Three days after 9/11, Soledad Haren was forced to return to her office in Lower Manhattan. Soon after, she began experiencing respiratory issues that she deals with to this day.
When one doctor after another failed to provide Soledad with a lasting cure, she turned to natural foods as a source of healing and eventually left the corporate world to become a chef.
Cooking nourishing food with organic ingredients opened her eyes to the world of sustainability. Inspired by green activists across the world, she founded her own nonprofit, Build a Better Planet, focused on climate action.
In honor of Earth Day (this Friday, April 22) and National Volunteer Month, we invite you to read our interview with Soledad below. We can all learn from her unorthodox, resourceful attitude toward driving meaningful change.
You can find opportunities to volunteer for Earth Day on the Vee app.
My name is Soledad Haren and I'm the founder of Build a Better Planet. We started out ten years ago with the goal of promoting sustainability and dealing with the crisis of climate change. We're at a critical point in time and we have to do something.
Let me give you some background. I was working in corporate law in Lower Manhattan and was there when 9/11 happened, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. We were told to return to work three days later. We were told the air was fine despite the ash flying through the air and the constant smell of buildings burning.
Long story short, I ended up dealing with a lot of medical problems because of that, and that's what led me to leave the legal field. I went to work as a chef and started looking at ways of treating my health problems naturally, looking at food as medicine. It became such a passion that I wanted to share it with others. And that's what led to the creation of Build a Better Planet and the creation of the podcast that we do, Green Living.
Right now we're doing 4 podcasts through Third Strike Radio. We have Green Living; we have Green and Woke, which is focused on the African African American community; Epoca Verde, which is the same show, but in Spanish; and Green Times, which is currently on hiatus, airs in Arabic.
I actually answered an ad on Craigslist, believe it or not, that was placed by a comedian. He had a partnership with two radio stations: one out of New York, one out of Florida. We were working with him for quite a while. Eventually, I took over the podcast.
I asked myself, how can we sell this idea of being green and sustainable in a way that will be well-received? There are other organizations that try to reprimand people and that just doesn't work. If anything, it makes people dig in harder and not want to to change. So we started highlighting people who are doing cool things, which is what led to a lot of the partnerships we have with green designers, green architects, and others.
We try to point out that there are ways of enjoying all the conveniences of modern life that are just gentler on the planet, and these are ways that can lead to a new economy and create new jobs.
Exactly. You're giving people a sense of hope and a sense of empowerment. That was one of the reasons that we started doing shows that targeted communities previously left out of the conversation. Particularly in the United States, the green movement is seen by the public as something for the wealthy. When you go to a grocery store, the junk food is cheaper and the organic food tends to be a lot more expensive.
During the pandemic, we saw that a disproportionate number of people who were affected didn't have access to good food and subsequently suffered from health conditions like diabetes or heart disease. We're trying to highlight existing organizations in these communities that are providing better access to good food and healthcare.
In some low-income neighborhoods, for instance, there are organizations promoting community gardening. You can grow your own food. You don't need to go to a fancy grocery store and buy stuff that costs three times as much as what you can grow in your own neighborhood.
We've been really fortunate to have a lot of volunteers and partnerships. The first magazine we did was with another organization that provides printing services to women's nonprofits in New York. We now print it in partnership with the Department of Education in New York City, which also provides us with paid interns from lower-income communities who've expressed an interest in working in media.
The articles are written by guests we've had on the podcast. I’m also a mentor at an organization that promotes climate awareness, so some of the articles were written by my mentees.
We try to keep it topical. Our first issue had articles about the BP oil spill. The latest issue dealt with the pandemic. There’s a real lack of understanding of science and we just provide people with the basic knowledge they need. We also publish recipes and human interest stories to keep up engagement.
We’re in the process of developing a TV version of the podcast. We’ve filmed two pilots—one in English, one in Spanish—down in Florida. This was before we even had our nonprofit status.
We actually got nonprofit status with the help of a law firm that donated their services to help us. When we filmed the pilots, everything we used was donated to us. We were offered a stay at a hotel for our cast and crew. The catering services were donated by a grocery store down in Miami. The set, the props, everything was donated. So we mentioned everyone who helped us in the magazine and in the pilot itself. A basic talk show pilot could run $50,000 or more, yet we did it for free.
A lot of it was just luck. For nonprofits that are trying to raise money, you might reach out to a hundred businesses and at least half of the time, you're going to get no response at all. But sometimes you get that one person who loves what you're doing. If you're a nonprofit reaching out to businesses, first of all, try to find businesses that align with you, that have something in common with you, that share your same vision. You also need to offer something in return. Ask how you can work together and help each other. For example, if a business makes a cash donation, you can bring your people to support that business.
We’ve spent very little on advertising so far. It's mostly been word of mouth. We did run an ad in a newspaper in Texas that offered advertising at a discounted rate for nonprofits. We've also done social media advertising because it tends to be very cheap.
We also collaborate with local indie artists. We have a band come on to close each podcast with one of their songs and plug their tour. We had one band that was touring the United States and they were only performing at farms instead of stadiums. There was another band that was funding their tour by recycling bottles. We’ve had bands from Japan to Australia, all over Europe, all over South America. That's what's really helped spread the word.
There’s this idea that sustainability means you have to give up something and go back to living like it's 1800. That's not true. In order to build a better planet, one of our missions is to push for legislation that will enforce lasting change.
We partnered with a lot of other nonprofits and together we got a law passed in New York that is pushing the state towards 100% renewable energy. Now we're trying to get the state to allocate $15 billion to creating green jobs. Let’s avoid the naysayers and focus on the solutions. We might need to think outside the box and come up with unconventional solutions, but we can do it.
My greatest inspiration comes from the artistic and musical communities because they tend to be creative types who are used to going with the flow and working on a tight budget. Let's learn from them. Let's share ideas. Let's innovate. Let's learn from each other and see how we can work together.
Editor’s note: this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.