Friday, June 30, 2006

Doctors without Borders Podcast Creates Connection

I got a press release this week (I feel so alternative media), announcing that Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontiéres has started podcasting (yay!). The podcast, Frontline Reports will feature emergency updates from Doctors without Borders projects all over the world.

I just listened to the first podcast. It was a little over 10 minutes long and talked about medical needs in Sudan, the ongoing challenges in Colombia and how people with HIV/AIDS in the developing world are being denied access to new "second-line" AIDS medicine. (My advice to the podcast's producers is to put in some success stories too, or listeners will suffer compassion fatigue after a while and stop listening).

The quote provided in the release by Executive Director, Nicolas de Torrenté, encapsulates, I think, why podcasting and blogs are such important tools in a nonprofit or NGO's communication plan:

Podcasting provides us with a new tool to inform the public about critical humanitarian issues often ignored by the media. By hearing a patient's voice or a doctor's explanation of the profound challenges that go along with working in a refugee camp, listeners will be connected much more directly with today's critical, and largely unacknowledged, humanitarian and medical crises.

Foundations need to see nonprofits and NGO's having a podcast or blog, in addition to traditional communication tools, as part of the nonprofit or NGO's mission. Not only are they creating social change by providing services and programs, but through educating as many people as possible about critical humanitarian issues often ignored by the media and using blogs and podcasts so that listeners will be connected much more directly.

It is the direct connection that is key. Why do you think Senator John Edwards has every kind of blog imaginable, including a video blog that encourages viewers to send in videos of themselves asking questions and a podcast that asks listeners to send in audio questions.

Real or imagined, it's all about a sense of connection in a world where so many people feel alone, disempowered and unheard.

Photo via wayfaring stranger's Flickr stream. It has a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Alli Chagi-Starr, Art in Action/Ella Baker Center, Podcast Interview Transcription

Today's Big Vision Podcast transcript is from an interview with arts activist, Alli Chagi-Starr.

You can hear the orginal podcast on Gcast, Odeo or iTunes.

Britt: Hi. Welcome to the Big Vision Podcast where we talk with individuals and organizations that are creating positive change. We'll be taking with arts activist Alli Chagi-Starr, the Cultural Arts Director for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights' Reclaim the Future Program. Alli is also the co-founder of Art and Revolution, and founder of Art in Action, Dancers without Borders, and the Radical Performance Fest. In addition to being an artist, performer and dancer, Alli is also a writer whose most recent piece can be found in the Code Pink anthology, Stop the Next War Now.
Alli: Well thank you, first of all Britt, thank you so much for having me be on your podcast, is that the name? And I work here at Ella Baker Center. It's really an honor to be working here doing some amazing work with a new program, Reclaim the Future. The slogan is "Green Collar Jobs, not Jails" and what we're trying to promote a big vision which includes being able to employ formerly incarcerated people from the Oakland area, "at risk" -- quote unquote -- people from this area into jobs which don't hurt the environment, that actually help sustain us as a community.

So there is a green wave going to be coming through California and what we want to do is make sure that it also hits the Oakland area and, in addition, that the people who benefit from this green economy are the people who need those jobs the most. So the Ella Baker Center is being an advocate for people to be trained up and be ready to be employed by these jobs, and also the green business owners, in solar energy, and alternative fuels and alternative transportation, and these kinds of jobs that are going to be coming through are employing those people from the community and really supporting a change in our environment, as well as in our workforce.

I think one of the main things we've talked about is how can we lift all boats and I think a true vision includes a lot of different aspects and a lot of different people, so it's not a single issue. We're looking at building bridges between environmental movements and social justice movements. How do we stop violence and how do we eradicate poverty in our communities, and uplift people, and how do we also do that in a way that respects the environment, that looks at innovation, and that addresses issues like global warming and peak-oil and environmental racism? How do we build new visions and programs that serve everybody?
Britt: Tell us a little bit about your work here, like what does your day look like, what kind of brought you to this work, for people who are like, "Oh, I want to work in a project like that!" Kind of like what brought you here, what skills and things like that?
Alli: Interesting question, like what is the road that gets us anywhere, I think they're always somewhat circuitous and unplanned. My background is as an arts activist and I moved to the Bay Area in 1985 to go to school at UC Berkeley and I ended up leaving UC Berkeley my third year not finding what I was looking for there and starting some arts benefit event projects particularly around woman and children living with HIV and AIDS and shortly thereafter producing anti-war benefits, for the first Gulf War, if you can remember way back in '91, way back when. We're still struggling with the same issues

And what I wanted to do is to find a way to inspire artists to make work that was relevant to the crisis of our time and at the same time encourage the activist community to become more magnetic and more inspiring, more creative and incorporate art and that kind of innovation into our movement for social justice. So I really didn't know what I was doing, and sometimes still don't know what I'm doing, but I'm still trying to build bridges between the world of art and activism.

I met Van Jones about 10 years ago and he was doing criminal justice work and building the new program here, which was Police Watch, and really addressing police brutality, and we met in a Challenging White Supremacy workshop lead by Sharon Martinez back in 1995. He came and talked about affirmative action, we became friends at that point, and started to learn about the different work that we were each doing. I got involved in some of the anti-globalization work at that time and my group, Art and Revolution, was doing a lot of education and outreach through dance and giant puppets and theater and doing a lot of tours to mobilize people to come to Seattle. Van, who already had his plate full here in the Bay Area doing police accountability work, ended up deciding to bring a group of people up to Seattle from his community and look at what were the links between anti-globalization and social justice and community issues and try to figure out what those links were. Van really educated me a lot on what was going on with racial justice struggles here in the Bay Area.

So it's been a ten year awakening and sort of linking the issues, experience how do we think broader and vision bigger and play bigger in our movement? So, last spring Ella Baker Center, to launch its new program Reclaim the Future, took a big role in the United Nations World Environment Day Conference that was happening here in San Francisco. And it was a sixtieth year anniversary -- or sixty year anniversary of the UN World Environment Day -- and we wanted to make sure that issues that are of concern to communities of color were highlighted and forefronted and Van and Ella Baker Center decided to really promote what we called a, "social equity track," that was incorporated into the UN World Environment activities.

We produced somewhere around ten events and sponsored about ten events during that five day period to bring those issues to the forefront, so, "green jobs, not jails" and looking at eco-apartheid, as opposed to eco-equity, and had a lot of panels and different events. So that's when I started working here more formally, and then this last fall I ended up coming to Ella Baker Center full time as the Art and Media Director of Reclaim the Future.

This last fall we produce a CD called Eye of the Storm which has been an amazing project, just the creativity and the generosity of the artists who participated on this CD still blows my mind. It's an amazing act of love really in response to the hurricane and the racial neglect that occurred down on the Gulf. And I think it's a testament to the power of art and the power of the Bay Area artist community that we were able to pull off this CD with 21 tracks in less than two months and had a standing room only CD release party, and we're still promoting it. And every dollar goes to support on the ground activities to rebuild New Orleans and the grassroots community, as well as the people here who have been displaced.
Britt: And in addition to your work with the Ella Baker Center, you also started your own organization, Art In Action, could you tell us a little bit about what you guys do?
Alli: So Art In Action came out of some of the work that I had been doing previously with Art and Revolution and Art and Revolution was a multi-city movement of arts activists and a lot of protest politics, and it was predominately a little bit of punk rock, a little bit white, a lot of courageous, really well-meaning people doing great work, but I felt at a certain point that it was time to do some skill sharing. I really wanted to support people to be on the mic whose voices are often silenced in our society, and the people who are most impacted by poverty and environmental racism and some of those things we've talked about.

And so we started Art in Action camp six years ago to invite 25 youth from urban areas to participate in skills-building, giant puppets, dance and theater and we've also done a lot of work around diversity and anti-racism and looking at gender and looking at homophobia, and then we do a lot of personal empowerment work, really building up people's self-esteem and cultivating their leadership individually and on a more emotional or spiritual level, if you will. So we're bringing a lot of elements together, the innerpersonal the activist. We do workshops on linking the issues, and connecting the war at home with the wars abroad, etc., and looking at how our issues are linked across race, class, gender, country, origin, religion, everything. And then we're also giving a ton of art skills: dance and hip hop and banner painting and we record a CD every year in a ten-day period. The youth are amazing manifesters. They come up with an entire CD of music and poetry and we perform them on the last day of camp, so it gives people a real opportunity, hands-on, to really get out there and share what they've learned.

It's all about collaboration. I don't think we learn very much about collaboration in our culture. I think there should be whole semesters on how to work with other people. How to have relationships. How to have better practices in communication, and I think one of the things we do at Art and Action is model collective leadership. The leadership team includes about nine of us and we're different ages, races, genders, orientations, you name it, and we work together in a democratic fashion. So we're modeling collective multi-racial, multi-cultural leadership at our camps, and lot of people have just never seen that in action. We never saw it in action before we started doing it.

But I think what helps is that all of the facilitators of Art in Action camp share a lot of the same ideology and ideas about how our society could be, and a lot of us have done the same work as far as building social justice movements through the arts, so we come together like that, and our youth have this experience of working with youth from other cities, and completely other cultures, and at first they are not so sure and they are kind of looking at each other.

We always hire a Native American Elder, Patrick Orosco, from Watsonville, who comes in and talks about the original inhabitants of the land and the original stewards of the area, where we do out summer camp in the Santa Cruz mountains. He talks about respecting the land and the other creatures of the land and each other, and it really sets the tone. Starting that way I think really changes the dynamics, so by the second day people are braiding each other's hair and sharing food and taking walks together and by the end of the camp people are hanging on each other they don't want to leave. They create list servs, they create projects together.

And so we're also building a community that's kind of unheard of. People who are not traditionally supposed to get along in our culture are not only getting along, but they really find love in each other and how close love is to the surface. It's just not that far away, and I think our culture would have us believe that it's going to take years, and massive therapy, and who knows what else for people to learn to love each other. I think we want to love each other. I think we want to respect each other, care about each other, and we have to do the work that's necessary and create space where that can happen, where we can cultivate that, but it's not as hard as people think.
Britt: That sounds like some of the things that are the most joyful parts of the things you do. What's the biggest challenges in activism and using the arts and activism and how do you keep from giving up? Because there are lots of people who would say, "Oh, I want to be an activist, I want to make a difference," and then they get discouraged and give up.
Alli: There's a few answers to what are the challenges and how do we keep going. I think there is a challenge for all of us in our movements to change the world, to keep going and to stay inspired when we are confronted with so much misery and so many travesties and so... a corporate media that lies to us every day, and when you can see through it at a certain point. And it, it just sets your teeth on edge having to be witness to the devastation of our planet and the oppression and neglect of so many people worldwide, and it is hard to keep going sometimes.

And what I always tell the students that I work with is, number one, stay in community. Do not isolate. It's so easy. I think the powers that be would love us to stay isolated in own our horror, in our own despair and apathy, and I think one of the most important things is to stay in community of like-minded people who can help keep us going and staying inspired. I think mentorship and respecting the people who come before, and really seeing the history, that we're standing on the shoulders of so many great people who were faced with such huge obstacles. When I think of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and the world that Alice Walker was born into, and the work that they've done, people who are contemporaries. We are surrounded by noble people and prophets in our day, to remember who's out there doing the work and the changes that have been made.

Certainly those victories are not being celebrated by the mainstream media very often and I think we really need to take opportunities to look at the changes that have been made by the labor movement, the women's movement, by anti-war movements throughout time. The other thing I think that helps me is to realize that we are seed planters, and that we are going to probably die before we see all those seeds become trees, and it doesn't matter. You just have to keep planting and just got to hope that other people will come along after you to water those seeds and to know that the trees our for our children's children. That's just the reality.

We are living in a time where we have to have faith in something that goes beyond us, that go beyond our own wish for success in our own life, but we also have to count the little successes. I think this podcast is a mini success right here, you know, that women and people of color are using technology to -- and social justice activists of all genders and races -- are using technology to get our stories out there. Look at us, how creative we are. We have a media that won't listen to us so we're creating our own media, I mean right there, that's a victory. So, that's one of the things.

I would say that funding is often a challenge, but I think we can get beyond that too because there are individuals throughout this country and throughout the world who are really awakening people of wealth who are using that financial energy, if you will, to change things. And it's up to us to not play small but to play big and ask for that resource, and to build partnerships instead of begging for scraps, and hoping and praying and complaining that there is nothing for us. Instead, see the power we have to build partnerships with people who also want to change the world, who are of some means, and can support our work, and to not limit ourselves by thinking, "Oh, it can't be done. Nobody cares. Rich people aren't going to support us."

The reality is, wealthy people have been supporting movements for social justice, and we don't even know their names for many, many years. Someone once said Jesus had fundraisers. So I think fundraising is a high art and a noble act and particularly people in privileged countries like ours, I think have a duty to do some of that elegant fundraising -- I like to say that -- a graceful kind of fundraising that empowers everybody, and teach those skills about asking for money and building fundraising infrastructures and organization. So I think that's been a challenge and some of it's the challenge of our own fears of smallness.

One other challenge I wanted to share, let's see, what was it... I think another challenge is staying in our bodies, and how do we stay sustainable ourselves. And I know for me as an artist, my biggest challenge is that I get so involved in organizing and the activism part and being on the phones and computers and running around to meetings that I don't actually manifest my own art or take care of my own needs for exercise and being in nature and remembering what it is we are fighting for anyway, or working towards. So, I think that's one of the big challenges for us is how do we balance, going to yoga class, and making sure that four hundred people show up to the thing on Friday. How do we do it all?

I think some people are modeling that quite well. There's a really, a huge, I would say, wave of people who are finding ways to be more sustainable in their own personal lives and that ends up benefiting their activism because then their communication is easier and softer. It creates a sense of... you know when you're around someone who's just fun to be around? They're grounded, their respectful in their communication, they're appreciative.

And I think one of the things we really need to do is build cultures of appreciation. We're so good at criticizing -- especially in progressive movements -- because there's so much to criticize, and we become excellent communicators, and we see things that could be better. I'm the best at that, and so what I've been trying to do is cultivate a sense of appreciation and gratitude, and I know it can kind of sound cheesy but it works when you look at everything as a potential blessing as opposed to a curse, or challenge, or controversy all the time and say, "What's the blessing in this moment and what can we learn from this moment and what new possibilities are here?"

I had an ex-Marine who's putting some eco-insulation in my housing unit, come by my house, and he's the one green insulator in the Bay Area, and he -- it turns out -- co-hosted the Green Fest, you know, this eco-business event that happens annually that Global Exchange and Co-op America puts on every year in the winter. He's an ex-Marine, has two sons in Iraq, is a arch Republican and right winger.

We sat down and had organic tea together and talked about, you know, "What did you think of the President's address?" He's like, "Oh I don't know if I should go there because I don't know what your politics are." And I'm like, "Well, let's talk about it. We don't have to agree on everything, and that's what it's all about, and I bet there are a lot of things that we actually hold in common."

So I think being at a place where you are grounded enough in yourself that you can extend and embrace people who are would-be enemies and turn them into would-be allies instead... that's our work. And if we are not really interested in movement-building, we don't have to do that. We can just stay in our little camps and be right and everyone else is wrong and just be more and more right every day, but I think the challenge is, how do we build movements outside of our own small communities and bridge to other communities in ways that are respectful and meet people where they are.
Britt: And so I'm sure when people are listening to this they are going to be very inspired now and say, "I want to make a difference. I want to do something." What is... if everybody listening did one small step -- and not necessarily for a specific issue -- what is something that they can do?
Alli: Well, I think there's a lot of things that people can do. I think taking a moment and really realizing that you have the power to change the world, that your life matters, that is the first step, and then to find out well, what am I passionate about, what do I really care about? You don't have to be passionate about the thing that your neighbor is passionate about, or even what your girlfriend or boyfriend is passionate about. What are you passionate about doing? Is it children and literature? Is it about toxins in West Oakland? Is it about creating forests, cultivating forest lands for future generations? Is it about, everyone deserves clean water? Is it about political prisoners and our brothers and sisters, two million of them, living behind bars right now in the United States alone?

What is it that you really feel passionate about? And then look at your own personal talents and skills, and how can you apply your talents and skills to your passion. And Britt, you're so good at this. You've been really great at supporting me and others in the community to find ways to connect what you care about with what you're good at, and what you like doing. So it might be researching. It might be writing. It might be teaching. It might be bringing people together.

And we live in such a rich area in the Bay Area. There are so many resources and nonprofits, and we have great search engines where we you just can put in what you're interested in and start going to meetings and checking things out and sometimes I'm in places like central California and people say, "Hey, I want to be a dance activist. How do I do it?" And I would say, "How would you throw your own birthday party? Let's see, call some of the people you know and like already, put up a flyer maybe, or an invitation, post on some sites around your school, or around your neighborhood, or at your church or community center -- wherever it is you hang out -- and it could be just what it is you want to do? 'Gathering for people who are creative and want to address a toxic issue in the community' -- whatever it is -- and see if there are any other organizations doing like work in your area, and start pulling people together in your community, and it can be as small as two or three people."

It's amazing what you can create, and even if it's just yourself deciding to put out an article and post to everyone, you can inspire people that way as well. But if you are interested in creating something with other people, and doing something collectivist, then I really recommend seeing what you can do to pull together a meeting, and make sure that there is food, and make sure that it's fun, and make sure that it's in a place that people like to come to, and it's convenient for people and the basic kind of things, you know. Take care of people who are coming, and treat those relationships as the utmost important thing.

Ultimately whether or not you achieve the goal, the event will come and go. The date goes and you're like, "Okay, well, we had 300 people come instead of 400 people," or, "We made a puppet bird instead of a puppet dog," or something is going to be different then what you originally intended, but, if the relationships are good, after you leave that event, then you have built something.
Britt Bravo: I'm very inspired, and I guess finally, is there any book or piece of music or film that you could recommend that's inspiring to you for other people to see or read or listen to?
Alli: A great question. I do think there's a lot of inspiring things. There's Stop the Next War Now, that's edited by Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans. There's an amazing group of articles in there. I have a small one -- just three pages -- which I think will be somewhat useful, but I think there's a lot of really amazing testimony and ideas in that book. There's another book called Globalize Liberation that a colleague of mine, David Solnit, edited, and it has a lot of interesting articles, as well. And I think the Ella Baker Center website -- I can speak from being so close to it here -- is really useful as far as learning about some of the work we are doing here with Police Watch, Books Not Bars, and the Reclaim the Future Program.
Britt: So I think to wrap up, if people want to get more information about the Ella Baker Center or the stuff you're doing, where should they go. What should they do?
Alli: If people are interested on being on my list serve, I email out regularly different creative actions and events that are coming up in the Bay Area, and I'm somewhat sporadic. Sometimes you get three, and sometimes you won't get one for a month. I'm not very like, "Okay, every second Friday you'll get an email from me." But it's more like this amazing thing just came my way and I have to share it with you. If you're interested in being on that kind of list serv, kind of creative action Bay-Area-based events, then you can email me at, and if you're interested in more information about what we're doing here, again the website is
Britt: Thanks for listening to the Big Vision Podcast. For more information about Alli's work with Reclaim the Future and the Ella Baker Center, go to You can also order the CD she mentioned Eye of the Storm on the site. If you'd like more information about Art in Action camps or to contribute to a youth scholarship, email, and if you like the opening music, it was an excerpt from Mango Delight by Kenya Masala, and if you'd like more information about his work and music go to I'll post all this information in my shownotes on my website, Thanks for listening.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Nonprofit Blog Highlight: Global Fund for Women

"I want to ask all of you, and those not here with us, to imagine yourself in that situation, wondering, why your life is not important enough for decisive action to end the violence, to end the supply of arms to militias, and to end military aid that is used against innocent populations."

That's an excerpt from a speech given by Muadi Mukenge the Global Fund for Women's Program Officer for Africa, at the Darfur Day of Conscience. It was turned into a post for the Global Fund for Women's blog.

The Global Fund for Women is a grantmaking foundation that supports women's human right's organizations all over the world. Their blog includes excerpts from speeches, messages from their Executive Director, Kavita Ramdas, and letters from grantees.

I thought this letter from grantee, Dr. Naba S. Hamid, the Founder and Director of New Horizon for Woman, was particularly moving:

"To all sisters and to all friends,

What you hear from the media is little of the chaotic situation in Iraq. The reality is more tragic in Baghdad; killing and kidnapping take place day and night. No one feels safe anywhere. I have lost many relatives and friends.

Iraqis have lost security and are still losing everything that enables life. For days we are without electricity in hot and humid weather. Just now, while I'm writing this to you I can hear a nearby explosion. I guess it is no further than a few hundred meters of my place. I can hear ambulances running and US helicopters flying at a very low height.

My people have lost hope and faith in everything. I don't know how to tell my students that there is a future for them and that one day they can live like other youth in the world.

I love my garden very much. Now, the Gardenia trees are blooming full of white scented flowers. I leave those lovely pure white flowers to die in the sun. I used to put vases full of these flowers in every room of my house. I even took some to my classroom and lab. I don’t do this anymore. What happened to me?

Peace and hope.

Dr. Naba S. Hamid"

"Woman and Children" from Wafaring Stranger's Flickr Stream. The image has a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Solutionary Women: Caroline Ticarro-Parker

This week's Solutionary Woman is Caroline Ticarro-Parker, the Executive Director of Mind on the Media, the nonprofit that sponsors Turn Beauty Inside Out, a campaign to raise awareness about sexist portrayals of girls and women by the media. The most recent Turn Beauty Inside Out Girls Leadership Retreat just happened in Queens, NY June 21-24th. You can read some of the girl's blog posts from the retreat here.

Caroline was kind enough to answer a few questions for me as part of an e-interview.

Briefly describe Turn Beauty Inside Out.

Mind on the Media (MOTM) is a nonprofit organization out to inspire independent thinking and foster critical analysis of the media. MOTM's main project is Turn Beauty Inside Out (TBIO), an annual campaign that explores the portrayal of girls and women in film, television, music, advertising and government. TBIO was created by New Moon: the Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams almost five years ago, which also promotes positive self-image among youth.

How did you get involved in this kind of work?

I am the mother of twin girls, now age 8. When I started, they were only 4 years old and I was already seeing the impact of the limited media they did see. Now I’m seeing every day how important it is to have open communication about beauty, self-esteem and image!!!

What do you enjoy the most about your work with Turn Beauty Inside Out?

It’s “one small step, but one giant leap” for change. I’m proud that it has been a good “conversation” starter in many homes about the true definition of beauty.

What is the biggest challenge in your work with Turn Beauty Inside Out?

The media...the big oppressive, one-sided, misguided and chauvinistic media.

Please share a success story from your work.

Organizations all across the country are excited to organize their own TBIO “event” - big or small in their own community to talk about being beautiful on the inside. Over the last eight years we’ve sent Action Kits to over 3000 people!

What keeps you motivated and energized to do this work?

My daughters...and all girls.

What tips, resource and advice would you give to someone who wanted to do the kind of work you are doing, or just wanted to make a difference in girls' lives around body image issues?

Janeane Garofalo was one of our founding Board of Directors and she said it best, “Just like junk food – you can’t spend the whole day eating it, you’ve got to balance it with the healthy stuff. Don’t feed your mind with all that junk – find alternatives, be creative and don’t be afraid to use the f-word....feminist!”

Do you think that blogs can empower girls? If so, how?

Freedom to read and write what other “like-minded” girls are thinking, good or bad it’s always a nice feeling to not be alone.

If you know a Solutionary Woman who works at a nonprofit or NGO who you think I should profile, please email me at britt at brittbravo dot com with their name, organization and contact info.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Ari Derfel & Eric Fenster, Back to Earth Podcast Interview Transcription

Today's transcript is from my interview with the founders of Back to Earth, an organic catering and outdoor adventure company. One of the things I've enjoyed the most about interviewing people for this podcast is seeing the similarities and connections that arise between people.

For example, both the owners of Back to Earth, and the Executive Director of People's Grocery talk about wanting to create community centers as their Big Visions, Ari echoes Alli Chagi-Starr's seed-planting metaphor, (I will be posting her interview soon), and all of the people I talked to recommend that if you want to be involved in social change work, one of the best ways to get started is by volunteering with an organization or campaign that interests you.

Ari and Eric are really wonderful people--they catered our wedding and Ari married us.

I hope that you enjoy their interview.

You can hear the orginal podcast on Gcast, Odeo or iTunes.

Britt: Hi. Welcome to the Big Vision podcast, where we talk with individuals and organizations who are creating positive change. My name is Britt Bravo, and in today's show I will be talking with the founders of Back to Earth, Eric Fenster and Ari Derfel. Back to Earth is a Bay Area organic catering and outdoor adventure company, and they have lots of good advice for folks who want to start a socially responsible business or organization. So, enjoy.

Ari: Hello. So the question on the table is, is what is and who is Back to Earth. So, we'll start by saying that Back to Earth is an organization, is a group of people, working together with a particular goal and focus in mind. And that is to help people to learn about themselves, to help people connect and learn more about community, and to help people connect more to the Earth. Because we really believe strongly that through self-understanding and self-awareness, through community involvement and community connectedness, and Earth awareness, that we can create a more sustainable, more joyful, more wonderful existence on this planet.

Where Back to Earth comes from is a couple of different places, and it's worth sharing that, so we can get a little bit of a... a clearer picture of what we're doing now. So the brief history is that Back to Earth was originated with a vision that Eric Fenster had when he was on a vision quest in the Owl's Head Mountains in... near Death Valley, California. Sitting there for five days, fasting, not eating, sitting by himself in the desert thinking, "What is it that I want to do on this planet?" What came to Eric was this vision of this beautiful place that had an organic restaurant in it, and there was a community center there, and there was a garden there, and people from the community were getting together and they were eating, and sharing, and learning, and playing music, and talking, and engaging in conscious, healthful living.

So Eric had this vision, he came back from the vision quest, and one of the people he shared it with was me. And he and I were working together at the time at the University of California at San Francisco. And after a number of very inspiring moments that we shared together, mostly in the wilderness, around teaching people, and building community in small groups of people at a time, we decided, you know what, let's make this happen. So we thought about it, well, what's the best way to go from this idea to this ultimate vision of a community center with a restaurant and all this interaction going on? And we looked around us, and we looked at what we had in terms of resources, and we realized, "Okay, I don't have a million dollars; you don't have a million dollars. Everyone else around us is going out and getting millions of dollars to try to just build some giant thing."

And right off the bat, we realized if we were going to do anything, the way that we needed to do it, and the way that we should do it, is by modeling the way the Earth does it: slowly, and organically, and patiently, the same way that a seed is germinated and turns into a sapling, becomes a small tree, and turns into a large one, and ultimately gives birth to more trees. And we said, "Let's do it the same way." So the first thing that we did was we started an outdoor organization, because it didn't require a lot of money. It's where we were already professionals and had expertise, and we found that it provided so much inspiration every time we had a positive community experience with a dozen people in the woods, that it would really help to sort of foster and manifest what we were trying to do.

So we started offering backpacking yoga trips. We started taking youth from inner cities, of places like Oakland and East Palo Alto, into the woods. We did a program called "We Can Surmount" which is like the AIDS ride, which was taking people who had been cancer survivors or affected by cancer, on to wilderness journeys. So the short version of it is that we started the outdoor company, and as we did that, and as we started growing the company and seeing that, wow, we can do something here and we can make this happen, we then were faced with a really interesting opportunity, and that was to cater an event for someone.

It kind of came out of an outdoor experience that we had led. We always made delicious organic gourmet food, so someone had asked us, "Would you cater this event?" We sat down thoughtfully and we spent a little time, and what we realized was most restaurants fail, most large ventures fail, fail when they're involving food, because they're so expensive, they're so hard to do, and it's difficult to do them right. So we realized, one thing that could be a really intelligent way to go about doing this would be, let's start a catering company first. Let's develop a following. Let's develop our recipes. Let's build a staff. Let's learn how to work the food world in the Bay Area, which is one of the most competitive food markets in the world. And that would most likely, if it's successful, make it much more likely that we can build a successful restaurant and community center. So, five years later, here we are.

The outdoor program, for a couple of years, is what did it, and then we turned into outdoor program slash organic catering company, and five years later we have a bustling organic catering company with six full time staff and 100 part time people, and we serve amazing organizations like the Breast Cancer Fund, and Clif bar, and Pachamama Alliance, and all these amazing organizations.

And we do lots of weddings, and constantly we provide people, through food, with this self-awareness, with this community awareness, and with this Earth connection, because people eat healthily, or they interact with our staff, and our staff is always vibrant, and positive, and happy, and engaging, so their self feels good, and then we teach them that our food comes locally, and that it's grown locally, and that we try to support local people, and that community connection is made. And then we talk about the importance of organics, and that Earth connection is made.

So that's how we're manifesting it, and we're just now getting ready to put our energy and direction into the bigger vision, which is making the community center happen, making the restaurant. Because we've met with this success, we have the confidence, and the resources, and the sense, and just the experience that a five-year-old tree has as opposed to trying to take a seed, and putting it in the microwave, and turning it into a tree. [laughter] So that's kind of the nuts and bolts, as I would say it, in a big long thing, and I would definitely invite Eric to now add on top of that, what's some of the energy and the spirit that maybe moved you, or whatnot?

Eric: That was well spoken. That's why I always let you speak. [laughter] You get up in front of the crowd and talk about it, it's great. So it... I think you covered it really, really well. And I think that the biggest addition is kind of what I was actually trying to start with, which is where I think the energy of the entire vision came from, which is a... which is... We're at a critical time on the planet right now, where there's so many people and there's so many people that are using an incredible amount of resources, and there's a disparity between those resources, and people are actually starting to wake up and realize that something's got to change. And a lot of people are responding to this calling, and we're really stepping up and trying to activate ourselves.

And the deepest purpose of what we're trying to do is to actually help this shift that is happening, this tipping point that is happening on the Earth right now that is raising a global consciousness around how we walk and tread on this planet, and how we can be more aware of our actions as a community, making the Earth a more sustainable place to live and just generally being... being really aware of our, really aware of our, of our impacts. And providing a solution and a place where people can turn to get some answers, to get some inspiration, and to really support a more sustainable practice on this planet.

So we're really ultimately impacting... our goal is to impact the spiritual and the psychological level, by even relating those into the business world and stepping into... Here's an entity that we've created that is driving change, not just through the material world, but also by opening people's minds to solutions and resolutions that are right here before us, and are fairly simple, but if they haven't actually turned that key, we're trying to help them open that.

Britt: What gave you faith in your vision and made you feel like you could do it and, and make it real?

Eric: The thing that was pretty amazing was coming back from having a really powerful vision and sharing that vision. There really wasn't ever a question on whether that was something that was going to manifest or not. It was, here was my vision, I'm sharing it with you because it's happening, it's already alive. And stepping into it, slowly, there's so many different ways that it could have manifested, and I think just the energy of itself kind of took off like a wave and has... I personally have been riding that wave and it feels like it almost gathers spirit and energy as it keeps flowing, flowing towards, you know, the shore.

And with each person that enters, there's more in the vision because each person is part of that same spirit and energy of it. So, for example, coming back and just sharing with Ari, I just knew he had already felt that inside of himself. And the two of us were able to catalyze even more power for this, for, for Back to Earth. And each time that we keep moving forward it just seems to have it's own momentum. And so yeah, the manifestation of visions is something that just isn't even a question inside of myself, and feels like that's just where I'm supposed to be and what I'm supposed to be doing at this moment.

Ari: Yeah, I would add two things to that that are fairly similar to what Eric said. The first is that I think, for me, and probably for him to a certain extent, what gave us the confidence to do it was, was definitely each other. That sense that here's this other person excited about this, willing to do this, and the sense that we both got from each other that there's a lot of competence and a lot of skill was there. And I think I can speak for me, Eric can speak for himself I think, when he first shared the idea with me and we first decided we wanted to do it, there was just an energy about it, there was a lot of love there. I think he and I had a lot of love for each other, and for the idea, and forwarding it was just a buzzing thing that said, "Here I am!"

And that's the other thing that I would say -- and I know you can relate to this because of the work you do, Creating a Life Worth Living and all that kind of stuff -- is part of having the confidence to do this is looking at it not even from a perspective of confidence -- and that's what Eric was even talking about -- responding to the energy of the Earth. This has been much more of a thing like, this is what you do. . . .[pause] It's the moving part that makes me cry, because it fills you with inspiration, it's not like, yeah I've got the confidence, I can do this, this is what I do. This is what Eric does. This is what we're here to do. How are we going to do it?

And if you wake up every day and you just know that's what you do, then you're just going to figure out, because I don't really want to do anything else, he doesn't really want to do anything else, so there's not really a choice. This is what we've got to do. And in that regard, it's about adjusting a lot of the way you approach things. It's not about making a living meaning I do some work to get money, it's about this is my living. My living is doing this; Eric's living is doing this.

So if other people are trying to get a sense of, "How could I do that?" Well, change your relationship with money, change your relationship with what you think making a living means, and change your relationship to what it means to make a living by thinking about it in the sense of, who are you, what do you do, what's inside of you, what is burning, what contributes, what empowers people, not what oppresses people, what adds, not takes away? And I just think that's the deep sort of... call it what you want -- religious, spiritual element of it -- that is, that makes the sixteen hour days sitting in front of a computer that is the most antithetical thing that either of use would do with our energy, palatable.

Britt: A lot of people feel like money is on one side and doing something good is on the other side, and you've been able to make a living doing something positive. Why do you think that is? Why has it worked?

Eric: The strongest answer, I would say, to the question of how can you do something that's going to feel good and also work financially for a lot of people is exactly what Ari was even just saying. It is analyzing what you're trying to get out of life and having faith and belief that if you make a shift, that things are just going to work out. And there's never been a question for us from the beginning that we were driven to make this work. And we needed to make it work on all levels, from financial, to sustainability, to sustaining the amount of time and energy we put in, which is not always the easiest thing to figure out.

But when all these things, when you pour your energy into something that you believe in, and that is going to be a positive contribution, it seems to actually just respond by working. So, I think ultimately, the biggest thing I would say for a recommendation for someone who is excited to make a shift is just believe that it's going to work, and know that if you take that jump and that leap, that you can trust yourself, and trust that the universe will actually take care of you.

And for the first three years of running Back to Earth we had this fun concept of financial karma that we kept on throwing around, which is that if we keep pouring energy into what we do, that it will karmically come back and take care of us. And finally it seems that we are shifting into a place as our team grows and as our vision grows, and as our business grows, that everything really is aligning to take care of each and every one of us, and we're really supporting the community, and ourselves, and we're supporting businesses and individuals that are actually making a positive difference. So as we're making a positive difference, we're actually in this network of support of all these incredible organizations and human beings who are doing wildly amazing work, and it almost just raises each of us up to the highest level. So it's actually really powerful when you tap into the flow of amazing work.

Ari: When we talk about this, we clearly come from an energetic place, a lot of the time. A big 'and' to add to Eric -- is when you look at sort of just the quantifiable logistics of what makes it work, you can't separate out... particularly, if you want to find that inspiration to do something good and make a living. Everything Eric said is important; you need to come out of that approach. At the same time, the first two years of Back to Earth, I had a full time job, Eric was working full time. So there, two years of making your company happen, with full time jobs, coming home, working till two in the morning and working, on the weekends all the time. So when people think about, "Oh, I want to do this," be clear. Be real.

It is not easy to be a warrior for good on this planet right now. You have to be willing to say, "I'm not going to go out and party as much and do this as much and do that as much because this is more important, and through my work I will hopefully find that joy and that inspiration that happens." So that's one huge element of it, and there's other things that Eric and I definitely have. The first that's always worth noting is that even without wealth... If Eric and I don't have individual wealth compared to what wealth is in this country, we still have a wealth that surpasses most people in the world. We're not married; we don't have kids; we don't own homes. Right, so all these things together, if you've got a lot of passion and you don't have those things to think about, and you're willing to change your relationship with money, you can go ahead and do it.

So now if somebody wants to do this and find an inspiration to start, they need to think about those things. And that's part of why it's great to have another person who you trust, and who is equally inspired, and who you really know you're seeing everything eye-to-eye on because you can help each other figure those things out and work through those challenging times because on that reality-logistics level it's not easy. And that's been the sacrifice we've made with our lives. So you just, you need to be there.

And I think what we share is that being there is less of an issue or a question. We're just lucky we were made that way, the color red's the color red. So if someone isn't made that way, then cool. Talk to people like us, talk to you, find out how to make that happen, because it is there. It's paradigm shift. It's thinking about it differently.

Britt: Do either of you have anything to add for folks who are interested in starting a business? Any other tips, or advice?

Ari: First of all, if you want to do it, do it. Second of all, if anyone tells you can't do it, that's one less person you have to compete with on the road to making it happen. Third, do not fall into that trap that says you need to have a business plan before you go ahead and do anything, that's a giant myth. You need to have clear sense and focus, and an intelligent approach, but you don't need to wait your whole life until you have a 40-page business plan to start doing what it is you need to do.

And then get help. Get advice. And the more you try to find out from people who know, who can help you, the more you can avoid falling into holes and getting yourself into trouble for things that would hold you up that you don't need to be held up for. And that's kind of vague, but it just means like, speak to someone and find out, should I be nonprofit, should I be a C corporation, should I be an S corporation, what's the difference? And when you find out, what do I need to know, and how much does it cost, and can I talk to someone about all of the little nuts and bolts? Because those are the things that usually get you -- when you're going from idea, to project, to "ooh-I-got-some-business," to small business, to medium-size -- you get those snags. And if you can find people who are willing to talk, that's a good way to do it, and we're those kinds of people. I'd add, that's my thought.

Eric: I'll add, to get excited, to be passionate, and enjoy every moment of tinkering and figuring out everything as you go, because it is a journey and it will take you on a roller coaster ride, but it's fun and you can laugh about it the entire time, so enjoy it.

Britt: Thanks for listening to the Big Vision podcast. For more information about Back to Earth, go to And if you liked the opening music, it was an excerpt from Kenya Masala's "Mango Delight". You can learn more about Kenya's work and his music by going to And finally, if you want more information about Big Vision career and Project Consulting, you can check out my website, at Thanks for listening!

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