Dave and Sue Oakes are Co-Directors of the Center for Ecological Living and Learning (CELL) as well as the Alternative Energy Institute (AEI). During our interview, they discussed how their desire to love and help others motivated them to work in Africa and start CELL in order to provide college students with opportunities to implement environmentally sustainable solutions in communities. In addition, they shared ideas and insights about the importance of community, environmentalism based on unselfishness, and common spiritual ground.
What is your goal for the Center for Ecological Living and Learning?
Sue: We want to inspire future leaders to find community-based environmentally sustainable solutions.
How did you decide to start CELL?
Dave: There’s a saying: “A person who knows but one culture knows none.” We spent three years living in Africa while I directed an international environmental education teacher training program at the University of Botswana. We came back from this life-changing experience with the desire to solve environmental problems within a global context. As I was teaching at Unity College in Maine, I asked myself these two questions: 1) where can I love God the most? and 2) where can I help my fellow man the best? These two questions, which had taken us to Africa, became the spiritual motivation for the next step -- the center. We wanted to inspire our future leaders by providing them with educational experiences that would help them recognize their place in the world and what they could do to foster sustainable solutions in their own lives and the world.
Tell us about your programs for our future leaders.
Sue: We’re planning semester abroad programs for college students in which they will have practical, field opportunities to learn about, create, and help institute solutions relating to ecological and environmental issues. Our intent is to link up with existing and successful NGOs (non-government organizations / non- profits).
Dave: One organization is Friends of Conservation (FOC) in Kenya in the Masai Mara region. I spent time with FOC, working with the indigenous people to help them see that rather than sell their land and end up poorer than before, they can keep their land and generate income through ecotourism -- becoming guides, starting women’s cooperatives for jewelry making, etc.
Sue: This allows them to retain and embrace their culture rather than lose it by being mainstreamed into a western culture.
Dave: Two other organizations are Grupo Fenix in Nicaragua and Associacion ANAI in Costa Rica. College students would help electrify poor Nicaraguan villages with solar power, contributing labor, personnel, and financial assistance. Most of our programs will have an energy component appropriate to the specific culture, such as mini-hydro, solar, or wind. It’s a wonderful opportunity for students from the U.S. to develop relationships with people of other cultures and for other cultures to make connections with Americans.
Sue: If we don’t work with communities to meet their specific needs, we won’t find the best solutions. What good does it do to tell people to stop cutting down trees if we don’t offer a viable solution to the tribe dependent upon trees, such as biogas, which they can make from the dung of their animals?
Dave: We’re operating on the premise that there’s no sustainability without community. We want to help empower communities to live in a way that doesn’t hurt the environment and compromise future generations. Lester Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute, founder of Worldwatch Institute, and author of Plan B, substantially said that while many of the solutions for our environmental problems are being practiced somewhere in the world today, we really need the will to implement the solutions on a systemic level.
When will the abroads be?
Dave: We’re planning Costa Rica and possibly Kenya for the fall of 2006, then Nicaragua starting in January of 2007. Our future plans (maybe five years down the road) may include going to Iceland and joining in their work. The president of Iceland has committed to converting his entire country completely from fossil fuels to hydrogen.
The energy component seems like a natural fit with AEI’s goals. Can you expand?
Dave: Energy is central to the concept of sustainability and to the work of both CELL and AEI. AEI believes, as CELL does, that there is no progressive change toward sustainability without strong community involvement and ownership. Through its periodic newsletter and hot-off-the-press book entitled, Powering Our Future: An Energy Sourcebook for Sustainable Living, AEI is striving to educate people about the possibilities of developing progressive energy solutions using renewable sources. The partnership between these two organizations has helped to strengthen CELL’s commitment to renewable energy and AEI’s commitment to achieving sustainability through community.
How has the Bible influenced your career choices?
Dave: One of my favorite stories from the Bible is of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. Though their lives were at stake, they looked at the king respectfully and said, “[O]ur God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace…. But if not, … we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Dan. 3:17, 18). They had a clear vision -- to honor and trust God in an honest and compelling way. They had a strong conviction that because God was so real, they could follow Him. That vision and spiritual grounding which the Bible provides gives us a pure and heart-felt conviction of why we live, why we’re here -- to love God and help others. This was part of my upbringing and part of our motivation for going to Africa.
How did you get to Africa in the first place?
Dave: Sue and I were thinking about going into the Peace Corps when we graduated from college, but we didn’t. When our children were young, I went online and typed in “environment, education, Africa.” A job at the University of Botswana came up, and I applied. A year went by before I heard anything back. Then one day, a package came in the mail with a job offer and the expectation to start right away. We brought our three children (who were 3, 5, 7 at the time) with us, and it was a very rich experience. They went to an international school with 55 different countries represented.
Sue, what about you? What influence has the Bible had in your career?
Sue: One of the things I’ve thought about is “love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 19:19). In part, I see loving God and loving man not as separate entities but as part of a whole. As we understand God as an all-embracing intelligence, and “man” as a natural reflection of that central Mind, we are able to think more in a universal sense -- one God and one creation -- and less of a fragmented people separated one from another. As a result, we find that it becomes natural to be unselfish. The undergirding of environmentalism has to be a sense of spiritual unselfishness. Jesus’ message becomes a motivator for us to put our arms around a spiritual concept of humankind that’s much bigger. So often, environmentalism comes as 1) anti-human, or 2) anti-business. I love the larger sense that environmentalism is community looking at the whole. The demise of Easter Island shows how the attempts to preserve the sense of “self” doesn’t work. If only those people on the island could’ve seen that as they were cutting down the trees one at a time, they were cutting off their own toes and injuring themselves! They were lacking the understanding of the whole. Because of interrelatedness, we all matter; every living thing matters; and we need to care for the world properly. Real environmentalism should not be against business and humans; rather, it should be everyone working together.
So what I hear you saying is that unselfishness is the key to working as one and the key to successful environmentalism.
Yes, I think so.
The emphasis on diversity in education these days, has, in many cases, intensified differences and created cliques. How do you appreciate cultures and not divide?
Dave: John Cowper Powys (author) writes: “No one can consider himself wholly civilized who does not look upon every individual, without a single exception, as of deep and startling interest.” I love that because it strips away color of skin, ethnic background, religion. I was just in Nicaragua for two weeks working with Grupo Fenix with an Iranian and an Iraqi. We had the greatest time being of service to Nicaragua. We have so much more in common than what divides us, and we look forward to maintaining our friendship.
Sue: I hear what you’re saying about diversity. However, I think of our children’s experience in Africa; and in their case, because everyone at the school was different, no one was different. Everyone blended naturally and gained so much one from one another. Perhaps as a culture, we need to find better ways to value and experience diversity.
How will this translate into the work you’re doing with students?
Sue: Our program encourages learning and utilizing strengths from different cultures to find viable solutions to problems. If facilitated properly, there’s no sense of superiority, but rather a genuine valuing of the perspective each individual brings, adding to a greater whole.
Do you recall any experiences from your time in Africa where you saw evidence of God at work?
Sue: I remember one time when we were miles and miles into the bush, and we came across a woman with a baby on the side of the road and stopped to give them a ride. We didn’t speak a lick of her language or she of ours, yet it was a holy experience. It felt like church to me. I remember feeling that while it might look like I was giving her a ride, I felt that what she was giving me was so much more. The idea of “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again” (Luke 6:38) was very tangible. The huge eyes of her dear baby looking back with incredible love and affection cut across all the cultural and religious differences. I felt an exchange of wordless love and communion together with God. We didn’t need words when communing with Spirit. In other situations, when we needed help and were so far from any contact, even by phone, we found comfort in being able to turn to God who is always with us and receive quick healings.
Dave: I have a hard time answering the question because there’s just so much. Whereas in the U.S., we sometimes take things for granted, in Africa, we were living everything we believed in moment by moment. We were separated from friends and family, everything that was familiar. And we were face-to-face with some pretty incredible needs around us. There was a great need to get out of ourselves and embrace mankind in our thought. We lived that from the time we woke up to the time we went to bed. For me, there was a great awakening about spirituality. I think sometimes in the States it’s easy to focus on religiosity. In Africa, I was struck by their spirituality, which didn’t need a religion to hang a shingle on.
Sue: They were ready to burst into song.
Dave: In beautiful harmony.
Sue: Some of them hymns.
Dave: It was very humbling, living with the palpitating heart of the spiritual peace of existence. There was common ground of spiritual values.
Can you expand on what you mean by spiritual common ground?
Dave: There are cultural universals, such as family and marriage, which bind us. But there’s also a spiritual universal -- the need to understand something beyond ourselves that transcends us, that provides comfort and healing. These things of Spirit that bind us are much more powerful than the things that would try to separate us. The Bible provides a great source of unity for finding common ground, expecting good, and maintaining harmony. The concept of harmony, shared by most cultures, provides balance. People should be able to operate in a way that sustains a healthy environment -- meeting educational, physical, economic, social, political, ecological, and religious needs. It’s an achievable goal; it’s not a pie in the sky ideal.
Sue: And the Bible is so full of examples where people relied on a limitless God who supplied their needs. Jesus fed the multitudes. The people in the Bible had the expectation of an answer from God without outlining the outcome. We can’t outline God, but we can know that infinite Mind is capable of meeting our needs. It’s like the Bible says: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matt. 7:7, 8).
The spirit of love and hope the two of you bring to this idea can’t but help the future leaders ask the best questions, seek the right resources, and find the solutions that will bless the world.