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The Groundings of a Commonwealth: Workshop on Forging Environmental Ethics Through Reading and Telling Stories

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I created my third web event with every intention of deriving from it a workshop meant to bring together Israeli and Palestinian young adults over shared literatures. Literature was a medium through which, I had argued, right relationships had the space and time to emerge, and was a form particularly suited toward broader socio-political change. While I was excited about this final web event and its possibilities, I was also somewhat daunted by my own distance from the site of relationship building. I was also concerned by the spatial impracticalities of actually translating this workshop into action. I have become, through the course of the semester, very interested in how academic conversation can be used as groundwork for activity and doing; it seemed duplicitous to consider in my postings how “a group of listeners becomes a group of actors,” and even create frameworks for such a transition, but have no intention of taking this kind of action myself.

            When I met with Kaye last week, we discussed both my excitement and my hesitations concerning the final web event. Our conversation shifted somehow to my role as a Staff Member of the Women’s Center and our upcoming Women in Religion Week. I told Kaye that, in planning this Week, I was especially interested in exploring women activists whose work was motivated primarily by spiritual or religious ethics. I had encountered one such activist whom I especially admired: Winona LaDuke, whose expansive work on environmental policy reform and land conservation is grounded in her connections to her Native Ojibwe tradition and teachings. I was also, I continued in my discussion, interested in the transition from private writings to public activism, and how this might be facilitated through the means of cooperative storytelling, or the public and mutual consolidation of individuals’ stories to form a more expansive narrative.

            Kaye, in return, told me about Peter Brown, a Haverford alumnus now teaching at McGill University, who will be coming back to campus in March to speak about sustainable environmental economics—i.e. our “right relationship” to the land. We talked about the points of convergence in LaDuke’s and Brown’s works and philosophies, and the possibilities of bringing both to Haverford during a similar time. When I suggested that a workshop of sorts could be built around these encounters, Kaye suggested that I do the building of the workshop in this class, for our final web event and for eventual implementation in the Haverford community. It was disorienting to experience the collapse of extracurricular and academic boundaries in this suggestion, and frightening to think that something I create for a class might have any meaning beyond its life on the page or in the mind (or on the web).

            This web event is the result of that conversation. I’ve created a workshop that seeks to explore and create an ethics of right relationship with the environment through the medium of storytelling. The concept of “storytelling” is admittedly quite vague. Insofar as storytelling is about the human narrative, I think a lot of storytelling is about private literatures, which (as I’d talked about in my other paper) can enable resounding socio-political change through the literary exploration of strong alliances. I believe a lot of storytelling—especially that which is transmitted through spiritual or religious groups—is also about creating ethical models and moral codes. While I believe that narratives from all spiritual, social, political, and intellectual backgrounds have something meaningful to tell us about ethics (as well as revision), I think the Native American traditions of storytelling are especially conducive to the critical and creative considerations of new ethics/right relationships. In Native faith storytelling, Native writer Thomas King claims, the world “begins in chaos and moves toward harmony” and is “determined by cooperation”—the world is one “in which creation is a shared activity.” (King 24-25) Native storytelling is a cooperative affair that assumes alliance in its very formation, and not simply as a result. It accepts the continued messiness of world, and seeks not to solve problems so much as to find mutually beneficent balance. These characteristics of Native storytelling and faith are diffractive of, and themselves lead to, an interest in human relationships with land.

            The workshop will therefore begin with an interactive exploration of participants’ ethics, followed by foundation in some Native readings on the environment and an excerpt from Peter Brown’s work, which I’ve set up for reading and discussion. The workshop then moves onto the “shared activity” of story telling. Finally, the workshop will move toward forging right relationships through meaningful action, and a hopeful continuation of the alliances formed in this setting.


Workshop: The Groundings of a Commonwealth


Introduction (10 minutes)


Round robin of introductions, with some sort of icebreaker question related to narratives or to the land. (E.g.: “If you were any character from a story/any natural formation, who/what would you be?”)


Brief discussion of the focus and purposes of the workshop.

  • Focus: Through grounding in some Native ethics and stories, focus on how the exploration of storytelling can reveal and build an ethics of right relationships with land and the environment.
  • Purposes:
    • Encounter various genres of texts—or, different kinds of storytelling—regarding right relationships with environment;
    • Engage with these texts both critically and creatively (diffractively and intra-actively) through discussion and activities;
    • Reveal and create ethics of relationships to the environment through the analysis and production of stories;
    • Discuss how ethics of environment can be translated into action, and work on the development of such a project.
    • Questions/calls for revision


Ethics and Stories (20 minutes)


  • Articulate existing systems of ethics or tenets of morality among participants;
  • Examine the origins of our moral beliefs, and places of ambiguity or change;
  • Recognize the points of divergence and convergence between different individuals’ moral tenets.


Activity: Private Ethics, Public Ethics


The group facilitator will bring a large sheet of blank paper to the front of the room, where it is in plain view of all participants. The facilitator will ask questions that link private moral systems to the larger cultural institutions of which we are all a part:

  • What were some of the first rules you were taught as a child, either by instruction or by example?
    • Share out loud with rest of group.
  • What were some of the first stories you were told as a child? Who told you these stories, and why?
    • Share out loud with rest of group.
  • What guidelines for living and for interacting do you now have for yourself? What are some of the tenets of your ethics system? What guidelines have you assumed for interacting with land and the environment?
    • The participants will write down their responses in bullet form on a single large sheet of paper, for the creation of an ethics that is collaborative by juxtaposition.
  • Discuss similarities and differences between and among different moral tenets.


Readings and Discussion (50 minutes)


  • Identify the environmental ethics in the following pieces;
  • Recognize the different ways through which ethics can be communicated and reinterpreted.


Participants will each be given a copy of the following four readings: Winona LaDuke’s speech “Honor the Earth,” two poems from Paula Gunn Allen’s America the Beautiful, and an excerpt from Peter Brown’s book, Right Relationships: Building a Whole Earth Economy. Twenty-five minutes will be allotted to these readings.


Following this reading period, the workshop will be open for another 25 minutes to discussion of themes within and among the texts. Since the full readings are available only through our password protected file, I’ve provided what I consider to be meaningful excerpts from these texts below.  Beneath these excerpts are questions that can be used to guide readings or conversation.


Winona LaDuke: “Honor the Earth: Our Native American Legacy”


[Winona LaDuke is a Native American and environmental activist. This speech, delivered at Westeimer Peace Symposium in 1999, explores the connections between her traditional Ojibwe teachings and the need for American environmental consciousness and action.]


Points of interest that can be used to shape discussion:

  • “Much of our literature, until recently, was in anthropology. Our stories that we hold most sacred to us are viewed as folkloric, as things that are of interest, perhaps, but not as having that wellspring of teachings that would guide a culture.” (173)
    • What is the difference between folklore and teaching? What are the implications of each toward creating ethics, or “guiding a culture’?
  • “’There are two paths ahead of you.’ One path, they say, is a well-worn path but they say that it is scorched. That’s what those old people say, that it is a scorched path. And the other path is green, that’s what they say. They say that now is the time of choice.” (175)
    • What kind of environmental choices do we have? Are these choices always laid out in front of us?
  • “What they say in our teachings is that natural law is the highest law, bigger than the laws made by nations, states, or municipalities, and one would do well to live in accordance with natural law.” (176)
  • “All over this country our sacred sites are in danger.”(177)
  • “Another concept of natural law is the recognition that most things are animate.” (179)
    • What are the tenets of natural law? How does adherence to natural law foster ties to places, and to the animate nature of these places?
  • “The only societies that really have experience with living here are out societies. You cannot make an argument to me that the United States is sustainable.”
    • Consider the United States’ past relationships with the environment. Have these been healthy relationships? If not, what might make them healthier?
    • LaDuke differentiates between the United States and the American land. Can you determine the differences between the two, or consider one without the other?


Peter Brown, Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy


[Peter Brown is a Haverford graduate who teaches and writes toward the ecologically friendly reshaping of our economy. The following is the first part of the introduction from his book on this issue of a moral economy, which provides a framework for right relationships and mentions some of the wrong environmental relationships currently in place.]


  • “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the commonwealth of life. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” (5)
    • Do you agree with this definition of the right relationship? Do you think this perspective works equally well in relationships with humans and with the earth?
    • What might not be included in “the commonwealth of life”?


  • “The current system operates on the assumption that the earth’s environment is a subset of the human economy, and that the earth belongs to humans. If these are the assumptions, it makes sense to transfer as much of the earth’s natural capital as possible into the engines of the industrial economy. These assumptions, though, are fantastically at odds with scientific reality; human culture and its economic goals are, in pure scientific fact, a subset of the earth’s environment and resources, and humanity is only one of millions of species that depend on them.” (8)
    • What human practices are at odds with “natural law”? What human practices accord with natural law?
    • If we examine our relationship and responsibilities to the land as that of one species within a commonwealth of life, what kinds of ethics do we come up with? Do you think these ethics would be in line with your current value system, or not?



Paula Gunn Allen


[Paula Gunn Allen was a Native and Lebanese American anthropologist, theorist, activist, and writer who died in 2008. The following poems are from a compilation of poems, published posthumously, called America the Beautiful, and explore the poet’s relationship with her country and her land.]


America the Beautiful VII


            here as elsewhere I’ve learned that when white-out fluid

            thickens it mucks up the line, blurs the print:

            i know that rivers can get that way too.

            surely you remember the nations’ vows:

            as long as rivers flow?

            (surely you don’t)

            and more, they vowed: as long as the

            grass grows, sometimes I long for

            begonias, daffodils, honeysuckle, lilacs

            out of time I like the way they

            set off neon and honky-tonk

            highlight scat and rap. Make a statement

            with bluegrass and blues.


America the Beautiful XV





            s me of the fifties

            family and drive west every year

            (or as many as daddy could





three a.m. Headed down to the desert

to arrive before dawn. It wasn’t the end of

anything then, Y’all come out of there

with yer hands up

‘cause nits breed lice notwithstanding


-we pretend never happened-


(no cold war along that lonesome hiway

(no atomic bombs no

            air-conditioned cats

            no four-lane freeway

            mother make her stop

            move over you fat pig

                        california here I come sewanee

                        blackbird bye bye


our squabbles fill the empty miles

driven through the killing heat

hollering if you ever plan to motor west




Points of interest:

  • How do these two poems interact with and through each other?
  • How easily can you gauge the author’s story and background through these readings? Consider that Paula Gunn Allen is both of Native American and Lebanese heritage. Does her lineage clarify or complicate your reading?
  • Is it easy or difficult to enter into the conversation of these poems? Do you think the poems invite the reader to engage in a dialogue?
  • What kinds of relationships are established here? Are they right? Wrong?
  • How does your interaction with this Gunn Allen’s individual stories differ from your interaction with the communal Ojibwe teachings that LaDuke outlines? What kinds of meaning emerge from these different forms?


Lunch Break (30 minutes)



Our Voices (30 minutes)


  • Think back to personal stories about the land
  • Interact critically and creatively with texts of the previous section—recognize inter-textuality
  • Collaborate with others



Part One-What is Your Story?  (10 minutes)


  • The facilitator will ask the participants to reflect on a meaningful experience they once had or meaningful story they were once told relating to land or the environment. This story can come from a faith tradition, from another cultural tradition, or can be a story about the participants’ engagement and encounters with other stories and societies.
  • The participants will write down their stories in whatever form they choose (poetry, prose, etc.).


Part Two-From Stories to Teachings  (20 minutes)

  • There will be two slips of paper on the desk of each participant and several scissors in circulation:
    • On one slip of the paper the participants will be invited to write down a line from their stories that they found most meaningful;
    • On the other slip of paper the participants will be asked to write down one of the ethics from the first part of the workshop that they found most meaningful;
    • With the scissors the participants will be invited to cut out one or two lines from the readings they found most meaningful.
  • The participants will break up into groups of five or six. Each group will be given a piece of colored construction paper. Within these groups they will combine their slips of paper and con-constructively assemble a word-story from them in a way that creates the most meaning for the group as a whole.
    • The groups will tape these slips of paper on the construction paper in the agreed-upon arrangement.
  • A delegate from the group will place the paper on the front wall, then read out loud another group’s story. In this way, all the stories will be read aloud by new listeners.
  • Participants will be invited to walk around for a few minutes and examine the assembled stories.



Action (30 minutes)


  • Reflect on role of stories in exposing ethics.
  • Reconsider the meaning of a right relationship with the land;
  • Transform ethics into plans for action.


Activity, Part One: Articulated Ethics (10 minutes)

  • The participants will return to their small groups from their exploration of others’ stories and others’ ethics. The facilitator will ask the groups to consider and discuss which pieces and topics moved them the most.
  • The facilitator will ask the groups to agree upon a working definition of right relationship with the land, and, on a new sheet of construction paper, outline some basic moral tenets on which this definition is predicated. This definition and the ethical code can be as dependent or independent of the readings and previous exercises as the group would like.


Activity, Part Two: What Next? (20 minutes)

  • The facilitator will ask the groups:
    • How can you combine your ethics and those topics that move you and create a plan of action?
  • The groups will discuss this question individually for a couple of minutes
  • The facilitator will then urge the discussion to involve the entire room, if it has not already naturally done so.


From this last conversation, ideally, a plan toward concrete action of some sort will emerge. Given that the core of the workshop is so dependent upon participants’ ethics and stories, it seems unreasonable to expect any certain kind of plan to be developed. I would instead anticipate that each part of the workshop process would have brought up different and intersecting environmental concerns, and that different participants would be more partial to translating ethics into action than might others. I think at the end of the workshop, the participants who are truly interested in continuing on this plan of action could be offered the resources to conduct further meetings and developing their visions. 


“But don’t say in years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.” (King 29)






Allen, Paula Gunn. America the Beautiful: Last Poems. Albuquerque, NM: West End, 2010. Print.

Brown, Peter G., and Geoffrey Garver. Right Relationship Building a Whole Earth Economy. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2009. Print.

King, Thomas. The Truth about Stories: a Native Narrative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2005. Print.

LaDuke, Winona. The Winona LaDuke Reader: a Collection of Essential Writings. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur, 2002. Print.