Four Principles for Learning Communities

CHE graduate students and faculty members gathered in a circle of interdisciplinary conversation during our place-based workshop on "Landscapes of Extraction" in May 2014. Photo by William Cronon.

Last fall, the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison turned 10. I was present at the founding of CHE as a graduate student, and the anniversary inspired me to reflect on the lessons that I learned from participating in an academic center dedicated to exploring the environmental past, present, and future, and the ways that those lessons have come to influence my current work in the Pacific Northwest.

Although CHE was one of the first, there are now centers for environmental studies at colleges and universities across the country, and many of them, like Princeton’s Environmental Institute and the Rachel Carson Center, are now home to former CHE faculty and students. The 10th anniversary provided many of us with a chance to take stock of the intellectual contributions of the CHE community, but in the process of doing so, I realized that there were other less explicitly intellectual lessons I had learned in CHE that carry into my professional life. The distinct culture and structure of CHE influenced where I live, how I organize my professional work, and how I relate with the people and places I encounter.

I decided to share four lessons that I learned from CHE, chief among them that it matters how we arrange our learning communities. They illustrate the profound influence that a learning community can have on someone’s life when designed and stewarded in a thoughtful way.

Two young girls wait beside the Salish Sea

The author’s daughters await the ferry in their family’s chosen place of the Pacific Northwest, Washington. Photo by Travis Tennessen.

Lesson #1: Choose Your Place

CHE events and conversations often brought to my attention people who were deeply invested in their places. I’m thinking of folks like Jane Addams, Edward Abbey, Joel Salatin, and Majora Carter. I’m also remembering visiting the Ho-Chunk Nation’s bison herd during one of CHE’s place-based workshops, and their community leaders’ passion for restoring cultural practices in southern Wisconsin. Through these conversations, I came to admire the evident richness of a life dedicated to learning about, shaping, interpreting, and defending particular places. I wanted to follow in their footsteps.

For my wife, Jenny, and me, that meant choosing a place to be rather than being blown by the winds of the academic job market. We choose Bellingham, Washington. We had spent the summer of 2007 in the nearby San Juan Islands while Jenny did her master’s research on orcas, and we kept thinking about the region as we both pursued our degrees. During those years, every so often, Jenny would point out that Bellingham was the closest college town to the whales, beaches, and tidepools of the islands we both loved.

Soon after our first daughter was born in 2014, a job was posted at the Center for Community Learning at Western Washington University in Bellingham. The job posting talked about helping build collaborations between the campus and broader community, which fit my interests and skills well. Jenny was closing in on finishing her Ph.D., and she was eager to once again live near and study the orcas of the region. We were both excited by the prospect of raising our children in this dynamic and beautiful place.

I got the job, and we headed to Bellingham. CHE taught me to think deeply about not just other people’s experience of place, but also my own. The community encouraged me to explore the places that mattered to me.

Choosing a place has worked out well so far. Our commitment to the region encourages us to think and plan long term, and to accept slow and incremental progress. When we meet a new person or discover a new place, we expect that our relationship may last many decades. That mindset helps us be good neighbors. Also, we know that even things that frustrate us are part of our choice, which helps us not obsess over them. Most importantly, we can take our daughters to the San Juan Islands whenever we want.

A cohort meeting for the Community Engagement Fellows.

A cohort meeting for the Community Engagement Fellows. Image courtesy of Travis Tennessen.

Lesson #2: Build a Community of Practice

By bringing together people from across the university campus and beyond who do environmental history, CHE taught me the value of building a community of practice.

Inspired by my experiences in Wisconsin, the community of practice I created in my new home region is Community Engagement Fellows. This group is focused on building partnerships that enable community-based learning. Each Fellow joins a cohort of community leaders that meet eight times over the academic year. Cohorts include faculty and staff from Western Washington University and the local technical, community, and tribal colleges, as well as people from local government, non-profit organizations, school districts, and other community groups.

No one is the expert with all the answers. We’re all learning together.

In our meetings, we share wisdom with each other about how to design healthy learning environments and partnerships, take turns workshopping Fellows’ questions about their emerging work, and strive to connect people with shared interests. CE Fellows create new classes, assignments, internships, research projects, community events, websites, and speaker series. By meeting together to improve our practice, we’re building a stronger culture of community-based learning in our region and a robust network of caring, mutually supportive people.

Communities of practice like CHE and Community Engagement Fellows are valuable because those participating are drawn together by a genuine care for the topic and a desire to improve. No one is the expert with all the answers. Instead, we’re all learning together. Cultivating these kinds of learning environments is an important way to break down cultural and institutional barriers, spawn new insights and collaborations, and build more inclusive communities.

a green mug

A conversation starter and pace slower. Photo by Travis Tennessen.

Lesson #3: Be Humane and Relational

I carry this mug around with me a lot these days, and it helps me live out another important lesson learned from my experiences in CHE. The mug is eye-catching, and it inspires many comments and questions. I like to share that it came from Webster’s Bookstore in State College, Pennsylvania, was made by a local artist, and reminds me of the years I taught at Penn State. This story often leads people to share a bit about their own origins and life paths. The mug gets us to step outside ourselves for a moment and to see each other as complicated, interesting, and valuable human beings.

The mug also has no lid, so it keeps me from hurrying. If I hurry, I get wet and stained. Holding this mug, I must move with care and pay attention to the people around me, or they might get wet and stained, too.

The people of CHE helped me come to understand the importance of being humane and relational, particularly in academia, which can feel isolating, competitive, and overly busy. Spending time with fellow CHE graduate students Anna Zeide and Heather Swan helped teach me those values.

Without CHE, I would never have met either Anna or Heather. They were in different departments in separate buildings on the sprawling university campus. I met each of them during CHE place-based workshops—multi-day bus tours where we explored different themes related to environmental history. My first conversation with Anna was during an evening campfire while we were staying in some cabins near Readstown in southwestern Wisconsin. With Heather, it was on a lakeshore in north-central Wisconsin.

We had space and time to connect beyond the rhythms of campus life.

Anna and Heather are each people who live deliberately and choose their words carefully. They listen and care for the people and other beings around them—which helps them be good scholars and nice friends. Anna and Heather became people I could speak candidly with about the challenges and opportunities of graduate school, and about teaching and learning environmental history. We shared what we really cared about and what we wanted to do with our lives. We celebrated each other’s successes and supported each other through tough times.

CHE gave us space and time to connect beyond the usual rhythms of campus life and outside of our own departments. It enabled us to find people with similar passions and perspectives, cultivate genuine friends, and move our work and lives forward. It helped us model (as Anna and Heather did for me) and practice being humane and relational.

Being humane and relational is useful. For example, we can’t compel anyone to participate in Community Engagement Fellows, but the program has grown quickly in large part because of its humane and relational culture. We meet individually with each new Fellow to establish a personal relationship, greet people by name when they arrive at meetings, and ensure coffee and snacks are available. Our emails to Fellows are upbeat, and our meetings are full of laughter despite the serious and challenging subjects we discuss. Fellows tell us that they come to meetings—even when they feel too busy—because they know they will leave feeling cared for and energized.

This lesson learned through CHE is helping me be an effective professional—as well as a happy person surrounded by caring people.

The Salish Sea from the OWW campus

The new journal Archipelago showcases the culture, art, ecology and people of the Salish Sea, seen here from the Western Washington University campus. Photo by Travis Tennessen.

Lesson #4: Empower Many Voices

The people of CHE are committed to centering voices, whether past or present, that have been neglected or left on the margins. Brian Hamilton’s recent Edge Effects piece, “Woke Environmentalism,” and Anna M. Gade’s on Wisconsin Green Muslims, illustrate this value well.

Inspired by CHE, in my own life and work I’m trying to empower many voices through the inclusive culture of Community Engagement Fellows, as well as a new online journal that I helped launch, called  Archipelago: Journal of the Salish Sea. Our goal is to encourage people—through sharing essays, poetry, and short stories—to build a stronger sense of bioregional identity. We named it Archipelago because we include many voices from within and beyond academia, each distinct like the many islands in the Salish Sea.

The Salish Sea is a fairly new name for the inland marine waters of Washington State and southern British Columbia. It’s named for the Coast Salish peoples who have made it their home since time immemorial. We’re used to thinking of the region in pieces—Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia, and so on. The region is divided by water, mountains, and an international border, and it has many distinct First Nations homelands and a diverse array of other cultures. Nevertheless, we share the same water, salmon, and whales, as well as oil tankers, PCBs, a growing population, and a changing climate.

I hope that Archipelago will help the people of the Salish Sea feel and act more connected, and together build a culture that celebrates the diversity of our region and acknowledges its complex and troubled past. In this way, Archipelago merges together each of the lessons I learned in Wisconsin: choose your place, build a community of practice, be humane and relational, and empower many voices.

Each of these lessons from CHE highlight the importance of how we arrange our learning communitieswhether they focus on environmental history or anything else. We should pay attention to the values and practices we are modeling and the types of cultures we are advancing. For me, CHE inspired vital lessons on how to be a happy, effective human and guided me toward the fun and meaningful life I’m leading in Bellingham. It did so by being an inclusive and relational community of practice. I’m grateful.

Featured image: Graduate students and faculty members of the Center for Culture, History, and Environment at the University of Wisconsin–Madison gathered in a circle of interdisciplinary conversation during a place-based workshop on “Landscapes of Extraction.” Photo by William Cronon, May 2014.

Travis Tennessen works in the Center for Community Learning at Western Washington University in Bellingham and is the founder and co-facilitator of Community Engagement Fellows. He received his Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he studied and taught about environmental history and community-based natural resource management. Contact