My summer in the Methow Valley with WWU's Sustainability Pathways program

by Lillian Propst

When I arrived in the Methow Valley on a late June afternoon, there was no way I could have predicted the experience I was about to undergo. Driving down Highway 20 through the North Cascades was mesmerizing, and with every tree I passed, so did my excitement for the possibility and opportunity of the next ten weeks.

A couple of months beforehand, I had applied for my first-ever paid fellowship as a part of Western’s Sustainability Pathways program based in Washington’s Methow Valley.  As a part of the second cohort, I was prepared to research hands-on paths toward sustainability in the Valley while completing an internship as well. I applied for this program as a research analyst, having spent the last four years studying Environmental Policy, which was heavy on research projects. I was a little nervous to be living in a new place, with new people. Sixteen of us students made up the cohort that summer, each dedicated to our own unique, sustainably-focused internship. The internship I was gearing up for was at Room One, a social service-oriented non-profit in Twisp.  Little did I know then how much of a lasting impact one internship would have on me.

Sustainability Pathways is just a giant group of systems thinkers at play. While each of us was focused on different individual aspects of sustainability, together we were engaging in systems thinking to address the larger picture of the sustainability of a place. The entire Methow Valley was that place. The whole cohort was enrolled in the Campus Sustainability Planning Studio course and split up into four different groups for our course projects. Because of my interest in housing, I chose to be in the Tiny House group, where our goal was to provide sustainable student housing for future fellowship students in the form of a mobile field station. Our research included gathering community perspectives on alternative and creative solutions to housing, reviewing tiny home models, addressing permitting obstacles, and conducting student residential preference surveys.

Reflecting back on my first day at Room One, I recall it as one of the most memorable days of my whole experience When I met with my supervisors Kelly and Keri, my nerves were immediately settled. I was overwhelmed by the curiosity, understanding, and compassion that they showed me during our first meeting. The realm of housing advocacy was something that all three of us were still trying to wrap our heads around, but I felt happier than ever to put our heads together and create meaningful change in the community. Kelly and Keri’s passion for housing solutions was invigorating. I soon learned that this curiosity and passion were not unique to Room One, but could be found by interacting with many Methow locals, who embraced their sense of place.

Nearing the end of my internship, we accumulated and assembled all of the bits and pieces of information that I had collected and created a series of educational informational sheets, which could then engage community members who wanted to know more about the housing crisis in the Valley and ways to consider addressing it. There was actually so much more exciting research on affordable and creative housing solutions to expand on, that I ended up being hired on Room One’s team for an additional eight months, working remotely from Bellingham while I finished up my senior year of college. On the local level, knowing that the local community read my research and learned something was beyond meaningful to me. After all, much of my research came from community members themselves.

When I realized how many members of the local and state-wide community had also seen and used my work, I felt an even stronger sense of belonging. From receiving emails asking for copies of my info sheets, to having my work shared with Governor Jay Inslee during a visit he made to the Methow, gave me the confidence that my skills have impact and I was a valued part of the Methow community. I felt then, and still now, like I am truly a part of the community in the Methow, despite only actually living there for 10 weeks. Being able to form continued and meaningful connections with a place like the Methow is the best thing I have taken away from my fellowship experience.

When I arrived in the valley, built-up expectations of internships and course projects were clouding my thoughts. The reciprocal relationship that I formed at Room One and with the community made my work feel like anything but a task, instead fueling my passion for housing advocacy, non-profit work, and policy. The same can be said about my course project with Tiny homes.  Now, as a graduate of WWU, I am thrilled to continue being a part of the tiny home project. Less than a year later, along with program director Joshua Porter and two of my other project team members, I wrote my first grant which was successfully funded, making the tiny home course project come to life in the Methow.

While I could tell you all about the housing crisis in the Methow Valley, tiny-house permitting, or what an accessory dwelling unit is, the takeaways from my experience with Sustainability Pathways and Room One was the importance of collaboration, community, and connection for achieving momentum. I learned so much, not only from the different community members we as a cohort had the pleasure of listening to and speaking with throughout the course but also from each of my peers individually. Each fellow brought a different perspective to the table with our unique experiences and educational backgrounds, broadening my own perspective of sustainability. I came out of the valley with a network of people to collaborate and build community with, for which I am very grateful!

Applications are open now for the 2023 program and can be submitted via the Sustainability Pathways website here: https://sustain.wwu.edu/pathways/fellowships

Apply early!The priority deadline is Dec. 1, with a rolling review of applications until January 11.

The 2023 program runs from June 20 through Sept.1. Find out more at https://sustain.wwu.edu/pathwaysQuestions are also appreciated- feel free to reach out to either Maia (Sustainability Ambassador & program alum) or Joshua Porter (Director, Sustainability Pathways) here: 

Maia: hefferm@wwu.edu 

Joshua: Joshua.Porter@wwu.edu 

Tuesday, November 22, 2022 - 12:03pm
Four students sit at a picnic table on a summer summer day in the Methow Valley

Members of the Sustainability Pathways program's Tiny House work group discuss their project on a sunny summer day in the Methow.