A DC Firesoul takes a trip down South

Steve Coleman meets with Alabama Community Foundation as it prepares to bring “Sacred Places” to the state

A few months ago, we received an email from a community foundation in Alabama; the kind of mail that sends a ripple of excitement through our office. The foundation, one of several we’d mailed a copy of our book — Open Spaces Sacred Places: Stories of How Nature Heals and Unifies — had been struck by what they saw and read.

Photo by: Lonnie Tague for the Department of Justice

The Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama, which serves nine counties in the northeast corner of the state, saw in the Sacred Places concept, a new path for working to improve community health. Our message had resonated; in this area of the country far removed from our current footprint, we had successfully planted a seed.

To help introduce the idea to their community, they asked that we send someone to speak at the foundation’s annual gathering of state and community leaders; community members and foundation trustees and supporters. We turned to one of our longest serving Firesouls, Steve Coleman, who is also the longtime executive director and president of Washington Parks & People.

Steve was a Firesoul before we coined the term. The greenspaces he’s helped cultivate are found in some of DC’s most challenged neighborhoods. They include Meridian Hill and Marvin Gaye Park. He’s worked for decades bringing together people and nature.

“I think Mary (TKF’s recently retired Executive Director) turned to me because she knows we’ve worked in communities that have faced a lot of challenges and strife,” said Steve. “But we have found ways to help people use the land to further and deepen ideas related to park-based community health.”

And so on Nov. 9, 2017, Steve traveled to Anniston, Alabama, spending the afternoon with the Foundation’s President and CEO, Jennifer Maddox, and one of its directors, Fred Smith, who shared with him their hopes for these yet-to-be-fully-imagined greenspaces. Later that evening, Steve spoke to the 150 plus people gathered at the annual meeting, aptly held at the Longleaf Botanical Gardens, telling of his experiences as a Firesoul in DC. “I was worried, initially, about whether or not these stories, set in inner-city DC, would resonate with a small town like Anniston; a rural community.” But the underlying message of the power of nature did.

“For them, the arrival of that book in the mail came at just the right time,” said Steve. “It presented a new opportunity; a way to carry out their founding donor’s work more broadly into the community across the nine counties they serve.”

“Parks, nature and community can do far more for health and disease prevention than an emergency room,” said Steve. And this is a message that resonates as deeply in rural Northeast Alabama as it does in Washington, DC.

“Greenspaces,” he added, “are something we’re all responsible for — and we all need.”

In the coming weeks, we will be following the Alabama Community Foundation, sharing their story here, as they realize their plans to bring two Sacred Places to Northeast Alabama.