Valley Permaculture Alliance Director Jennifer Bonnett on Deep Roots, Blood Oranges, and Urban Chickens

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There have been a few changes this year at our beloved Valley Permaculture Alliance (VPA). The public is mostly familiar with the public programs the VPA sponsors like the Tour de Coops and the Shade Tree program in conjunction with APS and SRP, and there are many classes and programs covering everything from gardening to composting to micro livestock. 2013 brought a lot of changes to the VPA: in October 2013, Jennifer Bonnett began as executive director, and even more recently, the VPA moved into a new office space.

Bonnett previously was executive director at the Arizona Public Health Association, and as far as 2014 goes, she says, "We are excited at Valley Permaculture Alliance for the new year. We will focus on our mission to inspire sustainable living in the desert Southwest and be more effective in accomplishing it." We interviewed Bonnett about herself and her new role at the VPA.

See also: Tour de Coops: Preparing for the November 16 Chicken Celebration

Chow Bella: How did you come to apply for this position? What was your motivation?

Jennifer Bonnett: It may sound funny to some, but my passion is nonprofit administration. I love mission-based work, and my skills are well suited for this field. Having served as executive director for another wonderful Arizona nonprofit for many years, I jumped at the opportunity to join the Valley Permaculture Alliance.

Toiling in my home garden is a longtime favorite weekend activity. My interest in community and individual gardening was spurred along further through my work at the Arizona Public Health Association. That is where I became intimately familiar with the issues surrounding our community's access to healthy, nutritious foods. While the work at the association was wide in its breadth, this focus area became an immediate favorite. When the position at the Valley Permaculture Alliance became available, I saw it as an opportunity to delve deeper into this issue and make a difference. I am very fortunate that my work is both my passion and my hobby.

CB: How long have you lived in Phoenix? What is your favorite thing about living here?

JB: My family is part of the Midwest migration to Arizona. I moved from the Chicago area as a toddler and grew up in the East Valley. There was a short two-year period that I lived in Tucson while my husband attended medical school, but back to Phoenix we came. We have lived in Phoenix proper since 2004, raising our three young children.

We feel that our roots are deep in Phoenix, and no matter how much we enjoy traveling and exploring the world, there is nothing like returning home. I love the opportunity that Phoenix offers. We are not so deep in tradition that it makes it difficult to create change. If you are willing to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty, you can always find friendly people to help along the way.

CB:What do you grow at your home?

JB: The most important thing I am growing at home are my three children. In my home garden, however, I have success with jalapeños, bell peppers, and Anaheim peppers. I have a variety of herbs growing, like marjoram, basil, thyme. I also have artichokes, pomegranates, and onions. I was doing very well with watermelon a few months ago, but my dogs always seemed to get them before I could enjoy them.

Our garden also has a blood orange tree, a pear tree, as well as a nectarine. I have still a lot to learn about gardening and look forward to taking our permaculture design course and many of the other classes we offer throughout the year. In fact, I took a class a few years ago, prior to joining the staff and it is why I have finally been able to have success in my home garden. I look forward to getting even better. In addition to the edible garden plants, I have been working hard over the last several years to grow various trees, bushes, and vines to shade and cool down my home and yard.

CB: What changes do you see in the near future for the VPA? What, if any, changes have you already made?

JB: It has only been a short time since I began in this position and much of the time has been spent getting to know the organization and all the incredible people involved with it. In early December, we moved office space in which we have finally been able to settle in and get to work. The new space is exciting because Arizona Federal Credit Union generously donated space, and we can reallocate rent back into our programming.

The Valley Permaculture Alliance is always looking for ways to improve and accomplish our mission to inspire sustainable living in the desert Southwest more effectively. Look for us to really delve into quality improvement and adjustments over the next year. We will build bridges with new partners and are strengthening our longstanding relationships. We are keenly aware that we cannot do this alone and every person and organization has a role to play. We are establishing the role we will play in the efforts of sustainable living in early 2014 and the community should watch for our laser focus on this area. It is an exciting time at the Valley Permaculture Alliance. CB: What has surprised you most about the VPA since taking on this new role?

JB: I have been most surprised and pleased to see the dedication of our volunteers and members.

CB: What are the VPA's biggest strengths and challenges? JB: Our strength derives from our members and volunteers. Their commitment and support keeps our mission alive and moving. As a small nonprofit, we share the challenges that face all other small nonprofit, how to fulfill our mission with limited financial resources. This is why our volunteers are so critical to our success, we just could not do our work without them.

CB: Will there be new volunteer or employment opportunities in 2014?

JB: The organization is driven by our volunteers. Permaculture has three ethics: care of earth, care of people, and return the surplus. Volunteers exemplify the third ethic by returning their surplus time and energy. VPA welcomes individuals, families, and groups to volunteer with us for one time and committed opportunities throughout the year.

One of VPA's largest volunteer needs, the APS & SRP Shade Tree Programs, seeks volunteers at weekend events to pass out free desert-adapted shade trees to APS and SRP customers to help reduce home energy use and monthly electricity bills. We also harness the talents of volunteers behind the scenes to prepare for these events.

Each year, we host the Tour de Coops, a self-guided backyard tour of urban chicken coops. Phoenicians open their homes to educate and inspire Tour-goers on the joys of chicken-keeping. This event demands a lot of man power throughout the Valley, and we rely on our volunteers to both plan, and run the show day of.

We have an entirely volunteer-run Seed Library, where anyone can come and "check out" seeds to plant at no cost. In this way, our volunteers directly inspire families and children to plant gardens and understand where food comes from.

We also have a cadre of Valley Permaculture Alliance "Ambassadors." The Ambassadors serve, often, as our community liaison at festivals and community gatherings. They are often the face of the organization and are comprised of all volunteers. Ambassadors receive skill-specific trainings to hone their public speaking skills and permaculture knowledge.

We seek volunteers of all ages, abilities, and gifts at all times. We could not do what we do without them.

CB: What is a typical day like for you?

In a typical day at the Valley Permaculture Alliance, you will see my staff and I working the mission, to inspire sustainable living in the desert Southwest. We do this daily in building better programs, by meeting with old and new partners, and always looking to improve our value to members and commitment to the community.

CB: You're also currently earning your MPA. Tell us about that.

JB: After working in the field for some time, it became apparent to me that the skills and education that a Masters in Public Administration with a Nonprofit Concentration would be invaluable assets to the work I do. It is exciting to be able to immediately implement the knowledge gained into the work we do at the Valley Permaculture Alliance.

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