Reflections on the first Permaculture Your Campus Conference at UMass Amherst
Before I talk details about conference, I want to start with a personal reflection. The past few months have been incredibly challenging for me, due to a number of reasons. Going back to February when I got “the call” (from The White House) everythings changed almost instantaneously. The UMass Amherst Permaculture Initiative, which was already moving quite fast, suddenly received a boost that brought us right up to warp speed. When things are moving and changing this fast, it’s very difficult to stay balanced.
Once the news was out, the e-mails never stopped coming. It has only recently slowed down, and we tried riding that high as long as possible to take advantage of all the windows of opportunity. But here’s how I like to look at it: Sure, permaculture and UMass Permaculture students were in the national spotlight… but more importantly than this, how can we best leverage this momentum and turn it into direct action and positive change? Strategically, what should we do with this opportunity so that it makes the largest possible positive change for the world. What does that even look like? This has been a big part of my thought process over the past few months.
Getting back to the basics:
It was only 3 years ago that I received my permaculture design certification and began my first project. This was the front-yard grass lawn to permaculture garden transformation that played a huge role in getting UMass Permaculture jump-started and funded. Now that site is called the Amherst Permaculture House and provides a living-learning experience to eco-conscious college students.
The reason that I spent all of my waking hours working on that project is simple: I believed deep in my heart that this is exactly what the world needs. We need more people feeling a connection to nature, to their food, and to each other. We need less unproductive grass lawns and less unhealthy food being transported unnecessarily from across the country and the world. We need more localized, sustainable, and just communities and economies that focus on people working together in a cooperative way. Using permaculture as a framework, we can design and create a truly better world for ourselves right now, and keep improving upon it for future generations.
An great place to start is locally, using the resources we have available, and designing a system that can serve multiple functions (ecologically, socially, economically and culturally.) I had available a 1/8 acre grass lawn in my front yard and that was my ’point of entry’ into making the change that I want to see happen in the world. It was a leverage point that I could use to inspire others to also begin their exploration into permaculture and to think about creating their own permaculture-inspired systems and gardens.
International Permaculture Your Campus Conference:
In 3 years I’ve witnessed amazing things happen. From my first at-home project, sprung a campus-wide initiative on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. Over 1300 volunteers have been in the gardens, over 10,000 students have heard a presentation about permaculture, and over 1 million pounds of organic matter have been moved by hand, using no fossil fuels on site, to create 3 permaculture designed landscapes on the campus.
It doesn’t stop there.
After our first Youtue video was released (31,000+ views) we started receiving dozens of inquiries from individuals at other campuses who also wanted to create a similar permaculture initiative. Instead of trying to explain it all by e-mail, phone, or traveling to each campus, we decided to invite all of these individuals to UMass Amherst for a 2-day working-conference in June, 2012. The thinking was that we could all share our experiences, concerns, and questions with one another, since permaculture in an institutional setting is a new trend and we’re all still learning. But this trend is one that is growing rapidly.
We didn’t know how many would show, but had a vision of between fifty and seventy five individuals at the first Permaculture Your Campus Conference. We wanted to have dozens of campuses represented from across the United States and from outside of the country as well. When June 20, 2012 finally arrived, we had over 60 conference attendees representing 25+ campuses from 11 states and someone representing the country of Honduras as well. Our goal was to send everyone away feeling excited, inspired, and equipt in terms of their next steps (they created Individualized Action Plans) for their own unique campus permaculture initiatives.
The feedback we received was incredible. It seemed like our goals, which we set pretty high (especially the individualized part), surpassed our own expectations. We received so many positive comments and even one person, a landscaping professional, said “this really blew my mind.” Of course there was constructive criticism – nothing is ever perfect! – nor should it be, otherwise we’d get bored! A lot of the constructive feedback was that the participants, who all had different backgrounds and came with all levels of permaculture experience (none - twenty+ years!) needed more details than we could provide in the time we had together. Reading deeper into that, it seems like many of them wanted more than the 1 1/2 days of work-sessions, which I see as positive (a longer conference next year!)
Speaking of Next Year’s Conference..
When we had our wrap-up discussion on the very last day (June 22, 2012) the attendees started saying “when you run this conference next year, I’d like to see…” After 3 or 4 of these comments, I felt obliged to speak up, ”Wait a minute… I didn’t say anything about next year yet! Remember how I said this was incredibly stressful for me and I promised I would never do it again…!” and everyone laughed at this. I laughed, too, because I knew we had just created something big and extremely important for the world.
The first Permaculture Your Campus Conference was an amazing success, and I truly believe that we have helped spark a movement that will bring more permaculture into the institutions that undoubtedly need it. The conference will grow and evolve, with help from many other individuals. I’ve been helping faciliate and integrate permaculture into the UMass Amherst community over the past 3 years, and soon I envision it exploding onto the international college/university campus scene. And this will happen because the world is ready for it.
I envision a “Coordinator of Permaculture” and “Campus Permaculture Manager” position being posted regularly on Monster.com and in local newspapers. Already we have 5 certified permaculture designers working full-time (without benefits, but this should change) at UMass Amherst – why not elsewhere? It just takes some visioning and goal setting, a thorough campus analysis and assessment, some careful planning and designing, and an implementation and evaluation process that accepts and encourages feedback.
The process will not always be easy, and there is surely some conflicting opinions about whether to even bring permaculture into the institutions that hold a great deal of power. How I see it: that is exactly the reason to do it. These institutions need shifting from the inside as well as the outside. We need more permaculture-minded individuals working for institutional change, I believe this so deeply in my heart. If you feel called to do this work, please consider coming to next year’s Permaculture Your Campus Conference and feel free to contact me. Together, we can create a network and a mutual support guild of permaculturists working at campuses across the globe. We are the one’s who must do this, as these jobs will be proposed and created by us – and they have never existed before!
In 5 years, I envision teams of permaculturists working at hundreds of colleges and universities across the world. The gardens will likely be a part of their work, but even more of it will be spent re-designing and regenerating our institutions to truly serve as educational centers. Many intentional communities, homesteads, and farms have been demonstrating this for decades, and now I see colleges and universities as a next step to bringing this important knowledge to millions of individuals each year. Of course, we can’t stop there. This is only the beginning, higher education is only one ‘point of entry’, and numerous others exist. I encourage you to seek out your way to help co-create that better future which all of us can envision.