Finding a Way for People to Turn Over a “New Leaf”
Walking down the narrow, dimly lit steps of 204 W. College Ave. and continuing through the door at the bottom, you take a minute to look around what is currently a work in progress. A wall across the room – painted so obnoxiously green that you are almost blinded – greets you immediately. A burnt-orange, crushed velvet sofa sits in the corner to your left, with a feel that uncomfortably reminds you of your grandmother’s sofa, sending goose bumps racing up your arms. A retired picket fence, dismantled and stained a deep brown, hangs horizontally on the wall, adding color to an otherwise lifeless grey wall (an odd choice, compared to the screaming green wall across from it). And if you listen closely, you think you can hear the chorus to “We are the world” by Michael Jackson playing softly on the speakers.
In the center of the room, nine neon-orange chairs surround a pitiful-looking table shaped like a light bulb that is broken in five places. Upon closer examination, however, you see that the cracks are not cracks…they are actually spaces, and when separated, create five individual tables. Looking closer still, you see there are dry-erase marker drawings on the white-board-painted table. But what is it?
And a dream that’s about to become a reality.
The dream – and the office space – belongs to New Leaf Initiative, State College’s newest non-profit organization. Focused on creating an environment for individuals and organizations to collaborate on sustainable ways to make our world better, New Leaf hopes to bring both the State College community and the world together in one place.
Its founders, Penn State graduates Andrew McLean, 24, Eric Sauder, 23, Matt Lobach, 24, and Spud Marshall, 23 (and yes, that is what he likes to be called), came together in August 2010 to create New Leaf after spending several months during their college careers working together in Jamaica. While on the island, Spud came to see that the best way to learn something is to actually do it.
“Learning [is] so much more real when you’re down on the ground and seeing a project happening first hand. And so we wanted to create a group where learning happened in a very hands-on way and kind of immerse yourself in the project,” said Spud, who added it can be difficult for people to find such projects.
“So it got to the point where we were saying ‘Why do we just have to rely on ourselves as individuals? Why can’t we create an organization that sort of fosters that?’ Let’s have a community that inspires people to follow their passions,” he added.
Thus New Leaf Initiative was born. Its founders, however, were adamant that the organization was there for its people, and not the other way around. In an effort to ensure this, the boys asked their fans: What do you want this organization to do for you?
“A lot of people were saying, ‘When I graduate from school, I lose that group of people that I can work on projects with,’” said Spud, quoting feedback from several people.
“And I think a lot of people really like that. They get thrown in into the real world and they’re like, ‘Oh, my four years of college were fun, but they’re over, so now I have to go do a real job.’ And we’re like, ‘That doesn’t have to be the case,’” Spud said.
“We want to create an organization that allows [those groups] to keep happening.”
And to create an organization, they first had to create a workspace.
The boys spent almost four months and 500 man hours renovating their basement office, and got most of their equipment via craigslist (why buy new when you can reuse old?) or donated by friends (Mayor Goreham donated their Apple desktop computer). Their best finds, though, are the bright orange chairs from Salvage (aka Lion’s Surplus) that surround the light bulb-shaped work table, the logo for New Leaf Initiative.
“There was a time when we didn’t know what Salvage was. When we saw things that were in the hallways that said ‘SALVAGE’ on them, we thought it just meant ‘THIS IS A COMMAND FOR ANYBODY WHO SEES THIS TO SALVAGE IT FOR SOMETHING ELSE.’ And so we just took it,” said Eric, laughing. The group later learned what it actually meant and found the nine chairs at the “Surplus showroom,” selling for $5 each.
“We thought this was the best deal ever!” said Eric enthusiastically, adding that his group had budgeted much more than $45 for chairs.
But guys…did you ever think there was a reason they were only $5?
“Well, we sat in them, just to double-check,” said Spud, giggling. At the showroom, the boys took the chairs to the saleswoman, who was surprised to learn they wanted to buy all nine. She ultimately gave the entire set of chairs to them for $2 each.
“So that was like… how could you beat that?” asked Eric, with a huge smile on his face.
Eric’s attitude is infectious, which is helping to transform the room before your eyes. The green wall, once so ferocious it threatened to cause permanent cornea damage, seems softer now, almost calming. The fence hanging on the wall as decoration looks more Pottery Barn than horse barn, and even the tables, made from tree trunks and a slab of wood, look cool enough to have an alcoholic drink at. It’s like you’re seeing the office in a new light. Except for that couch. That couch is disgusting.
Currently, New Leaf hopes to have two parts to its organization: an education side and a project side. The education is set up in three levels (basic, intermediate, and advanced), and if members want to jump to the next level, they will need to partake in e-learning programs, workshops, or potentially even Penn State courses. The project side comes in to play with the actual personal or group goals.
“Somebody wants to create a clothing company? That’ll be one. Someone wants to create some architecture in Haiti? That’ll be another one,” said Spud.
Both great ideas, so long as they’re sustainable, of course.
And according to Spud (who admitted he stole the idea from Matt), sustainability is like cooking.
“You’ve got a couple really top-chef cooks in the world, like Emeril. And it’s silly to think that only the top professional chefs are the ones who are going to cook for the rest of society. We want to apply a similar thinking to sustainability. It’s silly to think sustainability experts, whoever they might be, are responsible for solving these issues,” says Spud.
“What New Leaf is trying to do is teach everybody to cook. We all have some role, some skill set that we can contribute to whatever issues are at hand, and together, we can work on that problem.”
The boys stand firm that they are only an umbrella organization to collect ideas and projects and hopefully take them to the next level.
“We have all those [green] projects working all over the place already,” said Eric. “And they’re doing a great job. We don’t want to come in here as New Leaf and say we’re going to do any part of that better than they do. Our goal is to take all these things that are already happening and organize it, because we can’t hit any of these huge societal problems that we have unless everyone is doing their best and doing it together.”
At New Leaf, members that work together are called “allies” and come from countries around the globe, including Chile, China, and Israel. But unlike a Facebook group, people can’t just add themselves to the community.
“We want to meet you beforehand because we want to get to know you as an individual, to see what you’re excited about,” said Spud. “What we’re saying is whatever you want to do, come and talk with New Leaf and we’ll show you how sustainability plugs into that so you can make it richer.”
Eric agreed, quoting John Erenfield to further explain sustainability.
“‘Sustainability is the possibility that humans and all other life will flourish on the earth forever,’” said Eric, slowly sounding out each word for emotional effect.
“I just love that word, ‘flourish.’ Because we all have things that I believe we ‘flourish’ at, and so we’re hoping that New Leaf can be a place that can take that thing, and really grow.”
Pun intended, Eric?