Christohper Cubertson

Christohper Cubertson, a 2012 College of Wooster graduate, has established Project Odakniwa, a new non-profit organization designed to work collaboratively with Mapuche communities in South America to promote long-term sustainable social and economic development. 


Recent Wooster Graduate Establishes Intercultural Non-Profit in Chile

Christopher Culbertson creates Project Odakniwa to promote sustainable economic and social development

September 21, 2012 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — At The College of Wooster, students are part of a community of learners where independent minds work together. That philosophy extends well beyond the campus, as far away as Chile, where current students and recent graduates are working cross-culturally with indigenous communities to meet common goals. They are part of Project Odakniwa, a new non-profit, grassroots, community-led partnership that works collaboratively with Mapuche communities in South America to create and implement projects that promote long-term sustainable social and economic development.

The project was founded by Christopher Culberston, a 2012 Wooster graduate who first visited Chile as a high school junior, to learn more about the country from which he was adopted and about Mapuche cultural history. Having developed a connection and a sense of purpose in that country, he returned often, most notably three years later with the help of Wooster’s Kendall-Rives Latin American Research grant, to work at the Chol-Chol Foundation, an NGO in the city of Temuco. While there, he managed to reunite with his biological mother, and gain a deeper understanding of his roots as a member of a Mapuche community.

The Mapuche were the first inhabitants of Chile, where they were met by Incan and Spanish colonizers in the 16th century. Since then, they have struggled to maintain land rights and preserve their culture. Today, many of the remaining Mapuche communities live in isolation and poverty, without political representation in the Chilean government.

That’s where Culbertson, who has always been driven by a desire to help those in poverty, hopes to make a difference. Through his extensive travels around the world, including trips to Brazil, Peru, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Canada, Germany and Austria, Culberston has learned to make connections with people from other cultures. Those experiences, along with his emotional reunion with his Chilean family, led to an intense passion for working with people different than himself. “I found that working with many different people added a unique dynamic to our collaborative efforts,” he said. “And that, pretty naturally, became the centerpiece for Project Odakniwa (the mirror opposite of the word Awinkado, a condescending term that means “to be a foreigner in one’s own culture” – intended to negate a self-inflicted form of racism by the Mapuche people).”

As his sense of Chilean identity developed, so, too, did his desire to collaborate with his fellow Mapuche community members to see what they could do together to promote sustainable development and improve their standard of living. The concept for Project Odakniwa began earlier this year during a conversation between Culbertson’s adoptive mother — an architect — and one of his Mapuche cousins — an electrical engineer who is interested in energy efficiency and sustainable development. Together, they saw the possibility of a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the welfare of the community through four primary projects: (1) advancing sustainable agriculture; (2) developing renewable energy through construction; (3) promoting Artisan work, such as textiles, weaving, jewelry, and woodworking; and (4) promoting, preserving, and teaching the ancient Mapuche native language.

The spirit of collaboration drives Project Odakniwa, both internally, through its mission of promoting community development by working with the Mapuche, and externally, as the organization works closely with The College of Wooster to grow and provide research and volunteer opportunities for current students.

One of the key links between the College and the organization is sophomore Heidi Strike, who became interested in Project Odakniwa last spring after attending Culbertson’s I.S. presentation, which explored Mapuche and Chilean identity through poetry. The two kept in contact over the summer as the project evolved, and Culbertson invited Strike to join the effort. “I didn’t think twice about the opportunity,” she said. “Projects like his are ones that I have dreamed of starting myself. He has such strong ideas and so much potential.”

Soon after graduation, Culbertson started looking into the possibility of making their dream a reality. Things began moving quickly when Project Odakniwa became an official non-profit corporation in Cubertson’s home state of Michigan last month. They acquired a 501C3 fiscal sponsor, the Appropriate Technology Collaborative, creating a partnership that allows them to receive tax-deductible donations through ATC and 100 percent of the profits.

Culbertson has emphasized from its inception that Project Odakniwa’s success depends on its ties with the College. In addition to Strike, a number of faculty and friends have provided support and encouragement, and have been integral in connecting him with the resources needed to get the project off the ground. In particular, Katie Holt, assistant professor of history, who advised Culbertson’s I.S., and, he says, helped him develop both academically and personally, has been vital. In addition, his Spanish adviser Mary Addis, who helped Culbertson to understand identity in Latin America as well as his own hybrid existence, has been a very important part of the process.

Several of Culbertson’s fellow Wooster graduates have also contributed to the project. Kenny Libben, a 2010 graduate, now works as a technical advisor and provides IT support. Josh Dailey, Culbertson’s roommate at Wooster, is helping develop an app for Apple iPhones and iPads that will help with the language promotion initiative. Allan Ruter, the father of Karl Ruter, a 2010 graduate, has offered his advice to Project Odakniwa in their grant-proposal process. “The (Wooster) students, faculty, and alumni that we’ve been working with have been so valuable in helping to answer so many of our questions that have helped move us in the right direction,” said Strike.

Culbertson and Strike serve on Project Odakniwa’s Board of Directors, which consists of seven individuals from the U.S., Chile, and the Mapuche community. Strike believes that the ultimate goal is for all three communities to be connected, without any barriers.

Strike also serves as the chair of the Volunteer and Fundraising Committee. Her primary role is to spread the word and get people involved. She plans to hold informational sessions at the College to let people know about volunteer opportunities, and she hopes to establish a significant core group of students to be a part of the Project Odakniwa committee here on campus.

Members of Project Odakniwa recently met with the Center of Diversity and Global Engagement and the Wooster Volunteer Network to begin proposing ways that those two organizations can develop a successful platform for Wooster student research and volunteer opportunities.

Project Odakniwa’s first partnership began in July with the community of Paillao Mapu, just outside of Temuco, Chile. Culbertson notes the reciprocal aspect of the process, as both the community and his organization are learning from each other and working together to achieve common goals. They began collaborating by creating a census in order to gather important statistical information that they will then use to assess their resources and plans for the future.

One thing they hope to accomplish is the creation of an apprenticeship program for the construction of the Paillao Mapu community center, which will establish Project Odakniwa’s physical presence and provide a central meeting location for the community members. “The idea is to have a trained professional who is an expert in energy efficiency and sustainable design teach a construction team consisting of members from the Mapuche community who would then work together on the construction of the building in the community. Then, the building would not only serve its outlined purposes, like volunteer housing and workshop and exhibit space, but also serve as a demonstration facility and a model for other projects and collaborative efforts,” said Culbertson, who noted that talks are underway with two other universities — one in Chile and one in the U.S. — to help implement the idea.

Project Odakniwa is also looking at the possibility of expanding into the areas of medicine and health, and considering Wooster athletes as volunteers to set up youth sports camps in their communities. “Chris is really big on giving back,” said Strike. “If it weren’t for the opportunities that Wooster gave him to study abroad and travel to Chile, he would have never found his birth mom. If it weren’t for the staff that worked with him and met with him to help him understand his identity and his passion, Project Odakniwa would have never been started. He is so grateful for everything the college has done for him, and now he wants to help other students have their own mind-opening experiences. He wants to include the College in his big plans, and show how much he appreciates everything that the people here have done for him.”

Meanwhile, Culbertson is confident that Project Odakniwa’s collaborative model will be successful. “Everyone working with us has an incredible passion for what they do,” he said. “The Mapuche project directors in Paillao Mapu have expressed optimism, appreciation, and humility, saying ‘Odakniwa is a dream project for us.’ If it can be realized, it would be a solution to our needs. People here have high hopes to improve and have a better quality of life and greater opportunities with Project Odakniwa. We thank everyone who is contributing in some way to implement this ambitious project.”

- Written by Julie Kendall ‘13