Community Leadership Spotlight: Alrie Middlebrook
"We had to connect knowledge, truth and beauty of nature close to where children are growing up so that they would always have nature as a part of them and they would be comfortable with understanding it."
As a part of our Community Leader Spotlight Series, we spoke with Alrie Middlebrook.
In this candid conversation, Alrie walks us through her journey of being the leader at CNGF, its defining work, opportunities, achievements, and challenges confronting this Bay Area nonprofit.
About Alrie and California Native Gardens Foundation
Alrie Middlebrook is one of the founders and Executive Director of California Native Gardens Foundation (CNGF).
The California Native Garden Foundation mission is to restore the lost balance with nature by bringing back California’s native gardens and plants. This will help urban children and families live healthier and more sustainable lives. Through our educational initiatives, we also provide support and urban sustainability solutions to local and global communities.
Wild nature has the power to heal, to build healthier immune systems, and to rejuvenate cities. Many of us have lost our physical connection to nature. As we have urbanized our land use, our interaction with our surroundings has quickly changed, disturbing the harmony and primary functions of our natural ecosystems.
CLASS: Welcome Alrie. Before we take a dive into all the great work CNGF is doing, we would love to get to know you a little better. So, tell us a little about yourself, your academic and professional background.
Alrie: I graduated college when I was young. I lost my father during my last year of college; shortly thereafter, I was married and started a family. I started my career before I was 30 years old. I'm 76 now. I've been working directly with nature, soils and plants for over 45 years as a professional. So, my education is not academic in terms of advanced degrees but has come more from observing and learning how our planet functions in myriad natural ways. I’m always searching for specific ways we humans can disrupt planet function less.
CLASS: What was the motivation behind finding CNGF?
Alrie: It was conceived by a small group of dedicated people. We shared beliefs in the value of native plants and specifically native gardens. The California Native Garden Foundation has anchored my work as a professional—creating more than 800 of these special gardens. I co-wrote a book with Dr. Glen Keator, a botanist who specializes in native flora. He was my teacher and became my collaborator. The title of the book is: Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful Ecological Gardens.
When my second husband and I met, our courtship was spent hiking into wild areas of California and learning the plants. We discovered the ecosystems of California. We saw how nature is organized by local plant communities, here and all over the planet, and we observed how our planet renews itself without any help from humankind.
The founding members of CNGF were botanist Dr. Glen Keator, my husband Dr. Barry Slater, David Long—a civil rights attorney who had a native garden and promoted native gardens in Marin County, Tom Bradner—a native garden-loving accountant who was involved with Audubon Canyon Ranch, and myself. The California Native Garden Foundation began in 2004.
At that time, the California Native Plant Society was very focused on preserving native plants and their habitats and educating about our native flora through their many chapters throughout the state. CNPS wasn't focused on creating native gardens at that time. We felt that left a gap in the fight to preserve native gardens. Building and preserving these gardens became our focus. We aimed to build more of these gardens and teach people how to create and manage them. We also wanted our nonprofit to be engaged in ecological education in the native garden, especially for children. We wanted to immerse them in nature as well as bring this kind of natural world awareness into urban areas—the centers of population. We had to connect the knowledge, truth and beauty of nature close to where children are growing up so that they would always have nature as a part of their consciousness and would be comfortable understanding it and being a part of it.
The Unique Leadership Challenge
CLASS: As the leader of CNGF, what has been your unique challenge?
Alrie: I would say that the risk of losing our gardens at Race Street in San Jose has been our most unique challenge because this property is privately held and not owned by a public entity like the city or the county, or a school or church. It is actually owned by a developer who decided to challenge the use of the property and get a permit to build a retail building. That was painful to me because the way we use land in the city really exemplifies whether we can continue to survive on our planet. We've restored nature with a native garden in the middle of San Jose. This garden has grown and matured for 20 years. It wasn't just a matter of moving away and starting a garden somewhere else.
Cities are changing in response to human health and wellbeing in response to social justice and land justice. Folks are realizing that we shouldn’t bulldoze a garden that has been growing for 20 years and has 30 or 40 species of native birds using the garden for habitat. By planting over 200 species of native plants, we now have healthy microbial networks established in the soil, as well as many native insects and different species of native bees dependent on this plot. Our teaching gardens have all the ecosystem services that human beings require for us to be healthy and to complete our healthy life cycle. For that to be destroyed goes against the core of my personal beliefs.
I saw this disturbance with my landlord as an opportunity to evaluate the sort of unfettered capitalism that guides too many of our choices. I support an enlightened self-interest kind of capitalism, where people are enlightened as to how certain lands may be used in the city for the greater benefit of all who live there. That was the process I wanted to go through. I wanted to see if our community would go through it with me. It was that process where you can gather support for a different kind of urban land use. That was my challenge. I've been working on this land issue for over three years now. The good news is the public is coming along and beginning to recognize the value of nature in cities. We are still in the fight. We are holding on.
The Proud Moments
CLASS: What is it that you feel most proud of?
Alrie: It's working to develop strong community partnerships right now. It started a long time ago. We realized that we had to form a network of institutions that could all work together within our own arenas to bring about the change for which we've been advocating. And that was kicked off by the possibility that we might lose the gardens at Race St. It was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it's like, oh, this is horrible. What am I going to do? And then on the other hand, it provided a source of motivation and unity to increase the power of our local networks for initiating and bringing about change. So, I would say that's been my greatest challenge, but it's also been the source of a new level of community engagement and activism.
CLASS: What is it that you enjoy most about being at CNGF?
Alrie: I really enjoy working with the students, especially if I can help teach and train them and connect them to one another. By working together, with all the skills they are acquiring, they will get to the place where future generations need to be.
To see that we have this full engagement between humanity and land, and that we are using land in the most sustainable way to address climate change and for our own health and wellbeing, we must fully engage our youth.
I want to put my energy into these outstanding young people so they can develop as leaders. I think helping them develop leadership qualities, skills and know-how is really the most important work we can be doing to prepare our youth for this century.
CLASS: While you are talking about educating youth, what internship opportunities does CNGF offer?
Alrie: We have an internship application on our website: cngf.org/internships. Applicants can choose which teams they are most interested in joining, which include grant writing, ecological land management, regenerative organic agriculture, culinary arts for a plant-based diet, Earth Heroes Nature Camp, community outreach and community activism, Build 25 X 25 campaign, among others. It is part of what we do at CNGF. I've worked with over 200 students since we started the internship programs. I found that to advance our ideas, our work with young people was critical. We are especially interested in students who study environmental science, plant science, soil microbiology, early childhood development, sustainable agriculture, civil engineering, science education, culinary arts or nutrition. These students are getting the educational background in college. I can talk to them, mentor, and teach them. CNGF has a good reputation for our work with college kids and helping them find jobs. We are creating a forum for a group of young people that we are very excited about moving in this direction. For me, it is a survival strategy. These concepts couldn’t thrive without youth being empowered to lead the charge.
When CNGF was building up the internship program, we linked up with European, Asian, African and South American students who are very interested in sustainable urban land use solutions. We have the Garden for India Program and the Garden for Ghana Program. Once these ideas become reality in Silicon Valley, it's going to spread across the globe; not just because of what we've done on a half-acre in central San Jose, but because this is the most intelligent way to live on the planet in these times, and there are more and more people now who are seeing it.
CLASS: We see you work a lot with young children. Can you elaborate more on the work you are doing with children?
Alrie: We are doing a lot now, working with other partnerships and developing curriculum for school yards. We are very interested in the zero to five age group. We have a wonderful partnership with the First 5 of Santa Clara County. We have another partnership with Educare SV. This is a national organization interested in working with the underserved communities that live below the poverty line. Educare and California’s First 5 Family Resource Centers recognize how these communities have fallen through the cracks in terms of early childhood education—reading readiness, health readiness, and now with our lessons in ecological education, our partners are seeing how the restoration of nature is connected to food and to a healthy local food system. This is a key element that’s been missing in most pre-school education.
The Key Initiatives
CLASS: One of your key initiatives has been Build 25 X 25. What was the vision behind developing this initiative?
Alrie: Build 25 X 25 is an initiative that actually grew out of a project where the developer hired us as landscape consultants to help the community visualize and imagine the impact of an urban farm with native gardens in a dense city. It is a historic project called the Santa Clara AgriHood on the former site of the Bay Area Research and Extension Center (BAREC), operated by the University of California since 1928. The AgriHood Development has the unique distinction of being the only low-income, affordable and market rate housing development with an urban regenerative organic farm built in urban America on land that's valued at $8-10M an acre. It took a huge undertaking of community activism to achieve this. It was spearheaded by another individual and CNGF to lead and engage our local community in this different model for urban land. With the means we had, we worked to develop community support that received the votes we needed on the Santa Clara City Council. There were eight competing proposals. Ours was the only one that included the ROA farm. I figured if this project could happen, 24 others could also happen. The key is community activism, support, teamwork and persistence. We organized at least 20 rabble-rousing city council meetings over a 5-year period, with hundreds of people speaking out in respectful ways to achieve this.
So, once we were able to accomplish that through community activism, our knowledge base, and what has been our purpose at CNGF, I thought—given the way the world was going by 2014, 2015, 2016, and how we were starting to see the rapid degradation of the planet’s soils and how climate change was not being adequately addressed from an urban land use perspective—there was a greater opportunity to engage, based on the success of The AgriHood.
Then we had a setback when Donald Trump was elected in 2016. There was a national decline in our collective interest for solving climate crisis, for dealing with our crisis in agriculture and loss of topsoil, and the crisis with children who have 'nature deficit disorder’—disconnection of children from nature. But now, with all of the new published studies on the human microbiome, its connection to complex native soil’s microbiomes, it's a compelling path that we're on: to share more knowledge, especially with youth.
We need to bring recently published science findings and data into reexamining urban land use policies. And so, it was with this information that we came up with the Build 25 X 25 initiative where San Jose, Santa Clara County and Silicon Valley would create a network of teaching, training and research farms, with the hub being an educational and job training center for resilient new careers that can provide the real solutions to how we're going to deal with our climate crisis. It answers how we're going to deal with the degradation of soils globally, why local food security is a part of our solution and how we're going to reconnect human beings to nature in cities where more than half the people live. We were ahead of our game when we came up with this.
CLASS: We see that CNGF extends its passion of building ROAs in the international communities. Tell us a little bit about the international projects that CNGF is engaging in.
Alrie: We want the Silicon Valley to be a hub for Build 25 X 25—what we call 'intentional communities'—as we're addressing human health and well-being, our lifecycle needs, restoring the local ecosystems and protecting ecosystem services. We want these intentional communities that we establish to be a beacon for young people to come from other countries and learn our methods and then take them back home and produce their own intentional communities in their homelands. So, we've been doing a lot of work in Africa and India. Our partners from India came here and gave talks recently.
We also have an accreditation model. It is called the Sustainable Sites Initiative, a part of the United States Green Building Council. Our ELSEE Lab at 76 Race Street is the only site in San Jose that is certified. When we create a school garden, a park or a corporate garden, it’s important that each garden site is accredited. This certifies that it meets 200 benchmarks for urban sustainability and the protection of ecosystems services.
The Sustainable Sites Initiative is an international concept and is global on every level. One of the challenges facing international communities is that they don't know what their ancestral plants are because their lands have been so scarred by exploitation and extraction, and it continues to this day. But there are ways that they can learn what their ancestral plants are. Local and regional colleges can be funded, and nature can be put back. It doesn't take very long if you know how to do it or know how to find resources that have passed this knowledge forward. Nature does the heavy lifting. Our planet has been renewing itself for four billion years, despite our species’ proclivity to disrupt it and destroy our natural habitat. Education, training and research are the answers. Our network of farms and intentional communities will be training and job creation living laboratories for our youth.
The Partnership with CLASS Consulting Group
CLASS: How did you learn about CLASS?
Alrie: I learned about CLASS through several people, including Nancy Smith, former Vice Mayor and City Councilwoman for the City of Sunnyvale, a community leader and President of the Board at CNGF. We thought it was an opportunity to have CLASS provide us with some of the tools that we need to grow the business, raise money and contribute to having more of an impact here in Santa Clara County.
CLASS: When you first approached CLASS some of the challenges you listed were related to raising funds, obtaining grants and land for operations. How did CLASS help you address some of those business challenges?
Alrie: What I liked was the comprehensive plan. CLASS looked at every aspect of our business and offered possible solutions in all the key areas. It was a very comprehensive analysis with an action plan of what CLASS could do to help us get on the right road for a stronger future. We ended up not moving forward at the time because I was so involved in the early throes of trying to save the land from a retail development. Our board has said we need to go back to CLASS and have another review, and work with you again because we are in a different place now. We have our roadmap, and in terms of fundraising, we need a new strategy based on the partnerships that we now have and will acquire in the future.
We are also looking at what we're trying to do with the colleges. They're starting to partner with us to create curriculum for seven new job tracks. Now, the challenge becomes how to get the word out to potential funders and landowners throughout the county. By funding curriculum development and agreeing to hire young people that have gone through our training program through the San Jose City College or Evergreen Community College District Workforce Institute, it creates a real opportunity to change land use. These students will be trained how to manage land, how to teach in an outdoor classroom, how to be an ecological engineer, or how to work in a restaurant that is working with a plant-based diet with food that's grown locally.
These are incredible opportunities to change our city and our county, and we think that CLASS could help us with how we approach the government and the big landowning institutions, and how we can create viable partnerships. We believe CLASS can also support our mission to bring science and the latest scientific publications that support the science that I discussed earlier. We want to help the public—including the big landowners in our county—understand how significant our relationship is to healthy soils and healthy biodiversity and to our own human immune system.
And so, with the challenges that we have come to now, we would really have an opportunity if CLASS could help us. It would have an amazing impact on our effectiveness in this county.
About The CLASS Consulting Group The CLASS Consulting Group is a trusted advisor to the board of directors and senior leadership of the Bay Area nonprofit organizations. It is a boutique management consulting firm headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area that provides consulting services to senior management and board of directors of nonprofit organizations and offers community leadership opportunities to professionals. Since 2002 CLASS’ volunteers have been assisting nonprofit organizations in the SF Bay Area and supporting the communities in which, we all live and work. Learn more about our mission and story. Interested in finding more about our services for nonprofit organizations? Simply request a meeting here and we’ll get in touch to tell you all about this opportunity and how our passionate volunteer-run teams are helping nonprofits make the Bay Area a better place, one community at a time.