Helen Cherullo of Braided River: Channeling Passion into Action
Helen Cherullo is Executive Director of Braided River, a Seattle-based nonprofit publishing house that focuses on providing philanthropic support to environmental causes through publishing books, arranging exhibitions and media, supporting photographers' fieldwork; and forming strategic partnerships with conservation organizations. Braided River is an affiliated entity to Mountaineers Books, where Helen is also the publisher/CEO. Helen's background is in publishing, graphic design and advertising, and her passion is in the nonprofit sector. She believes that supporting the health and wellbeing of society and future generations is paramount. Through images and stories that showcase the beauty and awe of the natural world, Helen and Braided River work to preserve the last remaining wild places in western North America.
I sat down with Helen last week to talk about her work and about connections between nonprofit publishing and philanthropy.
[Disclaimer: Wilburforce Foundation, where I work, has funded several of Braided River's book projects. This interview was conducted outside of my role at the foundation.]
Helen Cherullo: This year we’re launching two new projects: one is called Sage Spirit, in collaboration with photographer Dave Showalter. It is a book and an advocacy campaign, about the sage grouse, but much larger ‒‒ about the sage grouse ecosystem and about how threatened it is and how special it is. These lands are part of our American heritage and are a true American treasure, and they are at the heart of the complexities of managing our public lands and private lands for the benefit of long-term sustainability. It encourages conversations that are so important today about energy development and what kind of a future we want to have.
We’re working in collaboration with Audubon Rockies, the Wilderness Society, and Sierra Club as our primary partners. The book will be coming from the printer in July, and we just had some advance copies shown to us. We’re excited about that and hoping that that the book will become a tool that the groups will be able to use in conjunction with events and exhibits with the photographer.
The other project we’re launching this year is with photographer Florian Schulz – The Wild Edge: Freedom to Roam the Wild Pacific Coast. It's a project that has been in the works for at least eight years, a really ambitious project with Florian traveling tens of thousands of miles. It’s a way to connect the population centers along the West Coast with some of the more remote natural places that are in the news ‒‒ the Arctic Refuge, the Arctic Ocean, and many iconic places up and down the Pacific Coast.
A lot of these places are seemingly remote and disconnected from population centers. A book like this gives us a way to have people who love whales, whether they are living in San Francisco, or Seattle, or Los Angeles, understand that the health of the whales and their ocean home are dependent upon a connected healthy ecosystem up and down the coast, from their birthing grounds in Baja, California, to their feeding grounds in the Beaufort Sea of Alaska. We’re planning to tell the story of this amazing web of life through Florian's extraordinary images that he's been taking over the course of the last fifteen years, along with stories from noted writers and scientists, including an essay from Bruce Barcott, and some additional stories from Eric Scigliano.
For people who aren't familiar with Braided River, how do these projects fit in with your approach to publishing?
As with many things that happen in life, there wasn’t a calculated plan. We saw the consequences of environmental destruction and stumbled upon a business model that supported a means of challenging it. Publishing companies are in the business of publishing books. I'm also the publisher of Mountaineers Books; it's a nonprofit publisher dealing mostly with muscle powered sports, where to go, how to do it, skills-based, place-based activities, but also about natural history and conservation, because it's hard when you go into these places not to fall in love with them and want to protect them.
All of that changed back in 2002 with Subhankar Banerjee and a book on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Subhankar was an unknown photographer. He came to me and showed me a handful of images, but what he really showed me was an individual who had a vision, had a dream, for what he wanted to do with these images. He showed me his photographs. He told me about being in the Arctic Refuge in really harsh conditions. He said he wanted to create a book. I asked him why he wanted to do this, and I thought he was going to tell me because he'd been a Boeing scientist and had given up a career, that he was really looking for another career and needed a portfolio and wanted some credibility, at which point I would have politely thanked him for coming, but I was not in the business of promoting careers.
He said to me, "I want to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and I want my work to be what helps to make that happen." I felt that with his skills as a communicator, his nascent skills as a photographer, and his personal story that he was in a position to bring the story to life in a way that I had not heard before. I didn't want to just do a book that sold a thousand copies to people that were already convinced that the Arctic Refuge was important to save. I wanted this to make a difference, and I felt that he did, too.
In order to make it happen we had to raise $50,000, because we took a look at the economics and we took a look at what we could sell to break even, and there was a gap. I had never raised money before, but I had a friend who was on the Mountaineers Foundation who felt very passionately about this project, and she said, "I'm going to help you raise that money." The Mountaineers Foundation provided that funding and gave me my first experience with philanthropy and publishing. We published the book, and it was, to make a long story short, a phenomenon.
It probably would've been a very quiet publication, but the Smithsonian Museum had planned to do an exhibit based on the book. Barbara Boxer, Senator from California, received a copy of the book the day after it had been delivered from the printers, and she held it up on the Senate floor along with photographs from Subhankar on easels behind her during debate on a vote to allow drilling for oil in the Arctic Refuge. She said, "I’d like for all of my colleagues in the Senate to see these images and to take a look at this book, because in it you will see that the Arctic Refuge is a very special place, and there is life there during all four seasons. This is not a blank white nothingness that other senators speaking on the issue would have you believe." The bill was defeated 52 to 48, and we felt like we were all part of that effort with our images and with the book.
We were elated but then quickly learned that the Smithsonian had decided that this now very prominent exhibit of images should be relegated to the basement. In fact, they at first said that it was going to be canceled, and it was clearly because of political pressure. This created quite a stir in the media to the point where I had the Washington Post, the LA Times, and the New York Times all on hold on the phone, and I knew that this was the only time in my life that this was ever going to happen.
They wanted more information about what was clearly a violation of freedom of speech with one of our nation's most important and prestigious institutions, but it was in part because of our book, because of Barbara Boxer and because of the controversy that the debate about saving the Refuge swung in our favor.
This kind of publicity catapulted the issue into the national media. It happened in a way that never would have been possible just through publishing a book alone. We were fortunate to have the additional support of the Lannan Foundation in New Mexico, who recognized the potential of not only using the images and stories and this national media attention, but also the stories of the indigenous people as part of the story of why this place needed to be preserved. The support from Lannan allowed us to recreate six exhibits based on the original plan for the Smithsonian with the original captions in place. Exhibits toured around the country for two years and allowed Subhankar to make 48 different appearances over a two‒year timespan. We were also able to donate ten thousand copies of the book to libraries around the country and around the world.
That was my first experience with doing something of this nature, and it opened my eyes to what was possible with a book, because the book was a foundational element on which everything else was built and emerged. I thought, "I want to do more of this kind of work." It was having that experience and recognizing that a business model that incorporated the idea of a publication with images and stories, supported by philanthropy and working with conservation groups as partners, created this new kind of media experience that wasn't being effectively done before.
All of the books that you've published, then, have an advocacy campaign or component directly connected to them. Was that was the intention from the start?
Yes. The project with Subhankar led to so many other projects that I wanted to create a separate entity within the Mountaineers Books organization that was dedicated exclusively to doing and supporting these kinds of conservation projects. We wanted to partner with advocacy organizations, photographers, foundations and donors in ways that traditional publishing has not had much experience. After talking with Tom and Sonya Campion of the Campion Foundation, we decided that we needed a standalone entity within the enterprise that had a separate board and separate nonprofit status so that we could focus on finding the resources needed to make this be the best that it can be.
What are the real challenges and the advantages of working with this interdependence with philanthropy?
I would say two things come to top of mind. There's the economic benefit of philanthropy, which is significant, but there's also another critical component for us. That’s the ability to have strategic conversations with donors and strategic thinkers who care about these issues. We’re able to leverage the knowledge of those who work with us. That can be an individual, a foundation, a small or a large enterprise, or a nonprofit organization, but in every case we make sure that what we are doing is congruent with some kind of a really well-defined collaborative goal or outcome. The benefit is that we have these strategic relationships that help us assure our work is having impact. All of this takes time, however, which is one of the bigger challenges. As I mentioned, our one project with Florian Schulz has taken more than 8 years from start to realization. Most publishers would have killed that project a long time ago.
When you're looking at some new book projects, are you hearing more from photographers, from advocacy groups, from foundations, all of the above? Who drives the initial process?
It has been the photographers or the foundations, not the advocacy groups. We bring the advocacy groups into the thought conversations early on, but it is usually the passion of a photographer who has spent years experiencing and documenting an ecosystem who understand the threats and who also feel like they want to commit their efforts to protecting it. The photographers do a lot of work in trying to figure out how their work can have the most impact.
On the other hand, we've also had foundations come to us and say, "We understand the need to have marketing tools and communications tools within the advocacy enterprise, and we can see that a year or more from now that “X” is going to be an important issue. We've identified this problem, and the conservation groups that we’re working with are going to need what you do to bring their issue to the forefront.”
We’re not the advocacy experts, and I am in awe over what the conservation groups we partner with do. They have their finger on the pulse of what's happening, when, by whom, when, and how, and it's extraordinary to me how they keep track of all of this. The role that we can play is in stepping back and taking a look at what will it take to make this issue resonate with politicians, the media, the general public? What will be meaningful to them in terms of understanding the importance of protecting this place? Why should I write a letter to the editor? Why should I give money to this organization? Why should I write to my member of Congress? Why should I care? That's the role that we play best: helping to create highly emotional connections to special places and people.
Since you started this there's been a lot of change in book publishing, in the market for books, and in the politics of protecting places. What's been the biggest challenge that you've seen over the decade or more that you've been working?
The biggest challenge has been to have the opportunity to have a cohesive plan that doesn't rely on patching things together. Some of that has subsided over time, but certainly in the beginning we kept saying, "We have ambitions, but how are we going to get any of this across the finish line?” It certainly hasn't been a problem finding amazing photographers, important projects, coming up with the creative elements that make these campaigns stand out. That part has been challenging, but that's also been a delight. It's trying to mitigate our ambitions with what we can find in terms of support that keeps us on our toes. The sale of books will only take us so far!
You've dealt with a lot of what I would call ultra-dedicated photographers, people who have been out in the field in sometimes miserable conditions year after year, sometimes for a decade or longer. What kind of advice to have for photographers when they are thinking about doing this type of conservation work? What makes someone stand out in your mind?
“The qualities that the photographers we work with seem to share are almost an irrational passion for the land that they have come to love.”
The qualities that the photographers we work with seem to share are almost an irrational passion for the land that they have come to love. They create what I call terra-biographies with their work, complete visual and contextual stories. That's very important. Talking to the people that they meet and who are part of these places and communities is key to bringing a place to life beyond the photographs. I think that the photographers also have to have a personal story that's going to connect with their readers, with the media, with politicians, so that their own lives become part of the story as well.
There hasn't been a single case where the photographer's personal story has not been very important to their communication skills. For example, Florian Schulz tells a story of how he grew up reading Jack London in Germany, and how Germany didn't have any of that kind of wilderness or the wild animals that he was reading about. He talks about how important and life-changing it was for him to come to North America and actually see a grizzly bear in the wild. When he talks to audiences, he speaks of how he loves western North America, and how he doesn't have this back in Europe, and how fortunate we are.
Instead of being strident, and instead of telling stories of gloom and doom, Florian tells stories that celebrate what we do have and how important it is to protect these areas and these creatures for future generations. He interweaves his own personal story, and that's a really important way that people connect with him.
Most publishers would judge the success of a book by how many copies have been sold. How do you judge the success of your books?
We love selling lots of copies of books, but if that was our sole concern we'd be doing more family guides to Yellowstone National Park. We have done books where we'll know from the start that we're going to sell maybe a thousand copies, which is not even getting us to the breakeven point. In the case of the book that we did on the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, we thought that we could sell maybe 1,800 copies, which would lose money and not be a subject that any other publisher would take on. But we knew that even if we could only sell 1,800 copies of the book, those 1,800 would be visible in a retail pipeline that would then give us access to media. Because if you have a book, then you have a calling card for media. Maybe you don’t even sell 1,800 copies, but through the publication of that book you might reach hundreds of thousands or even millions of people through media, because there’s a story and a campaign that goes with the book. In addition, working in collaboration with the advocacy groups we got this particular book into the hands of employees the Bureau of Land Management. These were the people who were making decisions about the fate of the National Petroleum Reserve, about what kind of a plan where they going to put in place to manage these 22 million acres of wild public land.
We were supporting the most aggressive protection that the groups had envisioned for 11 million acres of critical habitat areas. Our book was given to key staff at the BLM, and many of them said that because they could not go up there this book was a way for them to understand what was at stake. They could see the landscapes, they could see the rivers, and the mountains, and the plants, and the animals, the abundant birds, and the wetlands, and because they were able to see these places that they’d never been to before it made a difference. Even if we had published 400 copies of the book and handed them out just to the BLM, the book would have been a success in our eyes.
And, we don't want to just talk to the people that are already doing this conservation work, we want to expand awareness to a larger audience. That's part of our mission and part of our delight ‒ trying to make the stories compelling so that people will either say to us at an event or tell us after seeing our book or seeing in exhibit based on the book, "Wow, I had no idea. What can I do to make a difference? I want to get involved with this." That's true music to our ears.
One last question. What's been most satisfying to you personally?
Knowing that we have played a part in protecting millions of acres of public land. It brings tears to my eyes, because these places are so exquisitely special. To feel like our work is making a difference in ways that maybe nobody else can do or will do is the pinnacle for me.