The idea of a fitness pop-up with wine and mingling afterwards is nothing new in DC—a quick Eventbrite search will let you book enough yoga-and-mimosa or running-and-beer outings to last several lifetimes. And there are plenty of groups that organize events emphasizing self-care: think Girls’ Night In or the Bitter Grace retreat. But Karina Carlson was looking for something different. She often found herself attending these kinds of events and standing around during the networking portion with a glass in-hand, realizing it was difficult to connect with other attendees in a meaningful way.
That’s part of the reason why the 27-year-old Columbia Heights resident founded Well Read in 2018, an event series that mixes wellness activities with guided discussions meant to forge genuine connections. Carlson, who left her job as the Atlantic’s director of business development last year to focus on Well Read full-time, also felt compelled to launch the program after her father suffered a stroke, which for a time left him unable to walk or talk. “That was a really grounding moment when I realized that being able to move our bodies and communicate with ease is something that can be taken away really, really quickly,” she says, seeing Well Read as a testament to the joy of doing both.
Here’s how it works: Prior to the event, guests read an article or listen to a TED talk. The first half of the event is dedicated to the “well” portion, which can vary from workouts at Barry’s or Barre3 to guided meditations or sound baths. After, it’s time for the “read” segment, when attendees use assigned content as a launch point for vulnerable conversations.
“The idea is to talk about issues that affect all of us in ways that are sometimes hard to talk about,” says Carlson. Past reading requirements have included The New Yorker short story “Cat Person,” which launched a discussion on sex and consent, or The Washington Post’s essay about influencer Caroline Calloway, which led to a talk about toxic friendships.
Carlson knows her attendees are busy, so she wants to make it as easy as possible for people to participate. Each class is about an hour long, and she only assigns content that can be consumed in 30 minutes or less. “I’ve been a member of so many book clubs and showed up and said, ‘My favorite part was the first chapter,’ because that’s all I got to,” she says. “I want it to be accessible.”
The formula seems to be working—each of Carlson’s events have sold out. “The thing that surprised me the most after the first event is that people would not leave the discussion portion,” she says. “It’s like you’re in a college class again, which I think people are really hungry for.”
But Carlson also thinks it’s important that the events aren’t just hanging out and talking. While a lot of wellness and self-care series tend to focus inwards, Carlson wants her attendees to leave feeling inspired to take action. “Folks that come to Well Read want to take care of themselves so they can go out in the world and get shit done,” she says. “We are really working toward wellness being something that fills you back up so that you can give to others.”
That can mean anything from mastering the art of advocating for a pay raise to learning how to live more sustainably. “We’re capturing that passion and inspiration [from the discussions] and translating it into actually doing something about the problems we face,” says Carlson.
And she plans to take the series on the road in 2020: Carlson is organizing Well Read events in Richmond and Philadelphia, and is developing a corporate program to bring the discussions to offices. She’s also starting an Instagram series about her journey as an entrepreneur—think How I Built This, except with more vulnerability about what she calls “the ooey-gooey middle parts” of pursuing your passion project.
“There definitely have been times I’ve sat on my couch thinking ‘What the hell have I done?’ I gave up a 401K and good health insurance and a solid paycheck to have total uncertainty,” she says of leaving her previous job to run Well Read full-time. “But more often than not, I’m like, ‘Wow, I get to meet amazing people and create a space I want to be a part of.’”
The next Well Read went will take place January 28 at the Glow Club. After a meditation, attendees will use a Time article about eco-anxiety to discuss ways they can advocate for sustainability. Each attendee will receive $200 off their first two months of Rent the Runway Unlimited, and 10 percent of the ticket proceeds will benefit Australia’s Red Cross Disaster Relief. A representative from the nonprofit Trees for the Future will be on-site, too.
“There’s magic in doing something collectively together,” says Carlson. “I am here for the face mask and a bath. I am here for the robe and the comfy sweatpants, but all that is for naught if we’re not using the privilege that we have to make a change.”