The Edmonton Do Gooder Project: Dustin Bajer, Permaculture School

The Local Good and The Savvy-Do-Gooder hosted The Good 100 Experiment in June 2013, bringing together  some of Edmonton’s upcoming and established movers and shakers who work on local food, arts, activism, local business, social enterprise, government, advocacy, indigenous rights, social justice, charity, funding, design and alternative media.  Participants anonymously voted for the person/project they found most compelling and wanted to learn more about. We selected five nominees and The Local Good’s social media coordinator Breanna met with each participant to learn more about their project to share with you via the Good 100 Project Profile series.


Dustin Bajer is a teacher, master gardener, and permaculture designer, and the founder of  JP Permaculture program at Jasper Place High School. His work incorporates his belief that the integration of ecological patterns and principals into design can create resilient people, communities, and systems. Dustin was recently appointed to the Edmonton Food Council  and will be advising the city on matters of food and urban agriculture.

1. What is the good result you are hoping to create?

 Students need to understand that people aren’t inherently evil and that we can choose to interact with the environment in ways that improve the environment and ourselves — it doesn’t have to be one or the other that we preserve. I encounter all these 16-year-old students who have been fed narratives about how “we” are destroying the environment and the problems are too large and the damage is too extreme to do anything about it. That sort of narrative is so dis-empowering. Students, youth… they should be optimistic about what they can do and know that change is possible. We need to work with nature and set up the conditions so that nature ends up moving the design in directions that are conducive to both sets of goals [natural and constructed]. We need to believe that people are not inherently destructive and understand our own networks and connections to the natural world and the parts of the whole. The universe is a constant — look at network theory: A forest is a network of connections, people are part of a social network of connections. This sounds really cliche and cheesy but everything is interconnected: your actions have a direct effect on those around you and vice versa. We have this individualistic view but we are responsible to/for others, which isn’t a bad thing. This view that we are all connected puts an onus on the individual to do good.

2. What is your approach for making this happen?

Teaching students about effective design, whether it’s for city planning or a social network or a community garden. Macroscopic permaculture emphasizes that it is not about the particular elements but rather about how every part is connected; it’s about relativity and existing relative to other networks. With design, it’s about expanding the adjacent possible and looking at existing or parallel systems before creating a new design. A succession needs to take place before you can expand or build any concept; the ethics of a system is to move from simple to complex structures and designs in order to increase the adjacent possible. I explain to my students that the natural world is full of sets of patterns and that’s what we need to replicate in our world; for instance, cities can follow a pattern of sharing resources and mimic the design of a forest and create a resilient ecosystem (see his blog post “Redefining Nature” for a more detailed explanation of this). A lot of people think that if you double the size of a city you’re doubling the size of your carbon footprint, but that isn’t true. Often it results in a significantly lesser carbon footprint. My approach is simply about educating students to think differently about how we can interact differently with and build differently within our urban ecosystem.

3. What makes this issue/area the best fit for you personally?

 After I graduated from university with an education degree (BEd), I realized that the curriculum and format of education is very outdated. What we have is an industrial model of education — even the design is very industrial. Think about it: we group kids arbitrarily by age, the classes are the same length of time every single year until you graduate… We’re moving into a very new phase of industrialization in business as everything gets shipped overseas and, at the same time, creativity and an entrepreneurial attitude are allowing new ideas and structures to emerge. We need to see that sort of creativity and innovation in education too: kids should be taught big ideas and themes — like ethics — and then we teach them ways of thinking and ways of problem solving. We should teach students to become resilient learners and expand their general knowledge and resource base. Think about it: they come in to kindergarten at age 5 or 6 with a knowledge base of things like their favourite TV show, probably some stuff from Sesame Street, their family, their pets. Education should expand on these resources and give students a lot of information and a lot of things to think about. I think that creating a resilient student/learner/individual should be the goal of education.

When I discovered permaculture I felt passionate about it and wanted to integrate it into my approach to teaching and in to the curriculum I was teaching. I’ve taken to incorporating relevant content with the structure of the curriculum; for instance, when I have my students build a food forest, this incorporates subject matter from math, chemistry, biology, design, and social studies. There is such a large scale to permaculture projects, as many of the designs are based upon connections and relationships.

4. How will you know if you’re making progress? What is “success” for you?

Progress for me is about seeing the program continue to expand and not leaving it as-is. I want to expand the permaculture program beyond secondary schools and work with community groups, non-profits, and municipal governments across the province. As long as the program continues to grow and the adjacent possible keeps expanding, I’ll feel that this is a successful endeavour.

5. What have and haven’t you accomplished so far?

Education is a project that is never finished; there are new students every year, and I can always work on growing the program. I would ultimately like to work with other teachers to write a new [provincial] curriculum. 

6. How can others get involved?

Schools should get involved with their community: have students share ideas with community organizations, start a community-supported urban agriculture program. Others need to see the potential in working with the environment and ignore the cultural assumption that people are evil and everything we do harms the environment. We need to focus on positive, attainable projects, like if there’s an urban garden maybe look at watering it less or growing different plant varieties that actually fit in this climate instead of spending money on ornamental varieties. We can reduce urban sprawl and get people to use the space that already exists within the city. I really like what Fruits of Sherbrooke is doing, and Edmonton’s FRESH movement is really inspiring. Each movement like these moves the bar a little closer towards having a resilient community. Considering the upcoming municipal election, it is important to have people on city council who are receptive to these ideas. At the same time, every individual is party of the adjacent possibility; we can’t just rely on the people who have the [perceived] power and say to them “you need to do this.” It’s not always apparent or evident to them what needs to be done. Take on permaculture projects yourself that work towards incorporating the urban environment with the natural environment.

These questions have been adapted from Charting Impact for charitable evaluation; click here to read more about this framework.

Read the other Project Profiles in our 2013 Edmonton Do Gooder Project series: Claire Edwards of Student Voice Alberta here, and Meghan Dear of Localize here.