was thrilled to be a part of the MI legalize Board in 2018 which successfully legalized recreational marijuana in addition to medical and we have saved 20,000 people a year from getting arrested for marijuana. We have saved the states, the city, the county massive amounts of money but, much more importantly, we've saved so much pain from so many people, for ridiculously  terrible consequences for using a plant. So I'm very, very, very proud of that work. It was it was hard, I had to debate the prosecutor twice, which was it was really terrifying because he’s a professional debater but, we have the facts on our side and we won.

Shelley Irwin: Speaking of debating, I think I mentioned Tammy V for President. You also had much involvement with numerous election campaigns to get more women into public office. What do you think?

Tammy Vandenberg: This has been really,

really incredible to be a part of and to watch. Going all the way back to Mayor Bliss. I worked on her very first campaign many, many years ago when she was completely unknown and ran for City Commission in my ward and second ward, helped out Ruth Kelly and her campaign who was a longtime commissioner. I ran myself and was unsuccessful, unfortunately but, it was still just an unbelievable experience that I'm really grateful for. It makes everything else seem less hard in my life after that. I just learned so much, I met so many people and went on to work on Dana Nessel's campaign. The current attorney general who is just a powerhouse of a woman, I assisted Whitmer and now working on Emily Bridson’s campaign who is running for mayor of Kentwood and I just feel that we are all so much better off when we have representation of women, People of Color, immigrants. You know, the broader spectrum we have on these bodies, whether it's the City Council, City Commission, whether it's a safe house, we are all better off when we have lots of different viewpoints, lots of different experiences. So yeah, I'm very proud of that work and that's something I don't ever plan to stop doing.

Shelley Irwin: Wonderful, well business owner, activist again, medical marijuana activist as well plus politics. When do you sleep? But we'll worry about that later. Alright some rapid-fire fun facts. Respond to me. Tammy completed two climate rides to raise funds.

Tammy Vandenberg: Yes, I did. That's probably about 5 years ago we rode our bicycles 300 miles from Grand Rapids to the city of Chicago round about routes. That really pushed me, that was really hard but, I loved it because I have pushed myself in so many other ways sort of to my brink but, I hadn't done that physically in a while. So I loved it, I loved, I loved the ride. It was a great challenge. You know all about that training for a goal, making sure you're prepared, the mental, the physical and then we raise all kinds of funds for all kinds of great organizations that are working to address climate change.

Shelley Irwin: My goal to interview you. There you go. You do love fitness like to move and be active every day is this all about balance for you?

Tammy Vandenberg: Yes, it's definitely about balance. I would say it's even more about survival. I think. The more intense, the more intensity I have in my life around whatever issue I’m working on, whatever cause I’m working on, whatever project I'm working on, I need that desperately need that physical release. I need the release and then I also just feel it's a confidence builder. You know, it's building the confidence building the health and just feeling strong. I feel like when I'm strong in my body. I'm also strong in everything else I'm doing and so that's something I've been focusing more and more on particularly the during the pandemic. That's when I really needed to up my fitness.

Shelley Irwin: And what is your secret to growing good sunflowers?

Tammy Vandenberg: Start them early.  I got some sprouting right now I’ll probably transplant some today. Start them early, plant a lot and plant them everywhere that's my strategy.

Shelley Irwin: What else is on your bucket list?

Tammy Vandenberg: Oh, gosh, you know, I think a lot of us have been thinking about this over the last year as we've had a lot of time to ourselves that as we've gotten this break that we were not expecting from so much of the busyness and the events and the endless commitments and there's so many countries I haven't seen. I want to see more countries. I want to see how more people solve problems throughout the world. I want to just be active. I am planning to start a bit of a travel blog because I love to travel and every time I go somewhere, you know, I'm always looking at OK, what are the drug policies? What's going on with housing? What's going on with the food growing and the farmers markets? And I have so many folks asking me nonstop where should I go or should I go here, I'm going to New Orleans, I’m going here, can you send me any of these recommendations? And my partner at one point said you need to start a blog then you could just send people the link to everything that you know about that place and so that's something I'm going to start when I go to New Orleans next time and so that's my next goal.

Shelley Irwin: Wonderful, a motto that fires you up when you may need a lift besides the weights?

Tammy Vandenberg: You know,

Shelley Irwin: Or maybe you don't need one, be like Tammy.

Tammy Vandenberg: I have a lot of various phrases I put through my head but, one of them, frankly is we have less time than we think. You know, we I think again, in the past year we've realized that more than ever we have less time than we think. I don't want to waste time and energy on things I can't control and things that I can't do anything about. I need to either take action if I can do something about an issue or I need to focus on what I can control and I need to keep moving because I have less time than I think and you know, the old cliche life is short and we do have control over the stories in our head that something I've been thinking about over the last year is sometimes we are the ones that get in our way and we need to get out of our own way and we need to realize just try it, just try it. Time is short, try it.

Shelley Irwin: Thank you Tammy Vandenberg for your time on this edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk.

Tammy Vandenberg: Thank you so much. This was great.

Shelley Irwin: Thank you for joining us for this edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk. I’m Shelley Irwin.


>> Produced by women about women. These powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women, Let's Talk? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real. It is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters or Grand Valley State University.