Ael Leahy: Sustainable In The City

Growing up we always had a real Christmas tree, a practice I swore I would keep forever. But, as some of you know, I’m a bit of a Christmas fanatic, and the last time I had a real tree I kept it up so long it became a fire hazard. So a few years ago, I finally broke down and got an artificial tree. But for those of you purists who stuck with mother nature and got a real live tree, the question is what to do now that it’s had its run. The answer? Goats! Those cute little chewing machines apparently love the taste of pine (and have lovely breath). For a $20 donation you can take your de-decorated tree to Mt. Airy and frolic and play with the goats at the Philly Goat Project as they process your tree in an environmentally safe method of disposal. This week, I spoke to Ael (aka Amanda), an old friend of mine, and a staff member at PGP to talk about goats and other things. 

Tell me a little about your beginning?

I grew up in a scrappy little town, called Brockton, which is right outside of Boston. We’re mostly known for our boxing heritage. One of my next door neighbors was Marvelous Marvin Hagler who was a famous boxer. My mom likes to tell the story that when I was a baby, he used to tell everyone that I was going to grow up to have golden gloves on my hands. My high school was named after Rocky Marciano, and we had a giant Rocky statue in town similar to the other Rocky statue at the art museum. We were also the first city on the East coast to have metal detectors. I don’t know if we get bragging points for that but we would definitely get a “woah” from people in Boston when they found out where you were from. Pretty scrappy.

What were you like as a kid?

I love the idea of gathering around music and food, and when I was little, my mother said that we went to a friend’s barbecue and I was going around observing what everyone was eating and drinking and then went up to the host and said to her, “I’ll take the quiche.” I’d never had quiche, but I was obsessed with Julia Child and all things culinary.

What extra curricular things were you involved in?

I was on the ice hockey team, and I was the only girl on the wrestling team. I actually made varsity and I didn’t even like the sport! I did it as a dare and because I was like, “Women can do anything!” So for me it was about the message behind it and women having opportunities to do the same things the guys were doing. I connected with the guys on my team and had a lot of fun outside of the wrestling part! 

So what brought you here to Philadelphia?

I came to go to film school at Temple. I had done broadcasting in Boston for a year and then transferred to Temple. I was lured in at the time because David Lynch was teaching there for one semester and I got into his class. [Laughing] It was the weirdest class and I’m still not sure what we were taught. I hadn’t seen much of his work so I looked it up and it was like, “Oh, this is a bizarre man.” But I did become a fan of Twin Peaks. But my real connection to Philadelphia was through a record store that I went to in high school and then worked at in college. I was a big house music collector, still am, and I was fond of the Philadelphia house music scene. So when I landed here I was promoting different rave circuit parties and was the promotional person for a few small music labels. I then started doing my own parties and queer events. 

And as I recall, you left our little town for a while.

So I did events for many years and worked in the film industry for 10 years. I was doing some film work as well as working on local TV shows at Banyon Productions, at TLA, and the Gay and Lessen Film Festival. If you’d asked me at the time, I never would have predicted that advocating for local farms, small businesses and mental wellness would someday become the center of my work.

But in 2006, my accidental interest in the business of food began in South Philadelphia where I was living. I started working on a revitalization project with East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District. Under the leadership of Matt Rader, who is now the President of Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, I took my first consulting job with the assignment of providing existing businesses with new opportunities for growth, attracting new businesses and launching a farmers’ market showcasing local food, makers, artists and performers. It was so exciting to have a small part in an effort to reinvigorate a neighborhood and it just stole my heart. 

I found real value in work that fosters healthy communities and I took that to San Francisco where I apprenticed with La Cocina, a food business incubator whose mission is to cultivate low-income food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses. It was an extraordinary experience, and I decided to move back to Philadelphia and bring some of the things that I learned back to my community here. I’ve been doing community building and agriculture ever since. I am interested in cultivating systems that connect people to resources, and to one another. And now, perhaps more than ever, I believe that connecting and supporting local farms, cooperatives and small businesses all hold the key to fostering and sustaining resilient and healthy communities. 

True, and that brings us to the Philly Goat Project. Tell me a little about it. 

The Philly Goat Project is a city-focused program started in 2018 working with a small herd of goats as ambassadors for sparking interest in the areas of agriculture, health and wellness and environmental stewardship. It provides people with a new way to connect with nature and to start discussions about the world around us. The program was started by a long-time locally based social worker, Karen Krivit and funeral director and artist Lily Sage, to provide therapeutic support for a range of populations in the city including, but not limited to, youth, those with special needs and people affected by trauma. 

The best part is that people don’t even realize that it’s therapy, it just sneaks up on you. As a non-profit, The Philly Goat Project provides a number of wonderful programs and unique services including animal assisted therapy, education and youth job skills training. Our services are tangible for all ages and abilities and in the 3 years since its inception, PGP has engaged over 700,000 people in goat-centered activities in the greater Philadelphia region.

So tell me about the goats and do you have a favorite goat?

Oh man, that’s hard. For a long time, I thought my favorite was a goat named Oonagh, pronounced like “oh-nah.” It means Queen in Welsh and she has this gorgeous dorsal stripe on her back. But then I noticed how she was with everyone. She’s everybody’s favorite. She spreads her goat love far and wide, so I wasn’t feeling so special with her anymore. Then I fell for Teddy, who is one of our beautiful Nubian goats. They’re known for their high buttermilk fat, though we don’t have dairy goats, our goats are for ecological grazing and wellness and working to help people experience nature. And of course, as a boy, Teddy wouldn’t have been much help in the dairy area anyway. He’s a gentle giant with kind sweet eyes and he’s really taken my heart. But all of our goats are wonderful, they’re smart, clean, gentle, trained and have amazing personalities! They come in all different sizes, colors and breeds, they are silly, curious and resilient and don’t hold grudges. Each goat is named after a famous Philadelphian who made the world a better place, from Holiday (named after the great Billie Holiday) to Kiyoshi (named after Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a Japanese-American author and a civil rights and HIV/AIDS activist). 

Tell Me about the TreeCycle event happening on January 8th. 

TreeCycle is a celebration of sustainability in action. The goats give the trees a second life and the trees give the goats sustenance and help support their lives. But sorry to tell you Suzi, you can’t bring your artificial tree. Goats don’t eat everything, contrary to popular belief. But whether you bring a tree or not, it’s still fun to watch and participate in the event. You should bring your nephew. 

Sounds fun. What other service oriented groups are you involved in?

I volunteer with a collective called Hearts on a Wire that was started by an amazing person, Adrian Lowe. It’s a grassroots Inside/Outside prison advocacy organization working to address the needs of transgender people in Pennsylvania’s prisons. Our work is centered around several core projects, a newsletter of writing by and for transgender people in prison, homecoming grants to assist people returning home from prison, community education on the impact of criminalization and incarceration on transgender communities, and efforts to support the leadership development of currently and formerly incarcerated transgender individuals. 

That’s a lot. 

Yes, and we’ve also published passionate pieces about confronting trans stigma within prisons, advocated for condom use inside institutions, and amplified art work made by and for incarcerated transgender people. The newsletter works in the spirit of mutual aid and serves as a powerful tool of resistance in undermining one of the most devastating collateral damages wrought by the Prison Industrial Complex, such as forced isolation that prevents individuals from accessing networks of care. 

Since people who are incarcerated are not allowed to directly communicate with other people who are incarcerated, our newsletter acts as a bridge between people trying to support each other, offer advice, organize, create art and share stories across walls. We also have a virtual visit program where we do zoom calls with folx that we’re connected to on the inside. I have 3 people I do calls with, all trans women. It’s a very painful and egregious situation that they’re in and hopefully we can shine a little light into the dark places. 

Speaking of shining lights, how did you come out?

From a young age, people were telling me I was gay before I realized it. People would call me a dyke and I didn’t know why.  But later I had a moment when I realized that all of my friends except for my boyfriend were gay. I finally realized that it wasn’t a coincidence and eventually met my first girlfriend and had to break it to the boyfriend. He was the first person I came out to. 

And now you’re happily partnered.

Yes, for almost 14 years with the love of my life, Alison. Among other things, she’s a beekeeper, and an activist as well. She’s an extraordinary person, and a keen listener. She’s the one who notices all the little beautiful moments that I’m moving too fast to see and slows me down to appreciate them. She’s pure poetry. We do a lot of traveling together and we have a community garden that’s right near Awbury Arboretum where the goats live and she volunteers there as well. 

So what were some of the events that you did back in the day? I remember you had some incredible parties back when we had events for women and pre-covid when we could actually be in the same space. What was a memorable one for you?

Way pre-covid! We’re talking about the 90’s here. I did the Philly Love Project and a lot of other events. I recall we had JD Samson come out to one of the events with Dani from “The L Word” and everyone went crazy. Oh and I remember your ex, Vicki, doing chair massages at a few of my B-Girl parties, and that she once got a crazy ass tip, like $500 for a $5 massage. 

[Laughing] I remember the parties, but I don’t remember her telling me about that! I’ll have to call her and give her a hard time. So what show have you been binge-watching?

“Wheel of Time.” Have you heard of it? It’s an amazing show in the fantasy realm, take Lord of the Rings and replace the characters with women and you have Wheel of Time. 

I’ll have to check it out. Ever have a stalker?

Oh my gosh, well sort of. When I was in high school, I was also a drum majorette, I forgot to mention that. I wore the silly outfit and twirled the baton, the whole thing. I was also part of a step club, I alway loved to dance. Anyway, I was with my Majorette crew and the girls told me that I had a letter from an admirer. It apparently was a love letter from a girl on one of the majorette squads for another school. Scandalous! It was all about how she had a thing for me. This was when it was really not cool to be gay in school and at the time I didn’t think I was gay.  But they made a big fuss about getting my reaction. I thought for sure I had a stalker but it turned out, they made the whole thing up! They even wrote it on the back of someone’s picture to make it feel legit. So it was kind of messed up, I guess they knew something I didn’t at the time and were trying to out me. 

An early cat-fishing scenario. People often say I look like…

Pink. And she’s cool, but I think I’m a couple of years older than her. 

Any nervous habits?

Yes, I have a tendency to continue to talk when I really need to find a period and end a sentence. I just keep going and going! 

If you had a band, what would the name be?

Jazzy and the Side Dish. I’ve thought of this before. 

Favorite piece of clothing, now or as a kid?

That’s hard, too many… Well, I rocked the shrug for far too long. It needed to stop and I finally did, but I’m often tempted to bring it back. That and anything with sequins, I love sparkly things. 

Ever been attacked or bitten by an animal?

Yes! I had an iguana named Gizmo, and fun fact, I found out that when you’re menstruating, it gets iguanas a little crazy and they attack your crotch. I had to mark it on my calendar so that when I had my cycle, I made sure to lock Gizmo in another room. 

Good to know in case I ever find myself in the Galapagos. What tests your patience?

When a conversation is one sided. It doesn’t have to be with me, but if someone is not listening or interested in the other person, I just can’t. It’s game over for me. 

Favorite toy?

A stuffed animal dog, who I named, Flying Fleagle Beagle. I’d spin him around and toss him until one day his ear came off. A little rough, but that’s how we rolled. Luckily my mom sewed it back on. 

Favorite motto or saying?

It’s from Frida Kahlo.’’Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.’’

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