Mentorship may be one of the biggest opportunities for growth in our fledgling permaculture movement.
There is interest in professional careers as permaculture designers, but the field lacks quality mentoring opportunities. By these I mean mentoring in a specific field, by a professional who has years of experience, with the goal of developing a specific skill set and livelihood.
Earlier this year I formalized my permaculture design consulting business as Porvenir Design. I’ve been doing design work for the last four years, but part time, informally, not running it as a genuine business. It was a side hustle that is now becoming a primary livelihood.
Never have I craved mentorship like I have during this process.
How do others charge clients? By the day? By project? How do they bill for time traveling? How do other design groups successfully turn inquiries into work? What skills do experienced permaculture designers recommend I build for the future?
These kinds of detailed, specific questions were bouncing in my head, and continue to do so as I discover the answers for myself.
Simultaneously, I’ve received a steady stream of requests for mentorship in this exact field. Individuals who want to become professional designers and are looking for guidance. I can’t help but laugh when I’m approached and express the same sentiment back. These are serious young people, investing in themselves and practicing what they have learned during their permaculture courses. Most have done small consultations already. Many want to find out if this is the field for them and need a way to do a test-run.
There is no reason they can’t be successful designers, consultants, and land-use planners. But they need experience and guidance.
Mentorship at Large
In general, mentorship has drifted out of society as generalized college education has replaced specific skill-building apprenticeships. Its decline also coincides with a scarcity-driven worldview. If you teach someone what you know, they will be hired to replace you. Unfortunately, we are less useful as individuals because of this; we struggle to be producers instead of consumers.
There are organizations looking to solve this problem, however. Gaia University, the Permaculture Skills Center, and the various teacher certifying bodies (PRI, PINA, Permaculture Institute) include some form of mentorship in their training process. Our own apprenticeship at Rancho Mastatal takes the concept of mentorship into consideration, but it isn’t targeted to a career/livelihood outcome. Most of the mentorship opportunities we find in permaculture revolve around training to teach the Permaculture Design Certification (PDC) course, rather than to become professional designers and consultants.
Is this because there is not enough design work to go around? Is it a supply and demand equation? Or is the skill set required to do this work significantly different than most other “permaculture” skills? Is it harder to acquire this expertise? Does the capacity and mentality required to succeed as a professional consultant/designer differ significantly from that required to provide robust mentorship?
I believe the answer to all these questions is yes. Yes, supply of design is greater than demand. Design work requires different skill sets and requires a due diligence that other permaculture related fields can get by without. And the mentality to provide mentorship is a different skill in its own right.
The following are some reflections on how we can develop mentorship within permaculture design:
We can’t expect good designers to emerge if we don’t provide training. Beyond supply and demand questions, beyond mentorship opportunities, students have to build the foundation for these skills. This could start with slightly shifting the focus of the PDC course to emphasize the practice of design work.
It is unclear how many PDC’s place an emphasis on a robust design project—a master planning scenario that mimics real design work. But this has become the focus of our course at rancho mastatal. We devote more than four full days of the two week course entirely to design terminology, methodologies, mapping skills, client interviews, site analysis, professional case studies, and the master planning process. This includes time for dedicated group design work, and of course final presentations. The entire course is geared toward this process and outcome.
Different courses will inevitably have different focuses, depending on the site, student demographics, and instructor backgrounds and skills. Thus students interested in exploring a professional career should inquire about the time spent dedicated to design process when deciding about a class.
If we can generate a supply of well-trained designers, then we also have to build demand for our services. Personally, I have achieved this by living in and building up a site for nearly a decade. I’ve had the opportunity to deeply embed myself in the larger Costa Rica permaculture community, and folks now trust my work and send potential clients my way.
To build demand for designers we must both network and create publicly available demonstration sites. As a community, we have to work to promote ourselves. To do this we will have to avoid permaculture jargon and dogmatic idealogies, make compromises on projects, and focus on meeting client goals.
Most importantly, we must present ourselves as professionals.
It’s hard for designers to find the right project for mentoring opportunities. Everything has to match up: timing, the client’s wishes, location, finances. To overcome this, I make a standing offer to past students and apprentices. If they find me work, then I do my best to bring them on site for the analysis, client interviews, and design charettes.
This is a win-win, as it reduces my least favorite part of the profession (hustling for future work) while establishing opportunities for mentorship.
A more passive form of mentorship is documenting our work. Through case studies, samples of master plans, and videos and articles about professional design work, we can provide insights into the field. While this doesn’t replace on the ground mentorship, it does build a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges of the field, as well as the skills required to succeed.
I believe case studies are a particularly effective way to communicate about design processes and outcomes. We plan on actively recording case studies from our work at Porvenir Design.
When folks ask me about design work mentorship, I generally come back to them to learn more about their interests. There is a vast array of consultation and design services available. Those aspiring to enter the field will need to find their niche; they should expect to work hard to cultivate skills unique to this field.
As I seek and develop mentorship opportunities, I expect the above strategies will be my guide.