“Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” — Brené Brown

I invite you to chew on that quote while I welcome you to our new website for the STARS project! Please visit lakeheadsustainability.ca to view it. 

My name is Ledah McKellar and I have been assisting with the STARS project alongside the Centre for Place and Sustainability Studies (CPSS) at Lakehead University. The CPSS is the chief organization championing this project, with the support of the Office of the Vice-President Academic and Provost, Dr. Rod Hanley. It is with excitement that I write this first blog post for our new website. With the help of the Director of the Centre, Dr. David Greenwood, and the Associate Director, Dr. Pauline Sameshima, we built this website as a home base for the STARS project.  I would also like to thank Dayna Slingerland for the lovely handcrafted header image, and Mercedes Sandy for any photography on the site.

If you stumbled onto this page but don’t know what STARS is, please click here to be directed to a STARS Overview.

I would like to revisit the quote that I opened with. Brené Brown, Ph.D. LMSW, is an American scholar, author, and public speaker who has spent many years researching vulnerability, shame, courage, and worthiness. In a TedTalk called The Power of Vulnerability, she says “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” When I was hired as the STARS Project Coordinator for the Centre, the first thing I did was download the STARS Technical Manual, which is a 300 page checklist of STARS criteria. Not only was I overwhelmed, but I was nauseous. Where was the soul in all this?, I thought. Other questions raced through my head: wasn’t there a danger in standardized assessments? Don’t they tend to marginalize institutions that are smaller, with fewer resources to “compete”? Would Lakehead's unique positioning be able to shine in this project? It surprised me that a Centre who’s main focus was on place-based learning would endorse such a project. 
Before long, with the support of the Centre, I grew to see that there are multiple ways of understanding and representing data, and that, in fact, there is a great deal of soul involved in the STARS project if I change my focus. If we approach STARS as a tool in which to engage our campus in a meaningful conversation on sustainability, and what that looks like in the context of our shared place, then we are the owners of that project. For me, this shifts the control of the project into our community’s hands so that we use STARS as an agent for our own change. And we have witnessed just that (as slow as it may be!). By engaging in STARS, we at the Centre have had conversations with people we had never met on campus – local champions of sustainability or not – and discovered new things and made new relationships.

Here is a brief summary of what STARS has accomplished so far:

  1. We have piloted STARS as a service learning initiative by using it in the classroom. Under the supervision of  Contract Lecturer Mr. Raphael Shay, students of the undergraduate Geography class, Sustainable Community Design - GEOG 4771, have participated in the data collection process for STARS. It has been very insightful learning how STARS can work in the classroom and we hope that more classes will get involved next term!
  2. Each set of data that we collect for STARS comes with a soul, a story: what was the story of the champion behind that data,  or if the data was non-existing, why? In these stories we hope to cultivate a sense of community and inspiration around sustainability here at Lakehead. One of the ways we would like to represent these stories is through the use of interactive web design and GIS applications that will  take a virtual user on a storytelling walk of STARS and our campus.
  3. Our team has grown to include four more staff who are working on the project: Ph.D Candidate Alexa Scully leading the Orillia team, graduate students Sophie Best and Adam Young, and undergraduate student Gary Musson. Welcome to the team!
I invite you to stay tuned to the lakeheadsustainability.ca website as our STARS journey unfolds. I expect interesting, surprising, and beautiful stories to emerge as we begin to collect our data.  This home base will connect the university and the greater community at large with the STARS project. It is here that we will showcase all the discoveries that pop up along the way.
This special yoga series is now available on a separate page. Click here to view it.

Over the next six months I will keep a blog on why I am becoming a yoga teacher at Yoga North, in Duluth Minnesota.

As many people have asked me why I, a “successful” middle-aged academic, am getting certified to teach yoga, I feel compelled to put the question to myself and to follow, through the process of writing as inquiry, where question and response take me. I trust in this process.

Working for change is all about relationship. This is what I learned in the 1990s from my mentor Michael Morris, a community activist/leader and reluctant academic who created change in multiple communities in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I did my graduate work. I keep a framed photo of Michael in the office of the Centre for Place and Sustainability Studies. He is standing in the street with a wide smile and an aging body full of energy. He is holding a protest sign.

The top-layer strand of the tangled web of my surprising journey (it is surprising to me) toward yoga teacher certification leads me to my friend and colleague Jocelyn Burkhart, with whom I taught Lakehead University’s first seminar in Holistic and Contemplative Education during the spring of 2013. Ideas around holism are central to discourses of place and sustainability, but questions around the meaning of whole selves or whole communities are often neglected in approaches that privilege political over personal learning. For our course, I had sought out Jocelyn’s participation as a co-facilitator because of her experience and passion around experiential education, holistic learning, and also because she herself is a certified yoga instructor (as well as a true seeker of wisdom). I knew that with Jocelyn’s expertise leading embodiment practices, which she had been doing with the Centre for Place and Sustainability Studies and in many other contexts for some months, our course would be enlivened with a wide variety of somatic and contemplative experiences. The course was enriched in this way, to my benefit, and I believe also to the benefit of students who universally expressed that this was among the most powerful courses (if not the most powerful) of their educational journey. Reflecting together on the course at its conclusion, I told Jocelyn that I really wanted to be able to offer students what we called “embodiment and mindfulness practices” with more authenticity myself. I usually deferred this kind of leadership to her, but through the course of our experience saw that if I truly wanted to teach holistically, I needed to develop a non-traditional academic skill that others outside of academe had, and that few of us inside had bothered to learn.

When I told her of this gut feeling, Jocelyn’s eyes lit up and she immediately replied, “You should become certified to teach yoga at my ashram!” In that moment what had been a gut feeling began to shift into intention and resolve.

Yoga teachers do not normally go around telling others what they should do. But as soon as Jocelyn told me I should become a yoga teacher, an unequivocal yes began stirring me. While the intensive residency requirement of Jocelyn’s ashram was not possible given family and work responsibilities, that same week I discovered a teacher training opportunity at Yoga North in Duluth, Minnesota. Instead of a three or four month residency, I learned that I could earn my certification in six weekend intensives over the course of six months. So I called up one of the owner/instructors at Yoga North, and was delighted to learn that their philosophy was a good fit for me, a forty-eight-year-old man who is more tight than flexible, and who has had some serious aches and pains that come from too many years of sit time at the computer. So I enrolled in the course, in part to gain greater authenticity as a professor of Holistic and Contemplative Education. I have just completed my first weekend. It was exhausting and challenging physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. I am convinced that this training is exactly where I need to be.

But of course there are deeper layers of the story behind this journey, layers that explain why I am committed to holism in my approach to education for sustainability.

The deeper story, and the source of my readiness to respond to Jocelyn’s challenge/invitation, has to do with my lifelong struggle to become more fully myself in an institution that I believe distorts the very meaning of life while reinforcing cultural norms that continue to reproduce every kind of social, ecological, and personal problem that plague human beings and the ecosystems of our terrestrial home. In other words, the deeper story surrounds my heartfelt conviction that conventional education—despite its good intentions and despite the noble commitments of those committed individuals who enact it—is deeply flawed and that it must be changed. My career as an academic has been committed to developing theories, models, and practices that enact change at various scales. While I may be best known for my contributions developing new educational theories, these theories have always emerged from my own direct experiences, and from my own personal longing for what the great mythologist Joseph Campbell called “the experience of being alive.”

I have championed critical, place-based environmental and sustainability education because I believe that this educational movement toward cultural and ecological renewal offers a necessary counterpoint to a centuries-long project of cultural and ecological colonization, otherwise known as progress. Our formal educational institutions, both schools and universities, have been primary instruments of this dubious progress, and my work as a teacher and scholar has tried to create space within these institutions for big questions concerning our purposes and the relation between education and the wellbeing of people, place, and planet. 

This, as any of the many people who are doing it will tell you, is difficult work. Making space for change within institutions resistant to change challenges one’s patience and abilities on every level: intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical. And it is doubly difficult because despite a fierce longing for change, as participants within the system we inescapably embody aspects of it in our everyday thoughts and actions. While we want things to change, we go along and make tacit agreements to support and even defend the very practices that we might find incredibly troubling if we were to stop and think about them. We do this because if we stopped and questioned everything, we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs, we might even lose them, and worse, we would constantly be getting in the way of others trying to do theirs. This dilemma of complicity is exactly the same dilemma around climate change. We want a different energy system, but because it’s so hard to function without fossil fuels, we continue using them, thereby supporting the very cause of our concern. Fortunately we have alternatives—both alternative energy sources, and alternative approaches to education. But embracing these alternatives will always be challenging work as long dominant approaches remain dominant, especially because it is difficult to escape the paradox of both wanting change, and supporting through our complicity that which we want to change.

The next instalment of Why I am Becoming a Yoga Teacher will address how personal challenges can motivate us to respond to inner places of deep knowing within ourselves so that we can make the outer changes that allow us to act with more authenticity.
Greetings to participants and future participants of Lakehead University’s Centre for Place and Sustainability Studies,

For the academic year 2013-2014, the Centre will focus on several related projects that invite participation from sustainability enthusiasts from the LU community and from the diverse communities that make up the Thunder Bay region. Other Centre-related activities can be viewed here on our website.  

1. The Local Visionaries Forum will resume beginning Wednesday, September 18 from 3-5. Our guest in September will be Anne Ostrom, Healthy Communities Coordinator for the Thunder Bay District Health Unit. Anne also chairs the Walkability Committee for EarthCare Thunder Bay. She will be sharing a vision of a more walkable Thunder Bay, and the link to economic, social and physical well-being. The Local Visionaries Forum forum is a place to meet people, in and outside of the university, who are enacting a vision of sustainability, to get inspired by local sustainability stories, to comment on existing projects and proposals, to explore potential partnerships, and to hold conversation around shared interests and concerns. For the Fall, 2013 Local Visionaries schedule please see http://placecentre.org/local-visionaries.html.

2. In an effort to deepen and expand awareness around ongoing and potential sustainability initiatives at LU, the Centre will be helping to implement the STARS campus sustainability assessment (https://stars.aashe.org/). This is a one to two year project aiming to examine how LU does sustainability, to inspire new directions, and to make what is happening more visible, accessible, and relevant to a wider public. Centre staff are working with diverse units on campus to participate in this initiative and will advertise these opportunities widely. Please see our website (http://placecentre.org/stars.html) and contact Ledah McKellar for more information (lpmckell@lakeheadu.ca).

3. This fall the Centre will be planning an April, 2014 faculty development workshop around the theme of “place-conscious sustainability education.”  This funded 2 day workshop/retreat will feature opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration in research, teaching, and outreach, as well as opportunities to learn more about community-based collaboration and service learning. Please contact David Greenwood for more information (greenwooddavida@gmail.com).

4. The Centre is currently lobbying the administration to create an award for Community Engaged Scholarship. Seeking such an award is an effort to recognize and legitimize faculty members who practice “integrated scholarship” or “the scholarship of engagement” with diverse communities and stakeholders outside the ivory tower. For more information, please contact Brian Ross (bross@nosm.ca).

5. The Centre is sponsoring a student contest that aims to capture the sustainability stories and experience of students, staff and faculty at Lakehead. While the STARS initiative launched by the Centre this fall collects data that represents sustainability achievements, we want to uncover the stories behind this data, or that STARS may otherwise fail to capture. We will be opening a call out to all students, faculty and staff to submit their sustainability story of Lakehead, in the form or a picture, drawing, map, story, song or other format.  These submissions may be visions, critiques or current practices that deserve to be more widely known. Submissions will be made public on our website to show a diverse range of sustainability stories at Lakehead. A sustainability prize will be given for the best submission that tells the story of a current practice or vision for change at LU. Stay tuned to our website for more details.

To wrap up, here is an inspiring quote that I believe speaks to our shared work.

To nurture is to care for the well-being of other humans, our fellow creatures, Earthly habitats, and ourselves. To be generative is to design and implement innovative cultural practices that imaginatively and effectively restore, solve, or shelter, that truly serve the whole person and the web of live (endeavors in education, for example, or governance or healing). To be an adult, in this sense, is to enthusiastically an competently embrace opportunities to enhance the vitality of beings, places, and communities, present and future---and, where you don’t find such opportunities, to creatively generate them.


                                                      From Wild Mind by Bill Plotkin (New World Library, 2013)