Drawing on their professional, contemplative, and holistic training, Naropa alumni are making incredible contributions in diverse fields. They’re creating sustainable businesses, developing innovative technology, and providing essential services within local and international communities. There are hundreds of alumni whose work we’d love to share with you. As a starter, check out these seventeen game-changers.
A few years ago, Lucy Wallace (BA Contemplative Psychotherapy, 1998 and MA Transpersonal Psychotherapy, 2009) was chatting with one of her students at Alchemy of Movement, a local dance studio, about converting the studio into a nonprofit. Her student, Gayle Nosal, suggested that they create a nonprofit arm by offering classes to women in prison. Together, they founded Dance 2B Free.
Lucy began by offering modified “prison appropriate” SoulSweat classes at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. The classes create a sense of trust amongst the women. “By dancing in community,” Lucy explains, “the inmates can experience healing in their bodies without having to relive their trauma that talk therapy can sometimes lead to.” In addition to classes, Dance 2B Free also offers DVDs and a teacher training program which has already certified more than one hundred inmates as dance teachers in Colorado, Nebraska, Washington, and Arkansas.
Lilly Wallace (sixth from right) and her team take pride in their commitment to sustainability. Photo by Tom Sundro Lewis.
Lilly Wallace (BA Contemplative Psychology, 2006) grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. Even so, when she quit her job as a truck team member of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? in Ann Arbor to attend Naropa, she had no plans to buy her own franchise while she was a full-time student. Just over ten years later, Lilly’s franchise has more than twenty employees servicing clients in Boulder, Weld, and Larimer Counties.
Lilly says that two of her primary goals are human connection and recycling. “Many of our clients are in the midst of real transition in their lives,” she explains. “We’re not just a truck pulling up and grabbing your junk; we’re teams of thoughtful people who genuinely care about helping other people. We know that most of the time what people are letting go of isn’t ‘junk’ to them, so we do everything we can to keep the items out of the landfill.”
Jamba Dunn (MFA Writing & Poetics, 2005), founder and CEO of Rowdy Mermaid, starting brewing kombucha as a form of stress relief from his job as a professional writer. “I used to compare brewing kombucha to walking meditation. It’s multidimensional work. It’s not just building a recipe; it’s thinking about time and space and barometric pressure…. I think that was the reason I decided to start this business.”
Rowdy Mermaid has expanded exponentially over the last few years, and can be found in major grocery chains across the region, farmer’s markets, and through collaborations with other local businesses. While Jamba has moved away from the brewing process to concentrate on community engagement and political activism, that initial meditative draw still carries through. “I couldn’t stress enough the relevance of contemplative education. That’s what got me here. The one thing the world needs right now is a contemplative workforce, people who are thoughtful about what they’re doing.”
(1) Samuel Jablon describes his work as “prose poetry fractured and covered in paint.” (2) Beautiful Time, 2015, acrylic and glass tile on paper. (3) Life, 2015, acrylic, fused glass, mirror and glass tile. (4) Fine as Wine, 2016, acrylic and mirror on wood.
“Naropa was founded by giants when it comes to artists and writers who are activists,” says Samuel Jablon (BA Writing & Literature and Interdisciplinary Studies, 2009). “In my mind it is the artist/writer’s role to create work that genuinely affects their communities.” With his first public art piece, OUTDEMONSOUT, listed as a must-see in New York this summer, Sam is doing the lineage proud.
As an artist and poet, Samuel draws on his meditation training to help him navigate the isolation of spending long hours alone in the studio. His work merges prose poetry and mixed medium visual art. “I wanted to see how poetry could be visual and more experiential,” he explains. “There is a struggle between the material and language, and if a viewer focuses on reading the text they miss the painting, and vice-versa. I am interested in that in between space where the work is solely visual.”
When Judson Webb (BA InterArts, 2000; MFA Theater, 2010) and Kjersti Webb (BA InterArts, 2003) moved to Sweden six years ago, they wanted to explore ways of combining contemplative practice, art making, and addiction recovery, all with a vision towards peacebuilding. As co-founders of Aveer Institute, they are making huge strides. One of Aveer’s unique qualities is its focus on the inner work of discovering peace. Judson explains, “Through contemplative training, education, and practice, we enable individuals and communities to cultivate, experience, and implement sustainable peace building practices.”
Judson and Kjersti utilize contemplative practice tools both in their work and their family life. Kjersti recalls using dharma art installation exercises to resolve disagreements about how to set up their first apartment together. “This has continued with our kids (we have lots of tiny installations in our house),” she adds, “and now also in our peace work and theatre training.”
“Whether it’s online or on the ground, my mission is to foster a deeper sense of connection to Earth and all beings,” says Chelsey McCaw (MA Environmental Leadership, 2015), founder of Wild Food Love. “While pursuing my MA at Naropa, I was inspired to create Wild Food Love, an Instagram community where people connect and share their experience with wild and foraged foods.” The community is a hit, with more than 45,000 followers, 35,000 submissions, and more than 400 people contributing each month.
“At Naropa, I learned the power of mindfulness-awareness, authentic leadership, crystalizing intent, compassion, and forgiveness, which helped me to find my voice and bring out the best in myself.” In addition to curating the mouth-watering Instagram community, Chelsey also manages social media for Amy’s Kitchen, furthering their mission through relationship building, social strategy, and creative storytelling.
Synchronicity played a leading role in Martine McDonald’s (BA Peace Studies, 2009) path towards her position with Journeys in Film. Martine was working at the Museum of Tolerance when she met Joanne Ashe, the founder of Journeys in Film. Joanne’s integration of film and education was something Martine had always wanted to see. They stayed in touch and Joanne offered her a job shortly thereafter.
As program director, Martine engages in community outreach, talking to educators about why film is a great resource to use in the classroom. Initially focused on Holocaust awareness, the organization now offers curriculum for an extensive catalog of films addressing global issues, including last year’s hit Hidden Figures. Martine brings the communication skills she learned at Naropa to her work as an activist and educator. “Knowing how to have a dialogue … and how to speak to people in a way that tries to look at our shared interests is probably the biggest skillset I use regularly.”
Rex Maruca (Improvisation and Composition Advanced Movement Studies Certificate, 1981) has always loved textiles. In fact, he describes Maruca Design as “textile merchants masquerading as handbag makers.” Rex recalls first selling his wearable art out of his car in the Naropa parking lot. Now these gorgeous bags, accessories, and homewares can be found in museums and specialty stories, as well as online.
“My education at Naropa was about inspiration, not confirmation. It was about learning how to lean into trust, into those edgy places,” he says. Rex is particularly proud of the relationships he has fostered at Maruca Design, he emphasizes the importance of “paying attention to the culture and applying basic principles of honesty and equality.” Utiltizing a cottage industry model for production, each bag is hand cut and sewn by a local seamstress. They work only with jacquard fabrics, which are all designed in-house and milled in the USA.
“Having similar experiences of mysticism, gender, and nature intersecting and intimately informing one another, my spouse, So, and I wanted to create a space where the ecological role(s) of queerness can emerge and be empowered through ancestral skills (aka wilderness skills) and rites of passage work through a decolonial lens,” says PInar Sinopoulos-Lloyd (non-degree alum) of Queer Nature, a Colorado-based interdisciplinary project co-founded with their spouse, So Sinopoulos-Lloyd.
“I joined the Queer Nature team in order to hold a therapeutic container for the work in the Queer Wilderness Project,” adds Jessica Dallman (MA TCP Wilderness Therapy, 2015), a wilderness and equine therapist specializing in trauma recovery. In partnership with the Women’s Wilderness Institute, the organization offers grant-funded programs emphasizing earth-based living and survival skills. In addition to consultation work and weekend intensives on power and privilege (offered in collaboration with Wilderness Awareness School), this summer saw the first offering of Queer Youth Quest, a ten-day rite of passage program for LGBTQIAP+ youth.
Inspired by the Tarahumara tribe who run long distances wearing homemade sandals, Lena Phoenix (BA InterArts, 1998) and her husband, Steven Sashen, started a website selling sandal kits designed to work with the natural movement of our feet. Feel the World, Inc, makers of Xero Shoes, now provides a full line of footwear, including sandals, performance athletic shoes, and casual styles. “We see the demand for our products as part of a broader trend from people who are recognizing that more is not necessarily better and going back to natural basics can have significant benefits,” Lena says.
As the company continues to grow, Xero Shoes is committed to building an equitable company and making a sustainable product. While most companies recommend replacing running shoes at around 400 miles, they provide a 5,000-mile sole warranty. They make quarterly donations to the Tarahumara Children’s Hospital, and utilize equity crowdfunding regulations allowing customers to become owners of the company.
(Left) Tristan exhuming lakebed developed prints. (Right) Interior schematic of Liminal Camera.
“At Naropa, I really began to consider photography seriously as a medium,” explainsTristan Duke (BA Interdisciplinary Studies, 2008). “The camera became like a working model for mind and perception.” Tristan was equally influenced by studying Japanese Tea Ceremony. “I came to find connections—the watery baths, the prescribed order of steps, and measured intervals of time.”
After teaching photography and experimenting with holography at Naropa, Tristan moved to Los Angeles, where he has a laboratory at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. During a residency at Metabolic Studio, Tristan, along with artists Lauren Bon and Richard Nielsen, built the “Liminal Camera,” a fully functional twenty-foot camera. From this, they founded the Optics Division at Metabolic Studio, transporting the Liminal around the country to make monumental scale photographs. Focusing on photography as a land-based practice, they’ve mined silver in the Sierras, built a developer from pine needles, and developed images using naturally occurring photo-chemical pools.
“I feel like I go back to Naropa’s slogan, ‘Transform Yourself, Transform the World,’ ALL THE TIME,” says Jade Begay (MA Environmental Leadership, 2005). As a filmmaker and digital strategist with Indigenous Rising Media, Jade often works with large groups of people, “so having tools that support me in being an understanding leader, who listens and does the best to take care of the group, aka ‘system,’ is so critical.”
Indigenous Rising Media is a media project of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Mainstream media and even progressive media fail at telling our stories and our people need a place to say what they need to say without being scripted, stereotyped, and tokenized,” Jade explains. “Since 2015, Indigenous Rising Media has been building relationships with people and communities across the nation to share stories of resistance and resiliency. From Standing Rock to the Gulf of Mexico, we show how Indigenous people are rising.”
Having just returned from leading Naropa’s 2017 Dance Lab or, as she describes it, “the mothership,” Damaris Webb (MFA Theater, 2008) speaks of “meditation practice and contemplative art as the foundation that keeps me sane and hopefully keeps me compassionate.”
In addition to her work as an actor, director, and educator bringing contemplative dance and deep play practices to Portland through Be Space, Damaris is co-founder and director of Vanport Mosaic, inspired by the town of Vanport. Built in four months in 1942, Vanport brought together a mix of races from across the country to work in Portland’s shipyards and railroads. Six years later, the city was wiped out by a flood in less than an hour. “Our mission is to tell the under-listened to stories of the Pacific Northwest,” Damaris says. In addition to year-round programing and an ongoing oral history project, Vanport Mosaic just concluded its second festival, celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the city through theater, documentaries, exhibitions, lectures, and tours.
“The experiential training at Naropa is a major reason I have been able to build two startups,” says Matthew Bellows (BA Buddhist and Western Psychology, 1992). “The challenges that we face in a startup—pressure to succeed, the need to collaborate with a wide range of people, demands of demanding customers, and all the uncertainty of creating a new company, create a rich opportunity to practice mindfulness, compassion, and skillful means.”
As the founder and CEO of Yesware, a software company helping salespeople connect with customers and prospects, Matthew is committed to creating “great software and a great place to work.” Acknowledging systemic issues in the technology industry such as gender bias and sexism, Yesware supports women-centric initiatives. In addition to auditing hiring results and training managers on implicit bias, Yesware is a member of the Pledge 1% initiative, which encourages individuals and companies to pledge 1% of equity, product, and time to their communities.
Executive Director Carl Baccellieri (MA Contemplative Psychotherapy, 1997) describes Living Well Transitions as a “launch-into-your-life support program for emerging adults.” Based in Boulder, the program provides community and clinical support as young adults transition into independent living.
“Living Well was founded in 2004 by Bill Sell, a graduate of the Contemplative Psychotherapy program,” Carl explains. “Although Bill passed away in 2008, the mission of our program has remained the same—To help people know their genuine goodness, and live with courage, wisdom and purpose.” Living Well Transitions is a popular intern site for students in Naropa’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling programs. “My training at Naropa showed me how to welcome my own experience with an open heart, and from there to welcome the world.… Over the years, almost every one of our clinicians has been a Naropa graduate, and the depth they’ve brought has shaped the heart of this program from the beginning.”