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Seizing Teachable Moments: An African-American Professor’s Reflections of Conversations on Race and Culture with White Students


Over the past twelve years, I have functioned in the capacity of both adjunct faculty and National Faculty at Lesley University, a private university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I have had the distinct pleasure of teaching courses across the United States for the division of Creative Arts in Learning (CAL) as a part of the Graduate School of Education. As a professor of arts integration, I teach practicing K-12 educators to incorporate a variety of arts disciplines into core curriculum areas. Mirroring current public school national teacher demographics, my students are overwhelmingly middle class, white, and female. These assignments have been and continue to be nothing less than gratifying, offering opportunities for expanding my teaching into new dimensions.

Very often, I find myself working in cities or towns where there are very few, if any, people who look like me, and it is even more common to find myself teaching in classrooms where I am the only person of color in the room. I have become accustomed to knowing, feeling, and internalizing what I call “solo spaces.” In fact, I have made a conscious decision to use this unique position to my advantage as an instructor. I have been consistently gratified in discovering how my presence as an African American professor from the South has presented itself as a segue into creating meaningful teachable moments to frame broader issues pertaining to race, cultural identity, and class.

The following dialogue is an example of an exchange I had with white students in a small town located in the western part of the United States. To facilitate this dialogue I deliberately employed four communication strategies to navigate through student inquiries pertaining to race: (a) assessing underlying meanings, (b) using humor, (c) reframing questions and statements, and(d) probing to discover new information.

Student 1: Don’t you feel weird being the only black person in this class?

Teacher: Actually, I feel pretty weird whether I’m the only black person or not! (Humor) 

But all jokes aside, by “weird” are you asking if I feel uncomfortable? (Assessing )

Student 1: Sorta! You don’t “spazz out” when you don’t see other black people?

Teacher: Well, I do like to see other black people, but I’m okay if I don’t.

Student #1: I don’t know if I could do that!

Teacher: Do you mean that it would be difficult if you were the only white person in a group of people who were racially different from you? (Assessing)

Student #1: I just couldn’t do it. It would freak me out!

Teacher: Sounds like it would make you very uncomfortable. Do you have any idea why you feel that way? (Probing) I would love to hear feelings from the rest of you as well.

Student #1: I just have always been around people like myself and it feels scary to think I’m in the minority.

Student #2: Yeah, we just aren’t used to being around people different from ourselves.

But, I lived in Atlanta for a while, so I’m used to seeing all kinds of people. I like it out here but there’s no diversity. Everybody looks the same, believes in the same thing, and sees life the same way. I don’t like that.

Teacher: I can appreciate that. There are many people who feel exactly like you. Are there others in class who share similar feelings? Different feelings?

So, it sounds like some of you have been exposed to more diverse populations than others, and those of you who have had more experiences with diversity appear to have a higher comfort level with being in the minority than those of you who have had fewer experiences.(Reframing)

I lived in the South during the period of school desegregation, so I became accustomed to being the only person of color at an early age. So, to answer the original question, I guess I don’t feel exceptionally weird.

It’s just my natural way of being!

Now, what might all this mean if we’re teaching students who may be the only person of color in your classroom? (Probing)

Student #1: I guess I shouldn’t think they’re uncomfortable or feel bad just because they look different. Sometimes, I bend over backwards because I feel sorry for them.

Teacher: Kinda like you were feeling sorry for me? (Probing)

Student #1: Exactly!

Student #2: Yeah, we make so many assumptions about our kids based on how we would feel…it’s not really fair.

Teacher: So, Student #1, look what you started! We now know that just because a student is a minority in your classroom community, he or she may not necessarily feel uncomfortable. We also know that our lived experiences may shape how we react to being placed in particular situations.

After breaking down the initial tension with humor, I became ecstatic, even, somewhat humbled, about the elevated level of participation that followed. The beauty of the overall process rested in an awakening that culminated after the student-teacher dialogue. Once I posed the question relative to how our conversation might pertain to their own classes, the students constructed their individual ideas and came to terms with the need to turn the tides of their thinking. In essence, the processes I chose to employ led to a lucrative exchange that propelled my students to become considerably more culturally sensitive.

M. Francine Jennings based this blog on her chapter in Culturally Responsive Teaching and Reflection in Higher Education.

M. Francine Jennings teaches Integrated Teaching through the Arts, with a focus on Creative Movement, Critical Action Research, Diversity and Reflective Thinking. She also performs her own one-woman show, highlighting the life of Harriet Tubman. This blog is based on her chapter in Culturally Responsive Teaching and Reflection in Higher Education, edited by Sharlene Voogd Cochrane (a Courage & Renewal facilitator), Meenakshi Chhabra, Marjorie Jones, and Deborah Spragg (Routledge, 2017).

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Wanna’ know how to cope with climate change? Start with changing yourself.

On a gorgeously sunny weekend in the late summer of 2012, I was enroute to a friend’s cottage north of Toronto with my husband and two other friends. My term as the elected leader of Canada’s largest Protestant denomination had ended just a few days earlier, and I was looking forward to some R&R.

It was a strange feeling to have a whole weekend stretching ahead with no commitments. I’d spent three years at a breakneck pace and the prospect of enjoying some expansive, unscheduled time was both thrilling and, in a way, unnerving.

As our destination neared, my husband signaled for our final left turn and stopped to wait for oncoming traffic. A young man (possibly distracted by the two young women beside him) promptly ploughed his pickup truck into the back of our mid-sized passenger car, crumpling it beyond repair.

An obvious metaphor! But of what?

One of the meanings I’ve taken from this incident over the years is the challenge of speaking truthfully about what’s really going on inside us. As the four of us shook pebbles of shattered safety glass out of our hair and assessed the seemingly miraculous fact that none of us had any visible injuries, we assured each other: “I’m fine. Yes, I’m fine.”

But we weren’t, of course.

We were in shock. And while we were without serious injury, we would discover many new muscular aches and pains in the weeks ahead. My husband particularly suffered, perhaps because he had glanced in his rear view mirror, seen the truck bearing down on us and, unlike the rest of us, stiffened in anticipation of impact. It took several months of physiotherapy before he felt fully restored. But on that sunny morning, he was as confident as any of us in claiming: “I’m fine. Really, I’m fine.”

On a different scale, I was just as bad.

I had thoroughly enjoyed my time in office as Moderator of the United Church of Canada. An extrovert, I thrive on interaction and engagement. Meeting people in church halls, facilitating workshops, presiding at sessions of the church’s legislative council, giving media interviews – all of this was a joy to me. Then it ended as abruptly as, say, a rear-end collision. “I’m fine,” I said. “Really, I’m fine.”

But I wasn’t. I was already grieving the loss of the meaningful work and purposeful activity that had defined me for three years. I was wondering how much (if anything) I’d really accomplished. And I was deeply exhausted.

Looking back, I blame Parker Palmer for most of it….

In the United Church of Canada, one doesn’t “run” for the position of Moderator. Anyone who wanted the job badly enough to campaign for it would be deemed unfit. Instead, one allows one’s name to stand in nomination, and then – apart from a short printed statement and a five minute speech — keeps quiet until the election.

I’d been asked to let my name stand in the past and had always said no. But by the fall of 2008, a couple of things had come together.

One was the growing urgency of encouraging faith communities to become more actively involved in reducing greenhouse gases. True, in 2008, there were many people who still questioned the science, but I’d already become convinced it was more a matter for the heart. Climate scientists told me many times: “We can’t persuade people with facts alone. We need your help.”

The other was the fact that, after years of participating in Courage to Lead retreats, I had reached a point of no return about “going public.” I didn’t particularly look forward to public engagement on a controversial issue. I knew it could lead to my being attacked or ridiculed (which it did). But the courage work had taken hold in me to such an extent that I couldn’t avoid it. If I was to live with integrity, then I had to bring my concern for climate change to offering myself for the role of Moderator.

when human beings take an ‘abundance approach’ rather than a ‘scarcity approach,’ we can generate the hope to meet this challenge, together.And so I stood with seven other candidates before the church’s General Council and, in my five minutes, I told them that climate change was the greatest moral challenge of our generation. And I proposed that when human beings take an ‘abundance approach’ rather than a ‘scarcity approach,’ we can generate the hope to meet this challenge, together.

They elected me anyway.

“Community not only creates abundance, community is abundance,” says Parker, and these words accompanied me throughout my national and international travels as Moderator, and in “town halls” across the country.

I’ve learned that when our hearts embrace the truth that abundance is found in community, inner climate change becomes the most powerful resource by which to address outer climate change. And when our understanding of community extends to the whole human community, we gain an even deeper appreciation for our abundant relationships and potential.

There were many opportunities for me to advance this perspective.

I attended the United Nations’ COP15 climate change talks in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009, and COP17 in Durban, South Africa in 2011, and was bemused to find myself as the only North American church leader present. I was invited to participate in news conferences and issue statements with other global religious leaders of such stature as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. My words found their way into national and international newspapers on numerous occasions, and more frequently in regional news outlets at home as I traveled the country. I was told that I’d become both a symbol of hope, and a threat, a thorn in the side of our federal government which, at the time, was muzzling climate scientists and blocking constructive global action. I could neither remain silent about that obstruction, nor could I behave in any way other than respectfully, given our practices of courage and renewal.

When my term as Moderator ended, I returned to facilitating Courage & Renewal retreats, accepted an invitation to be a national magazine columnist, and wondered about other next steps of engagement.

But without a formal leadership role, I began to feel disoriented and restless about what more I might do. That’s the other way in which, on that August morning when a distracted driver rear-ended our vacation, I was not “all right.” I had to find a new way to speak and act with integrity.

In the midst of this struggle, I received an invitation to become a Kirkridge Courage Fellow [a community of practice among Courage & Renewal Facilitators that meet at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Bangor, Pennsylvania). The Fellowship gave me an opportunity to rediscover my capacity for good work without organizational standing, as I eased into retirement. Just as our principles and practices had readied me to respond with integrity in the past, being in the company of seasoned facilitators would ready me for new circumstances.

Thanks to the trustworthy questions offered to me by the Fellows, I knew how to respond when I received an invitation to lead the United Church of Canada’s delegation to the COP21 Climate talks in Paris. I knew in my heart that it was ‘right work’ for me to accept, as an elder of the church. The challenge was to discern how I would do it in a new way. Without the Moderator’s preaching stole, a symbol of leadership, I would don instead the role of mentor and guide to the young adult activist and the elder from the Haida First Nation who accompanied me.

Later, as I told the Fellows about the Paris experience, it became clearer to me how important it is that we go public with what courage and renewal can offer to the healing of the planet. We create the conditions for inner climate change which are critical for addressing outer climate change.

All of us have a stake in this. A democratic government will risk only what its voters support, so citizens will need to actively support positive risk-taking, and challenge their elected officials when they retreat from their ‘better angels.’ Political capital will be risked, and courage must be rewarded. We must guard our own integrity, and resist the temptation to withdraw our support when decisions require our personal sacrifice.

In order to stay true to my best contributions for this stage of my life – and support others in theirs, I’m inviting old and newer friends into fresh conversation. Plans that my husband and I are making to live communally are reinvigorating, as one way for us to live with greater integrity and within the limits of Earth’s resources.

Listening, speaking and facilitating as an elder, and resisting thoughts that the only kind of ‘right work’ for me is the over-active kind, provides me with a guideline. I will continue to encourage and accompany others, including those elected to public office, without pursuing such an office.

As Desmond Tutu once said: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

Mardi Tindal Practices of courage and renewal are starting to overwhelm the world.

Mardi Tindal is a writer, presenter and facilitator, and a past Moderator of The United Church of Canada. She lives in Toronto Ontario with her husband Douglas Tindal and delights in being the mother of two adult sons and daughters-in-law and in being a grandmother. She can be contacted through email:

This post is an excerpt from Thin Places: Seeking the Courage to Live in a Divided World, an anthology of personal reflections written by seasoned Courage & Renewal facilitators.  Used with permission.

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How Do You Show Up?

When I was a child growing up in the Gulf Coast of Texas I lived through three large hurricanes that brought significant flooding to my community. So I watched in horror as Hurricane Harvey descended on Houston and environs, and as South Asia lost over a thousand people to their flooding disaster. My family was among the lucky ones who didn’t have to do significant rebuilding, but I know firsthand what it is like to watch powerlessly as nature reminds us in the most visceral way possible, that we are not in control.

The poet rupi kaur wrote: “your body / is a museum / of natural disasters / can you grasp how / stunning that is.” We are forged out of disaster in so many ways, yet we often believe we can avoid that truth. There is no control. There is no averting. There is no outrunning the power of nature. We can only respond. And that response is everything. It requires the deepest kind of courage we can summon.

I turn to poetry in times like this, as it speaks between the lines of reality. In The Book of the Dead, Muriel Rukeyser offers this: “What three things can never be done? / Forget. Keep silent. Stand alone.” We can, of course, do these things. But our souls get torn apart when we do. I think of the difference between the response to Katrina when humanity seemed abandoned, and the way in which Houstonians and strangers alike came together to help their fellow humans.

The only thing we can control in the face of nature is how we show up. This kind of courage usually doesn’t take thinking about. It’s simply what we do. And every small and large spontaneously brave action tells us something precious about what humanity is capable of. It is that knowledge that helps us get up to face another day, no matter what it brings. 

All best,



Terasa Cooley

Executive Director

P.S. Courage & Renewal programs offer places and practices that help us show up with courage in hard times.

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Touchstone: A New Courage & Renewal Initiative for Business Executives

Click to learn more about the new Touchstone pilot program.









What is trust?

Really. Not just a definition or concept but the lived experience.

I wonder how you might answer that question at a deep level?

This February, we are launching the first pilot program called Touchstone: Trusted Leaders. Trusted Spaces. Offered in the Midwest, it will run for 6 months and will serve business leaders at the senior executive level, including vice presidents and directors.

I invite you to take a look at the website here:

As Touchstone has developed over the last year I have had the opportunity to look closely at work relationships I hold, the values that initiated and sustain those relationships, and ultimately whether they are reliable when push comes to shove.
As it will. It always does.

Touchstone then has been built on 5 core values:


And yes, we are using the L word in business. It is essential.

Deeply rooted in the history and methodology of Courage & Renewal, we are developing systems of learning, coaching and being with others that will best serve those in executive levels positions in business. To that end, we know that there is a developmental sequence that must begin with individual awareness. Over time, that consciousness will produce evidence in new behavior that is consistent and reliable. As individuals behave in intentional and new ways, the culture of a group will begin to shift. If those new ways of being are held, not only does culture of a group shift but there are outcomes that will unfold. That sequence and possible progression is exciting to imagine and witness.

Along the way, our work will have a concentrated focus on the 5 core values and the associated practices that lead to trust.


In a complex and dynamic world, we need it. And now.

And so, we launch Touchstone.


Greg EatonGreg Eaton is the Touchstone Program Director. He is also Founder and Principal of Eaton and Associates and has decades of experience working with leadership development, change processes and organizational systems in three sectors: university administration, church/not for profit and business.

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Not Another Bird

On the final morning of a recent Center for Courage and Renewal retreat, I stood in the hallway staring out a large window, watching a cardinal standing on a trashcan outside, three feet away from the window, looking at the glass. From the outside, the window is highly reflective, so the cardinal was likely seeing an image of itself, just like when I had been outside earlier in the day, approaching the door and seeing my own reflection in the glass.

So I stood there, watching the cardinal watching itself. Another woman from the retreat was standing next to me, also watching. Suddenly another bird approached the building and flew straight into the glass. Not too hard, but hard enough to make it fall onto the windowsill. The cardinal on the trashcan didn’t seem to notice, but we two humans both leaned closer to the glass and watched the dazed bird get to its feet, ruffle its feathers, shake its heavy head vigorously, and fly off.

The woman next to me smiled and softly said, “He just became aware that he is not another bird.”

I nodded and smiled. What a wonderful remark. She walked back to the room where we would have our final group session before departing, but I stood there at the window a while longer, thinking about the retreat and contemplating my own awareness of my true self. Am I aware that I am only myself and not another bird?

Looking out the window, I could see down the hill through the trees to the path that I used multiple times a day during the retreat: a long, winding 1.5 mile path that loops around a calm pond. In a matter of three days, I had logged 20 miles on that trail, walking slowly, jogging, and at times sprinting, trying out different speeds as a way to clear my mind, feel my body, find my breath. During one of my runs on the first day, I rounded a corner and something caught my eye. I stopped running and stood completely still. A kingfisher! The beautiful mowhawked bird swooped down from a high branch to the water’s edge, and the sunlight flickered through his feathers. Immediately the first line of my favorite poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins swooped into my mind:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame
as tumbled over rim in roundy wells stones ring
Each tucked string tells, each hung bells bow flung
Finds tongue to fling out broad its name

The poem goes on to connect all of these images to the human desire to simply be and then act on the very thing that we intrinsically are. “Selves, goes itself. Myself it speaks and spells, crying “what I do is me, for that I came.” Each and every one of us, Hopkins suggests, in our myriad ways, contains something that only we can offer to the world, but it requires of us the awareness to cultivate it and the courage to bring it into being.

The next night I was back at the pond, but this time walking slowly alongside a rabbi I was getting to know through our time together at the retreat. We were continuing a discussion that had begun earlier in the day, both of us wanting to explore more this pressing question of leadership. It’s one thing to work on your own inner life and draw out “that being indoors each on dwells” and bring your most authentic self to your work. It’s a completely different challenge to help others do the same. He shared with me the challenges of leading a faith community that wants to look to him for answers, when he considers his greatest work to be not offering answers, but offering a spiritual tradition and practice that empowers them to discover their own rich inner lives. How do you lead people in this way, when so many of us have built habits on looking outside of ourselves in search of what can only be found within? What does it look like to offer the journey of self-discovery within a culture that lures us into a daily onslaught of images, messages, and transactions that diminish and alienate the self?

The rabbi and I circled the pond twice while unpacking this question.

Nearing the end of our second loop, we paused on the path. A full moon shone high in the clear sky, and the moonlight glowing down on the pond gave a mirror-image reflection of the night sky and the tree line. Again, I found myself reflecting on reflection, contemplating a mirror image. We stood there silently for a moment. If I had been back at home, I probably would’ve reached for my phone and taken a picture so that I could share it on Instagram or Facebook. I would have been tempted to capture this moment.

But I did not go on a retreat to capture anything. I went to reflect, to leave behind the daily onslaught so that I might hear my own voice, see myself in a way that is less mediated by the images, messages, and transactions, see myself in a way that more informed by “that being indoors each one dwells.”

There seems to be at least two ways out of the sea of isolation, anxiety, and alienation that we all swim in: One is to seek immediate relief in the arms of others. And in our hyper-connected internet age, quick fixes are always at our fingertips. At its best, community takes place in rich relationship to others over a long period of time. At its worst, community becomes co-opted by any “app” that offers immediate connection for a small price.

Reflect and renew at the next
Academy for Leaders

Next cohort begins
November 2-5, 2017,
near Los Angeles, CA

Click here for details

But as I stood there on the shore with the rabbi, I entered into the other path out of my sense of alienation, which is to go deeper into my own small experience and find that it is not that small at all, that it is in fact expansive and abundant and rich. Instead of fixing my eyes quickly to a screen to take a picture, I can keep looking up at the sky, the stars, the moon, and allow my eyes to adjust to the ever-deepening universe that somehow both contains and holds us. I can gaze across the water and stare not at my own individual reflection, but the reflection of the night sky upon our planet, the universe gazing upon itself, a strange and wonderful notion. And for a while the rabbi and I just stood there, silently reflecting.

But he broke the silence to say, “In my tradition, there’s a blessing that has been spoken for centuries: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh ha’olam, shehakol nih’ye bidvaro. It means, Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, through Whose word everything comes into being.”

A few more moments of silence passed. I then recited the Hopkins poem. I had little else to offer, so why not lean on these wiser words and let them be enough, even if we arrived at no solid answers that night at the pond.

Sometimes you stare at your own reflection for so long that, like Narcissus, you risk falling into yourself and drowning. Or sometimes you stare at a screen so long that attention becomes so fractured that there seems to be little self left to discover. We always run the risk of either ruining ourselves in vain conceit or losing ourselves in fractured stimuli. But sometimes you look at your reflection in a way that forces a reckoning, like that bird that flew into the window. You crash into your own reflection so hard that you simply remember who you are, remember that you are not another bird, you give thanks to those who help you remember, and you get back to doing what you are here to do.

An alum of the Center’s Courage to Lead for Young Leaders & Activists, Andrew Johnson is a writer, speaker and community activist living and working in the midtown area of Kansas City, Missouri. He is the executive director of Pilgrim Center, a public chapel providing an open space where neighbors connect and build a stronger community. For more info you can visit or He is the author of On Earth As It Is, forthcoming October 2017.

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Coming to Light: Cultivating Clarity for Leaders through the Quaker Clearness Committee

The clearness committee, developed by members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), is an individual and communal process of spiritual discernment, an instrument to understand the movement of God (in Quaker terms) in a person’s life, and a way for a community to offer support and guidance at critical times.

The Light Within is one of many terms or phrases used by Quakers to designate the source and inner certainty of Quaker faith—a faith that is based on direct experience. Quakers adhere to the belief in the possibility of direct, unmediated communion with the Light Within and a commitment to living lives that outwardly attest to this inward experience. Other faith traditions and indigenous cultures have other ways of naming this inner certainty.

Early on, the clearness committee was used by Friends to ascertain the appropriateness of marriage ‘under the care of’ a Quaker meeting, and to sound requests for membership. The role of the clearness committee is essential, in part, because many Friends have no ministers, no High Holy Days, and no liturgy. Even today, the clearness committee remains un-codified and flexible to allow it to adapt to a variety of uses and settings, including secular settings.

‘Inner Certainty’ Cultivated through Discernment

This source of inner certainty is particularly critical when facing questions of life direction, life purpose, life transitions, and meaning. Inner certainty is cultivated through the faculty of spiritual discernment, which is a lifelong process of exploring our experience, clarifying meaning, and integrating that meaning into action. At times, we focus on this faculty with intensity when faced with a life-threatening illness, a loss, a birth, or a new work direction.  However, the regular practice of attentiveness, awareness, reflection, integration, and then choosing meaningful direction, strengthens this inner faculty of discernment.

The Body Holds Wisdom

The clearness committee is a way to cultivate spiritual discernment. Discernment is the spiritual practice of recognizing and understanding wisdom that is already within each person: body, mind, and spirit.

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize, understand, or listen to the wisdom within because of distractions, self-judgment, mixed messages, busyness, and fractured attention. Often, we’re cut from the wisdom of the body. We’re unable to recognize and to trust our own ‘inner certainty’, inner wisdom. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio notes that somatic markers, sensations in the body, tell us when a choice feels wrong or feels right.

This internal, bodily sense, sometimes felt through the gut, offers direction and guidance before we’ve come to a reasoned conclusion. And yet, as leaders, we’re often unaware of these bodily signals.

Shared Blind Spots

As leaders, in organizations we can succumb to ‘shared blind spots’, unconsciously and uncritically adopting unstated assumptions. We might engage in self-deception to avoid conflict or fall into in-group isolation from a narrow base of inputs. A sense of isolation, a dispirited quality, feelings of being devalued further add to disengagement in the workplace.

Experience a clearness committee at the next
Academy for Leaders


Next cohort begins
November 2-5, 2017,
near Los Angeles, CA

Click here for details

And yet, this capacity to listen to the wisdom within is a ‘precondition’ to faithful action, taking us beyond ‘getting things done’ and the immediate work environment. Discernment is an inner ‘faculty’ that you cultivate over time that enables you to distinguish one choice from another, which supports an honest examination of your awareness, feelings, emotions, and motivations. It is like an inner compass that helps you know what job to take, how to spend your money, or what people and things are worthy of you and you of them.

Discernment is a practice of being attentive, being reflective, being loving, and being compassionate. It is an opportunity to notice what shapes your life, where your feelings and emotions are most engaged, and to notice emerging patterns.

The clearness committee supports development of this inner faculty as leaders engage skills and practices for the long haul of leadership. These practices include learning to slow down and to focus, without rushing to back-to-back meetings. The clearness committee as a practice encourages awareness of self and others, learning how to listen deeply, how to ask an open question to shift toward greater openness when faced with a dilemma or crossroads.

With purposefulness and intentionality, the clearness committee promotes openness, attentiveness, and kindness of our inward and outward life and relationships. A trust develops that unfolds within you and supports clarity and integrity of action. Integrity encourages a sense of wholeness, in which your values and actions align.

If this post resonated with you, check out Valerie Brown’s new pamphlet, Coming to Light: Cultivating Spiritual Discernment through the Quaker Clearness Committee.


Valerie Brown is a Courage & Renewal facilitator, international retreat leader, writer, and ICF-accredited leadership coach of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC., specializing in the application and integration of mindfulness and leadership ( In her book, The Mindful School Leader: Practices to Transform Your Leadership and School (Corwin Press, 2015), she explores the role of mindfulness in strengthening thriving leaders and building greater understanding and peace within schools. 

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Into the Light of Demanding Justice

Both courage and cowardice showed up in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend. The counter-demonstrators showed up with the courage to stand for their values. The demonstrators hid behind weapons and vicious words to violently reject everything and everyone they stood against. While they did not hide under white robes and masks, I still call this cowardice because what they did was inherently selfish. It was about asserting their own “superiority” rather than placing oneself in service of others.

I have participated in demonstrations where I was threatened by violence, and this weekend I found myself traumatized all over again watching social and news media reports. I had numerous friends in that crowd of counter-demonstrators, so my fear was personal. But in a ‘meta-family’ way I feel connected to everyone there, especially Heather Heyer and others who were injured. The members of my family who stood up to injustice and bigotry inspire me every day and bolster my own need for courage.

Parker Palmer says that “violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” Those who lash out at “others” are in some way already ripped apart in their souls, disconnected from the cause and effect of their own suffering. There are so many failings in a system and a culture when we don’t teach people to respond to their suffering with courage and instead abet and tolerate their cowardice.

There are many political and social responses that we are called upon to make in these times. It is also important, though, to attend to our own souls.

How do we keep who we are in the deepest sense connected to how we act in the world? What do we need to take responsibility for? What emboldens us to step out of safety and into the light of demanding justice?

I am thankful for so many leading lights that inspire me every day to live my values, however imperfectly.



Our friends and partners at The People’s Supper released guidebooks this week to help create kind, loving, and supportive containers for healing and grieving after Charlottesville. There are resources for planning gatherings. And there are resources for those of us who need more immediate support.

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The Courage to Play

Back in 2013, Bruce Springsteen pulled a request from an audience member at a concert to play Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” Which he had never performed before. Which his band had never been prepped for. He hums and strums and struggles to find the right key. The band is looking mystified and frustrated. And then he takes off. After a few bumbles the band kicks in. And then the joy begins. Everyone gets caught up in the pure creative fun, and you can’t watch it without laughing and dancing (even if in your desk chair!).

In today’s fractured and fractious time, it often feels to me like we’ve lost the joy of playing together and risking together. When we’re anxious our instinct is to hold ourselves tight, to contract, to hesitate in case we get it wrong. I know I feel that way. Watching this video and feeling the bubble of joy break through me, I realized how much I need this feeling, and how I need to let myself play!

What would happen if we tried and got it wrong? The world would not crash down. What happens when we hold back? Our souls close down. Bruce Springsteen had the luxury of a band that would play along. Who in your life could play in your proverbial “backup band” while you risk making mistakes and feeling foolish?

I never thought of play requiring courage. But clearly it must, or we would do it more often. Children at play are often fearless. At some point we realize there are consequences to our actions and the fear starts shutting us down. But that child in us still longs to play. My vow to myself is to let her come out and tease me into risking being the fool. 

All best,



Terasa Cooley
Executive Director

P.S. Courage & Renewal programs offer places and practices where you can freely explore life’s big questions with a spirit of play.

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Becoming an Ally to Indigenous People

This blog is based on Coleen O’Connell’s chapter in Culturally Responsive Teaching and Reflection in Higher Education, edited by Sharlene Voogd Cochrane, Meenakshi Chhabra, Marjorie Jones, and Deborah Spragg. 

A Passamaquoddy elder and healer, Fred Pollack, lives in a small house perched on a granite hill overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay where Canada’s Maritime Provinces meet the United States. He smiles broadly as I greet him with a hug as he arrives at the field station for his teaching stint with Lesley University graduate students in the Ecological Teaching and Learning MS program. He listens generously as students introduce themselves and he makes comments and sometimes jokes about the information that is shared. For the next three days we will talk with him over meals, go hiking in the woods to gather medicinal plants, get sticky with the sap of a balsam tree, climb ladders to tap pine trees, and sit with him at a Passamaquoddy sacred site as he speaks about his life growing up on the edge of this continent.

Some of his stories are painful to hear, especially those about his treatment at the residential school set up specifically to assimilate Indigenous children. Fred has many stories and they are shared either in small groups while hiking through the woods, while eating together at the dining hall, or in the larger group as we sit in a circle. By the time he leaves, most of these teachers can now say they have their first Native American friend. And by sharing so authentically with Fred, the graduate students determine that their teaching about Native Americans will never be the same again.

I could not bring students to this ecological field program in Maine without introducing them to, and including, the voices of living Indigenous inhabitants. It is through such experiences that students begin to identify that their own concerns for the natural world are congruent with the teachings of Native cultures. They begin to see that becoming allies with Native cultures is an act of reciprocity that holds within it a kernel of hope for our world.

In my first days of the field program, I survey my mostly white graduate students. I ask the following questions, (and I encourage readers to take this survey, and see if there are areas about which you could learn more):

1) How well do you know Native American History in the US? How did you learn what you know?

2) Are you familiar with the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny – both concepts within US doctrinal history that have vast influence on the oppression of Indigenous people on this continent?

3) Do you know who are/were the original native people of where you live?

4) Do you have a Native American friend? What tribe? How did you come to know this person/family?

5) Have you ever visited a Native American reservation or community? Which one(s)? What was your experience?

6) Do you include Indigenous cultures in your teaching curriculum? If so, describe how you do that.


It has been my experience that most white educators have a very limited understanding or knowledge of Native American history and as a result do not incorporate any Indigenous cultural work into their curriculum. More shocking to me over the years is how many students state that they had no idea that there were still tribes organized and living in America. Most cannot name the local tribe that inhabited the place they now call their home.

Becoming an environmental educator has afforded me the platform in which to correct the ways in which we teach about Indigenous people. As I came to understand the degradation of the environments of planet Earth, I began to also understand that Indigenous cultures had a well-developed ethic brought from thousands of years living and thriving with the land.

In my teaching I not only encourage teachers to become friends with Native people, but to go further and become allies. In becoming an ally, we use our own white privilege to speak out about injustices, to teach culturally accurate history, and create a consciousness about the rightful place of Indigenous people in our diverse country.

When the students return to their home places from the field program, one of their fall assignments is to discover who the Indigenous people are in their bioregion. It is in this assignment that I begin to explore with students how to become an ally to native people.

It starts with research and curiosity. Google, historical records at the town library, books written by local authors, organizations in the area all contribute to this knowledge.

By beginning to pay attention to the history and presence of Native people in their bioregion, educators can begin to search for Native organizations or Native presentations that are offered locally. They find social events where native people are present and as speakers and workshop leaders, Pow Wows, and other events sponsored by the local tribe.

Classroom educators can start by inviting a Native person to present to their class; not once, but multiple times. Each time the relationship with the Native person becomes stronger, more familiar, and a friendship begins to form. Becoming aware of Native history, different from the one most of us were taught in our American History courses, will hopefully provoke a desire to speak in support of native initiatives moving us from friendship to being an ally. Supporting the efforts of Native people around the world to retain sovereignty of their lands, to prevent further degradation of Earth, and to honor the diversity that makes our planet operate in healthy systems, is to speak for oneself. Native people ask us to have gratitude for Mother Earth and to arise each day in thanksgiving; a simple request.

What Native people want for their children, I want for mine. In this way we can work together to insure that future generations will have what they need to sustain them. We have only to look to our Native neighbors to find comrades in this uphill battle to save the planet for all life. We are all related.


Coleen O’Connell is Director of the Lesley University Ecological Teaching and Learning MS Program, teaches Graduate Education courses, and serves within the STEM Science division. She has had a lifelong relationship with various Native American cultures. In addition to many speaking engagements, O’Connell was the Maine Environmental Educator of the Year in 2013. 

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Thin Places

The following is an excerpt from Sally Z. Hare’s introduction to a new book, Thin Places: Seeking the Courage to Live in a Divided World, gathered by Sally Z. Hare and Megan LeBoutillier. As facilitators of Circles of Trust®, the writers have grown to understand that thin places are best found in nature AND are created with careful attention and intention to safe and trustworthy space. They share their stories with the hope that you’ll find some pieces of your own story, that you will discover portals to your own thin places.  

Thin places have become, for me, a way of naming the space where I have the best chance of nurturing the courage to seek the undivided life I want to live. In a thin place, I see my connectedness to everything around me. I see the wholeness that is my birthright gift. So our new book, Thin Places: Seeking the Courage to Live in a Divided World, a collaboration between 25 CCR facilitators, has offered the chance for me to go even deeper in that topic.

The idea of thin places goes back to the ancient Irish people, before the Celts arrived sometime after 500 BC, before Christianity came to Ireland. Researchers have uncovered signs and symbols of the beliefs that there was another world, a parallel world, and that thin places were the portals between the two worlds.

For that earliest Irish community, a thin place was an actual physical place. Over the next several thousand years, the definition of thin places expanded to include particular times of seasonal shifts, such as Samhain, the Celtic holiday when the boundaries between the material and spiritual worlds were transparent. Some thin places became known for their energy, rather than for being an opening between the worlds; people would go to these places to absorb their power.

Thin places are places of mystery, holy places that allow humans to connect more easily to their spiritual selves. In thin places, we have easier access to Mahatma Gandhi’s “indefinite mysterious power that pervades everything.” In a thin place we have a better chance of seeing what Thomas Merton called a hidden wholeness in Hagia Sophia:

There is in all things an invisible fecundity,

a dimmed light,

a meek namelessness,

a hidden wholeness.

This mysterious Unity, and Integrity, is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans.

Harvard theologian Peter Gomes writes:

There is in Celtic mythology the notion of “thin places” in the universe where the visible and the invisible world come into their closest proximity. To seek such places is the vocation of the wise and the good — and for those that find them, the clearest communication between the temporal and eternal. Mountains and rivers are particularly favored as thin places marking invariably as they do, the horizontal and perpendicular frontiers. But perhaps the ultimate of these thin places in the human condition are the experiences people are likely to have as they encounter suffering, joy, and mystery.

The writers in this book have come to understand that thin places can be created with careful attention to safe and trustworthy space. These authors are all Kirkridge Courage Fellows, which, by prerequisite, means that they are facilitators prepared by the Center for Courage & Renewal. The Center was founded by Parker J. Palmer – and what has come to be called Courage Work (it started as The Courage to Teach® – and over the past 20 years, is also The Courage to Lead® and Circles of Trust®) is grounded in Parker’s writing and philosophy.

Throughout our book, thanks to Parker’s generosity, you will find insights from his writing. We begin here with Parker’s insight on creating space from A Hidden Wholeness:

  • We know how to create spaces that invite the intellect to show up, analyzing reality, parsing logic and arguing its case: such spaces can be found, for example, in universities.
  • We know how to create spaces that invite the emotions into play, reacting to injury, expressing anger and celebrating joy: they can be found in therapy groups.
  • We know how to create spaces that invite the will to emerge, consolidating energy and effort on behalf of a shared goal: they can be found in task forces and committees.
  • We certainly know how to invite the ego to put in an appearance, polishing its image, protecting its turf and demanding its rights: they can be found wherever we go!
  • But we know very little about creating spaces that invite the soul to make itself known. Apart from the natural world, such spaces are hard to find – and we seem to place little value on preserving the soul spaces in nature.

So thin places are places where the soul can show up. The poet Mary Oliver says “Nobody knows what the soul is”; nevertheless, we share with you what we mean by the word in our book’s glossary! We began the Kirkridge Courage Fellowship Program (KCFP) out of our yearning to create for ourselves that kind of space Parker writes about, the space we were committed to creating for others. We took to heart Parker’s admonition that the natural world was the best place to begin – and we chose the Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center for five retreats over two years from 2014-2016.

As you read Parker’s writing about The Movement Way, you’ll get a sense of our path. This book represents, for us, the step of going public. After all, we are the ones who have been facilitating this Courage Work, who have embedded the principles and practices into our lives.

Now we want to share our stories with you. We do so because of our belief in this idea from Frederick Buechner:

My story is important not because it is mine…but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is yours.

We hope you’ll find some of your own story in our stories, that you will find portals to your own thin places.

Dr. Sally Z. Hare, Singleton Distinguished Professor Emerita at Coastal Carolina University, is president of still learning, inc. (, and one of the pilot facilitators of Courage work. She lives in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, where she is happy to share her ocean with her husband Jim R. Rogers, and dog, TBO. She can be contacted through e-mail:

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