5 Questions with Jess Ewart, Aspen City of Wellbeing Executive Director
by Abby Stern
Tell us a little about your background and your role with Aspen City of Wellbeing?
I heard about Aspen City of Wellbeing (ACW) before I even met Gina Murdock, the founder. It was a little over 3 years ago and I was intrigued by the concept of creating an intentional city of wellbeing. I made a mental note that I hoped I would meet her one day and learn more. Aspen being the magical place that it is, I was introduced to Gina by a mutual friend in May 2014. We crossed paths a few times that summer and by the fall, I was volunteering with ACW. I went to several visioning and strategy sessions and enjoyed the fluid process of watching it take form. The priority in those days was to meet with as many people as possible working in the fields of health and wellbeing in this valley as well as speaking with leadership from the various municipalities, schools, hospitals, large employers, and non-profits.
In June of 2015, Deepak Chopra was visiting Aspen for Spotlight Health and agreed to speak at an ACW meeting. Gina and I worked together to create a presentation that would concisely explain the vision for this project and how it would be implemented. We spoke at the Little Nell to a packed room and then Deepak closed the meeting with some wonderful insights about the “ingredients” for a city of wellbeing. There was a lot of momentum for this initiative after that gathering and I was spending more and more time volunteering alongside a group of like-minded citizens to help bring this big idea to life. By January of 2016, things were really rolling. Gina and I sat down one afternoon for an epic work session to craft a plan of action. A few days after that meeting she asked me to lead the effort as a part-time employee and the first paid staff member for the project. I was honored and excited to hit the ground running.
We did a ton of work behind the scenes throughout 2016 leading up to our first Lead With Love Experience in October. Gina and I were born 5 days apart (I won’t say who is older!) and we both celebrated our 40th birthdays during the week of the event. It was an incredible 4 days of mind, body and spirit offerings that really launched ACW. As I recall, the intention was to take a week or two off after Lead With Love and then come together to assess our next steps. That didn’t happen. The project only picked up more steam as attendees, presenters and the public became more engaged with our efforts and in January 2017 I transitioned to being the full-time Executive Director of Aspen City of Wellbeing.
We now have 12 worksite wellbeing programs in the valley with more in the pipeline. We are 5 months away from hosting the second Lead With Love Experience this October in Aspen. We have secured some fabulous strategic partners and have a core team of 5 people devoted to ACW. We’ve been fundraising to meet the growing demand for our programs and have a solid strategic plan for the next few years. It’s incredible to think that it’s been just over 3 years since I first had the wish to meet Gina and learn more about ACW and now I have the pleasure of working side by side with her full-time to manifest a true city of wellbeing. My professional background has been in conscious business. I’ve launched and operated a few businesses throughout the years that are still chugging along with other talented people at the helm. My skill set includes business strategy, management, marketing, web & graphic design, and formal training in yoga, meditation, and Ayurveda. To say that directing ACW is my dream job is an understatement. I deeply know that every step I took until I arrived at this organization was in preparation for this specific job.
You were the mastermind behind incorporating the term ‘Cultural Shift’ into ACW. Can you describe what that means on a community level?
ACW has many aspirations for enhancing the wellbeing of all. As an organization and as individuals, we want to see a city where all the residents are thriving. There are some clear contributors to stress like lack of sleep, financial challenges, housing, long commutes, lack of childcare, not enough time spent with friends and family, and on and on. But, these factors are all symptoms of a larger root problem. When the societal structure is geared towards a return on investment rather than a return on wellbeing, we are conditioned to try to squeeze as much “value” out of a person as we can. However, the premise itself is flawed. By forcing long shifts, commutes, stagnant wages, etc, workers are becoming burnt out and less productive. The cost to the company or organization is very tangible in dollars and cents. There are no bad guys at fault here; it is just the nature of our system. In order to eliminate the symptoms, we must treat the root cause of the imbalance.
There is substantial evidence and research to support small shifts that could significantly improve one’s wellbeing. People spend most of their waking hours at work so we decided to start on-site in the workplace to shift culture away from self-sacrifice and towards self-care. Practices such as conscious breathing, meditation, mindful movement and healthy eating have been shown to have profound and positive effects on productivity, retention, worker’s compensation claims, and other health care costs. We aren’t naive enough to think that we can simply state these facts and see policies change. We understand that experiencing and proving the benefit is where the shift will occur. ACW has partnered with employers like Pitkin County to bring certified teachers to the workplace to guide employees through these practices. Employees who increase their wellbeing are more likely to stay at their job, to call in sick less frequently and to be more productive while they are there. Not to mention that their lives at home improve as well.
ACW is very evidence-based. We’ve aggregated the data collected from our local population (an exhaustive library of it is here) and noticed some trends. Our programs are designed to address known stress factors using simple but effective interventions. We are utilizing our funds to invest in pilot programs that occur in the workplace at least once per week for consistency. We hire trained professionals to teach movement, breathing, and meditation on-site. We offer chair massage to workers and also provide healthy meals to integrate nutrition. By showing up consistently and with impactful programs, we are seeing the participants adopt lasting lifestyle changes that increase their wellbeing. We survey the participants before and after the 6-month pilot programs to measure the efficacy. In order for our organization to grow to reach more people, the pilot programs are 6 months in duration after which we present the findings to the work site’s leadership and ask that they budget to continue the offerings. When the employer begins investing resources in these programs, that indicates a shift in the organization’s culture. They now value the benefits enough to make them a part of how they operate.
You are Executive Director of Aspen City of Wellbeing and Mom of beautiful Zoe. You also volunteer your graphic design and web development skills to other organizations, and so much more. How do you juggle it all?
I confess to occasionally dropping balls in these efforts and I have been scaling back other obligations as ACW grows. I do love to help other people so I sometimes volunteer my skills when I am able, mostly to my daughter’s school or other non-profit groups. It is all about work/life balance but I really love to work! It runs in my family. You should meet my mom, sister, aunt! I come from a lineage of entrepreneurial women and devoted mothers. Zoe attended her first meeting at 2 months old in a baby carrier. I think the key for me is not to compartmentalize work in a way that separates me from my family. I’ve tended to work at more progressive companies that are willing to embrace my daughter’s presence rather than push me into using childcare. Spending time with my family is good for my wellbeing,
Being organized and practicing clear communication is crucial to following through on all these responsibilities. I value other people’s time as well as my own so I’m dedicated to starting and ending meetings in a timely manner. I love people and am a social creature so I have to use self-discipline to keep conversations concise. Of course, none of the work we are doing at ACW would be possible without our incredible team. Gina and I have carefully brought together an impassioned group of people with a broad set of skills. Everyone at ACW is working toward a common goal that lights them up and that cohesion makes our mission attainable. I love the people I work with and Gina is one of my best friends so going to work is a joy!
What does wellbeing mean to you?
For me, wellbeing is waking up each morning with a sense of purpose and having the resources (energy, time, finances, emotional support) to fulfill that vision. This job is a huge contributor to my own wellbeing as it makes me feel like I am contributing to the greater good. I have wonderful friendships and feel deeply connected to my community. Living in Colorado, I get to move my body by hiking, snowboarding, and biking in this gorgeous landscape. Most importantly, I am fortunate to have a healthy, tight-knit family.
Who is a presenter for the upcoming Lead With Love experience that you are excited for?
I am really looking forward to meeting Scott Neeson. His personal story of following his sense of purpose is beyond inspiring. So many people sacrifice their time and relationships pursuing material wealth only to find themselves continually searching for a deeper meaning in life. Scott’s journey is proof positive that financial success is not the path to a fulfilling life experience. It is something that we innately know as humans and while we often talk about “what matters”, lots of us are hesitant to actually prioritize our purpose in life. Scott’s first-hand account of walking away from the traditional metrics of “success” to serve in Cambodia is truly compelling. He has “had it all” and made a conscious choice to take a completely different route. I’m excited to learn from someone who has been able to hear that internal voice that says, “This is why you are here.” and then had the courage to trust it.