University of Vermont

Kaza Wins Kidder

“She was simultaneously tough and soft,” says Christina Erickson G’10 about 2011 Kidder Award winner Stephanie Kaza. “She knew when to give me a push and when to give me a hug.” (Photo: Sally McCay)

Stephanie Kaza counts her students. Her eye travels around the room and she smiles, making an almost imperceptible nod toward each young woman in the circle as they chat and laugh before class. It’s a cold afternoon in April, exams are looming, and a few stragglers in wool hats rush into the classroom in the Living/Learning Center and flop down in chairs, breathless. Like any good teacher, Kaza, director of UVM’s Environmental Program, is taking attendance.

But Kaza also counts her students in a deeper sense — as many alumni wrote in support of her selection for the 2011 edition of the George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award, a teaching honor given each year by the UVM Alumni Association and presented at commencement. “I am thankful to have had an advisor, a professor and a mentor who knows and sees me as a whole person,” wrote Kari Cruz ’97, “who cares about where my life is headed.”

“I regard each student as a unique whole person, formed of many experiences, geographies, relationships, and curiosities,” Kaza writes. “I count them as fellow beings,” she says, “and co-learners.”

Breath works

But to get to the learning requires attention, as Kaza, a scholar of Buddhist environmental thought, knows well. And a surplus of shared attention is not immediately available in the exuberant hubbub of these twenty undergraduates. Kaza smiles broadly, seeming to absorb and measure the energy. She takes a deep breath.

“Take a minute just quieting down,” she says, still smiling, and the students turn to listen. “We’re going to gather our energy,” she says — and then pauses again. It’s becoming clear that this is not the beginning of a canned Powerpoint talk. She asks us to close our eyes.

“What we are doing is linking in to the anniversary of the BP oil spill,” she says, and the students become still in their chairs. “So it’s not forgotten,” she says.

“Find the thread that connects you to that spill. It’ll be different for everybody. Was it reading a news story? Do you know somebody down there?” She lets these questions linger in the air.

Then, with a nearly breathtaking beauty, a single chime sounds. Kaza has rung a meditation bell and for six, seven, eight seconds the resonant sound spills through the room.

For the next five-and-half minutes she talks the women through a guided meditation, asking them to pay attention to their bodies — “your shoulders drop, hips drop.” “Feel your feet touch the ground.” Then more silence.

Yes, it’s all women in this class, Women, Health, and Environment, that, among other things, seeks to understand the ways a male-dominated culture can ignore the complex causes of environmental diseases like breast cancer. The irony is not lost on Kaza, whose many courses have included Ecofeminism and Environmental Justice — but neither is the opportunity to nurture a profound classroom intimacy that many alums say is one of Kaza’s finest gifts to her students.

“A few deep out-breaths so you know you’re actually here in this room, with this group of learners,” she says. And then she amends her own sentence: “co-learners.”

“Then bring to mind the BP oil spill; it’s the one-year anniversary. See if you can find a thread that connects you to that event: a story, a person, an image. Just let that fill your mind for this minute. Let it become bold,” she says, “what are the feelings associated with this thread?” And she lets that question linger in the air too.

Work beyond despair

This meditative practice — connecting personal feelings to reflection on a larger issue — is one tool Kaza brings to an extraordinarily difficult task: giving her students a rigorous view of the avalanche of bad news about the health of the planet — without burying them in despair.

“Environmental Studies is a discipline that lives in the ‘real time’,” wrote Kristin Coates ’98 in her letter nominating Kaza for the Kidder Award, “It is a study that if delivered recklessly could leave a student feeling overwhelmed by the gloom and doom, and paralyzed to continue with the work.”

Like many of Kaza’s students, Coates, who has run an ecotourism strategy business for over a decade, credits Kaza with giving her a sense of hope and direction. “Due to her deep sensitivity to the material and the students, as well as her stellar delivery and detail, she made me and many others feel informed and empowered to pursue this important work,” she writes.

 “It has been my experience as an environmental educator that exposure to facts alone is not enough to turn people toward environmental action,” Kaza writes. Often, it’s just the opposite: more awareness of ecological decline drives students to run away from their feelings of dread, rage, or guilt.

“If I don’t address these feelings with my classes,” she writes, “I find myself looking out on a room of blank faces.”

In response, Kaza draws on the insights of one her own teachers and ongoing mentor, environmental activist Joanna Macy. In the 1980s, Macy pioneered methods for “despair work” to break the psychic numbing of the nuclear threat. Kaza, who holds a Ph.D. in biology and an M.Div. in religion, applies these techniques with her students to the many environmental crises now unfolding.

“By leading people through a process of waking up to their own feelings for their world, the work releases bound energy which can then be engaged in positive effort,” Kaza wrote in a 1999 essay collection. "The aim of despair and empowerment work is to overcome patterns of avoidance and psychic numbing while generating compassion and commitment to act.”

Kaza is not naive to the dark possibilities, but she is not cynical either, cultivating an orientation — “don’t know mind” — from her own Zen training. “You don’t know how it will turn out,” she says, “you don’t know which will be tipping-point events.”

And this uncertainty gives room and impetus for activism, she says. “My activist orientation is: be active!” she says with a laugh. Rather than trumpet her own values, she wants students to reflect on and refine their own. “Much more than pushing them to achieve a certain goal, I encourage students to remain engaged in whatever they’re doing,” she says, “Interested in business? Be active in business. Stay awake.”

Tough and Soft

In this class, the students have been reading five books on how environmental toxins impact health, including Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Sandra Steingraber’s Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood. There have been several papers and exams. The course is demanding.

“You have to come in really prepared,” says Avery Pittman ’11, “but she really wants to help if you have an idea of where you’re going.”

“She made me rewrite my senior capstone project four times,” says Casey Russell ’11, “she’ll work with you if you work with her.”

“She was simultaneously tough and soft,” Christina Erickson G’10 wrote in her nomination letter, “She knew when to give me a push and when to give me a hug.”

But academic rigor is only a means to a deeper end. At the core of Kaza’s teaching is a commitment to working collaboratively in community. “Perhaps the most debilitating aspect of painful feeling for the environment is the resulting isolation,” she writes. So Kaza, who joined the UVM faculty in 1991, had the students in this class form small groups to develop activist projects over the semester. Their goal: to share what they have been learning inside the class with others outside the class — and to seek positive change. Students have arranged meetings with doctors and cosmetics buyers at grocery stores. Some handed out literature to other students at the Davis Center, and Pittman even helped launch a flash mob on campus.

And the accomplishment of which Kaza say she is most proud: the development in the 1990s of Students Teaching Students courses — now codified as ENVS 197 — that have pairs of undergraduates designing and leading courses for their peers. These have ranged from yogic environmental philosophy to local food systems analysis.

Many threads

Kaza’s meditation on the oil spill continues: “I want you to think of one person that you could share this thread with — sometime this week,” she says, “as a way to help everyone remember what happened.” Then more silence.

“And, at last, take your little thread and imagine how it is connected to all these other threads of stories related to the oil spill and the whole thing is still vibrating, is still connected, is still unfolding,” Kaza says, “and your thread is part of that.” Then she rings the bell again and the class moves on to discuss the week’s reading.