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Nature Stimulating Hope in Communities

Civic Warriors Podcast Episode 10: Nature Stimulating Hope in Communities

"These spaces have to come to where people are."

Alden Stoner of Nature Sacred, talks with us as we dive into what it means to invigorate communities through, and within nature. Backed by research to prove measurable positive impact, we discuss how the placement of nature in inner cities, prisons, hospitals and beyond, can be critical to enhancing overall well-being.

As Alden says, “we need places to get rooted within ourselves, and within our communities at large”. Whether serving as a place to unwind, reflect, or gather, these nature spaces are encouraging a sense of unity within communities. Done so, through one sacred space at a time.


#CivicWarriors #WithumImpact

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This Is Civic Warriors…Podcast Trailer

This podcast was transcribed through a third-party application. Please disregard any misrepresentations.

Civic Warriors:
Innovative, dynamic, gritty, determined warrior.

Hosts:
This podcast is about the innovators, the leaders on the front lines of adversity, the all around good people doing good deeds. They are the civic warriors of the world. Withum’s guests are the leaders in the nonprofit industry affecting change. They try, they fail, they overcome. Through their stories. We can join forces to become civic warriors.

Brad:
The following interview took place prior to the COVID-19 restrictions. With that said, we are eager to share what we’ve learned from Nature Sacred. An organization whose work is arguably even more important today than it was a month ago, as we need nearby nature now more than ever before.

Brad:
Hey warriors, welcome to the show. Today we are talking with Alden Stoner, the CEO of Nature Sacred. This is Brad Caruso and Matt Mojica here with me.

Matt:
Hi guys.

Brad:
And we’re going to talk about Nature Sacred, which is a super cool not-for-profit down here in Annapolis, Maryland. Nature Sacred, exists to inspire, inform and guide communities in the creation of public green spaces, as they call them, sacred places, designed to improve mental health, unify communities and agender peace. For over 25 years, Nature Sacred has partnered with over 130 communities across the country to infuse nearby nature into places where healing is often needed most. Distressed urban neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, prisons and more. So welcome to the show Alden.

Alden:
Thanks. I’m delighted to be here.

Brad:
I could tell, you know. Alden’s packed with a room full of auditors and accountants. Got the tax guy. We got the audit guys.

Matt:
The crew’s all here.

Brad:
The crew’s all here.

Alden:
It’s awesome.

Brad:
No, it is, we’re excited. So thanks for being here. We appreciate being a part of your organization and coming to your cool office with your cool wall behind us, with a lot of stuff written on it.

Matt:
Been a fun day.

Brad:
It’s been a fun day.

Alden:
Yeah. Yeah. We like to sort of have the brand surround us and surround everything we do. So here in our offices we have these journal entries that are recreated from actual journal entries from across our spaces across the country. So it’s pretty exciting.

Brad:
Cool. And, and those journals, uh, and we’ll get into this I think a little bit more, but for each of your, your sacred places, you know, there’s a bench and at the bench there’s also a journal.

Alden:
Yeah, there are a couple of hallmarks of our sacred places. There is a portal so that you always know that you’re entering into a new space, a path that you can follow along and uh, know, that sort of guides your thinking along with everything else. A destination, so a place to reflect, sit, meditate, be quiet in nature and a sense of surround to give you that sense of surround and safety. Uh, and we as humans, there are biological triggers in our brain that want that sense of safety. And that’s when our cortisol levels drop and all that. There’s evidence to produce that. And then each one of our spaces, there is a signature bench that used to be made from pickle barrel wood. But actually today is now made from refurbished wood from the joists of old houses deconstructed houses.

Matt:
Baltimore, where did he get the idea for the benches originally? One of the coolest parts of everything. How they had that hallmark bench in the middle. And that’s kind of the hallmark as you said of the entire, the entire place.

Alden:
Yeah. I mean the benches I think evolve. So in our very first space we weren’t, we knew we wanted something, but we weren’t totally sure. And we worked with a couple of folks from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, so we’re hearing Annapolis and my father, Tom Stoner has been involved with Chesapeake Bay Foundation for a number of years and a couple of people there helped create the, both design, and then actually produce and create the first benches and that they are an extraordinary design. And people have asked us many, many, many times over the years if they could have a bench, they could buy a bench anywhere. And the only way you can get a bench today is if you have a sacred place. Yeah. And the, the bench story is really incredible. It’s, um, it’s really a supply chain for social good because we get the wood from the joists of the deconstructed houses in Baltimore that wood then get sent to Western correctional Institute where we actually had a sacred place in a workforce development program and it gets constructed by inmates. And then it goes to the league for people with disabilities in Baltimore and they either install them if they’re a local to the space or they help manage and, uh, and advise the rest of the Nature Sacred network on how to maintain their benches. So it’s, it’s got a pretty powerful story and yeah, I can tell you a story about a particular gentleman who’s of interest. Do you want me to?

Brad:
Absolutely.

Matt:
A hundred percent.

Brad:
That’s what makes it fun.

Alden:
One of our most ardent “fire souls” and fire souls, the word that we use for our, the community leaders, the spark in the community, who, who helps bring these spaces to reality. Um, and that means both from the construction perspective and the ideation perspective, but also from the maintenance and the programmatic work and just bringing the community in. Um, so one of our most ardent fire souls, Todd Marcus, at an Intersection of Change in Baltimore, he was in need of some landscaping help and heard about a new firm called Division Street Landscaping. And so he had him come over, uh, this gentleman come over and look at the property to see if he could, you know, help with the landscaping. And he immediately looked at the bench and said, oh my gosh, I know that bench. I built that bench. And Todd Marcus is, you know, such a long standing fire soul. He knew that the only way that that was possible was if this gentleman was 4 million inmate of Western Correctional. And, uh, his name is Alex Smith. And so he immediately called us up and said this, you’re not going to believe this story. And so we went up and met with Alex and he didn’t know anything about landscaping before going into Western Correctional, um, heard about this program that we were going to create a sacred place inside the prison, raised his hand to be a part of that and was invited to do so. And it turns out as, as we were unpacking the story with Alex, that he was one of just a few inmates who was in an original visioning session with uh, my father, Tom Stoner, the warden at the time, the landscape architect and um, I believe one or two other prison administrators. And he helped craft and vision what this place was going to be. And so he got really into landscaping, started reading up on it, was a part of that program, helped build those benches, got out of prison in I believe it was 2012, and starting division street landscaping. And they primarily work in Baltimore and they also primarily hire people with barriers to entry for work. And he’s just, I mean, that’s the full circle.

Brad:
That’s incredible. Yeah. How that occurred.

Alden:
Yeah, yeah. That’s, impact at its core, right?

Brad:
That’s impact at its core.

Alden:
Yeah. Yeah. So, um, and he’s just an incredible, incredible human.

Brad:
It’s exciting to hear it. So I always, I always love hearing those, those real compassionate stories and real life stories about how, you know, something that, that you’ve done has created such an impact for another. And then it’s the gift that keeps on giving because now that person is then giving back to more and to creating more opportunity for others that if you didn’t do what you did, that person wouldn’t have done what they did. And it’s this exponential effect that can never be measured, but you know about it, you know? You feel it. And uh, and experience that.

Alden:
I’ve spent my, uh, much of my career in the area of impact and quantity. You know, you want to count things and it’s important to quantify impact, but not everything that counts can be counted. And so –

Matt:
I like that.

Alden:
Yeah, Einstein said it I wish I could take credit for it.

Matt:
Oh, I would have believed. I would have believed that. I would have believed that.

Brad:
I’m sure Google couldn’t tell you that, so no one would know.

Alden:
But it’s true. And, and you know, there’s just the, the ripple effects are many. And especially with our spaces, you know, we, we have had the benefit of helping communities create these spaces and it’s all community led, community led design, community led desire. It is not a top down. It is a bottom up. But with each one of these they create a different sense. And the only way we really knew that things were working was because of the journal entries. So we could put these journals. And, and that was, uh, that came in our first or second space. And it was an idea from, I believe it was Chuck Foster’s mother, I don’t want to misquote, but I believe it was Chuck Foster’s mother and Chuck foster was, is one of our board members. And was the gentleman who helped build our first benches before he went into help train the inmates at Western Correctional. And she had the idea of why not put a, put a journal in this, um, bench. And we today, almost 25 years later have thousands of journal entries and people say the most extraordinary things, they share their loves and proposals.

Brad:
I was just gonna ask you are there any proposals that go into there because that’s a cool thing.

Alden:
And weddings take place in our spaces too. Yeah, absolutely. In fact, uh, up in Baltimore, there was a political confirmation or something that happened in one of our spaces. So lots of great activity on that. But you know, also there are people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts. The University of Maryland, you know, they will put in, I’m thinking about killing myself and it’s, it becomes sort of an analog Twitter. People will respond to that and say, you matter, this matters. Like keep with it. And the person will go back and say, thank you for saying that. And so there is a definite dialogue that happens and you can’t quantify it back to the quantification. You can’t quantify the value of that impact. But we know that people are using these spaces in extraordinary ways and it feeds their souls. And you know, soul work is so important. And as we struggle with really being connected with ourselves, um, as you know, the city and as technology sort of become so pervasive, taking those moments to yourself, those reflective moments, especially in nature, it’s so much easier to do that when you’re in nature because nature reflects that because it takes its time, and we all need to take our time. It’s hard to do that when you’re jam packed with a crazy schedule.

Brad:
Yeah. We always forget that we were talking about today and Alden said a good phrase to us that, uh, you should spend 20 minutes a day in green. And, uh, you know, as us as auditors in the month that we’re in a crazy time of year, we, uh, we don’t always take to that, but we should because start, uh, start losing reality a little bit ingrained in the computer. Your brain starts going a little off tangent and you lose track of the important things in life and the feeling that, uh, we’re all kind of part of this earth, to some degree, very connected to the earth. We just don’t realize it always.

Alden:
Yeah, there is this sacred – and why it’s called major secret is there is a sacred connection between the human and nature and we are nature and nature is us. And 20 minutes a day in nature can reduce cortisol levels. It can increase all kinds of mental, physical and community well-being. And it’s 20 minutes a day isn’t that much, you know, it’s walk around the block, maybe two. That’s it. So, and that’s sort of the optimal dose that evidence based research is showing.

Brad:
Yeah, I think that’s really cool. And then one of the things I found in poking around Nature Sacred’s website is they have a published paper called The Healing Power of Nature which is, which is just very cool that you know, drawn the connection through research.

Alden:
Yeah. We had in 2012 we had, by then we had established a number of sites. So we knew there was something here. We knew that communities cared, that they were impacted positively. More and more communities were asking. We had over a thousand grant requests at the time. And we were at that time a grant giving organization and only gave about 130 grants. So, you know, that’s somewhere around, I don’t know, Harvard’s acceptance rate or something. Point is, you know, that, um, there’s a lot of need and there’s a lot of desire for these types of spaces. So we knew we were onto something, but how do you scale, how do you start to scale? Well, we realized that in order to, to make the case, we had to prove the numbers. And if you want to get policymakers attention, if you want to get corporate attention, you’ve got to prove it by the numbers. These are, these are truths that we all know somewhere deep in our blueprint. But we are living in a time of data. And, uh, so we said we kicked off in a national program called the nature sacred awards program, that coupled research, uh, scientific evidence based research plus design. So we created, we funded the creation, of five spaces nationally that all had major research, private projects affiliated with them. And the, the outpouring of that is the healing power of nature, which is a part of that. But it’s also has a lot of additional research that’s happened in the field that sort of, you know, snowballed since then. Not that we were the spark necessarily, but we definitely fanned the fire

Brad:
Definitely, is an understatement. So, you know, we kind of jumped into it a little bit, but uh, you know, talk to I guess bring us, you know, bring us up to speed a little bit. So I think one of the cool parts and kind of how we at Withum got involved with Nature Sacred is, you know, they’re, they’re kind of going through the process as some organizations do have, you know, to a degree redefining yourself, but to a degree, you know, kind of re-looking at how you go about your programs as well as how you raise funds to fund those programs as well as you know, what you’re ultimately trying to accomplish and achieve. And so we originally got involved because the organization is moving from a more of a grant-making non-operating foundation to an operating foundation, which is very substantial switch in terms of the IRS and then paperwork and everything you have to do to make that happen. But also just just in the, in the mindset of, you know, we’re no longer, we’re no longer a checkbook. We’re, we’re the ones actually physically doing the work, physically getting more involved and we’re, we’re embarking on the journey of self-sustainability. You know, we’re no longer going to be relying upon a contribution from one or from few individuals. There’s a lot that goes into that. Which is, it’s an exciting time because, and you’re seeing it more and more nowadays organizations becoming operating foundations because you’re starting to see, especially with the art, you know, we were talking about joking about millennials, but one big part about millennials is we want to be actively involved in it. My parents didn’t, my grandparents’ generation wanted to write a check. My, my grandma Mimi, if you call her up, she’ll probably write you a check. If you give her a compelling story, I’m probably not that way. I probably won’t. But if you say, Hey, we want to get you involved. And if I was passionate about the cause I would get involved. And so I think that’s a big shift in, in kind of the world. And, and you know, my prediction is we’re going to see a lot more scenarios like yours, which is a lot more operating foundations because just in general our type of philanthropy is actively get involved in the work and make it happen. So you can kind of see that shift. So I guess Alden, why don’t you bring us up to speed, kind of, you know, how did the Foundation even start and how did you get to where you are today?

Alden:
Yeah, so we at the Foundation started in 1996 my parents, Tom and Kitty Stoner were on a trip to London and they arrived early and so weren’t able to check in. And you know, after a long flight in an airplane where you’re confined, they went out for a walk and he came upon a park and there was a portal into this park. They walked in and we’re really just transported and all of a sudden we’re able to breathe and breathe after you know, the stuffy air, the sort of jostling around that happens with travel.

Brad:
Yeah especially with a screaming baby next to you. You know you need to clear your head after that.

Alden:
Yeah. And so they noticed that there were a number of benches and that many of them had plaques on them about World War Two and some had little things sort of inscribed on the bench in the back. And despite the fact that World War Two was at that point, a memory, a distant memory.

Brad:
50 years part.

Alden:
Yeah memory. These were still spaces that were being utilized that were gifts to the city that made London, a particularly livable city and they were all open to anyone. And open is a huge value of ours. It has to be not just open, but welcoming. And so anyway, they, that was sort of the beginning of inflection. Uh, the other thing is, is that my mom had always been involved in, well, the wellness initiative. She, she created one of the first wellness programs for a company from my father’s company, started broadcasting system in the 1980s. And so this idea of open community and well-being started to sort of percolate. So it just started out, small ideas.

Brad:
She was well above her time too just, I mean, wellness programs now are common, but then, I mean, you know, there was a different corporate culture back back in the eighties. Not that I was there to remember, but I heard about it. I read a book, I read about it, I read it about it in a leather bound book on my shelf [laughter].

Alden:
And so they saw the unmet need. And particularly they came from Iowa out to the DC area. And you know, Baltimore and Washington are incredibly different cities. You know, the Plains of Iowa, there’s space and green nature all around you. And so, um, it started small. And the initiative, it was called the TKF Foundation at the time, but the name of their program was Open Spaces Sacred Places, just a mouthful. But really we were enumerating exactly what we were after. It needed to be an open space and need to be a sacred place. So these were not rec parks, these were not you know, other types of parks. These were meant to be reflective, contemplative quiet spaces in the city. But that word sacred early days was a challenge for some people. Uh, I will say nearly 25 years later, there are a lot fewer questions about that word because we have shifted as a society and you know, as people I think have gone to belong to fewer and fewer religious institutions, uh, that doesn’t mean that there’s any less spirituality or spiritual capital search for that spiritual capital.

Alden:
And so –

Brad:
If anything, it’s only expanded just in a different way.

Alden:
Right as we move towards mindfulness and some of the other things. Yeah.

Brad:
Yeah. Yeah. And I learned some very interesting, I met a gentleman who’s, who’s, uh, who’s heavily, he was kind of like a psychologist but wasn’t a psychologist. He was pitching like emotional intelligence and, and learning, you know, the connection between like the soul and the mind. And it was like I kind of, I went through a program with him. It was like an education class and it was absolutely wild. Um, when you really like figure out how to connect your emotions to your mind, it’s wild what you unlock. And it’s a spiritual journey to a degree. But I think nowadays, you know, a lot of people are kind of shying away from institutions calling it institutions, whether it be religious, government, whatever it might be, and are moving more towards individuality because we can, because we’re so connected with technology and everything else going on. It’s, it’s wild. Yeah. Such a shift

Alden:
Form of the iPhone, the I everything.

Brad:
I everything. Yeah.

Alden:
And so it’s, you know, the I meditation or the I well-being, whatever that is. Um, and it’s interesting because each one of our spaces is custom because it’s created by the community. And I think that’s part of what also attracts this idea to people because it’s really owned by the place and the people of that place.

Brad:
Yeah. And in any way, and just in general, not a little bit of a tangent, but anybody that is kind of going through any, any troubles or issue that, you know, they always say if you journalize it or you write it down or you, you know, and you, and you put yourself in a place of like serenity, you know, nature spaces definitely would consider that. I consider that in the ocean or the two places of like real serenity is writing it down and I’ve had emotional, mental problems in my life. And you know, you write it down and you’re like, you read it, you’re like, Oh, it’s not so bad. Or you read it, you’re like, what the heck am I thinking? And it changes it. And it really, you know, it really has an exponential impact on your, on your, your well-being, uh, more than you’d imagine. And all it is is you, you know, but you have to write it, you know, doing that in your iPhone is not the same thing as you physically writing something with a pen. Completely different scenario.

Alden:
It’s different neural pathways.

Brad:
Oh, is that what it is? Yeah. I wasn’t even talking about science. I was, I’m just thinking of practicality. A hundred percent. Yeah.

Alden:
You know clicking buttons versus actually writing. It’s a different neural pathway.

Brad:
So I should say it differently. That’s what explains it. That’s what explains my reaction to the scenario. Yeah.

Matt:
And I think what’s great is everyone is completely different because of the journal. Like it’s building vastly different communities and you kind of learn about the victories and the struggles of each people through those journals. Like just reading some of the quotes throughout the wall. It’s eye opening. It’s not like scrolling through Twitter or anything. It’s building a community and it kind of shows that we’re all in this together in such an individualized world, which I liked.

Alden:
Yeah. It’s a, it’s a stitching of the fabric of the community for sure. And I’ll just give you a couple of examples on that. You know, there’s a space here in Annapolis that’s just down the street from a couple of restaurants and often the restaurants are very busy and so they send people with their beepers down to our sacred places. And so we have just a plethora of, uh, writings in those journals always because they’re visiting from, there’s a lot of international visitors. Um, and this is where you have people who are on dates and like talking about their meet cutes and all kinds of different things. Um, so there’s that juxtaposed with the, our space in Legacy Hospital in Portland, Oregon. So that’s right off of two units. One is the cardiac unit and the other is the maternity ward. And so in those journals you have beautiful entries about, you know, children coming into this world and fathers are expecting, you know, the mom to actually go into labor and what those sort of emotions are like. And you have families who are waiting for their parents to get out of cardiac surgery and what that’s like. And sometimes they don’t come out of cardiac surgery and then people sort of process their emotions in those gardens. Cause that is, that’s a, those are big life moments and –

Brad:
Hospitals contain a lot of big life moments, whether beginning or end.

Alden:
That’s right. That’s right. And the other one I’ll just share with you is actually the space at Western Correctional. So one of the things that came out of that visioning, um, is that the inmates felt like they didn’t have, they couldn’t really be authentic in prison because if they showed vulnerability, then that was, would be a problem within the system with other inmates. And so, um, and yet people get married, people are born, people die. Like they have these big things that are happening but can’t really communicate in a way. Right. Um, so the landscape architect there came up with this idea of the well of unspoken truths and they drilled down 20 feet into the ground, um, a small hole. And so the inmates there could write a journal entry, tear it and throw it down the well of unspoken truths and no one can access it. But it got written, it was expressed, it was out of their being and then, you know, stayed safe. So each community, yeah, each community does have a different vibe and a different culture around it, but all beautiful in different ways.

Matt:
How often do you change out the journals? Cause I can imagine they probably fill up fairly quickly.

Alden:
Yeah. Each space is different. So, uh, there are some that fill up quite quickly. And for each space we have a fire soul and that’s that community leader. And so they’re actually in charge of monitoring the journals and if they’re, you know, getting full, like give us a call, say send us more journals and we do. And so, um, and other spaces have less traffic. And yet other spaces, um, are in particularly, uh, tough neighborhoods. And so sometimes the journals walk away and you know what we feel like if that’s what happens to that journal, that’s what was meant to happen with that journal. But we, you know, the fire souls try and keep fairly close tabs and we’re always working on ways to improve that process.

Matt:
That’s a perfect flow through to my next question. Uh, for our viewers at home, how do you become a fire soul? How can you get involved?

Alden:
Yeah. Well reach out to us, naturesacred.org and, you know, if you’re interested, there are communities all over the country and the planet frankly that need, nearby nature and that’s the key that it’s nearby, that it’s open, that it’s community led and the fire soul just needs to sort of self identify and say, this is important to me. And maybe work with a community group if there is one or start a community group. We’ve worked with lots of very small local community groups. But the whole idea is that in the design process that they invite a larger community to be a part of it.

Matt:
Takes a village.

Alden:
That’s right. It takes a village. And improves the ideas and improves the outcomes and improves the programming and people end up meeting people that they never otherwise would have collaborated with. The truth is, is that, you know, we have these cell phones that connect us in some ways, but disconnect us from our very close actual community. Um, because you know, we’re so entrenched in texting back someone who’s, you know, 3,000 miles away, um, which is fine, but you’re, you’re not saying hello to the person walking by you on the sidewalk.

Matt:
Yeah.

Brad:
Yeah. That’s, that’s one of the challenges that we have to figure out as a society, how to overcome. Is that how you get your head out of your phone and look around?

Alden:
Yeah. Yeah. It’s tough. But, um, yeah, that’s part of why we support and encourage programming and a lot of these places and to invite people in to take that moment, whether it’s, you know, yoga in the garden or watching a step class or doing storytelling in the gardens or time in the garden. Um, yeah, those are the kinds of things that hopefully can just help people. Take a minute, take a breath.

Brad:
We all need that. Yeah. Have a beer.

Alden:
I know what’s on your mind Brad.

Brad:
Yeah, yeah. It’s all good. Um, so, uh, you know, with that, I think, I think, you know, important for, uh, for, uh, you know, everyone to know and learn about your organization Nature Sacred. I think it’s, I think, you know, as you said, you’re, you’re very ingrained to, into the, the concept of, uh, of impact, you know, from your perspective, what types of, what types of successes are you having, um, and, and, and, you know, from an impact perspective, how do you know what you’re doing is actually working. It’s a loaded question that’s very difficult to answer, but, um, you know, I think a lot of not-for-profits, you know, especially in your space and in many spaces, uh, it was the environmental world. You know, impact is an important thing, but how do you measure impact? How do you, how do you know what you’re doing is the right thing you’re doing right? It’s, it’s a tough question.

Alden:
It is a tough question. And I have dealt with this question for a number of years. Um, both when working on film. Um, so when I worked at Participant Media and trying to measure the impact of those films and things like an Inconvenient Truth and Food Inc. and how do you know it’s working? I didn’t know that

Matt:
You worked on those movies?

Alden:
Well I worked at the company that created those movies.

Matt:
Oh okay.

Alden:
Yeah I led their social impact work, um, for, for films like that. And um, you know, creating that movement building is takes time.

Brad:
It takes a lot of time.

Matt:
I think it, I think it did make a big influence cause I can remember being in high school and my economics teacher would always show those movies. So you’re right, it does take some time.

Brad:
Oh yeah every high school in America showed An Inconvenient Truth.

Matt:
Yeah.

Brad:
That was, that was an impactful movie and an impactful thought.

Matt:
Yeah. I mean, I feel like it changed the conversation where people are no longer debating if it’s real or not because it is real and it is a huge that, um, it, it, it’s now a reality and hopefully we start dealing with that more

Alden:
True. All of that is true. And I’ll say in terms of impact, so did a bunch of people, did a bunch of high schools across America see it? Yes. That’s an output. What’s the outcome? So all I’m saying is measuring impact is a really challenging thing to do.

Brad:
It’s a different, it’s a different, yeah. What scale, what scale is it on? Yeah, that’s a good question.

Alden:
Yeah. So I mean, you know, there’s inputs, there’s activity, there’s outputs, and then there’s outcomes. And as much as we can get to outcomes, that’s the golden goose right? But it’s not always easy to get there. And, um, a lot of, and it’s not always easy to measure. Sorry, I didn’t need to.

Brad:
No, I was totally, I was laughing in my head cause I’m a nerd and a, there’s an accounting standard that talks about when you’re buying a business and if you define a business, there’s, there’s input activity and output. He said that, and I thought of an accounting standard. It’s totally awful. Anyway, that just derailed things. Yeah. Yeah. Accounting is boring.

Alden:
Not the way you guys do it.

Brad:
Um, yeah. Well that’s to a degree. Um, so, you know, it’s, so from that perspective, you know, how do you define success or how do you find impacts? You know, as you said, it’s, it’s a difficult scale, but what is your definition of it?

Alden:
Yeah, well I think a couple of the things that we’ve shared, I mean I think the story of Alex Smith is, you know, the embodiment of impact and that’s, that’s outcome. That’s, that’s the golden ticket, right? In terms of, you know, when you know that one small thing that you did over here has a ripple effect. Is that the cause? No, Alex Smith is an amazing individual. Lots of other people affected his life. Like all of these things happen, but we were some small part of that outcome. And then he, you know, and then he’s paying it forward with all of his ripples. Whoa. I mean, talk about seismic change, but the journal entries is another. Um, so we know that things are working. We know when people write anything frankly. But, um, when they say thank you for this place, you know that it’s actually making a difference and we believe that there are, you know, somewhere between five and 10 X visitors for those that actually journal.

Brad:
Oh really? Okay.

Alden:
Yeah. I mean, a lot of people don’t know that the journals are there. They kind of discover them. So many times people will write and they’ll say, I’ve been to this place three times and this is the first time I noticed there was a journal because it’s underneath the bench. It’s kind of in a little pocket and you kind of have to discover it. And that’s part of the charm that it’s not wildly obvious when you walk up to it. It’s not sitting on the bench thing right in me. Yeah. It’s not like Alice in Wonderland. Um, so that’s part of it. And you know, I think the other piece is, and this is why we did this national program around research, is, um, the, the research aspects of it and really drilling down into the scientific benefits of nearby nature. Um, and there are a number of them, there are a number of benefits and then some of our other spaces have sort of a value stack. So we’ve worked with the Nature Conservancy a couple of spaces and so what they are doing is the green infrastructure aspect and related to tax credits and all kinds of things. And they, we’ve partnered with them and they brought us in to be sort of the community outreach aspect of that. Right? So there’s a, there’s a financial and environmental impact for what’s happening underneath the ground and we’re kind of what’s above ground where, um, you know, the programmatic and community aspect to that. So, um, that’s a place where you’re kind of in my mind, doubling your impact. And I, I’d like to see us do more, more of that type of work.

Brad:
Definitely. So, so as far as sacred spaces, what, uh, you know, ballpark, how many sacred spaces exist right now?

Alden:
There’s about 150 sacred spaces. And, um, one of the, one of the other reasons that we know it’s working, we sent, uh, my father’s book, Open Spaces Sacred Places to a few community foundations. And we got a call from a gentleman named Fred Smith who is now on our board. Um, we’re thrilled to say it from The Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama. And he said, you know, we have, we have some money. We, meaning we have funding from another source, we have access to land, we’d like to use your model, can you help us?

Brad:
Oh wow.

Alden:
Right? Out of the clear blue sky.

Brad:
Yeah. Not something you always expect to, from a, from a foundation or a community foundation like that. You know, you don’t expect that. Yeah. That’s interesting.

Alden:
And we said, well, by all means please. Uh, that sounds terrific. We’re happy to help. And, and helped, you know, guide him through the process of identifying fire souls and, you know, the, the design elements. And we just a couple of weeks ago, so in 18 benches down to Alabama, so with one call, there are 18 benches, there’s nine, sorry, there’s two per the nine counties in Northeast Alabama. And I think that’s when, you know it’s working. Um, and you know, the other thing that happened this year is we’ve had a couple of calls from corporations who have said, you guys are onto something. I think there’s a benefit here for both the community and the performance for our employees. Can you help us? And we said, we sure can. Let’s, let’s talk.

Brad:
I would rather have that than the Google egg. You know, you’re about like,

Matt:
Oh yeah, it’s kind of like a tomb of relaxation.

Brad:
Where you kind of go in and take a nap in the middle of the day. I don’t even relate to what I see on TV. Yeah.

Matt:
It kind of scares me a little bit. I don’t want to go into an egg.

Brad:
No, no desire to do that. No, not until the world’s ending. Yeah. I like the nature space as a whole lot better. But, uh, yeah, no, that, that’s, that’s exciting that you get, you’re getting that kind of buzz and, and, and people catching on. And I’m sure the more the more exposure you get or the more publicity you get, the more you’re going to find, uh, organizations and individuals with that mindset, especially nowadays, I think, I think a lot of us in the world are becoming more in tune with the environment and, you know, not, not just, um, environmental conservation, but, but that, you know, we’re really connected to the environment and we lose sight of that by sitting in traffic every day.

Alden:
Yeah.

Brad:
You know, we totally lose sight of that, that you imagine the impact you could have if he had, like, you’re driving to work and you’re having a terrible day. It’s eight o’clock in the morning, you’re in traffic and you can just veer off the side of the road. And there it was, there’s a bench, a nice place, just quiet serenity. And you can just say, you know what? I’m going to, I’m going to get to work 15 minutes late today. You probably would have a better day. Probably wouldn’t, I guarantee you that that actually happened one time.

Matt:
That actually happened one time, I was driving to one of our clients and um, I was heading a little early way so I was going to get there 20 minutes earlier and I see this park and I look over and it was a huge 9/11 Memorial and it was right on the edge of a cliff and you could see all these statues and then he could see the skyline of New York city. And that’s probably like one of my favorite days just driving cause it took me on a different route. I was, I was a little annoyed that it was taking me up a mountain and it was just a nice surprise. And I think nature has an ability to connect us to so many great things and reflect. Cause I, I felt better that day. Just being able to experience nature, being able to reflect on, on just that park. And it was incredible.

Alden:
I feel like we really haven’t done our job with you guys today and taking you to some of our sacred spaces. I mean, we’ve had you locked in here all day.

Brad:
I feel like we have to go, you’re gonna have to give us a little map.

Matt:
Do a little scavenger hunt.

Brad:
You can see how many of the – we’ll do a challenge.

Alden:
Ooooh.

Brad:
That’s what you should do. You should do a challenge to the world. How many of these can you visit? And like –

Alden:
I love that idea.

Brad:
Right? I love it too. It’s kind of like Pokemon World, but like, yeah, yeah? Remember that?

Matt:
Yeah.

Alden:
Well we definitely can. It’s an interesting question actually. It’s something that we’ve spent a lot of time talking about over the years, is to what extent do we involve technology in part of our spaces?

Brad:
Only limited, you probably you – want to, yeah, I agree. You probably want to be very limited.

Alden:
Yeah. I mean there’s no right answer. There’s just sort of wherever we kind of head. But, uh, I do think we’re, we’re always reticent to jump into that one. That being said, you know, technology is like anything else. It’s agency. So if you can use it, use it for good and use it to try and raise awareness around the cases and engagement, then that’s worth it. Because you know, part of what, what we’re about and part of why we’re making this shift towards sustainability and towards, um, an operating foundation is to scale to go 10 X 10 X, 10 X places 10 X engagements, 10 X, um, moments of mindfulness. Because think about each of you have said at one point in this conversation about how you felt different that day when you were in nature, even just for a few minutes. It doesn’t take much. You don’t have to go out, you know, and go on a two hour hike. And if you multiply that, like how did you show up for yourself? How did you show up for your client? How did you show up for your day differently? And if you can multiply that by a hundred thousand people, a million people a day, like that’s a wow. The potential ripple on that is, and that’s the part of the outcome. The ripple is the outcome. Hard to quantify that outcome. But you know, if that person has had that 20 minutes of medicine that that human – I’ve been calling these human recharge stations, you know, it’s a little like the equivalent of the phone recharge stations at the airport. Only you’re recharging your mental, physical and emotional well-being.

Brad:
Yeah. It’s hard to measure that. There are less angry people at work today, but you know, but I mean the journals tell you that. I mean, you know, very clearly you can tell that I’m sure people aren’t writing, you know, it’s not like a, it’s not like reading comments on, on Instagram. Oh you probably don’t get too many. Like, like angry, negative.

Alden:
There are some but you know what people often go back and scratch them out or say that’s not appropriate. So they self-regulate. Um, I’m serious. It’s amazing. It blows my mind every time I read that I’m like, Oh yeah, cause there are angry people and people will want to write things out. But 97% of what we say is all positive. Um, and those that are like, don’t stay there. People will go back and be like not appropriate for this space. It’s very interesting.

Brad:
Yeah. So I have a weird question. How many books have you collected?

Alden:
I think we, well, in our possession we have probably about 500 but we, a lot of the, the spaces keep their books and just send us the digital files.

Brad:
Oh, okay, sure. Yeah, of course.

Matt:
Yeah.

Brad:
Okay, cool.

Alden:
Yeah, so the ones we have are those that, you know, there isn’t necessarily an organization that wants to hold it, you know, University of Maryland has all theirs, those kinds of things. Um, but yeah, I, I would, I would say there’s a lot more out there than the 500 or so that we have. Well, you could tell us, you could audit us all the way back to the beginning and how much we spend on those yellow little yellow journals.

Brad:
I’d rather, I’d rather just visit the space. I don’t know that I would accept that job. Um, so, so, you know, as you said, you know, you’re trying right now you’re in, you’re in scale mode, you’re in future future thinking forward thinking mode. What challenges are you facing in making that transition? You know, what do you find is the biggest call it challenges to get there, get to where you want to be, whatever that that may be?

Alden:
I think there’s a couple of challenges. You know, the first one is, as you move from a private grant giving to a private operating foundation, people say, why do you need to raise money? You’ve had, you’ve got, you’ve got, you’ve got some money, you’ve been giving away some money. Why, why should I write a check to you? And the answer in my mind is scale and um, and scale sounds, uh, scales, maybe not even really the right word, but you know, the answer is that there is so much need that we were able to help improve the model. And that’s what the originally the TKF Foundation now Nature Sacred was able to do. And it’s only within a much larger community that we will be able to actually help truly solve the problem and bring this to more and more people. And the truth is, is that there we have it. Since we started this organization, there has been, uh, more and more stressors put on us as a society. Um, we face things like the opioid crisis, um, and other sort of major health issues. Um, and we are living in a more polarized time than perhaps we’ve ever been in, in this country. And so to bring people together to restitch the fabric of our country, um, one place at a time, that’s, that’s how it happens. There is no silver bullet for this. And so the answer is, you know, we need, we need a much broader base in order to, to get this done. And in my mind, you know, success is putting us out of business. I’m not here to be here forever. Um, but you know, if we can, um, be a part of the movement that gets a green space within a 10 to 15 minute walk of everyone, that’s when, that’s when we can shut the doors and be like tada. Yeah.

Brad:
That would, that would be, that would be wild if that, you know, one day you’re like, okay, let’s close this book.

Alden:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Brad:
We’ve created, we’ve created a great place for everybody within, within walking distance.

Alden:
Yeah. I think that’s, um, that’s a big one. There is a perception that nature is an amenity. That it’s nice to have or that it’s for wealthy people or people with access. And we believe this is not an amenity and we, this is, this is an absolute necessity. This is part of our human condition and it is a human right to have access to green space and to nature and to that which we are, which is nature. And so I think, um, you know, getting, getting the larger constituency on board with this idea that it is a necessity is one of our challenges. It’s one of our great opportunities and I’m excited about, um, you know, getting out there more on the road to help, uh, get the word out and, and also, you know, have our fire souls be really the big speakers, right? Like these are the people on the ground making this happen day in and day out. And it’s hard. Sometimes it’s really hard. You know, one of our spaces is a labyrinth in a part of Baltimore that’s pretty rough. And, um, it’s right next to what was an open air drug market and our fire soul in this place, um, went out and did a labyrinth walk with kids every single day until the drug dealers and users went away. Find a different place.

Brad:
Get out of here.

Alden:
And, and that’s what happened. They were like, okay, this is no longer gonna work for us. Right.

Brad:
Well, yeah, that or there was a moment of a moment of slight compassion out of, out of it. Right. Like we realized like, yeah, let’s, let’s, let’s not be here. Let’s take our activities somewhere else. Yeah. Yeah. That’s wild. Yeah. Yeah. But that’s impact. That’s, you know, it’s hard, hard to put that on a piece of paper, but you feel it. You know, you see it, you know it. Yeah. It’s the, those are the things that you don’t always see in our world, in the financial, you don’t see that. We think in numbers, right? Like, oh how many, how many, how many meals served. Right. That’s like the, but, but it has nothing to do with that has nothing to do with how many meals served, how many children. Has nothing to do with that. It’s like the broader picture of, of, of touching lives as well as, as changing an environment. Like it’s, you can’t put a pen to that per se, and you can’t even put write in a notebook, but –

Alden:
And that’s the value of the human right. Um, that’s, that’s the value of the human. That’s the value of the fire soul with these people and we’re all capable of doing it and we don’t all do it, but we’re all capable of doing, of, of um, truly just bit by bit making the world better each and every day. And so anyway, I think those are two of the big challenges for us.

Brad:
Yeah, definitely. No. And, and so, um, you know, obviously you said one of the items and, uh, you know, if someone wanted to, um, you know, either donate or participate,

Alden:
Great question. Uh, lots of different ways. But, um, three things that people can do right now, um, is the first is join the conversation in naturesacred.org and go learn more. Join our social, learn about how to become a fire soul. That’s number two, become a fire. So you asked this great question Matt. I mean, how does one do it? And you self identify, stand up and say, I believe I am and therefore you are. And so we can help you, uh, in your community and, uh, identify a place and try and work through that whole process. Um, and the other is get in your 20 minutes a day. Get in your 20 minutes of nature a day, encourage your coworkers, encourage your friends, encourage your family, um, because that will have an exponential positive effect. Um, and even if, you know, we, we don’t yet have an app, um, though we do have our sacred places on our website. You know, go try and find one of ours, but find any green space that’s near you. Um, and really reach out. We’re here to help.

Brad:
Yeah, good stuff. I want to be a fire soul. We should start that up.

Matt:
A Withum fire soul. I was thinking about the Princeton office. That would work well.

Brad:
Yeah. Amanda, come on, get in the conversation. I had to work her in here somehow. Got to get in on this. Yeah. Awesome. Um, that’s great to know. And I think, you know, those are, those are three things, uh, that aren’t that big of lifts, right. I mean, being a fire soul probably is a big lift if you, when you get into it, but, but um, you know, joining in the conversation or getting involved, being interested in the concept and just spending 20 minutes a day. I mean, all of us can do that, carve out – unless you have young kids, but you know, most of us,

Alden:
Take the kids.

Brad:
Yes. Take the kids. It’s a perfect –

Matt:
Molly and Chase. Get the digital strollers out.

Brad:
Yeah.

Alden:
Yeah. I will say I have a three year old and he has his moments. He’s an amazing young human, but he has his moments, but every time he’s really having a tantrum or something that, you know, just doesn’t, attitude doesn’t seem to be shifting. I just pick him up and we walk outside and every time like clockwork, it changes his framework. He stops. And you can start to look at the bird and you can start to smell the air or feel the breeze or if you touch the rain or whatever. And it changes. It’s amazing.

Brad:
What’s this. That’s what chase does. He goes, what’s this? What’s this? So any closing thoughts for us? Just some things that, uh, you know, I mean, we talked about a lot today. I think, uh, I love hearing about it, how people measure impact. That’s what I love. Just hearing about that. Cause it’s, it’s interesting, there’s so many nonprofits in the world, there’s so many great ideas. But I mean, just because you’re a nonprofit doesn’t mean you’re, you’re having an impact or making a difference. And you know, your organization is, you have a tangible thing that is making a difference and it’s, it, you know, from our perspective, it’s, it’s, I love hearing, I love hearing about your story and hearing about that. It’s cool. Good stuff. Yeah.

Alden:
Yeah. It’s, um, it’s, it’s meaningful work. It’s beautiful work. It’s an honor. And a privilege to be a part of it. Um, and that’s really all we are, some small part of it, but, but trying to, to spark and support and ignite that in others. And ultimately for me and for the organization, like this is about changing the course of human events. Really. It’s, and it’s, it’s about soul work and that’s, that’s deep stuff. And that’s not prescriptive, uh, from our perspective, but it is about creating that opportunity to bring the human closer to nature. Um, or really as we do, bring nature closer to the humans because, uh, we’re living more and more in cities. And so, you know, these spaces are have to come to where people are. Uh, and, and really at this point on some of a, we are the endangered species. And so if we can connect more with nature, the healthier both we and nature can become.

Brad:
Amen.

Matt:
Yeah.

Brad:
So I want to close, I think, I think, uh, and we’ll put a picture up on this, but I, you have to conceptualize some of the writing by look, by reading the writing on the wall. And, uh, you know, I, and I believe he told me that, that the writing on the wall are from journals and from actual things. So, um, I think I want to read a couple of these cause I think it puts some real, and I can’t read Mandarin, so I don’t think I’m gonna read that. That one’s a little tough. But yeah, there’s a couple like, like that one down there as a grasshopper saying hi lady to a lady bother to a little lady bug.

Matt:
And I really liked that one. The light blue. What a surprise to find this book, this bench, this place. What mystery and history took place here?

Brad:
What a great metaphor for life our wandering in circles is not meaningless. It takes us to our center. If we walk with intent.

Alden:
Senor, estoy aqui una ves mas. Buscando tu amor, compasion y comprension. Escucha mi, m dios escucharte. Dame un corazon adieto y llieno de amor.

Alden:
One of favorites actually is, um, funny enough, recreated in our bathroom. I don’t know if you guys saw it today, but it’s, uh, it’s a beautiful sketch by what I think is a young person, but we don’t know. And it is a sketch of a young girl next to a balloon that actually is connected to the earth and has deep roots like a tree. And it says in this fractured world, I find peace. And I love the fact that, you know, we can have lofty, fun, joyful ideas like balloons, but deeply, deeply rooted and that it’s, it’s tough. Life is hard and we’re living in challenging, challenging times. So we need places to get rooted within ourselves and within our communities at large.

Brad:
Agreed. And this one for all you New Yorkers out there. Thank you for a moment of peace on a beautiful day. Parentheses even despite of the BQE traffic. Awesome. Yeah, these were cool. And I uh, I’m sure there’s a million more great phrases and who doesn’t like a good phrase on a Friday? So this is a –

Matt:
Phrase Friday.

Brad:
Phrase Friday. Yeah, there you go. It used to be flex Friday, but –

Matt:
Now phrase Friday.

Brad:
Now we grew up. Well thank you for time Alden.

Matt:
Yeah thank you so much.

Brad:
I appreciate it. This was awesome.

Alden:
Thank you both it was a real pleasure.

Matt:
It’s been a fun day.

Brad:
Yeah it’s been a fun day. We had a good day. Thanks everybody.

Matt:
Thank you, warriors.

Brad:
Hey warriors. Thanks for tuning in. On the next episode of Civic Warriors, we’ll talk with Jeff Mullins from Rebuilding Warriors about their incredible mission to provide our veterans with service dogs and the amazing impact their services have realized. Make sure to subscribe to Civic Warriors and thanks for all your support. Have a great day.

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