Living Truth at The Woolman Semester

In late 2003 I was at a peak of emotional and spiritual turmoil. I was teaching middle and high school in Adelaide, Australia, and attending Quaker meeting regularly. However, I felt dissatisfied with how categorized my life had become. My spirit was the thread holding all the pieces together, yet I felt so shallowly grounded that I was unable to be as authentic in various areas as I desired.

Six years before, when I was 23, teaching had seemed the most likely vocation for me. I loved to challenge myself and inspire others, and through exposure to a melting pot of ideas and questions I could ensure continued learning and thinking for myself. Yet somehow that had not been the case. I had taught at a number of schools—state schools in the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia; an alternative school; and then a rather elitist independent school in Adelaide. Over the years I became increasingly despondent with what I was doing. Within the public school sector I felt like a state-employed babysitter; at the alternative school I felt that offering students complete freedom to choose had turned into permission to avoid challenge; and at the independent school, with increasingly rigid standards and protocols, I felt that I was constantly jumping through hoops and forcing my students to conform, all the while ensuring that I kept the customer satisfied. I felt as though I had lost myself and sold my soul.

When I was interviewed for the position at the independent school I had been asked what I saw myself doing in ten years. Into my mind swam a collage of myself growing my own food, living simply, teaching the values I thought really mattered, raising children, growing in a loving and fulfilling relationship, writing, doing prison ministry, playing my flute, and meditating. The Divine was the basis of it all—but they weren’t interested in that. They were asking me about my professional goals, which were somehow separate from and extraneous to my personal goals.

Integrity, as a testimony, was unfolding in my life. My soul was persistently demanding alignment of my inner and outer selves—otherwise, I would never know inner peace. In order to do that, I sensed a call within myself to go deep, to put down roots, and to explore who I am.

I left Australia and went to Pendle Hill for a year of deep spiritual exploration. Still not knowing quite how to proceed, I spent seven more months exploring intentional communities and working on organic farms in New Zealand. From then on, I wanted to consciously choose my style and mode of living, not simply accept what was passed down to me.

An idea formed of the type of school I wanted to live and teach at—a Quaker community where I could let my life speak. I wanted freedom to explore what really mattered to me, and I wanted to gift that freedom to my students. I wanted to live and work at a school that inspired young people rather than taught them to conform, a place where I could be authentic and so give young people the permission to be authentic too. I wondered if such a place existed.

In August 2006, my search led me to become the Environmental Science teacher at The Woolman Semester in the Sierra foothills of California. Over time I learned that neither the school nor the community was perfect. I found many faults with the place, but gradually, as I made a commitment to the school, I discovered that the problems became challenges. In those challenges I retained faith that solutions were being sought and could be found because we aspire to practice Quaker process. The Greek word for faith, pistis, translates literally as "faith in action." We intend to seek Truth, not make changes because of human or worldly motives.

The Woolman Semester is a high school semester program. We teach peace, social justice, and environmental sustainability. It is an intense and rigorously academic program. Students get one year’s worth of credit and are expected to show up to do the work that needs to be done—here, and in the world. They choose to do so. Students come here because they are passionate about peace, social justice, and the environment. Often they are disillusioned with society and the education system. Through The Woolman Semester they seek to discover who they are, to let their Light shine.

Teaching here is exciting. As a teacher, I have more freedom to challenge and inspire than I’ve ever had before. One of the first things we look at is Environmental Science in the context of Quakerism. What is science? How is science taught in schools? What do society and the education system expect of you? We consider the testimonies and how our lives speak—empowerment versus hopelessness—and how to make effective change in the world. Discussions within this topic have ranged from anger at the way science is taught in public schools, to considering how our culture uses silence and inaction as weapons of oppression in how we treat people and the environment, and how we as individuals are treated. Because of the level of trust and vulnerability fostered in this community, students are able to share their personal and sometimes painful stories and understand them in a global context.

In teaching "Food," I encourage the students to question conventional methods of agricultural production. This topic challenges everyone at some level because it deals with a basic human need and how it interplays with economics, politics, spirituality, the environment, and human desires. Some students feel outraged and helpless when they learn the truth about the global food market. They tell me how there are more fast food joints than grocery stores in their neighborhood. They question how they can afford to buy healthy, organic food when no grocery store in their neighborhood stocks it. We visit a meat lab to watch animals being slaughtered. We tackle the moral implications of eating meat, which is inherently violent, as well as consider the possibility of plant consciousness, in order to encourage students to eat consciously. Students struggle with what they have discovered and the fact that they still love the taste of meat. Some change their eating habits, some don’t, but the learning is illuminating.

We also study Genetic Engineering at The Woolman Semester. Students have coordinated a phone campaign to Monsanto, asking them to justify their legal actions against small farmers for cross-pollination of genetically modified corn on their farms beyond their control. We look at the effect of lifestyle and consumerism on the environment, global warming, and oil and energy production. Students build bikes and cycle eight miles uphill to the nearest town for critical mass pedal power demonstrations to show the world that alternatives to cars exist and can be fun. Then in Local Ecology and Deep Ecology, I invite the students to approach the wilderness as something sacred, something we are a part of, and we seek to reconcile the science of the environment with the spiritual.

Ultimately, I expect students to take responsibility for their own learning. I treat them as mature young people, and they usually rise to the occasion. They can negotiate assignments and the curriculum to meet their passions and needs, though I don’t hesitate to challenge them by asking why they are doing so. I give them the permission, and I show them how to make this experience one of their own choosing.

We go on two trips during the semester—a one-week wilderness hiking trip during which students do a 36-hour solo, and a three-week service learning trip to Mexico where we study water issues, border issues, consumerism, tolerance, justice, and injustice along the way. We encourage students to engage in dialogue instead of polarized debate, and to seek multiple perspectives on every issue. Along the Mexican-American border we take a tour with American Friends Service Committee, talk to border patrol officers, and meet the Minutemen—vigilantes who have taken it upon themselves to patrol the border and report illegal immigrants.

Students take their learning out to the wider community. They host a social issues forum in town, and write and perform theatre pieces based on such autobiographies as Mohandas Gandhi, Frida Kahlo, Adolf Hitler, and Che Guevara. As a community we aspire to increasing environmental and human sustainability. We have chickens, sheep, and a llama, and we grow some of our own food. Students have worked on sustainability projects such as installing a drip irrigation system in the garden, practicing permaculture, building and installing hot water solar panels, building a greenhouse from recycled material, and increasing energy efficiency by using clothes lines in summer and drying racks in winter. Overall, students learn practical skills and tangible ways to increase the sustainability of their lives back home.

Over the course of 16 weeks, students learn about the state of the world in a way not enough adults know. They experience hopelessness, fear, and empowering activism. They learn firsthand that opting out of the system and doing nothing is not an effective means of expression. They question their lives and their place within the world. And I aspire to listen to them.

As a learning and living community, we stand at the edge of awareness and action. Through meeting for worship and the study of Humanities and Ethics, students are exposed to the spiritual foundations underneath our work that demand a paradigm shift. We demonstrate to the students how changes stemming from this shift bring joy rather than a sense of deprivation. We accept that conflict inevitably arises, and we all work on skills such as "Non-Violent Communication" (a method of communication to resolve conflict and deeply listen to each other developed by Marshall Rosenberg) to deal with it in a positive and enriching way.

Last semester a student told me that the most powerful lessons she had learned from me had not been in the classroom, but from seeing how I live out my values and beliefs. Here at The Woolman Semester, in community, I feel supported in practicing authenticity and being the person I was called to be. This is a powerful statement, one that young people need to see. And from my students I have learned how to have compassion for the process of understanding the world and how to live in it authentically.
For information on The Woolman Semester, see

Elizabeth De Sa

Elizabeth De Sa is a young adult Friend, of Indian descent, raised in the UK, who attends Grass Valley Meeting on the campus of The Woolman Semester at Sierra Friends Center in Nevada City, Calif.