A Permaculture-Inspired Community of Practice

Travis Tennessen
Tuesday, 8th May 2018

The Community Engagement Fellows are working together to design projects and partnerships that enhance student learning. Applying permaculture design ensures classes, courses and more are efficient and effective.

It’s a Tuesday morning in March. Sunlight pokes through the grey Pacific Northwest sky above Bellingham, Washington. The rain has stopped, for now.

Folks trickle into the conference room, propping bike helmets, umbrellas, and rain jackets along the edges, and commiserating about the emergent spring. Someone has seen a daffodil in bloom! We help ourselves to coffee and cookies, and start settling in. 

The ten of us gathered together represent several colleges and universities, as well as community organizations and local government. In one corner, the downtown theater director is chatting with a physics professor. Lingering near the coffee pot, a creative writing instructor catches up with a community farmer and public health administrator.

This group is one of several cohorts of Community Engagement Fellows (www.cefellows.org), a permaculture-inspired community of practice.  

Our mission is to build campus-community partnerships that “nurture engaged citizens, serve the public, and improve our region and the planet.”

The Fellows work in small groups each year to design partnerships and projects that enhance student learning and address pressing community issues. In our meetings, we share experiences, muse on tough questions, and workshop ideas.

The permaculture design certificate course I took in 2014 informed and inspired Community Engagement Fellows. My fellow students and I could picture permaculture coming alive in our backyards, but struggled to imagine it permeating mainstream social, educational, and political-economic systems. In the past, I’d felt similarly when teaching university classes about sustainability. I had answers for what not to do, but was weak on helping students practice being part of a sustainable culture.

The course left me eager to find a way to infuse permaculture ideals and principles within mainstream institutions. My opportunity came when I joined the staff of Western Washington University in 2015, and was tasked with developing a program to help faculty include community-based learning in their courses.

In the three years since, Community Engagement Fellows has become a thriving multi-sector network of over 200 community leaders, and spawned numerous exciting projects including internship programs, community events, research, film series, websites, new publications, and more. 

We’re modeling and practicing collaborative culture. I think we’re seeing glimmers of a large-scale permaculture society in action. It’s like feeling the warm sun on your face in early spring.

Here are a few ways permaculture principles inform Community Engagement Fellows:

Observe and interact: The initial program design was informed by conversations with many professors about their interests relating to working in the community. Our model has evolved as new groups of people have become involved.   

Catch and store energy: Our community is full of passionate people doing good work, though often in isolation. The Fellows program makes these dynamic people visible and accessible to each other and the broader community.

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We ask Fellows for suggestions about program improvements, and advice they have for future participants, when concluding each year.

Produce no waste: Each activity in our meetings is a learning opportunity for all. Everyone is an active contributor, and long-winded speeches and slideshows are forbidden. We leave feeling we’ve learned and contributed to others’ learning.

Integrate rather than segregate / Use and value diversity: We include people from multiple sectors, cultures, and locales to break down barriers and build synergies.

Use small and slow solutions: We discourage once-off projects that yield nice photo-ops but gloss over the complexity of community issues. Instead, we focus on building long-term partnerships that allow people to tackle tough issues together.

Use edges and value the marginal: Part-time faculty and community leaders with no paid position are important participants in the Fellows program. These folks are often vital bridge-builders in the community, and see things differently.

This infographic is one of our many ways of encouraging wise design thinking in campus-community engagement

Community Engagement Fellows’ popularity, growth, and impacts have led us to write a free online Guide to empower higher education leaders to establish sister programs elsewhere. The Guide can also help permaculturists establish communities of practice around other themes, such as parenting, animal husbandry, cheese making, finance, etc. 

Community Engagement Fellows has been meaningful, practical, and fun for all involved. I hope our story and the Guide will empower you to build a permaculture-inspired community of practice in your neighborhood!

Useful links

A model for community projects


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