Reflections on Sea Changes

Thoughts on transformation
by Lauralee Alben

What’s at risk? | Part 3: In a new light


What is it about water that transforms risk into rewarding experiences?

At the Blue Mind Summit, Ben Thwaits showed astonishing photographs taken by the at-risk youth who participate in his innovative art and nature-based therapeutic programs at Northwest Passage. This quote by Joanna Macy came to mind: “A heart that breaks open can hold the universe.”

How is it, I wondered, that images of such breathtaking beauty are born from the broken hearts of troubled children? They come from backgrounds of unspeakable trauma, neglect, abuse, and poverty. They know the depths of despair in their struggles with clinical depression, emerging bipolar and schizophrenia, substance abuse, eating disorders, and attempted suicide. “These are kids whose lives have been defined by their pain,” Ben explained,

“So how do we achieve well-being? The truth of who we are is not either we’re sick or we’re well. We’re not either broken human beings or beautiful human beings. We are both broken and beautiful. So we need to put systematic and deliberate attention to both healing and bringing out the strength and beauty in each of us.”

As it turns out, this actually happens when the kids explore and photograph the beauty flowing through the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, immersing in its peaceful underwater paradise. There amidst the undulating grasses, freshwater sponges, painted turtles and blue gills, the compassion of water works its way into their souls and a transformative connection transpires.


“It makes me feel like I am in a different world… I feel real relaxed and spiritually with the world and my surroundings,” mused a child in an inspiring video Ben shared.

Another teenager, John remarked, “In the water it’s so quiet and I’m so free and happy there. Nobody hassles us in the water, and it’s as if we’ve got all the time in the world. Whether we stay in one place or we are swimming about, when we are in the water we can really be at one with the pulse of time. Outside of the water there’s always too much stimulation for our eyes and our ears, and it is impossible for us to guess how long one second is or how long an hour takes.”

“The kids capture more than beautiful documents of the species in the freshwater ecosystem; they capture the spirit of this underwater realm in a really meaningful way,” Ben shared.

As a nature photographer, biologist, and teacher, Ben collaborates well with his Co-Director, aquatic ecologist Toben LaFrancois. They call their empowering program New Light Under the Surface, alluding to the literal soft fields of sunlight filtering down to the river bottom, and to the metaphorical (and very real) illumination that dispels the darkness of these children’s lives.


Ben and Toben act with what I call “design consciousness”—a thriving state of being that engenders co-creative and vital connections between humanity, nature, spirit, and time. This is the consciousness  they’re cultivating in these young artists.

When this level of awareness is present, awe-inspiring accomplishments occur. Over a million people have been touched by In a New Light art exhibitions, worldwide media exposure, awards, and presentations. Ben said, “These kids have spent their lives marginalized, in the shadows, stigmatized, and kept at arms length. So to be embraced by the world and by society, is transformational in its own right.”

One of his students, Cody agrees: “This is the first time I’ve ever been recognized for something good.”

In Sea Change Design, we’ve termed this “the gyre effect.” Just like the majestic gyres that move water around the great ocean basins, intimate self-sustaining feedback loops can generate a flow of positive outcomes including and transcending beyond each precious life. When these ostracized children share their stories of hope and healing and belonging, their voices prove to us—and to themselves—that they are profoundly worthy of being respected and included. This is how pain transforms into paradise.

When we risk being in relationship with those most vulnerable, what surfaces is our own wholeness.


The Blue Mind Movement continues to swell due to this annual summit, a NYT bestselling book, compelling media coverage, and a myriad of opportunities designed by the Blue Mind team to reconnect us with water, like Blue Marbles and Billion Baby Turtles. Currently #100DaysOfBlue is underway in social media; this is our contribution.

Continue reading this 4-part blog post.

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