Reflections on Regenerative Storytelling

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on.”
—Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings

We love Eudora Welty’s description of storytelling, because it describes the way our Field Guide to a Regenerative Economy storytelling project has evolved over the past eight years.  Eudora is telling us that the storyteller need not be just a passive listener, but, as an active participant in the story, can help shape how it unfolds. We believe in that power of storytelling.  And we are excited to invite you to be part of our regenerative communities storytelling network. 

First a little bit about our storytelling history.

—Susan Arterian Chang, Director, The Field Guide

Field Guide History


In our early days—we posted our first story, about Grasslands, a holistic land management business, in December 2010—we were intuitively drawn to projects that our gut told us were pointing the way to an alternative to our current extractive economic system.  We had no framework to hang them on, we were just following our intuition, and we were eager to share these stories with our growing Capital Institute community. Other major stories that followed, and from which we learned so much, were profiles of Cleveland's The Evergreen Cooperatives and the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance.

Over time, and many stories told, we began to identify recurring patterns and qualities that defined the projects we were chronicling. We recognized that they matched what we were learning from trusted advisors about the science-based patterns and qualities that characterize self-renewing natural systems. We began making the connections between those regenerating natural systems and how the projects we profiled were quietly mapping a healthy economic ecosystem operating below the radar. 

We then began to be attuned to, and listen for, those regenerative patterns and qualities as we identified new projects, and began telling our stories through that clarifying lens. Our goal was then to demonstrate that the regenerative economy was not so much a lovely utopian vision, but a reality happening in more and more places across the country and around the world. And we started mapping that new regenerative economy through stories and through a geographic map.

In the past several years, building on what we have learned from regenerative practitioners and thought leaders, we have assumed a more active, a bit more confident, role as storytellers.  (More about that below.)  It is our hope that you will embrace this hybrid role as a storyteller in your regenerating community—acting as both narrator/observer of its evolving story and participant in it.


This guide is not meant to be prescriptive.

Regenerative stories will always be woven from individual voices, experiences, histories, and sensibilities. Every regenerative storytelling project will be unique to the place where it unfolds.   Please take what follows as an invitation to dialog with us. Join the Regenerative Communities Network and share your experiences with us. 


Together we will weave the narrative of the regenerative economy emerging around us. 


What are the qualities and patterns of regeneration?

These are some of the patterns and qualities of natural systems we see showing up in the people, projects, and businesses we have profiled in the Field Guide.

A love of, and a grounding in, place, embracing and honoring its geographies, peoples, traditions, beliefs, and institutions.



In a first-person narrative, Sara Day Evans tells the story of the people and the place that inspired her to found Accelerating Appalachia, a business accelerator nurturing natural and entrepreneurial capital for a post-extractive, regenerative economy in coal country.  

“Even though we know there is plenty that is broken here,” she told us, “we are building on our region’s assets. It's about sharing inspired stories of the strength, persistence, creativity, and resilience of businesses that work with nature — food, farming, forests, fiber, fuels — developing a place-based economy."



Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac is the Land Ethic movement’s seminal volume. His early articulation that the health of the human economy rests on the health of the land has particular resonance today.


For this story we spoke to Buddy Huffaker, Executive Director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, and also to three former Leopold Foundation interns who describe how their days at the Leopold Center changed their lives and how they are living out his “Land Ethic” in far-flung locations around the country.  For this story we got permission from the directors of "Green Fire," the documentary film of Aldo Leopold's life, to create an audio slide show with the resonant voice of actor Peter Coyote reading from Sand County Almanac.



This story captures an investment initiative that is tapping into the rich core of human desire to participate in holistic value creation, as opposed to the narrow pursuit of financial wealth that Wall Street evangelizes. CSC "squareholders" purchase zero-interest-bearing “shares”in CSC  that is invested in local community businesses. It turned out they don't need any “perks” to entice them to do this, just a chance to live in a town that feels like a real community.

As CSC Co-founder Rachel Maxwell explained: “Money does not have to be about creating more money. It can be a tool to create the world we want to live in.”

A nimbleness and adaptiveness; an ability to absorb information, assimilate it, and innovate with it, in pursuit of holistic community value.  



No Field Guide story represents the ingenuity of the regenerative spirit better than our story of BCoop, a small credit union in Brooklyn, New York.

CEO Samira Rajan modestly demurs when you ask her if she has designed a grand holistic strategy for BCoop, But over the course of her 16-year tenure in the Brooklyn neighborhoods where BCoop has a presence, she has been a keen observer and interpreter of her members' needs and has continually invented new products and services to address them.  Her goal has always been to help members build and retain more of their hard-earned financial wealth, and keep it circulating in their local community. That internal circulation has a way of seeding pride of place and other kinds of wealth creation.

 Resourcefulness in matching underutilized assets with unmet needs



Epleslang, which in Norwegian means “stealing apples from a neighbor’s garden,” is the collective brainchild of a group of students at the University of Oslo’s School of Entrepreneurship. Their idea was both humble and audacious: to match underutilized human resources and what would be otherwise wasted local assets to create a self-sustaining social enterprise. 

Epleslang's distinctive business model connects the unharvested apples in an Oslo neighborhood with the often untapped skills, enthusiasm, and spirit of people with disabilities – and turns this combination into locally produced apple juice, the income from which provides wages to the disabled and supports the organic growth of the enterprise. This revitalizing connectivity is a hallmark characteristic of all naturally self-sustaining and regenerative enterprises and projects.



Jess Daniels, a Brooklyn transplant and cofounder of Foodlab's Kitchen Connect, describes how she set about finding a place in a new community, and learned to set aside her preconceived ideas about how the "sustainable food system" should work, and respect where people from very different backgrounds from hers found sustenance.

"On the wall at FoodLab we have an illustration of an amoeba that depicts the work we do." she explained. "We are always trying to operation on the edge. My focus is on social networks and movement building. When you have these connections between dissimilar groups or hubs, or nodes, that is where the innovation and creativity happens. We all have very different life experiences, but we are connected through the shared experience of starting food businesses with similar values."


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We've been excited to discover the emergence of more and more vibrant and intricate knowledge networks, spanning many geographies, that nurture place-based enterprises, empowered participation, shared value, and experiments in alternative ownership.

So we see it isn't necessarily critical for projects or businesses to be scaleable, to "get bigger;" what we really need to nurture  in a regenerative economy is ways for projects to connect with one another to share knowledge and skills.

P6-- a group of retail and producer food cooperatives exploring ways to support a just and healthy food system around the globe--is a shining example.

"One of the most valuable roles P6 plays is to connect our members so they are talking to each other and sharing ideas," said Aaron Reser, P6's national director at the time we posted our story. "It is people making it up as they go along, recreating local and regional food systems that maybe once were there but don't exist right now."



We have been following BCDI since 2012 as it has evolved and  developed more complex relationships between the community of the Northwest Bronx, its small businesses, outside developers, and local anchor institutions.  Guided by a mission “to end generational poverty in the Bronx through shared wealth and democratic ownership,”  BCDI is an exemplar of truly regenerative, scalable economic development in progress, blending the intuitiveness of a community’s grassroots with more formal systemic approaches to building lasting community wealth and well being.

Experimentation with alternative ownership models.



It is often difficult for startups, let alone worker owned ones, to secure financing from the traditional banking and finance sector.  The Working World is attempting to fill that gap—financing to start up and early stage worker cooperatives, structuring its terms in such a way that investors realize returns only when their underlying investment generates real, economic value for the workers.  “Research shows that worker-owned businesses are not only viable, but they are far  better at creating community wealth and health, equality, racial and gender inclusion, and opportunities for worker advancement and security than privately owned or share-traded businesses,” Brendan Martin, Working World's CEO, maintains. “They also change the dynamics of a company so that workers can take advantage of new technologies rather than the other way around.  We also believe that, ultimately, to maximize community in the long-term benefit, the best way to do that is to have members of the community in control.” 


​Like a traditional venture capital firm, The Working World gets to know the companies it invests in intimately, and tailors its financing to each firm’s growth trajectory.  But unlike most venture capital deals, the terms of The Working World’s financings are set to ensure the long-term success of the underlying business, not to create outsized, short-term payoffs and quick exits for the investor.

An ability to walk the balance beam: to “get things done” in order to "keep things going" (efficiency) on the one hand, while taking risks and exploring new paths (building resiliency).



Finding the sweet spot between generating sufficient financial wealth to meet one's basic needs while at the same time cultivating one's personal holistic wealth goals and that of the larger human and natural community is the delicate balancing act we must undertake if we want to do regenerative work in the world, individually and collectively. 

Hugh Kent, the hero of our story of King Grove Organic Farm,  wanted to model a different way of doing agriculture in Central Florida, going into debt to convert a conventional citrus farm to organic blueberry farming. He needed to make a living and repay his debts, but he wanted to do that while also doing "a decent job of balancing agriculture and land stewardship." "Organic ag doesn’t just mean you don’t use synthetic herbicides and fertilizers," he elaborates. "It means you manage your property under a comprehensive plan so you have a healthy natural community that exists on the fringe of what you are farming aggressively. "


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The Storyteller as Participant

In the past few years we have experimented with what we call activating or participatory storytelling.  Our mission: to spark a new regenerative story, one that might not otherwise have unfolded in a particular place, by facilitating introductions and connections at key inflection points, then stepping back and documenting what unfolds.  

In  2014 we launched The Year in the Life of First Green Bank, documenting the journey of a seasoned Florida banker, Ken LaRoe, who hoped to steer a regenerative course with a new bank he had founded.  He wanted to leave behind the short-term, financially driven, real estate speculation model that had led to past successes, and embrace a more holistic view of wealth.

During our two-year collaboration, in our role as both documentarian and activator and confidante, we introduced Ken, his staff, and the bank’s investors to a series of mentors who challenged them to more fully embrace this new business model. We participated in convenings with the local community, and collaborated with a local videographer to film many of these encounters. We engaged with the bank’s clients through profiles on the dedicated  Year in the Life website, and produced a short video about one of the bank's borrowers—an organic farmer who had found a receptive audience in LaRoe when no other bank was interested in supporting his mission.

At the end of the project in November 2016 we created and screened a short documentary chronicling our partnership at the Patagonia SOHO in New York City, where Ken joined a panel of local regenerative finance practitioners.  The film has been shown in other community gatherings around the country and at a convening of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values held in New York in the fall of 2017.

We can say that nothing really turned out as we had hoped and anticipated with this project. In June 2018 First Green Bank was sold to Seacoast, a local Florida bank.  It is unlikely that the regenerative values upon which First Green was founded will be intentionally absorbed by its acquirer. We knew early on that Ken was facing huge challenges—investors who wanted a quick payout, pressure to grow fast when regenerative banking required a more organic approach to growth, and Ken's own difficulty finding a way to operationalize his regenerative mission in the day-to-day workings of the bank.  The lesson we all took away was how difficult it can be to translate a regenerative vision into practice when you are operating in an economy driven by short-termism. 

 Our second activating project, Regenerating Tottenville, —a collaboration with residents of an isolated marine community at the southernmost boundary of New York City—is a more ambitious, longer-term experiment with place-based storytelling. We share more about this project below.

“Every story would be another story … if it happened someplace else.… Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of What Happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?”
—Eudora Welty


To understand what might be a community’s regenerative path forward, we need first to understand its very particular history. With Regenerating Tottenville that was our strategy.  We grounded our story in the town’s cultural, geographic, and economic history. We sought out the local historian, the director of the local city park, schoolteachers and fishermen and artists. We continue to look for the people who love the community (its informal capital) and to invite them into our story.  More about that below.

We found that during its economic heyday, Tottenville enjoyed a diversified,  interrelated economy:  oystering, ship-building, marine transport, and tourism. It all started at a dock that grew into a thriving Main Street at the turn of the last century.  

Place-Based Storytelling

"Sometimes we must walk backwards looking forward so we can regain our collective identity,"

—Pablo Lopez, a leader of the Red Wolf Band 

Teasing out cause and effect

Every community has suffered some degree of damage from the extractive economy.  In order to understand how it can be regenerated, it is important to understand where it needs to heal.  In Tottenville’s case, the waterways surrounding the town on three sides and that had supported its marine economy were degraded through industrial pollution, sewerage, and overfishing, factories closed as industry globalized, and big box stores drove small mom and pops out of business.  The result was the decline of the local economy and of Main Street, the breakdown of community ties, an opioid crisis, and a sense among residents that they had been forgotten by the city at large.


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During the early and mid 20th Century Tottenville was home to a number of small factories that provided gainful employment for local residents but also stressed the local waterways and air quality.  But perhaps the longest-term damage to the marine economy came from the factories nearby in New Jersey, one of which manufactured Agent Orange. Pollutants from those factories continue to compromise the health of Tottenville's waterways.

Hurricane Sandy decimated the Tottenville shoreline in 2012. Although the coast was always vulnerable to erosion and storm surges, ill-considered residential development wiped out much of the wetland buffers that had mitigated storm damage. Two residents lost their lives during that hurricane.

In Search of Informal Capital and Leadership

It is always useful to seek out expert voices when telling a community's story.  As outsiders they can often provide insights from a broad range of experiences in their field.


But we have come to acknowledge that a regenerative storyteller must also search out a community’s informal leaders. We are indebted to the insights of Hanmin Liu and Jennifer Mei of Wildflowers Institute for our growing recognition of the importance of informal leadership and informal capital.
Hanmin and Jennifer believe that the only way to affect lasting community change is to identify and then tap into “informal capital”— those assets, lying dormant or invisible, that have little or nothing to do with a community’s material wealth.  These are the resources that, with skillful nurturing, can be deployed to support a community's vitality for the long-term. 


Malizia, a long-time recreational fisherman and member of the local Tuna Club on Staten Island's South Shore, loves to participate in events that expose kids to the joys of fishing.  “I remember a kid who didn’t want to touch the fish in the morning but by the end of the day I got him kissing them, hooking the bait and catching the most fish,” Mazilia reports. “He was smiling from ear to ear. Forget about it. Hopefully after that event he liked to go fishing and kept out of trouble.”

This challenge is that this secondary, informal web of capital and leadership is often hiding in plain site. “Unlike officially identified leaders who are the apparent spokespeople—those who gain attention by their titles, their prominence, or their aura—informal leaders are modest and humble in demeanor,” Hanmin says.   But the discerning eye will spot them—they are the ones to whom people are naturally drawn because of their quiet but effective organizing skills, the passions and insights they generously share with others, and their natural skill for working for the common good without the attachment of ego.

Informal leaders do not receive financial compensation for their work or seek attention for it. Instead they operate out of love for their community and a natural desire to sustain it. 

“The challenge, for all of us," says Hanmin, "is to see the informal capital—to see what is actually working—and support it as the people in communities strive toward confronting their challenges and achieving their dream.”  We see this, also, as the critical role of the regenerative storyteller.

Story as a visioning exercise

We have now explored Tottenville’s history, talked to some of its formal and informal leaders, and have begun to understand its community character.  In collaboration with our local partners, we are now assessing the town's underutilized assets and compromised infrastructure—  its neglected shoreline, an abandoned movie theatre, a boat repair business, and a tract of land in a contiguous town that was the site of a former orphanage and one of New York State’s largest working farms.

We are in the early stages of imagining how those assets might be redeployed to regenerate Tottenville.

Projects and enterprises that reinforce local knowledge networks and common cause in a community are the beating heart of a regenerative economy.  They build trust as they create local communities of practice and idea exchanges, nurturing the collaborative skills critical to any self-sustaining community that can respond nimbly and adapts to changing circumstances.

from Regenerating Tottenville


We produced this short video as a dialog between our Tottenville partner, Historical Society President Linda Cutler Hauck, and our Science Advisor Sally Goerner.  It was a walk and talk along Main Street and along the shoreline where we captured the past, present, and possible regenerative future of Tottenville.

Making introductions to activate the story

In Tottenville we are beginning to make introductions where we think they will be helpful to catalyze regenerative change and can support some of the projects we are identifying.  After almost two years of engagement we are still at the early discovery stages, and we are uncertain where or whether these connections will lead to regenerative projects on the ground.  

What we are learning is that Regenerative storytelling and the Regeneration of your community will require patience and time, and will lead to many missteps and considerable frustration. But there will also be lots of exhilarating moments and joy when you know you are connecting good people with one another and get to tell their stories. But most of all, as your community’s storyteller, you will be there to document the unfolding of your community’s transformation.



In the summer of 2017 we met with David Berg of the Long Island Regional Planning Council (LIRPC) and John Kilcullen, Director of Conference House Park, to talk about the possibility of siting an aquaculture farm off the Tottenville shoreline.  The LIRPC is exploring the feasibility of expanding commercial shellfish aquaculture, and of developing seaweed aquaculture, as a means of removing nitrogen from New York's marine waters (bioextraction).  David was looking for a New York City site and was intrigued by the possibilities of the Tottenville shoreline, where there is already plans for some experimenting with oyster cultivation as part of the planned Living Breakwaters project.



Robert and Felice Pelosi are planning to repurpose the long-abandoned movie theatre on Main Street they own, and are looking for ways to make it a catalyst for the regeneration of Main Street. Tottenville Historian Linda Cutler Hauck is excited about the prospect. "The Stadium Theatre is probably the most beloved building in Tottenville, even though many locals living here today have never stepped inside," she says. "It evokes, for everyone, fond memories of a simpler life and time, happy moments spent with friends and family, and a world that no longer exists today in Tottenville."


Some Not-So-Random Storytelling Notes

Storytelling as an avenue for trust building

We have found storytelling a great way, an excuse, to introduce ourselves to a community and to its people.  We always try to make it clear that we are not investigative journalists.  We identify our subjects because we believe they can make a contribution to community healing and economic regeneration.  We always share our story draft with our subjects and seek to develop trust with the goal of converting them to storytelling collaborators.   

Telling authentic stories

The subjects of our stories are operating under the very real constraints of the old, extractive economy and are often challenged as they seek to operate regeneratively.  We always begin by explaining that we are interested not only in how their work has succeeded but just as much in finding out where they have experienced frustrations, bottlenecks, and missteps, and how they have adapted or worked around those challenges. We explain that our purpose is to tell an authentic story that will prepare others for the rewards and challenges that lie ahead.  



Sandy Bishop and Rhea Miller didn't pull any punches when they talked about  the challenges they encountered trying to create an affordable housing land trust on Lopez Island:


To say that they met resistance creating Morgantown—LCLT’s first affordable housing project—would be an understatement. “At the time the island was deeply divided and we were the most hated organization here,” says Sandy. “The pharmacist had a secret petition he kept under his pharmacy desk to sign against us. There were all kinds of rumors and innuendos. Some people were convinced we were going to drive down their property values. It brought out the worst in people.”  In fact, in the face of this fierce opposition, the Washington State Housing Trust Fund declined LCLT’s initial application for funding.

But Sandy and Rhea remained undeterred. “We decided early on we were not going to listen to all the racket going on around us,” says Rhea, LCLT’s assistant director, who has also been for ten years San Juan County’s County Commissioner.  “We had to stay focused on what the issues were. We were determined to tease out the best in people, and we brought all our organizing skills into play. Slowly, we saw there were some loud people who hated the project but also a lot of quiet people who wanted to see us make it work. So we finally matched them petition for petition.”

Once construction began on Morgantown’s seven units in 1992 even some of the most ardent opposition dissolved.  “They saw people building day in and day out and the houses were so darned cute and the grounds were really well taken care of,” says Sandy. “We even made a front page spread in the Home Section of the New York Times. Then everyone was saying,  ‘hey, that is on our island, look at that!’” 

“Be prepared for the strong possibility that your story will not take you where you think it will go. You will learn just as much from the stories that don’t turn out as you expected as from the ones that do.”

 Diane Ives, the Kendeda Fund

How we have Enlisted Digital Tools to Tell Our Stories

Over the past 8 years we have collaborated with storytelling partners, regenerative thought-leaders, and veterans of the art of storytelling to translate our stories onto a digital platform.  Together with designer and artist Marie McCann, we continue to experiment with a diversity of digital tools and web templates to tell our stories.  We are fortunate that ever more flexible and affordable templates for web design are being created enabling us to experiment in many more ways on a modest budget.

Our goal is to find ways to immerse our community in what it might be like to live in a regenerative community or participate in a regenerative project or business, keeping in mind that there will always be a variety of appetites for engagement and that we are competing with many other information portals.


Here are some examples of our digital experiments:

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Enlisting Digital Tools to Tell Our Stories

An early interactive Ibook: The Next Regenerative Industrial Age

Over the past 8 years we have collaborated with storytelling partners, regenerative thought-leaders, and veterans of the art of storytelling to translate our stories onto a digital platform.  Together with designer and artist Marie McCann, we continue to experiment with a diversity of digital tools and web templates to tell our stories.  We are fortunate that ever more flexible and affordable templates for web design are being created enabling us to experiment in many more ways on a modest budget.

Our goal is to find ways to immerse our community in what it might be like to live in a regenerative community or participate in a regenerative project or business, keeping in mind that there will always be a variety of appetites for engagement and that we are competing with many other information portals.


Here are some examples of our digital experiments:

Audio techniques create an immersion in the story:
Songwriters communicate the Driftless State of Mind:

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Audio edited from recorded phone interviews:
Audio Slide Shows:

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Voices captured on Iphones:
The StoryMap:

We used the KnightLab's Storymap to create an interactive way for visitors to the Tottenville site to follow the building narrative, both over time and spatially.  

There are now many free plug-in tools being created, by KnightLab and other organizations, that make it possible to do robust digital storytelling on a modest budget.