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How Do You Transform Communities? Go Back to the Basics.

How Do You Transform Communities? Go Back to the Basics.

USC Marshall master’s student Jordana Mendonça founded EcomAmor to educate people about nutrition and community.

Color photograph of a group representing EcomAmor.
Stay Informed + Stay Connected

Jordana Carlos de Mendonça grew up in an agricultural state, Goiás, in a city in central Brazil called Goiânia, known for its green spaces.

“It’s a big city, but it also feels like a small one,” she said. As a kid, Mendonça—USC MARSHALL SCHOOL OF BUSINESS MASTER OF SCIENCE IN SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP (MSSE) PROGRAM (MSSE) student—would visit her family frequently in the countryside, harvesting food from the land, cooking and dining together around a big dining table. “These memories are written in my mind and heart.”

Her parents taught her to be pragmatic. Earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in law, Mendonça achieved a steady career—in many ways the “Brazilian dream.” After five years working as a judge’s assistant, Mendonça began to wonder if what she was doing was fulfilling her. “I had a job, my own car, my own house ... But honestly, I was feeling empty and sad, asking myself ‘Is this all there is?” Mendonça was really interested in doing something close to the earth given her upbringing. “Food is a really powerful tool to connect people and create a sense of community,” she said.

Following her gut, Mendonça enrolled in a weeklong program hosted by the United Nations called EMPRETEC that exposed her to the building blocks required to create a business from scratch. From there, she knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur. “I was hooked,” she said.

Mendonça started delivering organic produce. At the same time, encouraged by her mother to explore new locales, she began traveling from Peru to Bolivia to the US. One volunteer experience with community garden project HUERTA DE VALLE in Ontario, California opened her eyes to how you can build a strong community through gardening. “The founder, Maria, started it because her kid needed to have access to organic food and she couldn’t afford it,” she said. Inspired, Mendonça returned to Brazil hoping to create a program that similarly provided access to good, nutritious food in her hometown.

“I’m having a great time at USC and am very inspired by the professors and my peers. I've been learning so many insightful things and building such a strong network.”

— Jordana Mendonça

Founder, EcomAmor

Sowing Seeds

Word spread about ECOMAMOR'S work, which began through a Facebook gardening community Mendonça started in 2015. In the first couple of years, Mendonça oversaw every area of operations, working with a group of passionate volunteers to execute the non-profit’s initiatives beginning in public spaces throughout the city of Goiânia.

In 2017, upon EcomAmor’s first-year anniversary, Mendonça was selected for the YOUNG LEADERS OF THE AMERICAS INITIATIVCE (YLAI), a U.S. Embassy initiative focused on providing tools and mentorship to entrepreneurs. For a month, she worked with GROWING GARDENS, a non-profit in Portland that provides educational resources for growing fruits and vegetables in schools, backyards and correctional facilities to help foster healthy and equitable communities. Inspired by Growing Gardens’ program, Mendonça talked to a judge she knew about the possibility of working with teenagers at a correctional facility in Brazil. EcomAmor partnered with Growing Gardens on this program and won a grant from the U.S. Embassy to support this work.

“The teenagers learned more than just gardening,” she said. “They learned how they could connect their dreams and passions, and how to make money from it. In underserved communities like that, people are dealing with a lot of trauma and grief. Food has that power to change relationships and lives, and the activities we held could give them some future prospects.”

All in its Mission

EcomAmor began to focus on long-term community programs, especially within public schools in the state of Goiás. “We needed to do more than show people how to create their own community gardens. We needed to be there to help them foster community and implement other sustainable practices like composting, recycling and more throughout the whole year, not just on 'Earth Day,'” Mendonça said.

By 2019, almost half of the EcomAmor team was paid (versus volunteer). They began with 10 schools and in 2020, grew to 50 schools, which they served both online and in-person due to the global COVID pandemic. Now for 2023, EcomAmor programs are back in-person with fewer schools, but in more underserved communities in the Northeast of Goiás, Brazil.

EcomAmor’s CEO Bárbara Lopes said: "EcomAmor works towards strengthening the leadership of women within school communities and promoting the autonomy and creativity of educators as important agents for building a transformative and inclusive education.”

COO Jordana Oliveira added: "EcomAmor strives to promote socio-environmental education throughout all schools in the state of Goiás, intending to enlighten individuals to become responsible citizens and build sustainable schools through the 'Sowing Futures' project."

In almost seven years, EcomAmor has directly impacted over 4,500 people and, looking forward, Mendonça and the board of directors hope to achieve financial sustainability and expand EcomAmor's work to serve all of Brazil.

A Launchpad to What's Next

Mendonça, who is vice president of career and professional development with the MSSE Student Assocation, learned about the MSSE program from a friend she met during the YLAI program. “Wellington was thrilled about how he could network with other entrepreneurs and learn the practical entrepreneurial way Americans think.”

Enrolled in the MSSE program, paid for by a full scholarship from LEMANN FOUNDATION, Jordana felt like she was finally taking a deep breath after years of juggling jobs and ideas.

“I was struggling with the pressure of not knowing what was best for the organization. How could I contribute more? How could we gain more resources? How could we have financial sustainability?” she said. The MSSE program helped her find the answers, offering concrete models and skills and pairing analytical processes with Brazilian energy and resilience.

One of the most significant milestones for Mendonça was passing the leadership baton. “It was - personally - very hard to step out, but I was very confident in the emerging leaders. It was also very liberating to be able to invest in myself and build the potential to start something new. But I'll always stay connected with EcomAmor and the people I met working there.”

She added: “I’m having a great time at USC and am very inspired by the professors and my peers. I've been learning so many insightful things and building such a strong network.” Bring it back to the earth she feels so connected to, she said, “I’m not sure what seeds I’m going to plant yet, but I’m preparing the ground for what’s to come and looking forward to keeping being a part of strong and fruitful communities.”