Educating for a Sustainable Future
Shelburne Farms is a magical place and innovative organization. It works with a growing network of deeply connected partners and educators dedicated to sustainability and to creating a dynamic K-12 curriculum, focusing on the value of sustainability in community.
Read about the inspiring way that Shelburne Farms is moving us toward an exemplary ecological civilization by cultivating a love of the earth.
Shelburne Farms – Educating for Sustainability
An Interview with Alec Webb, President and Megan Camp, Vice President & Program Director of Shelburne Farms
- What inspired you to start this organization?
Alec:It was really the social unrest of the 60’s combined with growing concerns around environmental degradation globally and regionally that led a group of people, including myself, to form Shelburne Farms Resources as an educational organization in the early 1970’s. The non-profit was incorporated in 1972.
- What is your mission?
Alec: Our mission is to cultivate a conservation ethic for a sustainable future. It is about cultivating awareness and intention around the choices that we make with the long-term health of the land and communities in mind. In our case, that plays out in two ways. We practice stewardship here on our 1400-acre working farm (which is also a National Historic Landmark), and then use it as a campus for learning and thinking about sustainability.
- How do people find out about your organization?
Alec: People learn about us mostly through word of mouth from people who have had some relationship with the farm by coming to stay or participating in a program. But a lot of work goes on beyond this place, too, and people find out about us that way. In a lot of ways our work isn’t about this place, even though this place is an inspiration for what we do.
Megan: It is also this growing network of educators who are concerned about sustainability and are inspired, as well as the sustainability community who recognize the value of education. There is a convergence of these communities and the network is growing.
- How are you funded?
Alec: We are funded through a combination of earned revenue streams, charitable contributions (mostly from private individuals and foundations), and some government funding, which is the smallest percentage of our support. Our operating budget is close to 10M dollars; about 2/3 is from our land-based enterprises, which is the milk and cheese we produce and sell; from accommodations and meals from people who come and stay and learn here; and from day admission fees for visitors.
- What other organizations do you work with?
Megan: We always say internally that if we had a middle name here at Shelburne Farms it would be “partnerships”. We have a deep belief in partnering with both public and private organizations, and we have long-term collaborations with both. Many of our relationships started with one organization, but over time, as the work has evolved to address system wide change through collective impact, we’ve worked with more diverse stakeholders than we did when we first started thirty years ago. We work with local government, state agencies, federal government and some other governments around the world. We also work with several NGO’s, from small community grassroots organizations and to some larger international NGOs like IUCN, World Wildlife Fund or the National Wildlife Federation. Some of our partners are very invested in working in land conservation; others may be working in policy. Obviously given the nature of our work, some of our partnerships are around sustainable agriculture, and food systems and food justice. And then we have a whole network with educators, both formal and informal, that go from Pre-K to higher education, and with other more community-oriented education organizations. I would say we have quite an extended family of partners, especially as our work evolves to working with more complex networks.
Success and Challenge Questions
- What have been your greatest successes?
Alec: Looking at Shelburne Farms as a campus, we have been able to conserve an amazingly beautiful and productive working landscape with a unique set of historic structures and convert that into an amazing learning environment and community space that people can enjoy.
Megan: You would have to have known Shelburne Farms over the years to know that, the Farm, like many special places, had lots of pressures for alternative futures for it. To be able to have this place inspires other places around the world. Farms are not just a place to produce food, but they add another value to the fabric and health of a community. There aren’t a lot of places that look just like Shelburne Farms, with its collection of historical structures, but they do have the same essential value in their community. Going back to the question about the change we want to see toward a more sustainable future and the role of education, a success we are excited and feel good about is this change and shift in the dialogue around the purpose of education and the purpose of re-orienting education toward sustainability. It was one thing to have the Earth Summit and talk about the U.N.’s Agenda 21 and the importance of education for sustainable development, but I think for me personally one of the most gratifying things was to ask “what does that look like in our own local community?” and for Vermont to go through a public participatory process and say that sustainability is important to us here. We went on to actually develop standards for our K-12 curriculum that orient us toward sustainability. Then we helped open a K-12 school called the Sustainability Academy, with a theme that says, “Let’s make sustainability not just a subject but about how we learn.” It is the lens for the entire curriculum. And it involves the entire community. We’re excited that we have been able to connect a local initiative to other place-based initiatives around the country and the world and that continuous learning is happening. It’s an experiment and it takes innovation and there isn’t necessarily a model for what we are doing. We just hope that we can continue to inspire others and continue to be inspired by others as well.
- What goals do you still want to achieve?
Alec: We have big goals. We have been working on parallel tracks from the beginning of the non-profit year. It’s a combination of doing more land conservation work – filling out the protected area that is conserved for farming, public access, enjoyment and learning, and a continuing set of infrastructure improvements to the campus for residential learning. It’s building out of the campus and sustaining it through our enterprises.
Megan: Programmatically, we hope that places like the Sustainable Academy we have here in Burlington are not just theme or magnet schools or perhaps in some other communities, charter schools; instead, they are a pathway toward re-orienting the whole system of education toward sustainability. That’s a long-term goal we are working towards, that these schools are not the exception but become what we expect school education to be.
- What are the biggest challenges you face, whether financial or other?
Alec: Sustaining a complex system and organization like this is a challenge, both financially and organizationally. It’s about developing a system and a culture that can span generations and sustain a vibrant place that has a great spirit and important community values. This is a very long term proposition.
Megan: I think some of the challenges we have are in some of the areas in which we have been successful. Because it’s about creating a shared vision, bringing people together around the shared vision, and identifying some of the leverages to change the system to achieve that vision. Then comes the big work of how we are going to work together to do that. And maybe the work we do together doesn’t look the same as the work that we do alone. Along with that comes a real shift in the way in which we define leadership. If you really want to have change in a complex system, there needs to be more of a shared leadership structure. That’s a shift from a deeply rooted leadership culture that’s more about hierarchy.
- How do you begin to do that?
Megan: We begin to do it by doing good work together. It’s important to spend time defining the work, and coming to agreement about our values and the way we want to work together. But then I think we just need to start…and constantly have feedback about how well we are doing and how we can adjust. Sometimes we are afraid and spend too much time planning. I think when addressing complex ecological issues, we learn better through a more cyclical, natural, ecological system than through a big master plan that doesn’t allow for things to emerge that we can continually learn and adapt to.
- What action(s) would you encourage people to take/how people can get involved with your work?
Megan: We believe the best way of getting involved in this work is to do it in your own place–locally; it’s through the doing that the relationship building happens. Sometimes you find what you have been looking for is right in front of you. It’s about exploring the community in which you live and finding ways to become involved. Then it’s a question of how we can connect these nodes for larger impact. That’s our work: to weave together a network.
- What does the term “Ecological Civilization” mean to you?
Alec: To me, that means a world that is filled with citizens who are caring and ecologically literate and who try to be as aware as they can about the long-term impacts of their choices on the health and well-being of all life on earth.
Megan: I think inherent in ecological civilization is an educational system that has pathways through it that help to create healthy and just communities.
- What do you believe are the most important next steps in the transition to achieve that?
Megan: I think it’s tied into how we learn from each other and what organizations like yours do to shed light on the promising practices that can inspire us to engage. We think about this for youth but it’s important for all of us: What is it that we can do? (And today is a particularly important day to be talking about it, the day after the presidential election.) What is a day in which you still have a sense of hope and a sense of efficacy or agency? At the end of the day, with all our work towards creating a more sustainable world, it comes back down to the belief that you can make a difference, both individually and collectively.
- What gives you hope about the future toward an ecological civilization?
Alec: I think giving people access to beautiful places in which to learn (as well as to music and art) can provide people with a sense of hope.
Megan: Every day at Shelburne Farms there are young people here. Today there was a group of 2ndand 3rd graders visiting from a small rural school about 32 miles away. I had the opportunity to stop in and spend some time with them. Every day a dosage of that gives me hope and inspiration for the future. And that’s what I feel is our responsibility as an organization: to help support, unleash and cultivate the innovativeness, creativity and aspirations for the future.
- What is your best piece of advice for other eco organizations?
Alec: I have a quote from Calvin Coolidge in my file about persistence. I think staying with something you are passionate about for the long haul has worked for us here and allowed us to accomplish a lot over the years. Looking at it as a long-term endeavor, not a quick fix, and being patient…
Megan: …which is sometimes hard to balance with a sense of urgency. Part of it is embracing that tension between patience, persistence and urgency. Life is full of lots of those tensions and for us it has been recognizing the need for polarity management when operating in complex systems. Another cultural and organizational learning related to the practice and pedagogy for sustainability is maintaining a place of continuous inquiry and awareness that can then lead to action.
- What would you like the broader public to understand and appreciate from your experience so far?
Alec: I think the importance of the human and natural community for everyone, wherever you live. I think those connections between people and place, between each other and the land, are really what it gets down to in my mind.
Megan: Right. I think for me, it goes back to the story about the 2nd grade class that was visiting here today, remembering that it just wasn’t a class that came from a school and it wasn’t just students who were children from a family. It’s more that those are all our children as a society and as a world. It’s up to us to make our actions and our decisions with that in mind and then I think our decision making can flow from that. It is the responsibility of all of us, not just the responsibility of a family or a teacher or a school. I think it is something we need to rekindle, that it is the responsibility of the whole society and that is our future.
- What else would you like people to know about you and how else would you like your story to be told?
Megan: As Alec said, this is an amazing place. Maybe sometime you will get a chance to visit us and someone reading this will have a chance to come here because it is a beautiful and inspiring place. There is something about it that rekindles the soul. We would also like people to know that we are more than a place, we’re really a bigger idea that transcends geography. Sometimes, because of the magnificence of the place, we can lose sight of the big idea behind the motivation to create Shelburne Farms, the non-profit. It was not only to save this place for future generations to enjoy.
Alec: The nonprofit incorporated in 1972, called Shelburne Farms Resources Inc., owned no property. It was founded with the idea of using this place for learning, to increase awareness of the importance of agriculture and natural resources to the health of the community and all of life. It’s always been about the idea of learning and increasing our capacity to make better choices, to encourage ourselves and others to be more aware of the impact of our decisions about how and where we live, what we eat, how we design our buildings and transportation systems or the fuel we use. That, I think, is the real vision, that this would be one of many places around the world where every child would have the opportunity to grow up and have meaningful learning opportunities that are based in community relationships and connections to the land that really set them up for being responsible, successive generations that support an ecological civilization. And that’s the dream, that we would be part of this network of educators worldwide sharing experiences and resources and loving children everywhere and helping change the world through that work.
To Learn more about Shelburne Farms:
- Visit their website
- Like them on Facebook
- Follow them on Twitter
- View the following documents
Shelburne Farms – Educating for a Sustainable Future (PDF)
How to Become the Cool School in “Smart by Nature – Schooling for Sustainability (PDF)