We are innately drawn to the mountains as skiers and riders. When the autumn aspen leaves curl and begin to fall, we catch our first wave of ski stoke. Memories of last year’s epic pow flood back as we begin the ritualistic tuning of gear, and we physically and mentally prepare to huck that next cliff.
Alpine Initiatives’ co-founders JP Auclair, Lisa Lee Benjamin, Mike Hovey, and Emmanuelle Vital recognized the potential in this passion for the outdoors and envisioned a unique non-profit grounded in the snow sports community that would take on grassroots sustainability projects. Aspen-based Alpine Initiatives (AI) has been called “the ski industry’s collective conscience” as it harnesses that creative, passionate, and innovative energy of our community and channels it into projects that will aid people and their environments around the world.
Co-founders JP and Mikey’s first service trip to Meru, Kenya, in 2008, was prompted by a simple desire to engage with people in a manner entirely different from their established perspectives as professional skiers. In partnership with International Peace Initiatives and the Kenya-based Skansen Foundation, the AI crew joined the local effort to build a kitchen, dining hall, and sustainable gardens at the Kithoka Amani Community Home for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Through the continued efforts of AI, the center has since become home to 20 children and is a gathering place for the community. It provides access to otherwise unavailable resources, such as computers and a library, and is utilized as an example for organic, permaculture, and bio-intensive gardening methods.
This experience solidified JP and Mikel’s gut inclination toward an entirely grassroots’ approach, and a year later in 2009, Alpine Initiatives became a full-fledged 501c3 non-profit foundation focused on sustainable development.
A second Amani Community Home, supported again in conjunction with International Peace Initiatives and the Skansen Foundation, is currently in development in the rural district of Ruiri, Kenya. The vision for this center is a vision of complete self-reliance as it employs alternative energy techniques, such as wetland waste treatment and solar and wind energy, and ecotourism in the form of guided wilderness tours.
AI’s newest venture, a grassroots grant project focused on domestic initiatives, will award a $5,000 microgrant to local non-profits and small scale projects involved with environmental sustainability efforts in their own communities. The program has been designed so that AI’s supporters have a say in how the AI funds are allocated. Organizations from across North America have submitted applications, and the six finalists have been chosen: it is now up to us to vote for the three most deserving initiatives. For more information about AI’s ongoing projects and to vote for the micro-grant award recipients, visit www.alpineinitiatives.org.
I spoke with JP about the birth of Alpine Initiatives, his own involvement in the ongoing projects, the profound human connection he feels with the local people he has formed relationships with over the past five years, and why we need to look beyond the tips of our skis.
Sophie Goodman: What is it about skiing that inspired you to pursue non-profit, philanthropic work?
JP Auclair: Basically, it came from a desire to have a different kind of relationship with our world as opposed to the relationship we already had with all the traveling we do through skiing. You start to get really focused on scoring powder days and that sort of thing, so it was simply a strong desire to form a different relationship with our world, an attempt to keep putting ourselves outside of our comfort zone, and to keep exploring.
S: What was your original vision for Alpine Initiatives and how has it evolved since its genesis in 2008?
JP: The original vision was that there was no real vision. Mike Hovey and I wanted to head out on a service trip of some kind, and it seemed like AI sort of created itself. We set things up so we could work on one community project in Kenya. But the support was so good from friends, family, and the rest of the industry that once we had the general structure in place, we decided to keep it. And it became this platform for people to jump in and collaborate on all these community-building projects.
S: Can you talk a little bit about some of your work in Meru, Kenya?
JP: Going on projects in person, working on the ground, is the best part about the whole process—and the most fun! My favorite part about that is definitely the relational and human aspect where you go meet people, you see how you evolve and how they evolve over the years each time you go back. And definitely some of my favorite moments have been connecting with these people and seeing how you affect each other and how you bring out the best in each other.
One of my favorite experiences was with this worker named Dennis who was a part of a crew of guys working construction on the community center in Meru. You could tell they were really good guys and good role models for the kids growing up in the community. Some of the guys are awesome and seem like they have their lives together except that they they’re stuck in a cycle of trying to put food on the table everyday. They don’t make a lot of money, and it’s not like they can take time off to go back to school to learn a real skill that will land them a better job. So they live day to day, and it’s really hard for them to break out of that cycle.
This one worker, Dennis, we became pretty close. We got to know his personal goals and dreams, what he was aspiring to become. His dream was to become a driver and get his driver’s license. In 2009, on the last day of the trip (we had been there two and a half months), Mikey and I decided that we were going to sponsor him as he pursued his driver’s license. This wasn’t so much an AI thing; it was more on a personal level. Again, that’s the best part of being on the ground, what you feel on a personal level.
On the last day, we told him that we’d sponsor his license. There were not any official ways to do it, so we handed him a handful of cash that was going to be enough to register, take the classes, take the test to become a driver, and to sustain his family for a month while he travelled to Nairobi to take the classes. And Karambu [Ringera], who was our partner on the ground in Kenya (we always work with local partners), she had her feelings about the men in the community. She was like, “I hope you guys know what you’re doing because I don’t know if that’s a good idea to be handing cash to someone like that.”
We responded, “We know, it goes against some of our beliefs, but we have a good feeling about Dennis. We trust him and we think it’s the right thing.” That’s how we left it. We came back seven months later. We hadn’t been in touch with Dennis while we were away, and we were really looking forward to seeing him. And once we saw him and ran into him, he had the biggest smile on his face and reached in his pocket and got his driver’s license out and said, “I’m a driver!” He was super pumped. That was one of the coolest moments.
There are all these awesome personal stories. In the bigger scheme, it’s cool to see how projects are moving ahead and how everything is evolving.
S: That’s an incredibly powerful story and a truly unique outcome. What are some of the challenges you have faced when laying the groundwork for AI?
JP: We can improve the most on the organizational side of things. And that’s the most challenging. We get a lot of fulfillment out of the stuff that’s happening on the ground, but again, it’s something we have under control. I never expected that a fully-fledged foundation would be the big goal for us. We were just a bunch of skiers and snowboarders that had this idea. We didn’t really study how to run non-profits; we had to learn on the run. So it went from a few buddies going on trips together to now running something larger. We’ve had to learn on the go, to learn to be organized, and to be better at letting people come in and be involved.
S: You have your hand in a lot of different pots in the ski industry, metaphorically speaking: Armada Skis, Sherpas Cinema, Alpine Initiatives, and your own professional ski career. Do these ventures interact, and how, if at all, do these visions coincide?
JP: It’s pretty tough to have my hands in everything. There are good sides and bad sides. The bad part is that it’s difficult to jump from one project to another. A lot of those projects are really emotionally involving: it’s usually some creative process stuff that you have to get really deep into. It’s hard to take the energy to get yourself in a specific, project-focused mindset and once you’re in there, for me, it’s hard to pry myself away from it.
Let’s say I’ll be working on an editing project with Sherpas or a design for Armada: I’m kind of an obsessive-compulsive person so I get in a mode where that’s all that matters right then. Then the next day I have to switch from that mode to get into, for example, an AI web update or social media blast. It takes a lot of energy for me to jump from one to the other, but on the other hand, if I hit a funk on one project where it’s just stalling or I’m having a hard time coming up with ideas, then it’s good to have those other projects that are there on stand-by.
It’s something I really enjoy. It’s hard sometimes, but I do think that’s my style, how I work best, how I’m happiest. I get to do so many things, from design to skiing, from directing to movie making. It’s really cool to be involved in such a wide range of projects. And that’s where I have the most fun, just trying everything. That’s what I’ve been doing with skiing my whole career, going from racing to bumps, from backcountry to freestyle.
S: What is your strategy for disseminating information and garnering support for Alpine Initiatives within the industry?
JP: It’s different for professionals and companies. We have a different approach for each side. For companies, it wasn’t really complicated. To give you a little bit of background, we began to try to fundraise, a constant challenge, for our first trip to Kenya. We thought, let’s build this website, explain what the project is about, and wait for the money to come in. That was very optimistic of us, and very naïve. It was a big bummer when we realized no money was coming in.
At that point, I just called the people that could help, specifically Oakley and Armada, and they were incredibly supportive. Everyone that jumped in from the first year, like Orage, Armada, and Oakley, are still on board and still supporting us. So that was just a matter of reaching out into the industry and asking for help.
As far as on the athlete’s side, our strategy is just as amazing as our fundraising strategy, you know, a sort of if you build it they will come mentality. And it’s happened. It’s really slow, but it’s a really organic process where we don’t approach athletes to sign up for AI. The thing is that AI is pretty involving and there is a lot to know about it. So it’s not like you could have a sticker on your helmet, be asked the update on the latest project, and expect every athlete to be able to explain. What matters most to us above general exposure is that people care. So it’s better to be approached by the athletes. So far Julien Regnier, Michelle Parker, Pep Fujas, Anthony Bornowski, and Spence O’Brien have approached us. We asked them to become unofficial ambassadors, to stay updated on projects, and to spread general awareness. It’s an approach that we really like so far. And obviously we’d like to have a really solid ambassador program, it’s one of those things we have on the back burner. We’d like to have really strong communication with a solid group of athletes, have an exchange, a back and forth of some kind. It’s not the ideas that are missing right now; it’s mostly time and the resources.
S: So what’s the next step for Alpine Initiatives? Where do you see the organization in the next five years?
JP: I would like to see AI continue to become that place that people turn to if they become involved in community-building and sustainability projects. That’s our big dream, to keep improving and forming that platform for people to gravitate toward. Projects on the ground are what we’re best at.