By Judy Asselin, Sustainability Coordinator, Middle School Teacher
This year the Friends Environmental Education Network (FEEN) conference was held May 3-4 at The William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. With help from The Friends Council on Education, FEEN has met annually for the past dozen or so years to foster a collective sense of mission to make Friends schools as sustainable as possible. This year, 25 teachers from 10 Friends schools attended, representing a wealth of strategies and programs to incorporate education for sustainability into our curricula and school operations. We learned about each other’s programs, took field trips to the Philadelphia Water Works, National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum Wildlife, and the local single-stream recycling plant.
Last fall, when several Penn Charter teachers visited Westtown to tour our gardens and learn about our sustainability programs, I was asked to give the keynote for the conference. I focused on institutional practices: how Westtown has advanced the paradigm shift towards sustainability (a shift that every school will have to make eventually if it is to survive); reduction in energy use; generation of sustainable energy; growth and purchase of local, healthy food; building to the highest green standards possible; attendance to indoor air quality; conservation of water; composting or recycling waste—the list goes on. It was gratifying to hear that other participants were inspired to learn about Westtown’s progress.
One topic that emerged during the two days was why it often feels safer, easier, and more natural in Friends Schools to pay attention to the Quaker testimonies of equality and community, but that simplicity and stewardship seem less compelling as organizing principles. Yet the testimonies are inextricably connected: our schools have become complex places, providing more and more “bells and whistles” in our efforts to keep up with technological changes, and more programs to satisfy the demands of a consumer culture. How do we square those demands with our Quaker values? How can we connect the dots between over-consumption and the toll it take on other cultures that have the least? How do we make explicit connections in our teaching among all the Friends testimonies that are essential to the education we offer as Friends schools? I was especially struck by this phrase from the FEEN mission statement
“Without fertile soil, clean water and air, sufficient space, and adequate access to natural resources (renewable and non-renewable), people will not have the food, health, employment, and living conditions that will enable them to live in peace and dignity. A deteriorating natural environment thus becomes an important focus for Friends as they seek social justice and equity, and address root causes of violence in the world.”
Reconciling the push to grow and ever enhance school programs with the imperative to do so sustainably is not easy, and Westtown struggles as much as any school. But the sustainability agenda is moving slowly but surely to center stage as the positive financial and environmental consequences of paying attention to how we run our schools become clear.
After two days with this vibrant, smart group of educators, I left feeling thoroughly validated in everything we are doing at Westtown and determined to go the next mile in our work to create a truly sustainable institution, graduating students of vision who will always be stewards of the resources on which all life depends.
News Flash: Next year — May 2-3, 2013 — the FEEN conference will be held at Westtown with a focus on how Education for Sustainability can span all disciplines, and not just live in the sciences.