Whatever happens, it will be worth it for the learning. If you actually achieve anything at all, that is the cherry on top. It is the journey and not the destination. Outcome irrelevant, just inspire yourself along the way and give it all you’ve got.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Clare Dubois.
Clare Dubois is the founder and CEO of TreeSisters.org, a global women’s movement spanning multiple countries, that has collectively funded the planting of over 19 million trees. TreeSisters is a social change movement and a tropical reforestation organization working towards normalizing cultural reciprocity with nature. The aim of both Clare and TreeSisters is to make it as normal to give back to nature as it currently is to take nature for granted while supporting humanity in its transition from a consumer species to a restorer species. Before founding TreeSisters, Clare worked internationally for over two decades, coaching business leaders and facilitating group behavior change processes in multiple sectors. Known for her direct, catalytic energy, her inspirational speaking, and her holistic approach to collective transformation, Clare is a walking invitation to anyone ready to step up and step in on behalf of the planet.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I had been volunteering in India with a project called Project Green Hands, where they were hoping to plant 114 million trees to reverse the desertification of Tamil Nadu given that the monsoons had failed. I had been distilling the social strategy of that project because it was brilliant; crafting it into seven critical steps that I could take to the west to see if I could find someone who would like to initiate a reforestation revolution.
On the way to a meeting in London where I was supposed to be handing over my strategy, I swerved on back ice on a steep hill and was saved from going over an edge by a tree that stopped me. At the moment of impact, there was a bright light inside the car, and inside the light were two words, ‘THE EXPERIMENT’. I sat dumbfounded, staring at the words, and then a male voice started talking to me as if someone had literally switched on the radio inside the car. The voice said: “Humanity is running out of time, but it’s not over yet. It’s going to take all of us rising to the challenge to get through what’s coming. The single greatest threat facing humanity is fear of failure, but you can get over the fear of failure by calling everything you do an experiment because you can’t fail an experiment you can only learn.”
At that moment, thinking that was probably possibly the best life lesson any disembodied voice had ever given me, I asked, “What’s the experiment?” And back came the words “You have to reforest the tropics within 10 years.”
In fact, that same voice went on to tell me in great detail how that was supposed to be done and my role in that: what TreeSisters was, what we were supposed to accomplish, how and why. I heard what its name was, what its purpose was, and all manner of annoyingly logical details that I couldn’t disagree with but was fundamentally ill-equipped in any and every way to deliver. So, I did what any self-respecting introvert would do, and fell into a deep depression for approximately nine months during which time I tried anything and everything other than TreeSisters, until the repeated failures brought me back to the drawing board and the same voice gave me the next thrilling installment. And I said yes.
The rest, as they say, is history (and almost 20 million trees in the ground…)
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I’ll share about one particularly interesting day in London, back in 2018. I was supposed to be doing two fundraising events at the Conduit Club, one, a lunch event with UK Channel 4 TV newsreader, Jon Snow, in front of a room full of movers and shakers followed by an evening event with an unknown number of people, with just me on stage doing something useful.
The lunch went really well. Amazing organizers, Howard and Jimena, had invited Daiara of the Tukano tribe of the Amazon rainforest, artist, activist, and researcher into the Rights of Memory of Indigenous peoples, who opened the event with a prayer song in full voice, and then Jon and I dug deep into all things trees, carbon and consciousness shift. By the end, we had a room full of mobilized folks and I was happily shattered and in need of sleep. I was informed by my cunning team that they had the perfect place for me to go and lie down. It happened to be the support tent for the Extinction Rebellion protest crowded around the pink boat in Oxford Circus, where thousands of climate protesters were making their stand against the apathy of collective denial.
Seriously? You want me to rest amidst yelling, hooting, singing, traffic, and general pandemonium? Sheepishly, I was informed that they had arranged for me to be the opening act for Daiara who was getting up onto the pink boat to deliver her message from the Amazon which, given that she had just done the honour for me, was obviously the next thing I was about to do.
So, there I am, completely unprepared, looking out over a sea of people, microphone in hand, about to introduce an Amazonian activist who had never been to London before, let alone on a pink boat in the middle of Oxford Circus surrounded by activists chained to anything they could find. So, I did my thing, allowing whatever call-to-awaken that flowed out of my mouth to simply flow before Daiara taught the crowds a sacred song for the bees and stood like Joan of Arc atop her boat, waving a bee flag and sounding like she had done this every day of her life.
That was easily enough adventure for one day but there was one event left and I had not prepared a thing, thinking that I would have had the afternoon off to get ready. I tried to find a quiet space to gather my thoughts but nowhere was quiet and no thoughts came. As the evening drew closer, I got more freaked out as still, no thoughts came. Literally nothing. Soon enough, I was back standing on stage in front of yet another room full of people and Howard is handing me the mic saying, “Are you ready?” and I’m saying, ‘Nothing is coming, Howard. I’m empty, completely empty…’, to which he just smiled and stepped away, and there I was, alone.
I checked myself and found that I was totally calm, just empty. With a whole room of people staring at me, I decided that this was a true ‘hollow bone’ moment and that all was in fact, somehow OK and I surrendered. At that exact moment, I was flooded with information and found myself saying to the crowd “Not one of you is going to leave here the same way that you came in. This is going to be uncomfortable, but you are all going to leave here and change your lives.” before proceeding to guide them all still standing, through a paradigm shift process that literally landed fully formed into my mind only seconds before.
What followed was described as life-changing by multiple men who came up afterward to marvel at what could be accomplished in 15 minutes flat. Who knew? Certainly not me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This is one of the toughest questions I’ve ever been asked. When I think of what I actually considered to be mistakes, the majority have been anything but funny.
One thing comes to mind though, my very first public speaking appearance and the public launch of TreeSisters at a conference called Women on Fire, before we even had a functioning website. I was utterly terrified. I’d been throwing up in the bathroom and then sobbing incoherently as the two speakers directly before me delivered some of the most confronting material ever. I was the very last speech of the day and got up on the stage, shaking like a leaf, unable to let go of the lectern because my knees were knocking so hard.
But once I started talking, something else took over. I went clean over my time and could see the organizers behind the audience running up and down waving at me, trying to get me off stage, but I wasn’t going to stop until I had completed delivering what seemed to be coming out of my mouth. I received a standing ovation and got mobbed- which was a totally unexpected experience, and one that the organizers didn’t find funny at all! But I did.
I learned a lot from that experience. I learned that throwing up, crying, and forgetting everything you intend to deliver is not, in fact, a good reason to run screaming from the room. I learned that you want to ensure, before you go through something like that, that the organizers are actually going to follow through on their promises and share your contact details with the audience. I also learned that you don’t want to launch anything before you are prepared, not least with a website, and more importantly with a team who can help manage the stampede. That way you ensure that you don’t continually feel as if you are running behind a train that left without you whilst simultaneously trying to throw the tracks down ahead of it.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
TreeSisters is a social change organization that exists to inspire every single person to recognize their own unique role as part of the solution. We are all about hope and possibility in the face of climate change, about the hidden depths that exist inside a human being, whether that’s the capacity to connect and listen to the natural world, or the ability to lead or stand for something within our communities that creates ripples or a sea of changes.
We see ourselves primarily as an invitation on multiple levels. We invite people to recognize that no matter where they are on the spectrum of transforming their lives or their carbon footprints, they can all be sequestering carbon, rehabilitating landscapes, and supporting communities by reallocating funds every month towards tropical reforestation. We make that so easy. We talk about the fundamental shift from an unconscious consumer society to a conscious restorative society, where giving back to help regenerate nature has become as fundamental to human nature as consumption currently is.
We believe that everyone has unique gifts that are in some way entirely relevant to the shift that we are going through, and we are a call for them to step into them, to discover what they are made of as together, we rise on behalf of both our own species and every other species on this precious planet of ours. We do this through monthly calls, interviews with Indigenous leaders, online courses, our Groves program, social media, gatherings, etc.
We work with businesses to help them re-imagine themselves as agents of social and ecological change. We invite them to embed trees in products, services, and benefits so that they can become entire ecosystems dedicated to regenerate in the global forest. Over 500 businesses are planting with us and growing their own forests across the ecosystems we are restoring
A great example of this is the Shift Music and Visionaries Festival, which is gathering thought-leaders and musicians from around the world to bring their gifts forward in a fundraising capacity to collectively raise enough funds to plant 1 million trees. They are a great example of an organization that is realizing that if we don’t give back to the natural world, and shift our fundamental relationship with nature, then there is no future for any of us.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Phionah Sserwanja was an extraordinary Ugandan woman with a passion for trees. She was also gay, something they could easily get you killed in Uganda, and almost did multiple times. In 2016, Phionah was employed by The Women’s and Children Empowerment Network to plant trees with women in highly deforested rural regions. Towards the end of her employment, her country director encouraged her to find out more about TreeSisters and Phionah was immediately taken with our ‘Groves’ local sisterhood circles project. Within weeks she had called an 80-strong, multifaceted women’s Grove together, naming it ‘The Uganda Grove’. This circle grew from strength to strength incorporating education, life skills, teachings on the importance of reforestation, and the growing and planting of 50,000 saplings.
In early November of 2017, Phionah was fired from her telecommunications job when her employer found out that she was redirecting 40% of her monthly salary to a group of seven lesbian women, with who she was financially supporting and sharing her home. Over half a million LGBT people live under the official radar for their own safety within Uganda’s oppressively brutal culture.
This started a horrendous period of violence, eviction, imprisonment, attempted murder through poisoning and suicide within Phionah’s circle. As this started, the treesisters network started raising funds to safeguard Phionah, ultimately helping to pay her bail and get her out of jail. Her attackers were taken to court and convicted, their final trial coincided with a global meditation ceremony that TreeSisters held to create an energy field of love and support to send to the women in Uganda.
Out of it arose her dream to create Gender Park, a center where women of all sexual orientations would have the opportunity to create beauty salons and tree nurseries, giving out tree seedlings to schools and other groups, and raising awareness by challenging homophobia.
This led to the ambitious Government supported 1 million trees project that Phionah then launched through local schools in her area. Again, TreeSisters helped raise funds for the sapling distribution.
Jenny, who headed up the Groves program at TreeSisters, encouraged them every step of the way and Phionah expressed often that the support she received from our network helped her whole circle keep going through extreme hardship.
Tragically, she died not long after this from a heart condition and heart surgery that was most likely in no small part because of the extreme stress placed upon her for being an extraordinary, free-thinking, and loving woman with a dream, in a patriarchal culture that cannot tolerate a woman as anything other than ‘less than’. And, thanks to Mariam, Gender Park lives on…
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- To the governments who actively block all protests and actions seeking to serve a resilient future: stop depriving humanity of its greatest opportunity to grow by pretending that continuing business as usual is sane, appropriate, and ‘the only way’ we know how to be. To society and all of us, can we please stop acting as if we lack the imagination, moral fiber, brilliance, love or capacity to completely transform what it means to be human when doing nothing amounts to a systemic and ecological death sentence in the face of climate change? We can do this. We can.
- The problem will change when we are willing to actually look it in the face, recognize, and own up to the fact that what we have done and are doing, is stealing from the future, stripping the fabric of our own life support system into shreds, and leaving today’s children with a planet incapable of taking care of them. If we can face that fact, then we can make a different set of choices, including committing our lives, not just to our own small circles of safety, to helping humanity make an evolutionary leap rather than a crash, redreaming ourselves into a species and culture rooted in respect, reverence, reciprocity, and restoration.
- Transforming the money paradigm and our economy to become regenerative is the single greatest act of rehabilitation we could give to our planet right now. Whilst we are at it, we could redefine greatness or so-called ‘social power’ not by what we earn, plunder or own, but by what we give back and what we restore. I would like us to embed restoration (trees) into every element of our economy, our financial transactions, our ways of being and doing so that you can no longer take from nature without actively giving back to her. If that was normalized, then everyone could come to experience and understand our individual and collective responsibility for regenerating the fabric of our world through the choices and actions we make, and then make that the new norm.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, leadership happens when an individual makes the choice to step clean out of their comfort zone by doing something that deeply challenges them, and thus breaks new ground within their perception and experience of self. When any one of us breaks through an internal barrier of emotional or mental constraint or belief, then we break through that wall on behalf of everyone.
More overtly, if we are prepared to care enough or believe in something sufficiently to make a stand for it, whether that precipitates the desired outcome or not, the simple act of standing or trying is leadership to me.
For example, at a huge business conference a decade or so ago, men and women were separated into groups and we went to have a large women’s circle, with enough women to form multiple circles within a gymnasium. Sooner or later, the conversation turned to men bashing and vast generalizations took place that made men entirely to blame and wrong and I couldn’t handle it. There was no responsibility being taken for our role in the victim and perpetrator dynamic that they were placing squarely on the head of every man. Despite the extreme discomfort, I stood up and spoke out on behalf of the men who were waking up, of the transformation of the victim feminine, of our need to take responsibility for our side of the perpetuation of the endless dynamic of power over and part under. I was not spoken to by a single woman for the rest of that evening, which was hell for me, but it was what it was: an act of leadership or at least staying in integrity with my own values despite thoroughly upsetting a huge amount of people along the way.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Just because it feels like it should be easy, does not mean that it will be. Just because your mind shows you a seamless realization of what surely should be possible, doesn’t make that anything to do with reality as it is. The very best thing you can do is wait until you are really clear, have sat and learned from those who have already done a similar sort of thing and have shared their experience, and only launch into action when you are genuinely ready and have a solid, externally supported plan. I did none of the above as I was too ashamed of my total inexperience to admit to anyone what I was trying to do in case they laughed in my face, and too overwhelmed by the scale of it to even know what questions to ask. I have learned, pretty relentlessly through trial and error and countless bumps and pitfalls, that I sincerely wish that I had not had to experience in order to grow and had I known how to ask for help, life could have been entirely different.
- Being a visionary should come with a health warning because most visionaries have little or no factual or grounded comprehension about what delivery actually requires on the ground. You will have to grow muscles that you didn’t even know existed or knew were in your repertoire whilst your organization grows. It is highly probable that you will end up doing every single job needed to deliver your dream at some point or another, regardless of your abilities, (unless of course you fundraise and build your amazing team first like any highly organized and thus very annoying person!) In my case, I started with no relevant skills beyond my environmental passion, given that I had been a self-employed therapist and healer who couldn’t operate a computer and had never even worked for an organization or in a team in my life. I went from reading auras in my spare room to being Founder and CEO, which basically meant that I was (at any one time) strategist, manager, fundraiser, head of finances, social media, HR, comms, design, course creation, etc., almost none of which were in my skill set.
- You will (from time to time) question your own sanity and think you’re mad (and so will your friends) and that’s not a bad thing because you probably are. ‘Sane’ is both overrated and a lie — especially in a world that has created an economy that requires the death of nature in order to thrive. Be prepared to discover who your friends are as the single-mindedness required to deliver your dream rearranges your life and your priorities and learn how to both let people go and find those who can still stand by as you spread your wings.
- You will ‘fail’ again and again in countless different ways and in doing so (if you stick with it) will break through so many walls of shame and self-rejection that ultimately, you will free yourself up to be that much more of a risk-taker and a lover of life. Ultimately, the path we choose is designed to break us until we break through who we are not and discover who we really are. The more excruciating it is, the deeper the learning and the faster the growth, again IF you stick with it. Had I not received the brilliant guidance…’Call everything you do an experiment because you cannot fail and experiment you can only learn.’ before I even started TreeSisters, it would not exist today.
- Whatever happens, it will be worth it for the learning. If you actually achieve anything at all, that is the cherry on top. It is the journey and not the destination. Outcome irrelevant, just inspire yourself along the way and give it all you’ve got.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would normalize reciprocity with nature, making it as normal for everyone to give back to nature as it currently is to take nature for granted; as normal to restore and regenerate nature as it currently is to consume her, and do that by creating a movement of reallocated financial giving. (TreeSisters does this through monthly donations or a heartbeat of giving that we plant in the tropics as tropical forest restoration which has almost funded 20 million trees since 2015)
Almost everything we earn, we spend on consumption that contributes to the destruction of our world and yet, that is simply an inherited imbalance based on dislocation from nature and ignorance about who we really are as part of nature. We could just as easily have a world that prioritizes the health and wellbeing of future generations by creating a regenerative economy and a human story that places us as guardians of nature, instead of simply ‘consumers’. Couldn’t we become a Restorer Species instead of a consumer species?
We can transform what it means to be human. Yes, we can, and I think it’s what we’re actually all here for at the turning of our world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
‘Call everything you do an experiment because you cannot fail an experiment you can only learn.’ That literally was the gift given to me at the initial birth of TreeSisters, and it has served my life and other people’s lives in countless ways because it is permission to try anything within the compassionate frame of your own growth, regardless of the outcome. 20 million trees would never have happened without those words being written on my soul. I would have given up countless times along the way.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Mackenzie Scott (formerly Bezos). She is redefining what Philanthropy means in our world. She has the capacity to do more good both personally and through her influence than just about anyone beyond her husband, only she seems to show the common sense, the heart, the intelligence, and the social awareness to be making a vast difference as fast as she is able. I would like to sit her down and talk about the tropical forest belt, about the Amazon rainforest itself, and the power she could have to catalyze a global social and environmental movement on behalf of the trees, that can transform the face of our world and literally save future generations.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on Facebook, I’m crap on Instagram, and worse on Twitter. I was born to talk to rocks, not sit on devices!! But you can follow TreeSisters easily and I am on there a lot. https://www.facebook.com/treesisters
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Clare Dubois of TreeSisters Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.