Joining the Family Business

In a search for meaning, a social entrepreneur gets back to her roots

Illustration by Faye Zhang

Illustration by Faye Zhang

Essay by Nancy S. Cleveland

I had an uncle we thought must be a CIA operative.

At his memorial service, I was talking with one of his colleagues (a guy whose body language screamed, “Don’t ask me what I do!”). I was prattling on about my uncle’s purposeful, passion-driven work and how I wanted to do something meaningful like that. 

With an intensely penetrating look, he responded, “So, what’s stopping you?” 

It was a question that spun me around. 

I thought about my long career as a lawyer and how I’d reinvented myself many times. I’d worked as a litigator, in real estate and in telecom, building out wireless communications infrastructure. Despite a lot of career reboots, for me, practicing law evoked a near constant yearning for more purposeful work. My primary way of doing good was writing checks to charities. Good, but not that personally inspiring or meaningful.

I thought about my mother and her lifelong passion: women’s empowerment. Her passion for helping women inspired her to scale new ways of getting women into the skilled workforce that she needed for her local medical practice. She changed lives. Maybe not a lot of lives, but over time, her efforts had a ripple effect through two generations. It was from her that I learned two important lessons: Social impact doesn’t have to be monumental to be meaningful and important, and a strong and passionate belief in the change you seek can make a difference. 

I grew up in a family where making a difference was just what people were supposed to do. I was hardwired to become a social entrepreneur. And yet, there I stood at my uncle’s funeral, and a man I’d never met before was asking me directly: What’s stopping you?

The answer? Me.

Anyone considering an entrepreneurial move faces the risk and fear of failing. But those aren’t the only things you have to hurdle. It requires some soul-searching with questions like, What would I sacrifice? What will I gain? Is the change important enough to me? You have to knock down a lot of barriers to succeed as a social entrepreneur. But just getting started, getting out of your comfort zone, is the first and biggest—and one that I realized I had control over. 

That conversation at my uncle’s funeral was 13 years ago. It took me two years to find a strong enough passion, another year to change career paths and 10 more to hone ideas, meet my co-founder, assemble a team and launch a totally new software-based approach to sustainability management for business. Every day, it’s the purposeful, passion-driven work I was yearning for. 

Bringing a social-impact product to market is never the result of a single human being’s efforts. It is evolutionary, dynamic, collaborative and complex. And those are also the qualities that make being a social entrepreneur hugely rewarding, never lonely and well worth it. 

My mom passed away a few months before my uncle, so she never got to witness my journey. But I know she would be proud of the work my team is doing to make the world a better place. It makes me happy to think that, in a way, I’ve finally joined the family business.

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Nancy S. Cleveland is a principal at Sustrana, a software company that provides sustainability management solutions.

A Mess of Mint

In an overgrown herb patch, a hitn of health, a family line and leaves of black history

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By Constance Garcia-Barrio

"Your mint’s running amok,” my neighbor, an avid gardener, said one sunny afternoon. “Let it go much longer, you’ll need a machete to hack it down.”

Despite the warning, I aimed to let the mint keep growing, though I didn’t say so. Mint has wound its way through generations of many of us black Americans. “In 1792, a man, aged 72, was cured of the stone by taking the expelled juice of red onions and horse mint…” Samuel Stearns wrote in his 1801 Materia Medica. “The discovery was made by a Negro in Virginia, who obtained his freedom thereby.” My elders don’t claim such stellar results, yet mint has long played a role in our health.

From my great-grandmother, Rose Wilson Ware, or just Maw, came herbal remedies from slavery time.  Born into bondage around 1851 near Partlow, Virginia, Maw lived until 1964, 113 years. For her and many other enslaved blacks, herbal medicine meant survival. She used mint for stomach complaints and to ease morning sickness—maybe on the advice of Aunt Alsie Ellis, the local midwife—during her pregnancies with the first generation of children born free.  

When my mother put down roots in Philadelphia in the late 1920s, she hid some of her heritage, afraid that being both black and Southern would shackle her to low-wage jobs.  She hired a speech therapist, worked with him for two years, and erased her Southern accent. On the other hand, Mom didn’t conceal her use of herbal remedies.  When anyone had a chancy stomach, she would cut a mint leaf into tiny pieces and add it to a teaspoon of sugar for the family member or guest. Mom also used mint—transplanted from Maw’s farm in Virginia—to add a cooling bite to her iced tea.

In time, I learned that mint could not only flavor tea or slow-roasted lamb, but my very life. Before Mom moved into assisted living, I took a few shoots of mint—flourishing years after she had transplanted them from Maw’s land—and planted them in the near-corner of my tiny front yard. Now, when I feel the need of Maw’s strength, I pinch off a leaf and eat it, a spiky green prayer.

Mint holds yet another dimension, I found. Some years ago, aching to include in my life rituals lost or frayed during slavery time, I became initiated as a priestess in the Yoruba religion, a sister tradition to Vodoun. My godmother, who led the ceremony, once explained that taking a mint bath can open one’s life to good energy.

And so, I said nothing to my worried neighbor. I let my mint grow till I had enough to cover the bottom of my old clawfoot tub. I turned on the hot water one night, and, after an amen or two, I climbed in. The mint’s sharp scent left me feeling cleaner in body and spirit.

I admit that my neighbor is right—at this point, I would probably have to rent a backhoe to dig out all that hardy mint. Pink daisies would prettify my little yard, but, given a choice, I would rather have that mess of unruly mint that reaches back to Maw.

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Constance Garcia-Barrio lives in Philadelphia and often writes on aspects of African-American history.

Minimalism with Minis

After a move to the suburbs, a reckoning



By Jennifer Ghymn

Before my daughter came along, my husband and I were city folk living in tiny, 500-square-feet apartments. We only had room for the basics, and if something was purchased, then something else had to go. Having less clutter allowed us to make the most of what we had, and we lived in the present, spending time on priorities like traveling, meeting friends and taking walks. Cleaning up only took 15 minutes. We were happy living with less.

Today, we live in a 2,500-square-foot home in the suburbs. 

We moved for a job, but we bought the house because we wanted to raise a family. Somehow, we interpreted having a child as needing to acquire more stuff, needing more space to fill with stuff, and buying enough stuff to accommodate what we perceived would be our child’s needs. 

What I’ve come to understand is that an extra bouncy seat, an electric swing and a surplus of swaddle blankets just weren’t necessary for survival in my child’s first year of life. Going overboard was a coping mechanism for my insecurities as a new parent. Having the stuff meant being prepared for the crying or uncertainty that often comes with babies. Occupying her immediate needs with an object or motorized distraction helped settle my nerves when I felt like my own parenting reservoir was not enough. 

But now, my living room is a landscape of stuffed animals and board books. I’m not proud. The chaotic clutter stresses me out. 

So as her fourth birthday approaches, I take pause in evaluating this surplus of plastic, paper and battery-operated toys that fills our home. I know what it feels like to live with less. And I want that for her. She can learn from my mistakes. 

Even as I approach this project, I know it will be easier to tempt or—ahem—bribe my daughter with a Hatchimal or tutu. (I didn’t realize that her first advertising campaign was me trying to sell her on the benefits of strawberry-flavored Mickey Mouse toothpaste. “Of course you want to brush with Mickey! He gets your teeth nice and clean.”) But I won’t. I’m betting on her maturing behavior to follow my lead.

She is now at an age where we can talk about behaviors instead of redirecting emotions. “Before we can play outside, we must put away our things.” For the most part she listens and tidies up. I will cheerfully help and show her how proud I am of our small but satisfying accomplishment. Sometimes enthusiasm and a positive attitude are enough motivation to reward behavior. However, when push comes to shove, I find that a song and dance routine turns chore into fun.

We are going to go through the exercise of purging the excess together. We can experience as a family the joy of giving away toys, clothes or books to those who may need it. For kids—for my daughter—having less will mean using creativity and imagination to explore, play and be resourceful. I want to teach her that the world is full of endless possibilities. 

And I want her to know that minimalism is more than just a donation of used possessions. It’s prioritizing what’s essential in life, like time together to just laugh and be and to make room for new discoveries together.

Parenting has evolved from just managing the physical needs of a baby and toddler to raising a child into a proper human being. The only thing I want to collect with her is memories.

Jennifer Ghymn is a writer, digital marketer and intentional tourist living in Reading, Pa. Learn more at theinterculture.com.

The Storm

Pondering Philadelphia’s resilience in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

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By Sam Boden

Every day, I walk the cement patchwork of the city’s streets and sidewalks, navigating the bumps and cracks of the well-worn roads that make up our neighborhoods. I have seen the ways water gathers in the streets after a heavy rain and, through working with the Philadelphia Water Department, witnessed firsthand how Philadelphia has been managing stormwater with green spaces. I’m proud to be part of the city’s work.

Watching the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, in which America’s fourth-largest city was left underwater, closely followed by devastation in Florida from Hurricane Irma, I was struck by just how precarious our urban situation is—how quickly a storm becomes a flood, and a flood becomes a catastrophe.

I have always viewed cities as bastions of power and success; fortresses that are not vulnerable to the elements. Of course, there is always a threat from extreme weather—cities are not immune to wind and water—but I have always believed in the oft-touted “resilience” of these cities. I always assumed that they were prepared to weather the worst storms.

It was not until recently that I came to terms with the fragility of our urban ecosystems: We are as vulnerable in our wood and concrete and glass structures as any other creature is in their den. The photos of Houston’s famed sprawl returned overnight into an urban delta, entire island communities flattened, and the Southeast U.S. overwhelmed by storm surge should remind all of us that there is no real distinction between the “natural” and “built” environments—all are subject to the same forces, standing on the same earth. And the earth is changing.

As a young person, just starting my career, I am inheriting a new world—one defined by more droughts, storms and heat than my ancestors, and those changes have multiplied previous threats and upended our models and predictions. While debates rage in governments around the world about the costs of adaptation and mitigation, I am left wondering: How do we move forward in the face of such an alarming future?

It’s tempting to play the blame game, to accuse everyone else of ignorance about the causes of climate change. But we have all, through our consumption habits, played a role—we’ve collectively allowed for the devastation of cities like Houston and states like Florida.

I cherish the stories of people who recognize the threats from climate change and realize that the onus is on them—and all of us—to fight back and prepare well. I have faith in the power of voices raised together to change course, and I find hope in the engagement of others in my generation.

Supporting the use of green infrastructure for managing stormwater, attending local planning meetings, encouraging decision makers to act responsibly and changing our own behavior are some of the ways that we can effect change. Watching the recent hurricanes unfold was a wake up call for me, and I desperately hope it was for others. Our days of sleepwalking through our current reality should be over. The ability to safely traverse our city’s streets depends on it.

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Sam Boden is an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Philadelphia Water Department, working on its green infrastructure initiative, Green City, Clean Waters.

Art Galleries:
 The Original Instagram

A West Philly high school student reflects on how we curate our lives

Illustration by James Heimer

Illustration by James Heimer

By Cameron Swann

The first time I realized that I could make my world beautiful was during a summer program from The School of the New York Times, where I spent two weeks looking at how the curation of art affects how we perceive the art itself. My teacher, Anthony Titus, taught me a lot during those two weeks, but one thing he said stood out: Everything is curated. 

That really resonated with me, because in our society today we are so connected to social media—we see things, whether they are Facebook feeds or the walls of a gallery, in the way others want us to perceive the images. We are all trying to make our lives seem beautiful and interesting, even when they are not. I’d take pictures at events that would never happen again, places I wasn’t sure I would be able to visit again, things that I wanted to remember and brag about to the people I’d meet. 

Instagram in particular, with its emphasis on pictures and not text, is curated, and people usually only take pictures of the aspects of life they think others will deem beautiful and opulent. When I was reflecting on that fact, I thought of ways to turn my daily life into something beautiful, worth showing. I kept thinking I had to memorialize a moment I’d only do once in my life. I thought the ordinary and routine in my life couldn’t be considered beautiful—until I experienced the Whitney Museum of American Art, also in New York City. 

At the Whitney, the architecture and exhibits create a light-hearted and bright atmosphere that makes both the art and surrounding neighborhood look picturesque. The exhibit where I found the most beauty in the ordinary was “Where We Are,” which took pieces from the Whitney’s collection to show American lives from 1900 to 1960. It was broken up into sections by stanzas from the W. H. Auden poem “September 1, 1939.”

The poem and artwork showed everyday life and how things change dramatically whether you view an experience closely or at a distance. I found myself looking at a historical vantage point at the exhibit’s pieces about daily life from the Great Depression and World War II—when life wasn’t at its finest and happiest. And yet, there were beautiful creations from people documenting everyday lives, lives that were neither beautiful nor opulent in the way we measure on Instagram. One painting that stands out was “Gettin’ Religion” by Archibald J. Motley Jr.: It’s a colorful image of people in Harlem going home after a night on the town, dancing and playing music as others look on under the beautiful blue light of the moon. 

It made me realize that in the turmoil and dismay of our lives today, we can still find the artistic in everyday moments, even in the dirty work of society. I plan to create beauty and happiness by taking photographs of the mundane—I hope others will create their own beauty as well.

Cameron Swann is a student at West Philadelphia’s Workshop School.