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Getting through the Bullshit: An Interview with Allison Parks

by Anna Ingraham

When I was asked to interview Allison Parks, an Art from Ashes donor, I didn’t realize that I had already met Allison. I volunteered at the Art from Ashes annual Celebration of Light in December, where I had the honor of witnessing not only the incredible performances by youth, but also a large, surprise donation from a lovely woman and her real estate company. I was standing in the back as Allison gave Catherine her generous gift, but even from my corner, I felt that the magic wasn’t only coming from the warm lighting.

Of course, Catherine brought Allison to the microphone to say a few words, and I remember the passion in her voice for supporting the work that Art from Ashes does to empower youth. I also remember the joy and love on Catherine’s face as she listened, and the general feeling of goodwill that permeated the room. It was indeed a Celebration of Light.

Allison Parks owns a real estate brokerage called Conscious Real Estate. They run on a donation model, which means that when anyone buys or sells a home, her company donates ten percent of the commission to a nonprofit of their client’s choice. Sometimes the clients don’t know which nonprofit to choose, so they leave it up to Allison. While talking with Allison on the phone, I was lucky enough to learn more about why someone who could donate to any of the various nonprofits in Denver feels so strongly about supporting Art from Ashes.

Featured donor, Allison Parks, with AfA Executive Director Catherine O’Neill Thorn

Allison met Catherine three or four years ago when she was taking time to go around Denver meeting nonprofit directors to tell them about her company. She had an evening appointment with Catherine, and she laughingly told me that she wasn’t looking forward to another meeting after a long day of work. She didn’t know what she was walking into, for as soon as she arrived at the Art from Ashes space, Catherine invited her to join a poetry workshop full of teenagers already in session. She remembers thinking, who are these kids? But as she began to participate, Allison was blown away by what the teens wrote and were willing to share. Being in the workshop had a huge impact on Allison, causing her to immediately fall in love with Art from Ashes and with Catherine. Since then, she’s enjoyed making surprise donations whenever she’s able, including this past December.

Allison joined the board for Art from Ashes, but soon decided she could have a bigger impact on the organization by donating through her real estate business. When I asked why she continues to donate and support AfA, Allison said, “Catherine got me. There are so many good nonprofits, but she just got me somehow.”

She spoke about how many organizations she’s visited to discuss donating, and how she appreciates “the authenticity of not having to sit around and read somebody’s stupid report that’s written on card-stock.” She continued by saying, “I don’t care what’s on the paper. Give me a story of what happened in someone’s life. It’s partly Catherine and partly just the kids. It hit me again during the Christmas party. I’m so damn proud of those young people. What they do is just mind-blowing, and Art from Ashes gives them the vehicle to do that. I have friends who participated in AfA when they were teens, and it was huge in their lives. It was a turning point for them.”

About her own experiences as a teenager, Allison told me that she grew up in rural Illinois, where there were not many resources or programs available for exploring writing. She wrote a little, but didn’t have the venue to explore her voice like the AfA participants. She talked about her experience in one of the six-week adult writing workshops AfA offers. She easily remembered one of the first exercises they were asked to do in the program, where they were instructed to write a three-minute poem from the prompt “Love is.” When the participants read their poems out loud, they were told to change it to “I am.” Allison said, “So many people start crying when they read those words and acknowledged that they are those beautiful things. To be able to stop and witness that for a minute brings on tears for everybody. It’s a good message of reconnecting with our core essence and remembering who we are.” She added to this idea of cutting through the surface to get to our inner core, calling it, “getting through the bullshit.”

It seemed that the biggest take-away Allison got from the adult workshop was the importance of self-love, a message that also comes through in the workshops that AfA offers to struggling youth. Allison said, “Our culture does not teach self-love. So much of consumerism is based on getting us not to love ourselves as we are. It’s important to start taking those steps toward loving yourself and realizing who you really are, that you are enough, and that you belong here. Sharing the poetry and the work you do is about embodying that voice, solidifying that self-love. Having other people be your mirror helps the roots grow.” Her final comment about the adult workshop was that “it makes you absolutely realize that this model and curriculum is pretty potent.”

When I asked Allison how she sees herself continuing to work with Art from Ashes, she said that she sometimes fantasizes about facilitating youth workshops. For now though, she’s making time to care for herself and is thinking about taking up singing and dancing. She said, “I have a feeling that once I dive in, I might find something there. Sometimes when we indulge in that creativity, it helps uncover something,” a statement with which, I feel, all of us at Art from Ashes would agree.

Allison’s sense of humor and depth of thought came across loud and clear. She will continue to donate to AfA and I could tell even from our brief conversation how much she cares about giving youth the space and resources to express themselves and connect with their creative genius. Art from Ashes is honored to have the support of such a creative, honest, and generous woman. It’s individuals like Allison and moments like the holiday party that keep our spirits strong and fuel us to continue bringing empowering workshops to the youth we serve.