Sharon Prince Leads Vision for Grace Farms, a New Kind of Public Space

Community centers and libraries have historically been scattered throughout rural towns and big cities alike to provide meeting grounds for creation, dialogue, reflection, and positive community engagement across generations. They foster the spirit of togetherness, encourage learning, and provide a safe space for people to gather. Some come to seek activity, dialogue, and connectedness. For others, they are an escape from the bustling workplace, and a place to quietly surround oneself with nature. Though community centers come in varying design and structure, the functional mission statement of bringing people together in meaningful ways remains unwavering. Yet, a new kind of publicly available space has emerged, leveraging the power of space and community to advocate for, and contribute to pressing humanitarian issues, and the pursuit of justice.  It’s possible that this innovative way of bringing the ideas of community centers, town squares, and libraries forward can set a new model for the next generations to come.

One such place, Grace Farms, has thoroughly advanced the notion of the traditional community center or town square. By combining the already-present beauty of the nature that is part of Grace Farms’ protected land, and building a structure that blends seamlessly into the horizon, Grace Farms integrates art, nature, faith, community, and justice, into one award-winning space.

Open six days per week, and free to the general public, the 80-acre open environment of Grace Farms invites visitors to actively engage in various programs, hear from thought leaders, get close to nature, encounter new artworks, support justice work, and interact with and learn from people of diverse backgrounds to foster positive change for individuals, and the greater community alike. At the same time, Grace Farms also serves as a hub for private workshops, convenings, roundtables, and trainings, and is recognized for its commitment to excellence, and new outcomes. With the belief that “space communicates,” the River building, and Grace Farms, creates a physical space that brings people across generations, from various walks of life, together in person in a manner that is not often seen within today’s swiftly moving age of technology.  As a non-profit organization, Grace Farms Foundation serves as the entity responsible for the creation of Grace Farms.

Helmed by the accomplished Chair and President Sharon Prince, Grace Farms Foundation’s vision has been brought to life via Grace Farms. Prince’s galvanization of collaborative efforts between public and private sector groups has led to her success in garnering long lasting, irrefutable, and global change, spearheaded at Grace Farms. With a thoroughly introspective mission statement and many ways for people around the world to engage in the Foundation’s work of space, Grace Farms captures a unique take on the traditional concept of a “community center,” and will undoubtedly inspire similar spaces to develop across the world.

Located in the northeast corner of New Canaan, Connecticut, the 80-acres that compose Grace Farms constitute one of the largest open areas available to the public in Fairfield County. This expansive land was utilized for various agricultural purposes for many years, but almost became a residential subdivision. Grace Farms Foundation began in 2007 with a group of people committed to preserving this rare piece of land for generations to come, utilizing it as a platform for social change.

In 2010, Grace Farms Foundation commissioned the award-winning Tokyo-based Pritzker Prize winning architects, SANAA, to create the multi-purpose building that would act as the cornerstone for Grace Farms. With a vision to intertwine the structure within the beauty of its’ natural surroundings, Grace Farms Foundation desired the structure to add to the natural landscape, without overpowering the vistas of flora and fauna. For the partners at SANAA, this goal was in line with their creative visions as a studio. Thus, the two entities developed a unique architect-client relationship as they innovated and challenged existing norms to create the River building. With a desire for the River building to essentially become a part of the landscape, SANAA utilized large panes of glass that would allow individuals to see the beauty of the outside from within, supported by sleek steel structures. Wood was also integrated to convey a sense of welcoming and warmth to the range of people that would come to Grace Farms.

According to Sharon Prince, the Foundation’s intention is for visitors to “have a greater enjoyment of the beautiful environment and changing seasons through the spaces and experience created by the River building.” Prince’s belief that “space communicates” further articulated need for responsive, purposeful design, allowing natural conversation, introspection, and collaboration to yield uniquely unexpected results. The building’s unique shape, with cascading curves, was inspired by the natural elevations of the land, creating indoor and outdoor gathering spaces under one ribbon-like roof. When viewed from afar, the fluid design of the River building conveys the feeling of serenity, and is meant to be a catalyst to bring more grace and peace into a fractured world. Upon the opening of the building, it has been granted with various accolades, including the distinguished AIA National 2017 Architecture Honor Award and Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize (MCHAP) 2014-2015.

Spatially, the River building is comprised of five areas, called “volumes”, each serving a unique focus, yet maintaining design flexibility to accommodate a variety of programs. The volumes all share the sentiment of inviting nature inside by a 360-degree floor to ceiling glass façade. The River building’s Sanctuary is the largest in size, at almost twenty one thousand square feet. Serving as an indoor amphitheater, the modern structure was designed as an immersive modern space seating up to roughly seven hundred people, used for public and private gatherings, including lectures, workshops, and performances.

         The fully staffed handsome Library is a community resource that features books related to nature, arts, justice, and faith, and small tables and SANAA-designed leather chairs for work. There is also a glass-enclosed conference space and a warm fireplace perfect for communal readings. At over fourteen thousand square feet, the River building’s Commons serves as the general living room for communal activities. With the capacity to welcome up to three hundred people, the space invites conversation with communal tables (made from trees harvested at Grace Farms), various sofas, and tables. With freshly prepared food and beverages for sale, this space serves as a multi-purpose casual meeting space, and even houses a lecture hall for select programming within its’ lower level. According to Sharon Prince, each space serves as a hub “where collaboration is possible, and one insight can lead to another.” In this regard, the Commons volume provides the perfect ambiance for uninhibited brainstorming, collaboration, and human contact in the most inviting of atmospheres.

Acting as an informal entry space to the rest of the River building, the Pavilion is the smallest space, where guests can view the entire meandering building from their seat while enjoying seasonal pots of selected loose-leaf teas. A renovated barn has a 108-foot-long wall mural by the internationally renowned Brazilian artist, Beatriz Milhazes, and is home to an art studio, a rehearsal space and large hall, and a variety of meeting rooms for public and private programs. Finally, the Court, a seventeen thousand square foot area, is a subterranean multipurpose space for recreation and performance. At the Court, one can often find a pick-up game of basketball, and several structured activities, including mindfulness. Featured performers in the Court include Meredith Monk and Paul Taylor American Dance Company.

Various non-profit charities are granted access to specific areas of the River building and its grounds as a way for the Foundation to make consistent meaningful use of its spaces while helping to further the mission of other organizations. With the support of Grace Farms Foundation behind them, these organizations have the physical spaces needed for strategic meetings, professional programs, and trainings. Additionally, the non-profits are often encouraged to meet with each other and share professional insights to strengthen their overall work. More than 100 not-for-profits have been recipients of these grants of space. In an effort to break down silos across sectors, Grace Farms Foundation further inspires community members to work together for the common good of all. Additionally, the Foundation consistently brings together new and established partners to further its own program areas of nature, arts, justice, community, and faith, with the belief that systemic change is possible when forces work together for the greater good of mankind. Per Prince, “Grace Farms is an ideal place to bring individuals, corporations, governmental agencies, and not-for-profits together to initiate multifaceted action.” This macro-level leadership on Prince’s behalf allows the successful execution of collaborative efforts, resulting in unexpected results.

In addition to these partnerships and collaborations in those core areas, the Foundation brings thought leaders together through public programs that range from special opportunities to hear from survivors of human trafficking to media commentators reflecting on the state of religion in the media to nature walks. Participants range from local community members to international visitors. For Sharon Prince, the advancement of these philanthropic endeavors, and community activities, is proof of the positive local and greater community impact of the completed build out of Grace Farms.

Though Grace Farms exemplifies the best of humanity in various aspects and does not focus on only one means of humanitarian work, the mission statement of Grace Farms is clearly defined by its “Initiatives”. Surrounded by ten habitats and more than 900 trees, nature programming at Grace Farms often involves exploring, preserving, and restoring the proverbial backyard. Through various guided tours provided by local wildlife experts and nature groups, Grace Farms offers inspiring birdwatching expeditions, astronomy lessons, and multi-generational walks. In addition to these nature inspired learning events, the Foundation combines the professional expertise of its team in conservation and law enforcement to dismantle illegal wildlife organized crime syndicates around the world.

The thought-provoking art programming at Grace Farms offers the public an opportunity to garner a newfound viewpoint, perspective, and understanding of the world. In tandem with the programming, artists and practitioners reflect upon introspective inquests, and through their respective works, physically express their answers to themed questions like, “what is joy?.” For families, Grace Farms offers a high-level open art studio every Saturday, where the same topics posed to the artists are reframed for children to explore through artful expression.

Leading by example, Grace Farms makes ecologically responsible decisions to increase self-sufficiency and utilize natural materials to their fullest potential. For example, fifty-five wells were installed before the building opened, providing naturally efficient heating and cooling methods. Other initial sustainability efforts include the on-site milling and kiln-drying of trees, which were utilized throughout construction and outfitting of the River building. Impressively, the River Building itself is LEED certified, further exemplifying Grace Farms Foundation’s commitment to employ environmentally sustainable building practices. Currently, the Foundation is enacting various methods in order to remain stewards of green environmental processes throughout daily operations, and to obtain the LEED Gold Certification. For example, in order to increase energy efficiency, the Foundation has reduced the intensity of brightness and wattage of lightbulbs where appropriate at certain times of day. This practice, along with other thoughtful changes, have allowed Grace Farms to reduce their electrical consumption by roughly 30%, an impressive feat.

Sharon Prince considers the Foundation’s Justice Initiative and commitment to disrupt contemporary slavery as her stake in the ground for decades to come. She advocates for the importance of taking responsibility across all sectors—private, public, and government– for ensuring freedom for all. A team of highly sought-after in-house experts with a unique combination of professional legal experience, including law enforcement, creates innovative new solutions to disrupt this crime through policy writing, training, coalition-building, partnership-building, and advocacy. Through private workshops for leading experts, public panels, and resources through the Library, Grace Farms is a hub for bringing people together on a local, national, and global scale to address the issue.

As a direct result of collaborative efforts led by Grace Farms Foundation, definitive change has been forged within the realms of advocacy, law making, and education. Human trafficking and modern slavery, have been areas of focus that need swift resolve and immediate action in order to change the lives of affected individuals, and diminish the existence of these atrocities. “Developing comprehensive strategies and partnerships that disrupt and combat human trafficking and gender-based violence are critical to our mission,” affirmed Sharon Prince. In 2016, Grace Farms Foundation partnered with the United Nations University, the Permanent Mission of the Principality of Liechtenstein to the United Nations, and Thomson Reuters Foundation to host a communication session focused primarily on setting new policy to stop human trafficking in global conflict areas. This direct initiative led to the proposal of 10 specific recommendations, which were then published in a UNU workshop report. It also led to the formation of a new charitable entity, Unchain, which aims to launch a new anti-trafficking movement. On a state level, the direct efforts of the Foundation’s expertise and partnership led to Connecticut’s newly established Public Act No. 16-71, which equips employees at hotels, motels, and inns across the state to identify and report signs of human trafficking.

Of course, none of these Initiatives could be accomplished independently, without the bolstered spirit of a community committed to engaging with the Foundation’s work and supporting its commitment to new outcomes that bring positive change. At Grace Farms, the importance of a cohesive, supporting, and open community is seen throughout the thoughtful design of the River Building, within meetings, during discussions, and during Community Dinners. On the third Friday of every month, people across neighboring communities are encouraged to attend the “family style” dinners, taking place in the Commons. Centered around hospitality, these dinners encourage conversation, sharing, and exhibit the best in humanity.

With guided public and private tours of the premises and a focus on hospitality, Grace Farms extends a warm welcome to anyone wishing to visit the expansive premises. Grace Farms was intentionally established with free admission for all visitors, as a means of remaining wholly inclusive for individuals from all communities. As Grace Farms remains open throughout the entire year, each season offers unique programming, visual beauty, and natural wonders to be experienced by guests.

As President of the Grace Farms Foundation, Sharon Prince exemplifies the Initiatives that make up Grace Farms

Sharon Prince

Foundation, and tirelessly leads by example on both a personal level and as a visionary for large scale change. She continues to act for the betterment of her community, Grace Farms, various philanthropic partners, and the hundreds of thousands of lives that are touched by programming at Grace Farms. Winner of various awards and recipient of many recognitions, Prince’s portfolio of accomplishments is seemingly endless.  In 2017, she received NOMI Network’s Abolitionist Award, as well as the Auburn Seminary’s Lives of Commitment Award.

Centered around the community it serves in, Grace Farms is truly an all-encompassing space, filled with wonder, education, dialogue, acceptance, and forward thinking. Much like traditional community centers, it aims to collectively bring people together to enjoy an activity, learn a skill, listen to one another, voice their opinion, and create. However, unlike many community centers of the past, it does so in a way that is also full of style, grace, and real change. It serves a backbone for thousands and encourages exploration in all areas of existence, a feat that is difficult to accomplish on such a large scale.

For Sharon Prince and the team at Grace Farms Foundation, the mission statement has been fulfilled, and continues to be fulfilled daily.

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