Place, Connection, and Equity: A Q&A with Carolina Pfister, Executive Director of CultureSeed
Updated: Feb 18, 2022
Can you tell me about your background? Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like? What brought you to the US, and specifically to the Columbia Gorge?
I was born in Switzerland to Brazilian parents fleeing a military dictatorship. At the time, long-term and repressive military dictatorships controlled many Latin American nations, and I spent my first 6 years surrounded by other exiled Latin Americans. The United States provided planning, coordinating, training on torture, technical support and military aid to these violent dictatorships.
We went back to Brazil as it was attempting to build its democracy but things were very hard for a long time. The legacy of authoritarianism, corruption and colonialism is still very difficult to overcome. I grew up in the state of São Paulo, with a very large Catholic family of 3rd generation immigrants from Portugal, Italy and Southern Spain. I had one grandfather from Switzerland, which accounts for my last name, and one indigenous great-grandmother. I have endless cousins I am very close to, we played, got into trouble, and the coast of São Paulo looms large in my memories. It’s pretty hard to not be able to swim in the Pacific!
Our family came to this country twice for my parent’s scholarship-funded academic pursuits, so I lived here briefly as a child. I loved the libraries and national parks. My family was impressed with the public school system. Having lived here as a child accounts for my lack of accent and why I often get a confused reaction when I mention I'm an immigrant. There’s a very rigid idea of what an immigrant sounds like, and there doesn’t seem to be much awareness of the diversity of the Latin American experience.
This is our chosen home, I am filled with gratitude to be here, and every day I think about how we can be good settlers to this place.
I came to the US for my own scholarship-funded academic pursuits in the early 2000’s. One thing led to another, and I kept on staying, so that’s why I call myself an “incidental immigrant”. There is so much privilege in this chosen kind of mobility. I also understood that I had a better chance at making a living here in the arts and in the nonprofit world, which is a fulfilling combination for me. But it was never an easy decision to leave my home.
Like all countries, it’s up to us to be engaged and demand the changes needed to prop up our democracies. But unlike Brazil, and despite countless and profound failings, there has been a more enduring democratic experiment in the USA, which as a matter of principle I insist on being a part of.
My life in this country started out in the Midwest, and we have been slowly making our way out West. The Columbia Gorge happened to be close enough to Portland so we could finally make the transition out of the city. It also happened to have the one opportunity we could afford and not be house poor forever.
This is our chosen home, I am filled with gratitude to be here, and every day I think about how we can be good settlers to this place.
Can you give me an overview of CultureSeed’s mission and programs?
CultureSeed is a nonprofit organization in the Columbia Gorge offering a variety of transformational programs for regional underserved youth and communities. Our flagship programs focus on nature and connection with a Year-Round Outdoor & Community Engagement Youth Cohort, foster inclusion in outdoor recreation and economy with our Outdoor Leadership Program, and provide inmates with the tools for mindbody wellness and opportunities to be in nature with Bending the Bars.
CultureSeed’s Year-Round Outdoor & Community Engagement Youth Cohort is an opportunity for our region’s underserved and low income youth to participate in monthly outings, peer circles, overnights, and a seven day backpacking trip. CultureSeed is the only organization in our region offering a year-round immersion for underserved youth with a focus on outdoor adventure. We recruit youth who are involved with the Juvenile Justice system, foster systems, Child Protective Services, as well as youth who are recommended to us by counselors and teachers, and who qualify for free and reduced lunch.
As youth graduate from our programs they are matched with relevant training, mentorship and employment, and return as Junior Guides through our Outdoor Leadership Program. We accompany youth into young adulthood through nature, connection and opportunity, nurturing interests and supporting them in becoming outdoor leaders.
CultureSeed also connects youth caregivers to community resources. While youth are central to our work, CultureSeed understands the many factors that impact their ability to thrive. This is why we believe that it is critical to work with caregivers to connect them to community resources and to provide direct service to incarcerated adults who will eventually return home to their children.
CultureSeed’s Bending the Bars program provides mental, emotional and physical health support to women, men and children incarcerated at Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility through yoga, meditation and behavioral health groups.
COVID-19 measures are in place as we continue to support the mental health of the youth we serve. The CultureSeed team is offering expanded virtual meetings as well as walks with youth, at a safe distance. We have introduced nature journaling and continue to re-evaluate, week by week, what is possible to maintain connection.
We are working in conjunction with the jail to provide immune boosting stress reduction as much as possible. We must not forget the most vulnerable, especially in a time of national crisis when they are even more at risk.
We've had to rethink how to best support our current youth cohort and we're urgently seeking mentors to match with each youth and support them in getting outside. Minimum requirements are a one year commitment and a once a month walk with youth at a safe distance starting from their doorstep.
Our meditation teacher is providing weekly virtual meditation classes to incarcerated adults via video and we are working with Juvenile Detention to provide two weekly yoga/behavioral health classes via live streaming. We are working in conjunction with the jail to provide immune boosting stress reduction as much as possible. We must not forget the most vulnerable, especially in a time of national crisis when they are even more at risk.
As Executive Director of CultureSeed, what does your work look like day-to-day?
I started with CultureSeed in June of 2018, and my day to day with CultureSeed is a hectic scramble as we’re still very much in start up mode. But it's creative and meaningful and for that I am grateful. Any given hour I bounce from a whole systems view to the nitty gritty of the lives of the youth we serve. With program development, storytelling, and capacity building at the core, I strive to ensure our work is relevant and sustainable.
My colleague Kay Alton had started the work that is now at the center of CultureSeed’s mission. And since I joined we’ve strengthened and grown the vision for a place-based and holistic approach of supporting our underserved youth and communities to thrive.
Working with Kay was the synergy that sealed the deal—she’s a smart and resourceful person who was deeply connected to the community. Before she came on board as CultureSeed’s Program Director and Behavioral Health Specialist, she contracted with the state of Washington to do in-home Family Preservation Services in Klickitat and Skamania Counties for open Child Protective Services cases.
CultureSeed is a very experimental and flexible organization, which is also why I applied for the position. It was clear I’d have the opportunity to make this role less about productivity and more about crafting a sustainable culture of inspired work. To me that looks like a team with equitable and accountable relationships, and programming that is truly connected to people and place.
I value being part time because I have no desire for work to swallow my life as it has in the past, and also to not be a drain on organizational resources. I live in the same neck of the woods, literally, as our collaborative workspace and can hike to the office. Wow.
CultureSeed is located on 150 acres at the confluence of Buck Creek and the White Salmon River, the ancestral lands of the Chinook, Yakama, Wasco, and Wishram. Surrounded by forests, oak savannas, a National Forest trail system with a local waterfall and swimming hole, CultureSeed has access to a community garden, a makerspace that includes a wood shop, ceramic studio and community room, and a three seasons campground with a yurt, outdoor kitchen and yoga platforms. These lands are stewarded by the Atlan community, and CultureSeed is lucky to have such a synergistic relationship.
How do we benefit from being outside and in nature?
A growing body of research points to the beneficial effects that the natural world has on health. CultureSeed is located in the largest national scenic area in the United States, also a rural area with profound economic disparities. Studies show that across cultural and economic differences, spending time in nature leads to improved health and well-being, and that physical activity in natural settings is regarded as a potent health behavior.
Today's youth are navigating overwhelming technology, coping with an uncertain future, and reaching record levels of mental health issues. In a world where we increasingly live our lives indoors, nature is not just a place to recreate, but a social determinant of health.
The youth we serve benefit from opportunities to engage in healing outdoor education and recreation that also connects them to economic opportunities and provide meaningful community engagement.
CultureSeed also fosters representation in the outdoors. The abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation in our beautiful region also showcases a lack of inclusion. The degree to which individuals feel a part of a community is not only measured by our connection, but also by feeling represented in our environment.
In a world where we increasingly live our lives indoors, nature is not just a place to recreate, but a social determinant of health.
In our work with the incarcerated, a program founded by my colleague Kay Alton, we are working on opportunities for the incarcerated to be in nature—from having classes outside, to nature outings for youth in Juvenile Detention. Even being in the presence of a tree can do wonders for relieving anxiety and stress, and countless studies have proven that nature has a positive effect on our mental health.
Finally, our work is also informed by nurturing connection to place and recognizing that this connection is a resilient response to the changing realities we face. A place-based approach nurtures responsible participants in local communities and ecosystems.
How do you collaborate with community partners to address your shared goals?
CultureSeed continuously aims to support the most vulnerable youth by partnering with local organizations and agencies that serve them. Most recently this has included Klickitat Juvenile Probation and White Salmon Academy, the local alternative high school. Our Behavioral Health Specialist and Program Director Kay Alton provides counseling for the White Salmon Academy to support local youth and better understand underlying issues. Kay has also worked collaboratively with Klickitat Juvenile Probation to support the probation needs of youth such as community service hours and curfews.
CultureSeed has partnered with Big City Mountaineers to provide expertise and logistical support for multiple day backpacking trips, and with the White Salmon Boy Scouts who have supplied gear to youth for overnight camping trips.
As we pursue economic opportunity for our youth with an emerging internship initiative we seek out community partners and have engaged with People for People. We have also recently entered into a partnership with the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Forest Service to provide field staff to assist in program delivery, as well as an internship for our youth.
Many other organizations have been generous in support of our mission, such as The Mount Adams Institute which has provided surplus outdoor gear for our program participants, as well as Trout Lake Abbey and Ekone Ranch who provide discounted rates in support of our youth outings and overnights.
In our work with the incarcerated we are partnering with One Community Health, the Federally Qualified Health Center in The Dalles, to provide yoga and behavioral health classes to youth at Juvenile Detention at NORCOR. Every class taught is staffed by a Behavioral Health Case Manager (BHCM) from One Community Health and a certified yoga teacher who is trained in Trauma Sensitive Yoga and has extensive experience in mental health counseling. The Behavioral Health Case Manager (BHCM) from One Community Health will also coordinate with NORCOR staff to facilitate a smooth transition into outpatient integrated services for adults as well as youth.
In your own words, what does a healthy, equitable, and thriving community look like?
The 2017 Columbia Gorge Regional Health Assessment shows that 1 in 3 of our local population are worried about running out of food and more than half of our Latinx population have trouble paying for basic needs. This is not what a healthy, equitable, and thriving community looks like.
A healthy, equitable, and thriving community comes together to support our people and place, and ensures equitable access to decent housing, living wages, health care, clean water and healthy food. CultureSeed considers these factors to be intertwined with the wellbeing of those we serve, therefore, a necessary aspect of our work.
In order to achieve our mission we can’t ignore the fact that most of the families of the youth we serve, and most of the incarcerated community we serve, do not have the building blocks available that ensure the thriving we envision. Our non-siloed approach grounds our actions and guides our decisions about how to deliver CultureSeed’s programs and meet our goals. CultureSeed continues to believe in the power of outdoor place-based connection, and we will continue to infuse that with awareness and action around our communities' foundational needs.
I don't believe any nonprofit program alone can nurture collective wellbeing—as we all acknowledge and face the root causes of the inequities we live with, there is a question we must ask: how much inequity will we tolerate? And to that we must answer: so what are we doing about it?
CultureSeed is invested in tackling inequity in our region but we are just a tiny piece of the puzzle. Yet it is a tiny piece I am honored to support. The Columbia Gorge is an awe inspiring place, and I am grateful to be of use.
To learn more about CultureSeed, please visit https://www.cultureseed.org/.
To donate to the COVID-19 Emergency fund for the families of the youth served by CultureSeed, please visit https://www.cultureseed.org/donate-cultureseed.