Alpine Initiatives' Jen Johnson

A non-profit organization that channels the energy and passion found in the mountains to serve the underserved communities dwelling in their shadows.

Alpine Initiatives (commonly know as AI) is on a quest to help mountain communities across the globe. These initiatives can include offering free Backcountry Awareness clinics, helping underprivileged kids access the ski slopes (see picture above) and even the occasional trip to help the communities in Africa.

Last January, I was thrill to have the opportunity to meet current AI front runner Jen Johnson. I was even happier when she agreed to answer all of my nosy questions.

AI was the first non profit organisation I ever donated to in my life. The NPO was the project of professional freeskier JP Auclair (my idol at the time) and his friends. It was an important milestone in my development to learn that anybody, no matter their background, could decide to create a mouvement that could positively affect thousands of people. I'm not sure Andy+ would exist if AI had never happened (I'm dead serious).

Without further ado, here is my interview with Jen.

Hey Jen, where do you currently live?

Steamboat Springs, Colorado and somewhere in Africa for part of the year. When I’m in Africa, I’m usually based out of Cape Town. But I did spend last spring working from Diani, Kenya. I fell in love with the place and the people so I imagine I’ll be spending more time there in the future.

What are your two favorite hobbies?

Yoga and surfing, both of which engage and inspire me at every go.

Yoga helps quiet my mind. Plus, as a skier, it sorts out all of the damage that I constantly do to my body.

As for surfing, I’ve had a life-long crush on ocean life despite growing up in landlocked Colorado. I’ve been a swimmer all of my life, and swam competitively in college. I’d consider myself a novice surfer but I’m comfortable in the water, and that includes taking [sometimes frequent] falls. It’s hard not to be moved by surfing after having the chance to have surfed in front of the Twelve Apostles in Cape Town or in a rainstorm at the mouth of the Tiwi river.

Can you tell us about your other venture, 11.7Africa?

11.7Africa is a custom African tour operator that plans and executes travel for everyone ranging from single travellers, families, non-profits, companies and special interest groups. I’ve made it part of 11.7’s mission to break down the glass wall that makes Africa seem so inaccessible to most people. I want to expose travellers to something they never expected, connect the like-minded, forge mutually-advantageous partnerships, and most of all, prove that Africa is so much more culturally rich, complex and dynamic than the media generally portrays.  

What’s the story behind you Facebook profile picture?

I’m not keen on pictures of myself, but that one—as blurry as it is—captures a moment of pure happiness. It’s from my stay at Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, which has a herd of Rothschild giraffes that say hello during breakfast. A man at another table took a series of pictures of me and was nice enough to track me down and email them. It was part of a larger reconnaissance trip a few years ago for 11.7Africa that ultimately reminded me that Kenya somehow feels like home.

Can you describe AI in 2 lines or less?

A non-profit organization that channels the energy and passion found in the mountains to serve the underserved communities dwelling in their shadows.

When did you get involved and learn about AI?

I first heard about AI a few years ago when I met Emmanuelle Vital in Steamboat. She asked if I would meet with her and Erik Wardell about arranging donor trips for their projects in Kenya.

AI was the perfect fit for me. I worked on conservation and community development throughout Africa but I’d always been searching to do something more meaningful at home in the mountains. In Steamboat, I’d registered people to vote, volunteered for the arts and classical music organizations, rang the bell at the grocery store for the United Way, coached skiing for the SSWSC…but I was searching for something that resonated even more deeply with who I am and who I aspire to be. That was AI.

What is currently the biggest difficulty faced by AI

Development. Funding will always be number one. I’ve also been grappling lately with promotion—marketing. You really have to market non-profits and for me, personally, it can sometimes feel disingenuous, as well as shift the focus from the actual work being done. It’s not something that comes naturally to me.

What is the AI project that you’re the most proud of?

A Smartwool Service Day we did a few years back. You can read about it here. It was so simple, needed and right in my own backyard. Plus it was really fun getting everyone together to see the project through.

smart wool alpine initiative

Those bins are so awesome! I wish Montreal would add all their followings bins with a similar concept.

Two years ago AI lost JP Auclair, one of its founding members. How did AI come to terms with that tragedy?

It was really hard, one of the most moving and tragic experiences of my life, which has experienced a fair amount of tragedy the past few years. In a way, JP’s passing united us, making us an even stronger team.

I’ll never forget all of us sitting in a circle on my deck. Everyone looked totally dejected. I’d asked two Board Members to pose the question: does AI exist and continue without JP. Everyone sort of came to attention and said abso-fuckin-lutley.

We also listened to the people in our communities. The community really wanted—and needed—AI to continue. I’d like to think the bright, compassionate, warm, kind light that JP brought to his work and his life continues to infuse everything we do at AI.

JP Auclair Alpine Initiatives

What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?

I honestly haven’t finished a book in the last year. I’ve always been a voracious reader but over the last year I’ve been dealing with the unexpected and sudden loss of three important men in my life: JP, my big brother, and my dog, Phin. It’s strange what the grieving process affects. For a while I couldn’t drive worth-a-shit. And I still can’t seem to finish more than a chapter of a book, and it maddens me. I’ve turned to TED talks, newspapers, podcasts and Spotify’s word offerings. I actually just got an Audible membership so I can listen to books on tape.

Where can we find the best coffee in steamboat?

Mountain Brew. It’s a short walk from my house downtown and it’s family owned and run. For me, it’s more about the people than the coffee really.

Who inspires you?

All the wild ones. Those people out there who are carving their own path and making their own unique version of life possible.

What is AI working on for 2016?

Self Started Initiatives. It’s a program where companies and individuals in mountain communities take us step-by-step through their sustainability initiative. There are a ton of great examples, but some might include solar shade, recycling, a community engagement event or design innovation. AI highlights their good work and hopes to inspire others to take on their own initiatives, big or small. It’s the premise that one initiative begets 1,000 initiatives. One of our interns is trying to make it a bit more inspiring by shooting each of them as a sort of modified ski film with clips, interviews and AI events from the road. It’s actually sort of like a video version of your “Change the World” blog.

Thank you so much for you time. Where can people learn more about Alpine Initiatives?


Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.

Also in Change the World Blog

Notox - Creating surfboards without killing ourselves
Notox - Creating surfboards without killing ourselves

Read More

KeepCup - Join the Reuse Revolution with Abagail Forsyth
KeepCup - Join the Reuse Revolution with Abagail Forsyth

Early on in KeepCup’s life, one designer dismissed the product as the “stupidest idea I’ve ever seen.” Today KeepCup has sold more than 3 million reusable mugs in over 30 countries. I guess it's fair to say he was wrong.

Read More

Outerknown - Surfing Takes on Sustainable Fashion
Outerknown - Surfing Takes on Sustainable Fashion

“I created Outerknown to smash the formula. To lift the lid on the traditional supply chain and prove that you can actually produce great looking menswear." - Kelly Slater

Read More