Nina Simons

Posted on in People in Your Neighborhood by Rob Sidon

Bioneers Cofounder Aims to Help Repair Our Relationship to Nature by Reclaiming Balance for the Female Principle


Nina Simons is a social entrepreneur, activist, and speaker who along with husband Kenny Ausubel founded the popular Bioneers Conference, which attracts speakers and attendees from all over the world to the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael every mid-October. Over the past 15 years, she has focused on leadership from the heart and the emergent feminine. She is the editor of the book Moonrise: The Power of Women Leading from the Heart, featuring essays that model new forms of leadership from the inside out. Equal parts environmentalist, feminist, and ritualist, Nina cofacilitates Cultivating Women’s Leadership intensives in an integral fashion. Previously in the for-profit sector, she was strategic marketing director for Odwalla and president of Seeds of Change. Bioneers maintains its headquarters in San Francisco’s Presidio.

Common Ground: With your husband, Kenny Ausubel, you cofounded the Bioneers conference 26 years ago. How would you describe the conference to those who are unfamiliar?

Nina Simons: Kenny coined the term Bioneers to describe biological pioneers—people who’ve learned from nature how to heal our human relationships and our relationships with the natural world. The name sounds more science-y or academic than it really is. It’s a conference that is still unlike any other.

How so?

It’s not just another gathering of smart talking heads. I believe Bioneers fires on all seven chakras. What I love about Bioneers is that it collectively surfaces a future vision that we don’t typically see. It is a vision for the world that is possible today but one most people are unaware of. We gather together a larger, transformative, diverse, regenerative community. Our recognition that all of human activity is operating within the context of the natural world is rather unique. Our view is that we’re in the midst of a giant reinvention of civilization, and this is about learning how to operate within nature’s laws. Our exploration is about living in concert and harmony with nature rather than dominating it, or her.

Bioneers has a significant women’s component to it that began with Unreasonable Women for the Earth.

Unreasonable Women for the Earth was my first gathering of women leading change, intended to look at how we as women can help affect the course of our social pathway. What grew out of that was the formation of CodePink: Women for Peace. Since then, we’ve convened many more women’s gatherings, notably Cultivating Women’s Leadership Intensives asking the same question: “How can we collaboratively strengthen ourselves to shift our culture toward one that is life-enhancing and regenerative?” These were inspired by what I learned about the Burning Times.

What are the Burning Times?

The Burning Times refers to a 300-year period in European history between around 1400 and 1700, when a vast number of women were systematically hunted, persecuted, tortured, and burned for the supposed crime of being witches. It was a profound revelation to me to learn about this, and we started calling it the “Hidden Holocaust of Women.” I believe it’s a legacy that we live with, unconsciously, to this day. Several years into Bioneers, I began to see that our most difficult challenges, whether ecological, social, cultural, or spiritual, could be seen Nina Simons Bioneers Cofounder Aims to Help Repair Our Relationship to Nature by Reclaiming Balance for the Female Principle BY ROB SIDON as a reflection of the imbalance between the masculine and the feminine archetypes in our world.

Can you describe how rebalancing the feminine might change our world?

Fritjof Capra speaks of our need to shift to an eco-literate culture. He describes how our values need to shift from prioritizing counting things to mapping relationships. For me, that describes a shift from a focus on the [linear, cumulative] masculine to the feminine principles of relationship, interrelatedness, mutuality, context, and mutual respect. In the late ’90s I began programming within Bioneers to look at that question of “how do we lift up the feminine in our culture?” In order to help midwife the world we want, my highest goal is to encourage and inspire and strengthen the leadership of women, both through skill building and storytelling and through connecting great women to each other. By revaluing the feminine archetype, I believe we have the best shot at healing our relationship to the natural world.

Bioneers has attracted the cream of women leader-writers.

It’s true. I call them the She-roes from across a wide range of disciplines. Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Eve Ensler, Jane Goodall, Vandana Shiva, Terry Tempest Williams, Winona LaDuke, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Marianne Williamson, Julia Butterfly Hill, Anna and Frances Moore Lappé, Joanna Macy, Charlotte Brody, Naomi Klein, Lynne Twist, Medea Benjamin, and Jodie Evans, just to name a few. I am surely forgetting some. I love that we’ve also been able to identify rising stars before they are widely known and appreciated.

You edited Moonrise: The Power of Women Leading from the Heart. What is it about?

I consider that book an homage to my teachers. When I began being acknowledged for my own leadership, I had conflicting responses. A large part of me wanted to deflect and say, “No, I don’t deserve this. I don’t want this title. I have not earned it.” I decided to explore my own relationship to leadership by reading hundreds of transcripts of leaders whose work had deeply inspired me to see my own possibilities. What I discovered was that women and some men are in a process of reinventing leadership—from the inside out. Our inherited definition of leadership is often of somebody who leads either by dint of their title or seniority, or as a result of their accumulated graduate degrees, or because of their charisma and skill to dominate. I discovered that the most inspiring leaders lead as a result of what they love and a kind of selfless devotion and relational integrity that is deeply spiritually informed.

They have all spoken at Bioneers?

Yes, along with the women we already listed, we’ve had Sarah Crowell, Judy Wicks, Diane Wilson, La Donna Redmond, Belvie Rooks, Latifah Simon, Kathy LeMay, Janine Benyus, Lily Yeh, Rachel Naomi Remen, Rha Goddess, and Sofia Quintero, to name a few. And Jensine Larsen, who is speaking this year. An extraordinary array of women.

What comes first, your environmental work or your work on behalf of women?

They are inseparable to me, not either/or. It’s no accident that women are biologically and culturally and archetypically deeply related to the natural world. I feel my life’s work points toward a completely inclusive movement that is led by women on behalf of the sacredness of life itself and of the entire web of life. For me, nature is a source of strength and learning and sustenance for all people but especially for women. You’re not saying it overtly, but you appear to bring a spiritual component to the conference. Absolutely. We’re about innovation inspired by nature, and we program the conference with an awareness that as human beings, we operate on the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual planes. We raise the questions: “What parts of our consciousness do we need to grow to meet this time?” and “Which of our internal biases or habits might we shed to bring ourselves fully to this moment?” I think that is really a key turning point in the evolution of our species. Much of our spiritual approach is informed by indigenous cultures; we have an indigenous forum at the heart of the conference. We open and close each day with ceremony.

Can you speak about your own spiritual path?

I grew up in New York City; my family was largely agnostic, assimilating Jews. We didn’t have a religious practice per se, but I was raised with a strong sense of justice. I remember our parents bringing us to civil rights and peace marches. I discovered my own sense of spirituality in my 20s when I studied for about five years with a consciousness school called Arica, founded by a Bolivian mystic named Oscar Ichazo. Since then, I have gone on to studying with a number of mentors, many who have been indigenous women elders. I am always learning, practicing, and scanning for new teachers.

You had a corporate background, with a big role in Odwalla’s expansion. Was there a switch when you came to this nonprofit work?

Before Odwalla I started as a social entrepreneur and was president of a company called Seeds of Change. That was my entrée to the business world. Kenny and I started Bioneers in our spare time. When Seeds of Change changed hands, I was hired by Odwalla to help them expand across the country. I wouldn’t say there was a switch. There is great value in both the business and nonprofit worlds; each has much to inform the other. Each has flaws that actually require reinvention and crosspollination to help improve their efficacy and humanness—the relational intelligence within their systems, if you will.

You and Kenny have a unique, sweet relationship. What’s the secret sauce, and isn’t it tricky to both live and work together?

[Laughs] No secret sauce. I think we are tremendously blessed, having aligned visions as well as a great capacity to play and laugh. To be honest, our physical attraction to each other is a tremendous gift. We spark each other’s creativity in life. Our working together is also the hardest thing I can imagine. Many look at us admiringly, saying that we represent the romantic ideal of having a life-work partner, but I caution them and say, “Be careful what you wish for” because it is actually the most challenging ongoing spiritual work I think that exists in the human experience. It’s not for everyone. We have reinvented and reassessed our marriage many times.

What is the Kenny component to Bioneers, and what is the Nina component?

He has a remarkable mind, with a capacity to see around corners and identify leading-edge innovation and strategy and even policy well before most folks are aware of them. We created Bioneers without ever having gone to another conference. So we brought a beautiful beginner’s mind. My background in theater production helped create something that wasn’t like any other conference. The Nina component, if I had to name it, would be the feminine aspect of relational intelligence.

For a long time I thought Kenny was the political one, and I was not. As my own sense of purpose evolves, what I have learned is I am deeply political, just in a different way. Kenny gets very vector-like in the way that he focuses in on key strategies and solutions, while I am exceedingly aware of the inner and outer contexts in which we all operate. Not to be presumptuous, but we have a unique combination of the archetypically masculine and feminine perspectives, and this helps make the conference so holistic.

The chalice and the sword, so to speak?

[Laughs] Yes, yes, perhaps.

Speaking of politics and female leadership, Hillary Clinton is in contention to become the first female US president, yet many in our so-called conscious community are displeased because she is tied to the political machine and to some unsavory corporate interests such as GMOs. What is your feeling about candidate Hillary?

This is complex. I have tremendous compassion for the way that she is being attacked, not only from the Right but from our own, as you said, conscious community. As the first seriously equipped woman to run for president, that sets her up as a target in a way that no other candidate would be. I have my own doubts and concerns about her corporate ties, but on balance, I think she would do a tremendous amount of good, especially in her commitment to women, justice, and children.

We are living in a time when all professional politicians are themselves suspect. This is a time when all of us are so fed up with the brokenness of the political system and the in authenticity of the canned messaging. People are hungering to see the real Hillary. The skills that she has had to develop in order to succeed as first lady and secretary of state are the very skillsets that now get in her way. She’s developed a tough skin and had to become very polished, decisive, and forceful in her communication.

Masculine skillsets?

Absolutely. She is operating in a masculinized world where women’s qualities tend to be a deficit. She has had to adopt a masculine persona. I understand it, so I have a lot of compassion for that. I have always voted for the person I thought would do the least harm and the most good. As I see it, any president who steps into the role lands into a system that is designed to defeat them. We need an overhaul of our whole system.

Last year you hosted Eve Ensler, whom I interviewed. I was bowled over to learn about the extent of sexual abuse and rape that occurs all over the world. Can you speak about that?

Over the course of our Cultivating Women Leadership Intensives, I have had a very upclose and personal experience with many who have been raped or suffered sexual or domestic abuse. At first I was a little frightened, thinking, Wow, this is a lot of wounding for this community of women leaders to be carrying. Like Eve, the more I’ve gotten to know individual women who have suffered, the more I have come to understand that this movement is likely to be led by women who have suffered the most harm. There is something extraordinarily resilient about women’s bodies, psyches, hearts, and spirits. That kind of violation can result in creating a quality of will to help make sure that other women don’t experience that same hardship.

Although I have not have experienced sexual abuse, my own experiences of gender bias and unconscious verbal abuse have caused me to become fiercely determined that other women don’t experience that—because it is all violence. It all contributes to how we women tend to internalize these things and keep ourselves small. We’re called now to be big and strong and clear.

Isn’t there a tendency to become “antimen” after being so involved in women’s work? That’s a perception that came out of the first wave of feminism in ’70s.

Great question. Partly perhaps because of my age, I was not personally involved with the first wave of the feminist movement, but I remember feeling that while I was grateful for their work, I didn’t want to be like them. I perceived those early feminists as fundamentally angry. My identity as a woman came later in life, in my 40s. Now I feel strongly about not bashing men. I adore men and feel that the masculine and feminine are needed complements to create holism. I feel that the kind of polarization we’ve inherited is one of the endemic diseases of our culture. As Angeles Arrien famously declared, “We are moving from an either/or time to a both/and time.” I find that every time I notice myself investing in either/or, I need to shift my perspective to be large enough to encompass both/and.

What makes you happy? What ticks you off?

I am enjoying seeing how motherhood is being reclaimed as the supreme act of leadership that it is. I believe that women are claiming their voices and their authority and their agency and their leadership in every domain of life. I love seeing women transcend their own sense of limitation. Recently, I worked with a woman who was a veteran decorated Navy officer. She was so bright and so open and had such a heart for service that her transformation as she began to see a divergent form of leadership (as represented by women) varied extremely from the masculinized forms she had been taught in the military.

What upsets you?

The human tendency to unconsciously continue cultural norms that no longer serve us. Like the way that the environmental movement has focused on a message of despair and urgency without conveying adequately how much each person can do. Or the way that the environmental movement has tended to perpetuate itself as a white middle-class movement without embracing the systemic interconnected nature of justice and environment. Of course, it’s painful to witness just how much loss and death and destruction happens in the world today. I remind myself that it is important to keep feeling and staying responsive because I believe that grief and despair is at the other end of the same pole that joy lives on. And so does celebration.

Bioneers moved its headquarters from New Mexico to the Presidio in San Francisco. What do you appreciate most about the Bay Area?

I love so much about the Bay Area, but notably the way that food justice and permaculture and food systems and awareness have flourished here. I love the Bay Area’s capacity to adopt and implement social and ecological innovation on a large scale.

Do you have a parting message to our Common Ground readership, which is by and large in alignment with what you and Kenny represent at Bioneers?

That knowing and acting are not the same thing. If you know about what is happening to our world, I would encourage you to engage with it in whatever way you feel moved. Act through your community, through your children in the way you raise them. Get involved in whatever small way you can, including your recycling or gardening efforts. Gather with people of politically diverse views and find common ground. Many us who are concerned experience a specific kind of isolation because we feel we may not have a community of peers where we can talk, but there are larger communities. Of course I’d like to suggest Bioneers, but the point is that gathering in community and experiencing the interconnectedness of our shared concerns and values offers badly needed spiritual medicine.

Rob Sidon is publisher and editor in chief of Common Ground.

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