What is the origin of your innovation? Tell the Changemakers and media communities what prompted you to start this initiative.
The Natural Mentors innovation is a working example of how ancient knowledge can be used in modern applications to provide sustainable development solutions for the modern and future society. This program is a co-created project by senior staff of the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute (VISFI). VISFI founder and Executive Director Ben Jones III created the model facility for the program, which includes a working Certified Organic and Green Globe farm. VISFI Program Director Nate Olive created the Natural Mentors program concept, as a way of interpreting the work of Jones, which has received international attention as a place of cultural, environmental, and economic sustainability. Together the duo teamed with cultural mentors around the world and studied native life ways from basic survival to food production to reach a better understanding of the complex heritage of the Virgin Islands. The area has undergone tremendous population shifts in the past 600 years from the displacement of native cultures in pre-columbian times (the Carib and the Taino conflict) to the migrations of colonials, Africans, East Indians, and the seven flags that have flown over the Virgin Islands since. With a highly complex heritage, the story of Virgin Islands is extensive and difficult to distill, especially for a singular identity to be promoted in authentic tourism.
Therefore, Jones and Olive have chosen food to serve as a centerpiece at the table where identity is the discourse. As a working farm, VISFI showcases all-organic agricultural techniques from Taino "conucos" (large planting mounds for root crops) to migratory cultivars like the East Indian tamarind (a school child's favorite), St. Croix's own unique breed of "Senepol" cattle, and the prominent grafted mango varieties that immerse the caribbean summer in salty sweetness. Also, the many native wild plants that grow are featured for nutrition but also their roles in providing other basic necessities, such as materials for rope making, fire making, shelter building, clothing, water carriage, food processing, and medicinal applications. Jones and Olive saw the study of these arts and crafts as a way to explore functionally the heritage of the Virgin Islands, in an appealing way that unfolds the complex map of culture in the Caribbean. As Olive states, "History is dead. Heritage is alive." The taste of culture speaks more in your mouth than in your ears, as does the dirt in your hands, and the fruit on your tongue.
Since Jones and Olive are not Virgin Islanders by birth, they see their role simply as facilitators of cultural mentoring, and have recruited a host of local elders and adult leaders to conduct the Natural Mentors cultural exchange events and activities. They see that the greatest benefit they can offer is structure for cultural mentoring to take place, including a world-class facility that is completely off-grid and sustainable with models of closed-loop ecological life-support systems and a program that provides access to both locals and travelers. This approach is applicable to other areas, as an empty structure to be filled with natural and cultural identity.
Together as co-creators, Jones and Olive realized that youth populations are the most critical to reach to draw out and preserve the heritage of the islands, which is being threatened by globalizing homogenization, the "brain-drain" effect (where the most gifted students must look elsewhere for educational and career opportunities), video games, and crime. Since this project is in a developing area, youth leaders are critical to cultivate so that future of place is directed towards a more sustainable and identifiable future.
As a business, this model benefits VISFI as the global volunteer tourism market expands exponentially. This provides unique experiences for tourist segments who can see past the facades erected for them and who seek a more interactive experiences that provide an accurate glimpse into authentic natural and cultural identity of a destination.
Jones and Olive created Natural Mentors from inspiration of their own personal quests in life. Jones had made agriculture his focal point in life where Olive had spent years traveling on foot to gather an understanding of migration and geographic transitions. Working together on the VISFI project, they sought to bridge the gap between the perceived polar opposites of "agriculturalist" and "hunter-gatherer," while creating a profitable and sustainable model of development that may serve as a model for future societies. The Natural Mentor program, based on the Native American medicine wheel, incorporates these juxtaposed modalities into a single program that helps young people climb the ladder of cognitive development (based on Maslow's Hierarchy) in a healthy manner that may inspire abundance, creativity, and joy for both local residents and visitors alike. The work of Jones and Olive is meant to bridge cultures and protect them.