Staff Spotlight: Topher Stephens

Core Facilitator


Born and raised in the rural Appalachian Mountains, Topher has been nourished and shaped by the more-than-human world for his entire life. Bringing his passion for social and ecological justice to all he does, Topher is proud to be stewarding the next generation of diverse and inspiring leaders into the whole-hearted and regenerative work that the world so deeply needs.

What is your favorite travel memory?

I have traveled to over 20 different countries and had incredible and eye-opening experiences in each one, but my favorite travel memory happened on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests of 2016.

Never before had I witnessed such a massive outpouring of solidarity and spirit from such an incredibly rich and culturally diverse community. I was incredibly humbled to be welcomed so wholeheartedly into something so important and powerful. That experience opened my eyes to the historical and ongoing legacy of colonization and also invigorated me and gave me hope that real change is possible in my lifetime.

How have you changed/grown since working for your current company?

When I first arrived here at the Eco-Institute, I eagerly began planning all the lessons that I could offer to the participants during their Permaculture Immersion. However, as soon as the participants arrived, it was clear that this would be no ordinary “top-down” learning environment.

Over the first few weeks of the program, I had my eyes and heart opened by so many inspiring young change-makers and the unique gifts and perspectives they each brought. Over the course of my time here, I have come to realize that my role as a facilitator is not to "impart my knowledge", but rather to nurture the emergent and synergistic sharing of ideas, wisdom, and gifts that are alive in each of us. I have come to understand that these responsive and dynamic crucibles of community-sharing that the most powerful alchemical processes of social and ecological change are born.

What is the best story you've heard from a return student?

From permaculture architects to vegan chefs, to socially engaged artists, to full-time political activists and community organizers, each student that comes through our program seems to find a beautiful niche in which to share their gifts and experience with the world. But for me, the greatest affirmation that I ‘ve heard from a student was from a student named Audrey who told me that she had never experienced such a sense of belonging and support in a community as she had at the Eco-Institute.

Our program here is more than a stepping stone along an academic or professional career path - it is a radical exploration of what it means to show up in wholeness and authenticity and to have that wholeness and authenticity welcomed and celebrated by a loving community.

If you could go on any program that your company offers, which one would you choose and why?

The Rising Earth Immersion is our flagship 10-week residential program in which participants get the opportunity to embody the practice of “whole systems living” with a small cohort of young change-makers. Balancing internal reflection and self-care with civic and social engagement and ecological justice, participants have the opportunity to practice movement, deep reflection, regenerative agriculture, artistic activism, nourishing foodways, and collaborative leadership.

What makes your company unique? When were you especially proud of your team?

The Eco-Institute is not just another gap semester program and the Rising Earth Immersion is not just another farm internship. Our team strives to foster the type of society that we want to see in the world- one that is nourishing and regenerative to all its' human and non-human members and one that can creatively and effectively address the social and ecological issues of our time.

I am especially proud of our leadership team when we allow ourselves to STEP BACK and allow the synergistic creative potentials of the group to flourish. We truly believe in empowering our students here and are continuously inspired and awe-struck by the beautiful and unexpected ideas that emerge when given space.

What do you believe to be the biggest factor in being a successful company?

Taking inspiration from natural ecosystems, I believe that adaptability and responsiveness are essential for the success of our organization. At the Eco-Institute, we welcome feedback and allow ourselves to dynamically and mindfully adapt to the changing needs of our participants and the world around us. This ability to adapt not only allows us to creatively respond to changing conditions but also makes our community more resilient in this age of social and environmental upheavals.