We had the good fortune of connecting with Natalie Small and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Natalie, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
At the age of 30, after working in the therapy field for 10 years, I founded the nonprofit Groundswell Community Project with the goal of creating safe and brave space for intersectional communities of womxn to come together and reclaim their healing, power, and belonging in mother oceans waves. The launch of my baby, Groundswell Community Project, was definitely not a “thought process”! It was a birthing process! Lots of listening, learning, honoring, and letting go of ego and the illusion of control. So much so, that as I felt her growing within me I actually asked for maternity leave from my job as a social worker at a homeless shelter. They denied my request of course, but offered me a position if I decided to return, So I took a 3 month birthing trip that involved surfing and exploring Cuba with one of the countries only female surfers (yaya) and sailing through the Caribbean with an all female crew collecting ocean plastic research data and connecting with local communities on the impact of plastic pollution on their livelihood. (EXXpedition)
The reality of what birthing this project entailed (quitting my stable job, creating something I had no guide or mentor for, and judgment from others) scared me frozen. Questions I’ve heard many mom’s express circled in my mind; did I really want to have this baby? How was it going to change my life? How was I gonna be able to survive financially? How could I, someone with zero proper education in business & nonprofit management, be ready and able to do this? Many a business coach suggested I write a business plan or a 5 – 10 year plan to help, but every time I sat to put pen to paper it felt impossible. Like asking a parent to plan out their child’s life as if the child was just a limb of theirs rather than their own free thinking independent being. But as babies often do… Groundswell was born, there was no stuffing her back into the womb or pretending it never happened. She was very much so alive! And as it turns out, I didn’t need a university degree in business, finance, or non-profit management or even a 10 year business plan to be her mom. Everything I needed was already within me, nature was my greatest teacher, and community brought joy and nutrients to help move through the growing pains and developmental stages.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
My muse is mother ocean and surfing is my art modality to explore, express, and enjoy her!
Combining my love for the sea and it’s transformational healing power with my profession and career as a marriage and family therapist has definitely been like bush wacking, occasionally coming across a trail laid by others before me, but most of the time having to forge my own.
in 2014 I was running therapeutic art small groups for women getting out of trafficking and DV situations. One day the ladies asked me what my favorite art modality was for my own healing, recovery, and self expression. Surf! easy,the ocean had always been a place I went since a child to feel alive, connected, joy, peace, grief, anger, and all the feelings in-between. And now as an adult surfing was my ocean access modality and it continued to teach me and re teach me who I am in the world. With a little persuasion we convinced the house mom of the program to let us hold our next art therapy session at the beach with surf boards and wetsuits as our art supplies. We held the same container, rituals, and therapeutic curriculum as an art therapy session but just surfing was our new art modality. And with in just one session, women were sharing they felt joy for the first time in years and experienced their bodies as strong and capable rather than sexualized objects. The house mom and their therapist was amazed at the transformation in how the women were in relationship with themselves and each other and decided to continue our art therapy sessions at mother oceans waves….thus Groundswell surf therapy was born!
The surf therapy sessions were so powerful in healing individual trauma, community trauma, intergenerational trauma, and earth trauma that I thought for sure there must be other orgs doing similar surf therapy work. I google searched and looked everywhere hoping to find an org to be a part of and contribute to rather than starting my own. There were lots of surf programs and camps for youth and vets but a small group consistent surf therapy model rooted in mental health, womens’ health, community health, and ocean health didn’t exist. Groundswell Surf Therapy was alive within me thanks to all the mentors, teachers, life experiences, and time exploring mother ocean and myself and she was ready to be birthed whether I felt ready or not!
So I trusted the process, I reached out to my community for support, and as Shannon, my mentor and nonprofit mama says “to do it different means we have to lean into being different”. So the whole birthing and continual growth of Groundswell from the curriculum, to how we do volunteering, to the non-profit board, and fundraising….all has been a process of listening, learning, and leaning into doing it differently. Not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of uncovering and breaking down systems of oppression that have dictated how nonprofits function and therapy is done. And intentionally reconnecting to a balanced feminine model of healing, power, and being in this world and in community..
It’s been a wildly creative process….many times feeling very alone, misunderstood, criticized, and de-valued. But in these moments I come back to the sea and she continues to teach me, inspire me, hold me, shake me up, and welcome me, reminding me that this work in not about ME, its about reclaiming harmony with self, each other and the earth.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Ah! I loooove creating memorable experiences for people i love and SD is the perfect place for it!! I’ve actually joked with friends that I should start a dating business where I plan peoples dates for them cause I love it so much and they are always unique and memorable!
The week would obviously involve lots of surfing and tacos up and down the SD coast line from sunset cliffs to blacks to beacons. A day trip across the border to keep the taco tasting and surfing vibes flowing with a couple stops through the Valle De Guadalupe on the way back for some of the most locally sourced creative and beautiful plates and wine parings in the world! A sail around SD bay ending at humphreys for an evening concert while we float on inflatable rafts and share cocktails, laughs, and dance till we fall in….ah this is making me miss my home, a 28 ft sail boat named mi corazon in San Diego bay. It’s been over a year since I’ve been back to SD. My husband and I have been stuck in Peru waiting for boarders and visas to re-open and writing this reflection makes me beyond excited to get back to SD to soak in all the adventure and beauty of home!
Alright, so let’s jump right in! The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there a person, group, organization, book, etc. that you want to dedicate your shoutout to? Who else deserves a little credit and recognition in your story?
Every place I have lived, person I have encountered, wave I have caught, and trail I have hiked has taught me something. So this list of people that have impacted me is only a short glimpse.
Shannon, founder of Shakti Rising, has been like a mother for me as I mother Groundswell. She has over 21 years of intentionally building non-profits and communities that break down systems of oppression held with in the non-profit and business structures and remember and reclaim feminine nature based ways of being and leading. She reminds me to not just blindly get things done but to question why? Always looking to the patterns, cycles, and wisdoms held in nature as a guide. My grandmother has been another deep influence on me. She lived a radical, simple, value driven life always standing up for love even when the culture and systems around her tried to oppress it. She was resilient and creative always finding a way to reuse and value what others would toss as trash. She traveled the world to deepen her faith and to represent and empower the leadership of women in their homes and communities. And Mother Ocean has been my constant teacher and guide. She’s taught me about the importance of falling, what healthy biodiverse communities can look like, that I am always in process, and tomorrow i’m sure she will teach me something again or new. She is always there, always revealing and re-membering.
Some books that have been powerful guides and support in my journey and development of Groundswell Community Project; Blue Mind, Braiding Sweet Grass, and The Body Keeps the Score
Linkedin: groundswell community project