The New Story Is: How to Run a Nonprofit that Serves with Alison Bologna (Shri Service Corps)
Of the 2 million nonprofit organizations operating in the United States today, many run into persistent struggles—especially with donor funding—to fulfill their noble service missions.
How might nonprofits today, who exist to affect change, stay nimble, creative, and responsive to uncertain and rapidly changing times?
Alison Bologna is an award-winning journalist, a TV news anchor for Rhode Island’s NBC 10 News Sunrise program, and the Founder and Executive Director of Shri Studio , a yoga studio and social enterprise that, through its 501(c)(3) nonprofit arm, Shri Service Corps, funds more than 100 free classes every month to over 8,500 students from underrepresented and at-risk communities.
In this interview, Alison shares how her successful career in journalism didn’t stop her from pursuing a passion project to uplift her local community and serve those in need.
She shares how Shri Service Corps bootstrapped and innovated its way over 10 years into a dynamic, hybrid organization that certifies yoga teachers, delivers trauma-informed yoga classes, produces its own snack line, and is now stewarding a $3.7 million live-workspace build-out in conjunction with the City of Pawtucket and other partners.
She tells us that relationships, communication, flexibility, understanding, trust, and reliability are the secret sauce to running a successful nonprofit—not just funding.
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We provide full episode transcripts for increased accessibility, especially for those who may be hard of hearing or for whom English is a second language. Please note that transcripts are not fully edited and may contain errors. We apologize for any inconvenience.
Dave Ursillo 00:00
If I asked you what you would do starting tomorrow, to have the greatest positive impact that you possibly could on people’s lives, and if money was no object, what would you say? What would you do? Would you start a new business? Probably not right?
Dave Ursillo 00:17
But maybe your answer is that you’d become a philanthropist and start splashing the cash around or even more likely, that you might start a nonprofit organization. Well, you don’t have to be rich to start a nonprofit. And in many cases, extreme wealth and philanthropy don’t walk hand in hand with many nonprofit organizations.
Dave Ursillo 00:35
As recently as 2021, there were nearly 2 million nonprofit organizations registered and operating in the United States alone. That’s what we typically refer to here as a 501 C three nonprofit organization, a label that refers to certain nonprofits, legal classifications and their tax exempt status. Nonprofits can be truly inspiring examples of what change can be made on local, national and even international levels when profit is not prioritized over social impact. But many nonprofits run into a very familiar slate of problems.
Dave Ursillo 01:09
Fundraising upon which many nonprofits rely is one constant concern, especially when an economy cools off when inflation soars. And when people experienced what’s called donor fatigue, a sort of mental or emotional exhaustion from repeatedly contributing to different causes that they care about.
Dave Ursillo 01:27
So how do nonprofit organizations navigate these tricky waters to be able to create a positive impact? What are some examples of creative and innovative ways to make change while, not getting stuck in the mire of what so many nonprofits struggle with?
Dave Ursillo 01:42
From The New Story Company. This is The New Story Is, a podcast that explores the stories, perceptions and ideas that have come to shape the world today, as we know it. Along the way, we speak to talented guests who are championing new stories that may shape our collective future for the good. I’m Dave Ursillo.
Dave Ursillo 02:02
We’re speaking today with Alison Bologna. She’s an award winning journalist and television news anchor for Rhode Island’s NBC 10 News sunrise program, where she has been voted the top female reporter in the region and the best TV Morning News anchor for years, which is not delivering more than 12 hours of live on air broadcasts every week.
Dave Ursillo 02:21
Alison is also the founder and executive director of a free studio, a yoga studio and social enterprise that through its 501c3 nonprofit organization named Shri, Shri Service Corps funds more than 100 free classes to underrepresented communities throughout the region, including adults and children with developmental and intellectual disabilities, military veterans, school children, health care, healthcare workers and patients and hospitals, those utilizing shelters incarcerated youth, men and women in recovery and in a variety of clinics and more. Founded in 2010. Shri is the only yoga outreach organization of its kind in Rhode Island combining an innovative approach to movement based yoga classes with community building, mindfulness and character education components built into their proprietary curriculum. With over 8000 students served every year she has a proven track record of creating important healing outcomes across many area communities.
Dave Ursillo 03:15
Among the honors and awards that she has received as a journalist and in her work leading Sree as an organization, Allison has received the 2020 Myra craft MVP award from the New England Patriots foundation and Emmy Award and Edward R. Murrow award to Associated Press awards, and investigative reporters and editors award and many more.
Dave Ursillo 03:36
Alison, thank you so much for being here. And welcome to The New Story Is
Alison Bologna 03:41
It’s nice to see you, Dave. Over the computer, not a yoga studio right now.
Dave Ursillo 03:46
I know. Yeah. Allison and I know each other from from Shri, and I’m excited to speak with you about it. And I’m not sure we’ll talk about the programs that I was involved with specifically. But something that I’ve been looking forward to asking you, Allison, since we we do go back a few years, is to catch up with you about how Shri has been doing in recent years, especially in light of this little thing that you might have heard about as a journalist and news anchor called the COVID 19 pandemic, especially over the last couple of years.
Dave Ursillo 04:15
I know in 2020 and 2021, which of course saw just about every space in the world where people could gather and congregate, shut down for prolonged stretches as part of the pandemic prevention. Sree still managed to fund over 2900 free yoga outreach classes. So I’m wondering if we could start with asking you about how the organization maneuvered and responded to the pandemic so that it could still provide these opportunities for mindfulness and breathing and wellness to the communities that really need them?
Alison Bologna 04:48
In March of 2020, Dave covering the news, we can see that the pandemic was getting worse, progressively day by day. So it was on Friday, March 13. This was before the State shut everything down. We ProAct Typically a team of us decided to essentially close the doors to our physical yoga location or studio location in Pawtucket. And we did this because that afternoon, we were expecting to see several different social service agencies for adults with intellectual developmental and physical disabilities, the veterans groups coming in, and we just wanted to be extra careful, especially in March of 2020. Well, we didn’t know how serious COVID was going to be. And I think that was the right call, as we now know, in 2022, how serious the pandemic still is, in many ways. So we closed our physical doors on March 13, of 2020, in Pawtucket, and within two weeks, thanks to a phenomenal Operations Director, Shannon, we were up and running on Facebook Live and zoom within two weeks.
Alison Bologna 05:46
And Shannon and I just worked with partners reached out to them picked up the phone and said, a big piece of Shri’s methodology is about showing up. So we may not be able to show up for you in person in a yoga studio. But if we can work out the technology and get a few of you, even if it’s one or two students on the other side of an iPad and iPhone, a camera, whatever it might be to teach will be there if you want to be there. So we started pretty strong, because so many different agencies were open minded, which was key to all of this, and working with us. But they we had worked with these partners for over 10 years. So we had a relationship with them. So when we wanted to try something new, and they knew how fast we all work as far as making things happen. They said, Sure, let’s give it a try. We don’t know if it’ll work. But we’ll give it a try.
Alison Bologna 06:33
So we started working off phones, laptops, you name it, we would zoom in or facebook live into group homes, hospitals, state run hospitals, private hospitals. And even if one or two students showed up, we still showed up. And we connected with students in a way to just say, Good morning, Dave, I’m Alison, how can I support you. So as in streaming support, you know, from our training support on a respect inspire, and our classes looks different than they would in a physical yoga studio. But we were showing up for people and our classes started building and building because what we thought was going to be two or three months ended up being six months, a year, two years. And now we are in person, we have our studio brand new mill being constructed. But we’ve gotten pretty good at the hybrid model, which will stay with us as we move forward. And we even have some teachers teaching remotely for us with teachers in person too. So we’ve learned a lot.
Alison Bologna 07:27
But I think it was about figuring out a way to show up for our students and quite frankly, for our teachers to, to connect. And we did make one decision really early on that I think was fundamental. And the success of being able to deliver so many classes so quickly is that we all decided unanimously that we wanted to do live programming, we didn’t want to just record a bunch of videos and send it off to agencies, we wanted to be in real time with students, if all we did was reach up high bend down low twist and talk that was better than just pressing play, because we wanted to be in real time with folks, especially when we were all so isolated. So that’s what we did.
Alison Bologna 08:04
And that model is still kind of sticking around in a lot of different forms. And the technology has gotten better. And we were able to our nonprofit arm to bring and fund iPads and bring them into group homes, agencies, schools, so that we’re able to connect with more people who we probably wouldn’t have been able to connect with otherwise.
Dave Ursillo 08:25
That’s wonderful. I’m so glad to hear. And you mentioned they’re utilizing this hybrid model of being able to utilize the technology in ways that we’re able to distribute live classes and live experiences, which and also really give a lot of extra attention. And credit to the fact that you’re dealing with populations who may have been and may remain at heightened risks of, of illness in the midst of a pandemic when things were still so unknown and remained, you know, remain. Pretty, pretty tenuous today as COVID is still
Alison Bologna 08:57
careful about it today, because we didn’t want to create more anxiety by introducing more technology at a time of great stress. So we didn’t push the agencies that said, you know, not yet we really want to connect, but just not yet. So with those agencies, we created like a phone tree, and we were just making phone calls to just chuck it in. So it was just something rather than nothing. But I think it was really important to pay attention to when an agency said we really want to make this work. But let us get through the basics within our group home or hospital before we throw this in. So we paid attention to that too. I’m the type of like to jump in and get it all done right away. So I had to check myself self regulate and pull back a little bit.
Alison Bologna 09:35
But we kept checking in weekly to say we’re ready if you are because there were a couple of places like the Alzheimer’s center where I teach. The technology was too stressful for caretakers at home who didn’t have a break and like one thing they needed was a break. And the last thing they needed was now I gotta log into a class and try and figure this out. It’s too much so there were certain agencies we did take a break and we showed up in different ways, but it’s about during the pandemic at least being available For whoever wanted to see our teachers and our curriculum at their pace, and I think that was an important component of its success.
Dave Ursillo 10:08
Yeah, something that I’m hearing implicit in what you’re describing, Allison is this essence of like creativity, flexibility, not a yoga pawn, although I guess it’s appropriate. And, and interest in the relationships that you have with these different organizations, to be to, to be and to have been malleable in response to not only what you yourself as the as the leader and executive director of the organization wanted to do or what your team and your staff and your teachers want us to do, but also what the people who maybe know these populations best to work with them every day. We’re getting from them.
Dave Ursillo 10:48
So it feels like it was a very responsive process. Could you talk to us a little bit about how the relationships that you have and how the trust that’s developed maybe over whether it’s days or weeks or months or years, influences the decisions that get made, whether we’re talking about COVID response, or just programming in general?
Alison Bologna 11:07
Sure, well, yoga, as you know, because you’re a certified yoga teacher, and you’ve done trees, training means connection to yoke to, to bring people together union. And that starts, I would say, well, before any yoga class takes place at Shri, it’s a meeting, somebody may be at an event, a phone call, or I’ve heard about you email, we want to bring this to our school. And the connection starts from there, and how you respond how quickly how sensitive you are to the needs of a particular population is where everything begins to connect. So we talk all the time about how our administrative team, which there’s a group of four of us, it takes about two hours of administrative time for each hour of teaching to really build that trust, especially in the beginning.
Alison Bologna 11:50
And then knowing that when that class gets handed off to a main teacher, and then we have two sub teachers assigned to each group, so that every group of students consistently sees one of three people, it’s not random people coming in to them, we have more than 40 teachers, but each group will consistently see the same three teachers over the years, it makes a huge difference. There was a huge time component and building relationships with people. And it goes all the way from the executive director down to the classroom teacher to the substitute teacher, to the PE teacher, to the direct service professional and a particular group. So we don’t rush that process. We’re very responsive, we answer emails within 24 hours. But if we didn’t have these relationships built in with these other nonprofit partners before the pandemic, I don’t think we would have been as successful as just starting these programs. I think our agencies who we’ve been working with for so long do they could trust us, you knows we show up for classes, and then we’re organized on the back end. Because if you’re not organized on the back end, then the folks on the front end, can’t do their job purely because they’d be too bogged down with minutia, right. So what we try and do is set everything up, create the tone, and then that spirit’s supposed to deliver through when teachers and students connect.
Alison Bologna 13:06
And I think reliability is really important in managing nonprofit work, because you can have all the good intentions in the world. But if it’s not seamless, and it’s not administered, well, you become a burden to the people you’re trying to serve, rather than lifting them up. I think the reason why we work so well in especially some big public schools, is because the administration knows once a schedule is in place, they can count on us to show up. They’ve seen the curriculum, they know what we’re trying to do, they’ve met our teachers, so they can count on us. And I think that’s really important. The intention has to be there. But if you’re not consistently following through, you’re not going to be serving your original purpose. So that takes years of trust and credibility to build. And it comes from the initial phone call all the way down to the teachers on time. And it’s using appropriate language and techniques to
Dave Ursillo 13:55
Yeah, it’s very, it’s very comprehensive. It’s very comprehensive from start to finish. Yeah, it sounds like it. And I do I do have some firsthand experience with with that I’m trying not to center myself in this conversation, given our even despite our relationship but with with regard to fried nowadays, as a whole. I know the organization serves over 8000 I think it’s I think the most reasonable is 8500 students per year and about half of which receive these these classes completely free through the nonprofit. Yeah, Shri Service Corps. Could Yeah, I was gonna say could you learn a difference between Shri Studio and Shri Service Corps, how these terms these like interact and like, what how they make up the larger social enterprise for our listeners.
Alison Bologna 14:41
So I think if you are developing an organization that you want to have social impact, you need to know what the problem is before you try and solve it. Right. So I started Shireen an empty storefront in 2010. Because I knew downtown etiquette, my beloved city needed a little love, especially in the downtown district. So I do what was quick, which was I found an empty space, I found rent that I could afford, especially before I ever had a studio before and had to build it from the ground up. And I just started by starting Sree studio, so it was just me, I put my own money into it, I opened the doors and I figured whatever was going to happen was going to happen. But I knew if I had x number of students per day, I could pay the rent and everything would be okay.
Alison Bologna 15:22
But I also knew that being in downtown Pawtucket was important because we wanted to help. Part of the mission was revitalized downtown through the practice of yoga. But also do it in a way that we could reach populations who otherwise didn’t have access. And Pawtucket is an economically challenged city and Rhode Island, we border Central Falls, same thing. These are two cities that have struggled since the collapse of the Industrial Revolution, you’ll drive through the city and you’ll see empty mills where people used to be bustling, and now they’re not. And it’s been struggling to make a comeback. So I started with just opening up the studio to offer low cost classes. So people would pay $10, maybe for a class. And then we started to do the direct outreach work by partnering with different schools, social service agencies on our block, with the recovery project being the first one in 2011, because Jim Gillan, who started the peer to peer recovery center down the street from us knocked on our door, and said, you know, how would you feel about some folks before after their AAA or NA meetings coming into this space and trying yoga, and I said, Sure.
Alison Bologna 16:31
And that was how we started delivering our outreach program, the Providence center funded still funds the anchor recovery community center. So they would pay our studio a flat rate, it was $50, for the class with an unlimited number of students. And it helped us pay our teacher. Very simply, it was that was the model, the province that are paid $50, a pass, about 20 Students would show up. Okay, so compare this to a commercial yoga studio, very different where most students are paying $15 A piece on their own, the folks would come for free in the Providence center had a grant and they would help us cover to pay the teacher and then the overhead rent. And the administrative duties such as somebody to schedule, help develop the curriculum, and also just operate the studio. But then as we started getting deeper and deeper and more folks wanted to come to us not every school or agencies as well funded as a Providence center. So they would want our program. But while we would offer it for free to the students, the school may not have had a line item in their budget to pay 5060 $70 for the class. So that’s when we saw the problem. And the problem was that other nonprofits were struggling within their own budgets. So how can we still show up and serve. So in 2012, that’s when we decided to run a fundraiser to see if the public would generally support a model like this. And I think our first fundraiser we brought in, I don’t know $4,500 $5,000. But it was enough for us to get a lawyer and to get an accountant to put together an IRS application. And we knew then that the community would step up to support it. And that we could then serve other nonprofits who may not have it in their budget, even for low cost classes that we could deliver it for free. So Shri Service Corps is a nonprofit 501 C three, that when an agency can’t pay that low cost flat rate, then we offer it for free to not just the students, but also to the agencies to which they belong.
Alison Bologna 18:25
So over 100 classes and was even more than that Dave during the pandemic, but both classes are completely free to the community students and to the agencies through which they come to us. And we’ve been able to do that through an annual fundraiser. And then we’ve we’ve developed a reputation over the years about proven impacts and outcomes. So now we have really successful fundraising platforms, CVS health funds, US Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island funds us, the Fogarty foundation that does tremendous work specifically for adults with intellectual, physical and developmental disabilities. But all of this comes through relationship building, I invite people to the classes I teach and other people teach. I’m transparent with what the curriculum looks like. I explain how trainings operate.
Alison Bologna 19:11
So it’s not like we’re throwing just anybody into a class to teach. There’s an ad our training with best practices and an apprenticeship program where project leaders mentor younger teachers or newer teachers, so that there’s a whole methodology to this. And all of that goes into solving the problem of health equity. And that’s really what we’re trying to do. Yoga is a beautiful practice, but for a long time, it’s really only been available to people in this country who have disposable income time, or disposable income. And what we were trying to do at Shri was to change that by creating space, skilled teachers and then a model through which on top of showing up on time and providing resources. We could also pay our teachers so they feel valued, but not create a financial burden or hardship on other nodes. nonprofits, especially small ones that want to do good work, but this might be for now an extra for them. Having said that behavioral health has now become front and center for so many different organizations. So now they’re seeing the value in this more so than they did in the past. But our fundraising and our advocacy efforts won’t stop because we want to be able to say yes to as many nonprofits as we can.
Dave Ursillo 20:25
Yeah, and you hit the nail on the head when you describe relationship building as the crux to all of it. And I’m wondering where where did the skill and the practice of relationship building comm for us is something you’ve always been good at? Have you always been a people person does? Is there something in your journalistic roots of like getting people to answer questions or evoking you know, responses and interviewing people where relationship building and developing trust has been something central to the work that you’ve always done? Is it is it personal? Is it professionals? Or both? What do you think?
Alison Bologna 20:58
I think it kind of comes natural to me, I talk a lot. I like to talk to people, I like to ask questions, I like to solve problems. One of the reasons why I started Shri is because my youngest sister is disabled, she lives in Rhode Island. Now she’s a 40 year old woman, she’s autistic nonverbal. So I’ve grown up helping serving her community. And I always wondered why it wasn’t more integrated into the things that we get to enjoy. So growing up with Jackie, I think I’ve been immersed in service in that way. But I also do, yeah, I think my journalism background has helped a little bit, especially in Rhode Island, because we’re such a small state. And having worked at Channel 10, for so many years. And naturally, just through my job, I’ve gotten to know so many people from the governor or to the Commerce Secretary, to the executive director of all kinds of different nonprofits down to my neighbors and people who now show up for yoga classes. So I just feel a very instinct, if you will, I think it’s instinctual for me to show up and do things. That makes sense.
Alison Bologna 22:07
And I always tell everybody, service, a lot of people think it’s one way, it’s not one sided at all, you get a lot out of this work as well. So I have been doing it, I don’t think I would have been able to keep up the pace or going on 13 years. If it wasn’t enjoyable, and you didn’t feel passion and purpose with it. I think that’s really important. I tell so many people who come to St who want to teach, if you’re driven by it, and you have fun doing it, and you’ll be doing a good job at it right? You’ll be showing up fully, if it’s something where you see it on your schedule. And it’s you don’t want to show up at that school on that particular day to teach. Maybe it’s time for a break. Because you’re not going to be serving the community in the same way. So for me, I think it just, it just comes from inside. You don’t me it just kind of comes from inside. I like meeting people and connecting. Yeah.
Dave Ursillo 22:57
From the from the Can we talk about your background in journalism and news broadcasting today a little bit because I’m really curious about there’s been a lot of changes like in the news and in media like writ large, the rise of the Internet in the last 25 ish years. Social media, and everything that’s come with it, the rise of like fake news, the erosion of trust in different institutions. for you in your career. I’m wondering what kind what were some of the biggest changes that you’ve witnessed in your career as a journalist and and as a news anchor, who’s someone who is like literally the face of one of the faces of a like a morning news program, and everybody kind of like hears the news from you. What What would you say like, has changed the most in terms of being a journalist on air on air television anchor over your career?
Alison Bologna 23:45
I think what’s important is local news. City council meetings, the more local the better. You know, when you talk about local food is healthier for you. I think local news is also healthy for you because you want to know what’s going on in your immediate community versus these big national headlines. When I first started, in news, I was a producer at the assistant producer, like assistant producer, there’s many, many ranks before you get all the way up to senior producers, executive producers. But I was 21 years old when I started at NBC News and I started at Dateline NBC as an assistant producer. And I thought at that time, well, this is New York City. I’m coming back, right so I was gonna get my producing experience in I was fortunate because NBC owned channel 10 In Rhode Island, so it was like a job transfer when I went from producing to recording and I honestly thought that Rhode Island was going to be a pitstop. I was going to come get my experience by by Rhode Island, moved back to New York City. But as I started doing more local news, I loved the pace of it. It’s fast. I liked how Uber local it was, especially in a state like ours we can get from the bottom to the top and an hour I meet so many people in between.
Alison Bologna 24:58
And I liked the impact you could have In local news, I would never have been able to build Sree. If I had worked on a national level, there’s no way I did leave, I went to Boston and then came back. But I also work for a station that genuinely cares about community outreach. And when I came back to Rhode Island, I was very clear and transparent that I do this sort of work on the side, and that it was important to me and I wouldn’t give it up. And granted, I’m not going to be doing stories about Sree a channel 10 or anywhere else, but they do see the value in it. As far as getting to know your community better on that side makes you a better journalist on the other side to write because you’re more connected. So when it comes to the media, I believe in local news, I believe in the power of local news, I think when a lot of young people start off, they think they want to go to the city. So anchor the local national news, which is lofty and great, and you do a lot of money, puppet, there’s something really beautiful about being in your community living in it, serving in it and reporting on it to the point where I’m coming up on almost two years of enterprise reporting on the opioid epidemic. And one of the reasons why I think they chose me to report on it was because of all my work in the recovery community through Srei. The recovery project was the first outreach project I mentioned that we had started. So when my news director said, you know, the opioids epidemic is a real problem. How do you feel about just go out there term, two stories a month for me, and said, Sure, and I’ve been doing that for almost two years now.
Alison Bologna 26:28
And a lot of my contacts have come through my community outreach work, and they give me basically, whatever I want to do with a trusted photographer voice work. I’ve worked with Paul Tierney, also for 20 years, we’ve done all kinds of different stories, the story that’s airing tomorrow night has to do with murals and how art can help heal when it comes to awareness in the, in the the war on opioids, if you will, I’ve interviewed the attorney general about the opioid settlement. And I’ve done profiles on the same peer to peer recovery centers that I’ve gotten to know about over the last decade through Sree. So I think it all comes together. If you live and work in the same community, and you’re invested in it, chances are you can have more of an impact. So I’ve had other offers to go their places. But Rhode Island’s I’m really happy here. And I feel like the community can do so much more set an example here that can then inspire others outside of New England. And that’s what I’m trying to do with other organizations around the country and outreach to I get calls and emails about how did you do what you do? And I’m, I’m here to help I want to collaborate, I want to see this work go far beyond New England. So that’s a roundabout answer.
Alison Bologna 27:40
But I think local news is important. And I think if you are a strong enough journalist who cares about the editorial content, and you speak up and for me as an anchor, not just read the teleprompter, but be engaged about what’s in it, and work with an executive producer. And for me, it’s Mario of anchor who listens to and who’s also engaged in the community, then you can have an impact and kind of a troubling time with the media in a positive way.
Dave Ursillo 28:05
Yeah, there’s there’s a lot of a lot more conversation that I’m hearing now, in the media and in journalism circles, who who share the idea that may be the glue, the the attention that we give to global events, and even to national events, while important, maybe diffuse the attention and energy that would be better served on a local level, because of what we’re talking about in terms of relationships and effecting change in our own backyards.
Dave Ursillo 28:38
There’s this belief, a belief or an idea that if people were as engaged in national, like presidential elections, as they were in local elections, either in the themselves getting involved running for, you know, local offices, or just showing up to town councils and things and getting more politically involved, that we might actually feel a lot more a like politically satisfied with our institutions more feel more like civically engaged not for the sake of just like, noble purposes, but but for actually seeing the benefits of it and being even recipients of, of Government and Public Service. It sounds like
Alison Bologna 29:18
even on a local level, right?
Dave Ursillo 29:20
It’s a lot more accessible than even though national news and presidential elections feel in a way more accessible to us and more relatable to it seems like a shared language where we all understand like who you are for who you are against where the teams are, like, what you’re in favor of what you’re not. It’s not to say that those issues in national matters don’t matter. But there is something significant oftentimes overlooked. It’s almost like being too close to it to see the value or importance of it. If you are maybe just not sexy enough, I’m not sure what it is.
Alison Bologna 29:55
I think I like to go into City Hall and know who my representative czar, I want to know what I’m paying for taxes. I want to know where public dollars are going. I want to know how public transportation, for example, in Rhode Island in particular, we’ve got a big train station being built now, how that will benefit our community and folks who need more access to services. I like to know what’s happening in my own city and town because it’s a domino effect, right. But it’s also a fairly large city. It’s the fourth largest city, I believe in the city in the state of Rhode Island. And a lot of what happens here, Tidewater landing is a huge story right now for a lot of different reasons. But I think you can’t complain about things if you’re not invested in showing up and putting some skill in them to and it all starts on a local level, everybody and everything has to start somewhere, right? But if you want to be of service, I always tell people instead of taking on like the big, big, big stuff, start on your street. That’s what I did.
Alison Bologna 30:52
I started literally walking distance from my apartment. I lived in the loft apartments behind city hall on Pawtucket, we opened street you know, just a couple of blocks away popped over the bridge over the river walked up the hill. And that’s where we started tree. So when I say I believe in being local, I really mean it. It’s important. Yeah, you do something on a local level, and it works. There are ways to scale it. And you’ve learned from your mistakes on a smaller level and your successes and you can build upon on a bigger level. And that’s that’s what we’ve been doing. We started on Broad Street. Then we moved to the armory, then we moved to hope artiste we kept outgrowing least spaces, which brought us right before the pandemic to investing in a 15,000 square foot historic blighted mill. Now urban revitalization was always the tagline for our mission. But you have to take the time and the skills before you can jump onto something like that. And now our mission, which we can talk about if you want is expanding even deeper into affordable housing.
Alison Bologna 31:55
So but local, locally, so important, and I believe that professionally at my job in the morning when I get there at 345 for the morning, local, local local what matters to the person in Pawtucket Cranston, Providence, Portsmouth. Block Island was big today. A lot of news about block islands recently, but my point is News You Can Use. And I appreciate that with Shri too. It’s, I’m showing up for you with skills you can use to socially, socially and emotionally feel good in your body and in your community. So they parallel one another.
Dave Ursillo 32:31
Yeah, yeah. So you mentioned this 15,000 square foot space, which is in an underutilized mill. And it’s a part of this urban revitalization initiative that I think is happening in conjunction with the city of Pawtucket. And as you mentioned, Pawtucket, like a lot of like a lot of cities like Central Falls even like think of like Worcester, Massachusetts, a lot of cities that were really heavily dependent on the textile industry and textile mills when they left the region. Many of these cities have never fully recovered economically from from that last. The, I understand that this construction that you’re building is something like $3.7 million project. So there’s a lot going on, I imagine costs have inflated with, you know, what’s going on. It’s turned out to be 3.7 million. And there’s a lot of help. I know it’s going into the project. What will this build out mean for Shri and for? For the community outreach and services that you provided to the community? Like what’s the what’s the vision? And what are you most excited about with this new space be
Alison Bologna 33:37
excited? Well, there’s, I wouldn’t rank anything necessarily, but the neighborhood revitalization piece is huge for us. This building is a gorgeous building on the Register of Historic Places. It’s been sitting there underutilized for many, many years. And it’s just so exciting to be bringing light, which is the definition of Sree back into the space, fires right after we purchased the building destroyed a million square feet right next door to us have historically significant bills, we were so fortunate that we were saved by that than the pandemic after it, then we had to fight inflation. But we are on the other side of all of that. So it’s neighborhood revitalization. It’s creating more accessible space for people who otherwise wouldn’t have it. We are 500 feet from a new commuter rail hub station, which will have affordable transportation options for folks. And we’re hoping to double the number of students served because we’ll have brand new beautiful space so we can physically fit twice as many people into our space.
Alison Bologna 34:36
We’ll also have a boardroom gender neutral bathrooms, so we’ll be able to offer wellness services as well. We’ll have a treatment center for Reiki massage which otherwise for many folks in the communities we serve, that wouldn’t be accessible either by skill or because of finances. So our nonprofit is expanding to be able to offer those services for free to some of our students in across our different outreach programs, and then our nonprofit would reimburse at reduced rates, those who we choose to offer those services in a sensitive and inclusive way. But also we’re expanding our mission, there’ll be across the hall from us to other nonprofits moving in. One of them will be an art studio run by the Ark of Blackstone Valley. So they’ve you’ve met some of the students from our adaptive yoga project, who are artists at the flying shuttles art studio, they’re going to be moving in across the hall from us. So interesting textiles. This building was a new administration building for the textile complex that was here.
Alison Bologna 35:35
And now we have three students who have been practicing with us since 2012, who across the hall from our studio wellness treatment center will be weaving, we’ll be weaving and painting, and they’ll have gallery space open to the public. And then as of right now, the Segway Charter School, which is a charter school, in Central Falls, serving kids K through eight, where we teach, we’ll be opening up their family engagement center, and they’ll be working with the food bank. So we’re expanding into commercial real estate in a social socially impactful way to create beautiful new space and an otherwise blighted building for other nonprofits. And then upstairs we are. So I hope solving a problem we’re trying to, which is we have a huge crisis when it comes to affordable housing. So our top floor will be a mixture of affordable housing units at a rate of 70%. And three market rate units too. So that we are kind of turning that model upside down where a lot of affordable housing work, which is great work tends to be kind of in silos and different sections of cities, or literally standalone buildings. And it’s like that’s the affordable housing building.
Alison Bologna 36:40
Our model has commercial space on the first floor, and we’re mixing market rate with affordable housing. And we’ll be looking to work with veterans to occupy those spaces, in addition to adults with intellectual developmental disabilities, who don’t need to be in a group home or quite frankly, don’t want to be in a group home and can’t live with mom and dad or brother and sister anymore, and want more of an urban experience and will do workforce development work on the first floor with those folks as well. So it’s an idea of preserving a building, bringing it back, opening up the neighborhood and then creating services outside of housing, but also wellness services, wraparound services, so that people are coming and going from this building, for the first time in a significant way and more than two or three decades.
Alison Bologna 37:24
That will be kind of the first ones to move in. There is other housing being developed around us. But um, we’ve had tremendous support from the state, the city and also private foundations as well, because inflation was supposed to be 3.7 million. Inflation, the cost of construction materials sent us $700,000 over budget, but instead of giving up, we asked for help. We explained our budgets or pro formas. I hired Pawtucket Central Falls Development Corporation to be the lead on this. So they have 40 plus years of proven experience doing these sorts of projects. We’re also investing paying them a developer’s fees, we’re investing into the nonprofit with this work. But this, we’re not alone in dealing with inflation. But instead of kind of throwing our hands up in the air and saying, Well, we tried bought, and selling the building, we’ve we’ve figured out ways to make it work with value engineering and going to the city and state and saying we want to keep moving forward.
Alison Bologna 38:17
This is good for the city, we believe you do too, because you introduce us to the building. So let’s make it work. And that’s a yoga thing to write. When you come up against an obstacle. It’s how do you respond to it? And we responded by taking a step back, reassessing bringing our skills to the table and quite frankly, asking for, for help and advice. This is the first time I’ve ever done it. So I’m very raw about now what tell me what you think weighing the options, and then coming to a decision on how to take Karma Yoga, skillful action, right.
Dave Ursillo 38:50
I think I mean, something that I’ve known about you, Alison, if you described yourself at the top of our interview as someone who like likes to get out and do things and like, let’s just start and let’s just do it, which I I’ve always appreciated about us, like specifically in our relationship that we’ve had professionally over the years, because I am so the opposite. I’m like, like, I’m like, let me take let me take five to 10 years to like, think about this journal on it. Like really? internally. They’ll live in a cave with it for a long time.
Alison Bologna 39:20
That’s not totally true. You started the refugee program after teacher training. We you brought me over to Dorcas.
Dave Ursillo 39:30
That’s right. Planned Parenthood for healthcare workers. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I know I might. Maybe I may be embellishing a little bit but that tends to be my habit. But what I’m also hearing you describe is not just like the go getter ness of it all but I want to say like knowing your limits, but there’s there’s a, you know, for people who are geared towards social change, making a difference, serving being a value like living with purpose a lot lot of the stuff that we talked about on the podcast that I’ve always been interested in and trying to do myself, there seems like there’s also just this inherent value of knowing your limitations as a single person. And like mentioning, asking for help. In listening, we talked about relationships and enlisting partners. Is that also a part of the the skill of being in a leadership position is just knowing when this isn’t your area of expertise, or just acknowledging that you can’t do it all on your own? So in that, maybe even trying with setback the work that you’re intending to do for others like to talk about that?
Alison Bologna 40:37
That’s the case. When I found out about 390, Pine Street, which is the mill purchasing, it wasn’t the challenge. I fell in love with the building. I knew it met our mission, it was aligned. But it was how do you take it to the next step. And I had never worked in the affordable housing arena. I mean, that’s a whole nother language, that type of fundraising, and environmental cleanup work. I mean, that’s just a whole nother level of what we were doing at Shri. And I didn’t want Shri to suffer the day to day operations of what we’re taking on this next strategic piece. So yeah, I took a step back and said, Who knows this better than me? Who is worth investing in? Who can develop our vision with skill with us in a way that’s meaningful, then we’re going to make mistakes along the way. But you know what, in general, we there haven’t been a lot. I’m so grateful. Like we’ve we’ve made it. I’ve been told some affordable housing projects takes takes a minimum of 10 years to develop, even with the pandemic. And inflation in the fire is that I mentioned next door, we hope to be open in January, which puts us around the five year mark, but I think it’s about picking the partners also Dave, who you feel comfortable with.
Alison Bologna 41:55
I had known Linda Reisinger at Pawtucket Central Falls Development Corporation on other projects and other work she had done, we covered some of her work and in our in our newscasts. I respected her as a person. And I just reached out to her and I said we’re probably going to purchase this building. This is the vision. What kind of team do you have? What would that look like? So between I’m just going to give them a shout out to Linda Weisner, Andrew Pearson, Kim Perea, construction administration, Executive Director duties, we worked together for two years on a purchase and sales agreement before we even got to the cleanup before we got to construction, which is today.
Alison Bologna 42:31
And I’m I’m not afraid to ask questions, even if they might be really basic questions for them, but not for me. And I have a relationship with them where they’re patient with me and they’re thoughtful, and they know that I do the work on the other end, too. That’s the thing about building relationship, it’s like you have to both put in the same amount of energy for work to respect one another. And I think they’ve learned some stuff from me when it comes to working with city officials and teachers. Every time we have a construction meeting. I’ve got three teachers coming in and out for tours, because some yarn was there yesterday who runs Veteran Affairs, he’s meeting all the team. So it’s a two way street. But I think it’s really important to to set boundaries to know what you’re good at what you need more skill with. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Shireen is not skipped a beat either. Because Shannon took over for operations during the pandemic was talking about phone calls. That takes time to have a thoughtful conversation. I can’t log into my account, I lost my email, you name it, I need an iPad. How do I get it? So Kristen, who runs our military project, we put her in a new role called our student advocate. And if I didn’t have time, because I was dealing with Pine Street to take a phone call phone calls emails, Kristen got right on the phone, and she walked people through click on this, this this and then you’ll see me on the screen. And I think that’s really important.
Alison Bologna 43:52
So we built out during COVID different layers of management where we identify different things that people wanted to do and could do. We found grants to support them in their time. And then we weren’t afraid to ask for help. And I said that all the way down to the superintendent on the construction site. And if we’re at the site, I really only go like a couple days a week, so I don’t drive everybody crazy. I have a question about like, Oh, that’s weird. Why is that title there? They told me I’m like, okay, that makes sense. Like, I’m only gonna compromise to the architects like what now I’m like, Well, I’m just wondering why that door staying. Here’s why. Because if the doors open, we don’t have a handicap ramp and somebody could get hurt. Got it. Okay. So I lean on people, Dave, I really do. I definitely lean on people who I respect and who I feel.
Dave Ursillo 44:39
Absolutely. It’s important stipulation. So before we wrap up, I just have a couple questions left. I want to talk a little bit more about funding and you’ve already been so generous with your time so thank you. But I wanted to ask you because I know that you have in 2014 with your partner you started an interesting venture venture that some might say was also like, either like financially risky or Just like out of your wheelhouse because you started a snack line called Shree bark. And this is something this is a snack that’s distributed all over the state. It also helps to fund your your yoga outreach programs, and it provides like a more healthy snack option and free and reduced breakfast programs throughout New England School. So it’s at this, it’s another like, something that seems simple that can be very complicated in production. And, and and creating, you know, creating a food item is I think, a lot more complicated than people realize. But it has this like multifaceted impact where you can buy it as a as a consumer at commercial stores. You could buy it from the Nook, coffee shop, and East Greenwich. So my friend Shannon Wiley runs, you know, as well, Alison, you can buy the whole foods and so forth. So did you have this vision in mind when you when you and your partner thought of like creating this, like granola bar snack? How did that kind of come about? I know, it’s probably a long story. But if you could give us a clip, about about how this builds into supporting these free programs, again, another example of how the hybrid like for profit, nonprofit side, complement each other.
Alison Bologna 46:08
Dave, my partner is a tremendous cook. And he thinks a little bit but our first fundraiser when we realized we needed to start our own nonprofit to some to fund some of these programs. He just whipped up some granola. That’s all he did. He just whipped up some granola in our kitchen. And he’s like, you know, everybody’s gonna have a snack. Let’s just bring this down there. So during the day, people can munch on something. So that was our fundraiser actually was in 2012 and 2011. We were kind of just playing around with it. And then in 2014, enough, people over the course of a couple of years kept asking, Where do I get this? I like it. It tastes good. We decided, well, maybe we’ll try something with it. Now back to Rhode Island and everything being close to one another. We were introduced through our neighbor, actually, we were on Broad Street, there’s a little restaurant on the corner. He introduced us to the this bakery around the corner that was a nut free women owned bakery, we brought them the recipe and say can you kind of take this to another level stay true to the recipe. But let’s do this in a commercial kitchen. And we hit it off with the Marie’s. So we just started trying different flavor profiles.
Alison Bologna 47:18
We started bringing it into schools through a grant with Blue Cross Blue Shield, and the Rhode Island healthy school coalition came to one of our yoga and smart snacking programs. So the mindfulness piece at the end of our class, we replaced it with a snack and talked about smart snacking, just paying attention to what’s on the label. If it says there’s a cranberry, where’s the cranberry, what is the cranberry tastes like and just kind of bringing kids back to a place of mindful eating, not about calorie counts or anything like that. But just paying attention to the things around you through a snack. The Rhode Island healthy school coalition in 2015 said, Gosh, why isn’t something like this in our free and reduced practice programs. So then we started bringing it into the free and reduced breakfast programs, we had to change the formula a little bit to meet USDA requirements, we went from a bar to around and a muffin. But Dave, it’s this showing up, we were teaching the class car and came saw the snack connected us with the bakery. And just one thing led into another. So we found a bakery to bake for us. Because Dave also has a full time job. He’s the chief photographer for Channel Five and boss. And that’s a whole nother story. But we’re both journalists doing these things on the side. So we recognize our limits, right? So we connected with a bakery, we were aligned, we figured out a workflow that work.
Alison Bologna 48:32
Dave now handles all the operations and we distribute through farm fresh Rhode Island, a nonprofit in Rhode Island. And we’re now in Vermont public schools, based upon our relationship with farm fresh to, during the pandemic that we did make some changes. We’re not in as many grocery stores as we used to be. And thinking about, there’s only so many hours in the day. And what does your mission look like? We just decided going direct to the consumer or to smaller businesses like Shannon at the nuk. And then direct to schools felt more consistent for us. And quite frankly, it was less time, more value. And then we were able to use that to help fund our nonprofit arm. So I’m very sensitive to things being really effective and efficient. And when I realized doing a ton of demos at Whole Foods wasn’t really paying off. It was a lot of time for you know, a couple of cases a month, we took a step back during COVID When we had a little, a little bit of time to strategize, and we decided, You know what, let’s spend more time in the schools. Let’s spend more time with the smaller coffee shops. And it’s been much more profitable, which has been much more meaningful to because then we’re able to fund our nonprofit at a higher level.
Alison Bologna 49:40
So what that means is on the nonprofit end, proceeds from tree bark, then there’s a line item in our budget. At the end of every year it donates a portion of its sales so that the grants that don’t come through necessarily Shree Mark sales fill it so we can keep funding programs that makes sense to our overall mission. So good He is in charge of free work. Just want to be clear about that. My partner Dave is brilliant at managing time. And he coordinates between the bakery and farm fresh.
Dave Ursillo 50:10
The last question I want to ask you, is probably the most important. It’s the most it’s the most journalistic question that I have out of the bunch. So here it goes. For the Will Ferrell fans out there, I really must ask you as a non TV news anchor Have you had any Ron Burgundy moments that you wish you could have back where you said something?
Alison Bologna 50:31
I’ve called a fire truck something other than a fire truck. And about 3 million YouTube views are human. Yes, we are human. So especially when I was working with Dan Janek, we had lots of moments like that. With Mario, it’s a little more subdued. But it’s all about how you react to these things, right? No matter who might be. Stuff happens.
Dave Ursillo 50:53
I can’t imagine how stressful it is to be on when you’re live on air all the time. Like I get nervous enough for recording things that I personally can edit things out of. So I give you a lot of credit. But with that Alison Alison Bologna is the founder and executive director of Shri Studio and Shri Service Corps, a social enterprise delivering free and accessible yoga classes to underrepresented communities throughout southern New England.
Dave Ursillo 51:16
You can join her in Studio, you can grab a Shri bark where they’re distributed, or you can catch her on an upcoming broadcast of NBC 10 News sunrise program soon if you’re in the area. Alison, thank you so much for joining us on The New Story Is and for talking about Shri and all the work that you’re doing. I really appreciate it.
Alison Bologna 51:33
Thank you, Dave. Thanks for having me.
Dave Ursillo 51:35
And thank you for listening to this episode of The New Story Is We hope you enjoyed what you heard today. We’ll be back soon with a new episode. In the meantime, share this episode with a friend or leave us a rating and review which goes a long way to helping other listeners find and enjoy our show. Until next time, I’m Dave Ursillo. This has been a new story is bye for now.