Behind the Scenes: Ki Culture. Blog 1- Caitlin Southwick

Behind the Scenes: Ki Culture. Blog 1- Caitlin Southwick

By Caitlin Southwick


In the first of three blogs looking behind the scenes at Ki Culture, their Executive Director Caitlin Southwick looks at the challenges setting up this international nonprofit working to unite culture and sustainability.

A large demonstration.Someone is holding a sign that sya: There is no Planet B


How passion and necessity grew into an international organization for sustainability in the cultural sector

Ki Culture is an organization born out of a passion for sustainability and a problem that needed to be fixed. Call it bold or call it naïve; starting a non-profit in the cultural sector the day after I finished my doctorate and on the cusp of the pandemic with no idea or experience in business, no partners or financial backing, seemed absolutely impossible, but was probably the best decision I’ve ever made.


Seedlings, or a refusal to accept unsustainable conservation practices

I’ve been passionate about sustainability for as long as I can remember. From singing at the top of my lungs about saving the forests and oceans as a child to no longer accepting unsustainable practices in my conservation lab, every bone in my body has always known that we need change. Standing on the beach in Rapa Nui, pouring toxic chemicals over the Moai statues and watching those chemicals run into the ground and into the ocean was the straw that broke the camel's back. This was not ok. I had to do something. There had to be a better way. I would spend hours digging and trying to find any information on how I could approach conservation differently, but I couldn’t find any information. I didn’t find anyone doing the work I yearned to be part of. I decided I had to do it myself, and Ki Culture was born.

Ki Culture is an organization founded on the belief that sustainability needs a global, collaborative approach, and that everyone should be involved in helping create a better world for our future. Our work is dedicated to promoting sustainability in the culture sector and using culture to influence and inspire our audiences, our communities, and position the sector as leaders for sustainability. We make sustainability easy and achievable to everyone by providing solutions, resources, and programs for cultural professionals and organizations that are accessible and sustainable. We are the bridge between culture and sustainability and we want to invite everyone along for the journey!


Roots, or a journey into the nexus of culture and sustainability

I had experienced unsustainable practices in my time as a conservator before that fateful day on the beach. In conservation labs, we would go through thousands of disposable gloves every year. You could see the gloves piling up - next to the petroleum-derived foams and the plastic sheeting and bubble wrap that was thrown out after one use. It wasn’t something that was really addressed, more so a practice that was accepted as the only way to do things. But I thought it made no sense. What was the point of conserving these objects at the expense of the planet? Conservation is the opposite of destruction, so why are we not questioning what we are destroying in our efforts to preserve heritage? Was this a choice - you can only save one thing? That was counterintuitive, hypocritical, and just wrong. Conservation should be about conserving our past, and our future. So I went on a mission to find out how. I was looking for tips, resources, a network of people working towards sustainability to share best practices with, but all I found were conservators all over the world who were asking the same questions I was. What I noticed almost immediately was that there wasn’t any single, trusted resource that was accessible to me. And I wasn’t alone.

What really pushed me towards taking the leap was that this issue was not unique to conservators, it was prevalent within the museum sector and beyond: from artists to curators, registrars to vendors, every cultural professional I came across was thinking about sustainability. When I spoke to my fellow cultural professionals, we weren’t just thinking about the environment. We were thinking about our impacts on our own health, and on the wellbeing of society at large. There was a resounding YES when it came to wanting to move towards a more sustainable sector, but no one had the information, tools, or resources to do so.


The Blossoming, or the birth of Ki Culture

Lots of hands in the air withfingersspread. One makes the sign for OK.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Knowing that my friends and colleagues were looking for the same things as me gave me the boost I needed. I honed my passion and identified the bottlenecks of sustainable practice in the sector and used these to create Ki Culture. At the core, I wanted to build an organization designed to help individuals, institutions, and cultural professionals everywhere who want to contribute to a better, more sustainable and just future. The timing was right- this idea was no longer just an idea, it was a necessity.

The vision for Ki Culture grew out of knowing that our planet needs us, as cultural practitioners, to be leaders for sustainability. To connect and empower us through art, storytelling, and through our history to position us for a chance at a future. Culture has the unique capacity to drive the societal paradigm shift we need to achieve a sustainable future. It’s in the name. We just needed a dedicated full-time resource to help us get there.

Ki Culture was registered in November 2019 as a nonprofit organization in Amsterdam. I decided to start Ki in Holland because I had been living and studying there for six years and knew that there was a strong commitment to both culture and sustainability in the country. I knew that in order to create the resource, network, and program I dreamed of I would need funding. And with so much excitement about sustainability and culture in The Netherlands and beyond, I figured finding it would be easy. I just needed to get started.


A fissure and new growth, or the Covid pandemic and how it benefited Ki Culture

Unfortunately, what I thought was the best moment to start this passion project was on the cusp of a huge change in our society and economy. Covid handed the world a huge hit to the economy, and our search for funding became not only unsuccessful but impossible. However, with this difficulty, we were also given a gift: time. Professionals from across the globe and across various sectors were furloughed or out of work and were looking for something to do. People were looking for purpose: to dedicate their time and skills to something that they believed in and that would make a positive difference. For many, finding Ki Culture was a happy accident.

Through the first year and a half of the pandemic, we relied on volunteers for everything. At one point, we had over 150 volunteers contributing to our programs and projects: from resource creation to fundraising, running our social media, designing and building our websites, and helping to coordinate the internal operations of a huge, digital, international collective. I was the only one working on Ki Culture full-time (even though I was still unpaid), but even so, we were able to accomplish so much from the amazing talents and input of our international team.

Ki Culture is built on co-creation and we would not be what we are today without every single of our volunteers.

Working with an organization that was built to be virtual even without the pandemic presented opportunities. Our company has international cooperation and input that I had never seen before. We have volunteers all over the world, from Australia to Hong Kong, Rwanda, Nigeria, Sweden, Italy, the UK, Brazil, Canada, and the US, and more. Our group communicates and meets 100% remotely - Zoom before it was a thing. And of course the most exciting part of this group was the breadth of interest, experience, and knowledge which has brought so many different perspectives and invaluable input.

In just two years, this incredible team has worked together to put out four publications (three Ki Books - Energy, Materials, Social Sustainability - and the Greener Solvents Handbook), created, piloted, and launched the Ki Futures program, presented at dozens of conferences, taught over 20 workshops, and have created partnerships and collaborations all over the world.

Our team and our organization has been able to thrive because of our shared goal towards a sustainable future. We have harnessed incredible connection and collaboration in such unprecedented, and lonely, times. It’s an incredible honor to work with likeminded people who are all rooted in this ethos of co-creation and international collaboration. It allows us to provide better, more well-rounded solutions for the future of sustainability in the cultural sector.

Days when I struggle to get out of bed, I remember all of the incredible people who believe in this and who have worked so hard to make this a reality, and I count my blessings that I get to get up and work with such motivating, inspiring, and brilliant people.

Caitlin Southwick, Founder and Executive Director of Ki Culture

Caitlin Southwick, Founder Ki Culture


Resource type: Articles | Published: 2022