Community, Aprovecho meet over potluck to share ideas for future

An attendee at Saturday’s meeting and potluck offers input during a brainstorm session over the future direction of Aprovecho.

Sustainability is the name of the game for local nonprofit Aprovecho. In an ironic twist, its own sustainability as an organization became the topic of discussion Saturday as community members gathered to brainstorm and break bread over consideration of the group’s trajectory.

Established in 1981 by a group of people seeking to create a sustainable human settlement, Aprovecho has a stated mission of “inspiring equitable solutions to create a sustainable future” through research, education and workshops focused on sustainable living practices.

On the nonprofit’s 40 acres of forest about five miles northwest of Cottage Grove, sustainable concepts employed include renewable energy, natural building, green designs and permaculture, the latter a wholistic philosophy of working with land and labor.

In the past, the organization has offered various workshops, agricultural projects and living quarters for those who could contribute work to the site. Much of that has slowed or shut down, however, as the nonprofit weaves through a strategic planning process regarding its future goals and viability. Currently there are reportedly only about five residents housed there, though event rentals are still available at the facility.

Following Saturday’s brainstorming session, hopes are that educational opportunities and tours will open up later this year as Aprovecho’s trajectory becomes more refined.

“We want to continue to do educational events and be a resource for the community in terms of sustainable and regenerative living,” said board treasurer Tao Orion. “We’re really just looking forward to gearing our offerings to the community here.”

Nearly 40 years of operating in the Cottage Grove area has generated a legacy for the forested community. Among its claims to success, Aprovecho boasts the development and worldwide distribution of fuel-efficient cookstove technology, graduation of thousands of students from its programs and the first straw bale building erected in Western Oregon, built with the help of the University of Oregon.

Locally, the group has also helped develop landscape designs for Habitat for Humanity and been involved in teaching a sustainability-themed class for an all-women’s engineering and technology class at the Cottage Grove High School.

Agricultural practices within the group’s vision have been instrumental in development of the Farmer’s Market and Coast Fork Farm Stand as well.

In sum, Orion feels that impact on the local mentality has played an important role in the nonprofit’s community interactions.

“I would say one of the main things Aprovecho has brought is the vision of living more sustainably for the community here,” she said.

Despite its achievements, however, sentiments among some community members who attended Saturday’s meeting were that the group’s golden age has long past.

Accusations of cultural insensitivity were leveled toward the group during the meeting, especially in regard to the historical transgressions of early settlers upon the native population, who were forcibly removed from the area.

“As a board member, I’ve never felt I’ve been culturally insensitive,” said member Jude Hobbs. Nonetheless, she added, “I feel like the board needs training so that people feel like we’re listening more. … We are listening to what everyone says and we will be culturally sensitive to the feedback we got.”

While Hobbs attributed much of the dissatisfaction to miscommunication, Orion was hopeful about establishing a new direction for the group.

“Like any nonprofit or business in general there’s kind of a life cycle of people who are involved,” she said. “So now we’re at a point where we can decide what a new trajectory might be.”

Concerned voices in the group expressed skepticism at the process, citing past failures to address such issues by the board. Adding to management concerns were the absence of key Aprovecho educators and board members at the meeting.

“It’s a bit disturbing that they missed such a key event,” said one person who asked not to be named.

Though this undercurrent of concern lingered through the session, much of the group’s energy was distributed among a selection of other topics.

Facilitator Terrill Thompson led the group through a SWOT analysis, a strategic planning technique that identifies strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in an organization.

Topics such as accessibility, lack of local issue awareness and income streams emerged as problems to be addressed while positive elements focused on the group’s resilience, history and potential to become more deeply involved in the community outside the Aprovecho site.

Around 40 attendees were split into groups to generate productive ideas and solutions regarding these and other topics.

On the topic of community involvement, participants took an index of local groups and community needs. The necessity for more public outreach, addressing emergency preparedness and increasing accessibility to the public rose the top of the idea list.

Discussion around Aprovecho’s future and what sort of meaningful change should take place was robust, generating many ideas on the themes of cultural sensitivity to the native population and increasing the board’s financial transparency.

The role and usefulness of engaging past participants also came up as contributors speculated that stronger connections to graduating members would help foster a culture of mentorship.

Finally, the group’s name was put on the chopping block, partly in effort to rebrand the organization, but also because of controversy surrounding its translation.

“Aprovecho” takes its name from Spanish. Though the organization on its website translates its meaning “I make best use of,” native Spanish speakers in attendance explained that the word actually translates in a more negative connotation: “to take advantage of.”

One attendee pointed out that a new name should be reflective of the organization’s new values and would best be informed by first constructing mission and vision statements after the ideas generated at the session were distilled.

As the session wrapped up, Thompson mentioned that it may take until this fall for transition team members to extract a useful roadmap from it all.

While still months away, the potential impact of the organization’s renewed vision on the wider community has implications for issues facing Cottage Grove today.

Notably, a skilled labor force is needed for the town to energetically address its housing issue. Affordable housing project SquareOne Villages, for instance, has reportedly benefited from taking an Aprovecho graduate on board as lead contractor.

“What I love about Aprovecho is that they are working on solving the need for young people to get the skills to make a living in this day and age,” Hobbs said. 

Also, following back-to-back weather disasters in the Cottage Grove area, emergency preparedness has emerged as a concern for those in both rural and urban settings. Elements of Aprovecho’s philosophy and practices of self-sufficiency may have a place in addressing those worries.

“I think they’re one and the same,” said Hobbs. “If you are truly sustainable and you are prepared for the electricity being out for three weeks, then that’s emergency preparedness.”

Techniques such as back-up systems, wood heat, eliminating the need for flushing, water catchment and buildings designed for heat efficiency all contribute to a state of resilience in the face of disaster.

“Part of permaculture is ‘design for catastrophe,’” Hobbs said. “I love the idea of us doing more training in preparedness.”

As the organization ended the session and set forth to digest the ideas raised, the skepticism of some concerned voices was balanced by an optimism from those on the board, particularly regarding community engagement and future workshops.

“One of the goals has been and always will be education,” said Hobbs. “So what kind of educational workshops and classes do people want to see in this community and how can we serve the community that way?”


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