How a Colorado Herbalist is Growing Philanthropy

Emery Golson, 31, is an herbalist and philanthropist in Boulder, Colorado, who is passionate about growing her own food.

Emery Golson has loved to grow things ever since she was a young girl helping her mom in the family garden. “I think that experience really connected me with the earth,” she says.

Now everything that the 31-year-old philanthropist, herbalist, wife, and mother of two has a hand in seems to blossom.

Including the First Nations’ projects she has helped seed through two of her philanthropic organizations: The Sunderland Foundation and the Tumbleweed Fund.

The Sunderland Foundation, a Kansas City-based organization started by Emery’s family in 1945, has donated $1.5 million over three years to First Nations’ Investing in Native Youth program. The Tumbleweed Fund, founded five years ago by Emery and her husband, Miles, supports Colorado nonprofit organizations and has gifted $25,000 toward the Nourishing Native Foods & Health program.

“Health and wellness have always been important aspects of my life. I believe it should be a human right to have access to good-quality food and medicine,” says Emery about why they chose to support this fund. “My husband and I enjoy growing our own food and have a desire to see Natives having access to land again and learning how to grow their own food and medicine like they once did. Our American culture came in and stole that from them.”

Emery and her husband, Miles, with daughter, Muna, 2.5, and son, Arlo, 5.

Emery and Miles live in Boulder, Colorado, with their two children, Arlo, 5, and Muna, 2.5 years old, in a renovated home that originally was a small schoolhouse from the late 1800s. They are homesteaders. “Unlike farmers, we do not make a living off of what we grow, and we don’t grow just one crop,” Emery explains the difference.

The family eats very healthily from a bounty of food grown on their own land. Apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, currants, squash, tomatoes, eggplants, pumpkins, and “tons” of greens are some of what they harvest. Emery says that whatever they don’t eat or give away to family and friends they donate to worthy causes. “Last year, we donated about 200 pounds of food to local food banks and shelters.”

This avid gardener with a deep reverence for the earth also grows a variety of medicinal herbs. “I just love herbs. I use them all the time with the kids and teach them as I am growing them.”

Emery believes that teaching her children, Arlo and Muna, to respect the land raises “gentler humans who care about the world.”

For young Arlo and Muna, Mother Earth has become their classroom. Like Emery did with her mom in the garden long ago, the kids help their mom pick peppermint, lemon balm, chamomile, holy basil, borage, marshmallow, and other aromatic and healing herbs regularly. “Then we come inside to make tea.” It’s the big payoff, Emery says.

Education is important to the young philanthropist, and another reason why she supports First Nations. “I care deeply about my children learning what they can and cannot use on the land,” says Emery. She reads books about herbs to her son so that he can better identify them in their garden. “So many people in our world don’t know about all the beautiful, wild foods and medicines out there that nature provides that can feed them and keep them healthy.”

One important lesson she has taught her children that could be considered “sage” advice, coming from an herbalist, is: “Don’t pick the flowers when you see them because they are the first flowers that come up in the spring and the bees need them.”

Her journey down nature’s path

After studying anthropology at the University of Kansas for a year, Emery left college to return home to care for a sick family member. “I hated everything about college, anyway. Institutional learning just wasn’t my path.”

Miles and the kids walk their land to check up on how everything is growing.

Helping her family member recover from an illness sparked her interest in healthcare. Then it all came together one day when she walked into an apothecary in Ft. Collins, Colorado. A light went on. “Oh, my gosh, this is it! This feels so right at home for me,” she recalls her epiphany about wanting to study herbal medicine.

She took her first herbal class at the Equinox Center of Herbal Studies, her introduction into Native culture. “I learned that so much of what is taught today in Western herbalism was passed down through Native culture. That’s why we even have this information in the first place.”

Emery went on to earn certificates from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and the Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism.

“My original connection with being in the garden with my mom and then going to herb school brought it full circle. I knew immediately I didn’t want to be the kind of herbalist that took patients. Instead, I wanted to be the kind of herbalist who grew the plants.”

Philanthropy is in her roots

Emery was born into the philanthropic Sunderland family. The Sunderland Foundation began in 1945 and funds construction-based grants. When she turned 21, the fourth-generation philanthropist was invited to sit on the family’s board, along with her two brothers. As part of their self-educating journey into philanthropy, the siblings read “Decolonizing Wealth,” by Edgar Villanueva. “That book changed everything in philanthropy for me,” she says.

Villanueva, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, writes that large philanthropic organizations need to be more inclusive. This book motivated Emery and her brothers to start a new fund, the Hadley Project, with a $6 million endowment from the Sunderland Foundation. It provides unrestricted multiyear funding for grassroots BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) organizations in Kansas City. “We are trying to be the best philanthropists we can be,” asserts Emery.

Emery and Miles co-founded the Tumbleweed Fund in 2017 to build trust-based philanthropy in Colorado.

The Sunderland Foundation also encouraged its board members and trustees to get involved philanthropically in their own communities. To that end, Emery and her husband launched the Tumbleweed Fund in 2017 to build trust-based philanthropy in Colorado.

She explains their bedrock philosophy: “Philanthropy needs more trust. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to give money to an organization and tell them exactly what to do with that money. They are the experts, not us.” Emery says that she and Miles “trust communities to know what is best for themselves and then they will wholeheartedly support that work.”

And First Nations is grateful to the Tumbleweed Foundation for putting its trust in us. Emery says what she like most about First Nations is that the board is comprised of Natives. “The people closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”

The couple is also impressed that First Nations works within its own communities since a trust-based philanthropy involves relationship-building. “A lot of funds just write checks. But you can tell that First Nations is taking the time and making the effort to meet these people and organizations that they support and really listen to them. We need more funders out there doing that.”

Planting seeds for the future

In its five years of operation, the Tumbleweed Fund has spread its seed money to support more than 20 nonprofit organizations in the areas of sustainable farming and food, social issues, motherhood and children, and environment and conservation.

Two Denver-based groups that Emery and Miles are especially passionate about are the GrowHaus and Sprout City Farms. The GrowHaus is a community-driven organization that grows and donates food and delivers free produce to low-income households. “And Sprout City Farms is engaging in some cool, innovative farming practices where they grow food under solar panels. It is fascinating,” says Emery.

The young philanthropist is also stepping out on her own to start a “women’s giving circle.” She plans to bring like-minded women together to support worthy causes in the local community. “I’ve worked with a lot of men in philanthropy, and this will be my first time working with just women.”

Emery says that women in Boulder are passionate about many current issues and are looking for ways to help. “I hear from them all the time, ‘What can I do? How can I better society right now?” She believes this women’s giving circle is evolving at just the right time. “I say, let’s step up, pull resources together and figure out how we can make a difference.”