Who Is At the Table? An Invitation.


The first day I heard the word “permaculture,” I was temping in a high-rise office building in downtown San Francisco. A coworker had asked me about my experience living and studying in Ghana, and shared with me that her best girlfriend from high school was now a camel breeder in Kenya who practiced this “new integrative thing,” and I should look into it. That day started me on a path towards my life’s work.

If your experience was like mine, it was a feeling of homecoming… so much of what I already knew—both intellectually and intuitively—was validated and put into a structure that helped me make sense of the world.  “Yes, mainstream society is screwed up! Yes, there are other ways!”

Today, I teach permaculture because I love creating a container for education that changes lives, where people can question “mainstream” ways of doing things, reconnect with what they love, and hone the skills to build a regenerative future.

As I have developed as a human being and as an educator, key transformative moments have arisen in the midst of opportunities to examine systems of power and oppression, and to explore alternative, more egalitarian approaches.  I am firmly convinced that we need multiple perspectives to discern the many paths towards a future together. We need everyone at the table.

As a permaculture teacher and designer who is a woman and proud mother of two brown-skinned daughters, I think a lot about who isn’t at the table in the permaculture movement. I also think a lot about what I can do to help make the table an inviting space for others.

One of our main goals in every FLPCI-sponsored course is to create a learning community that supports all students to achieve their desired learning outcomes.  In our courses, my “back of the napkin” calculations show that more than half of the participants are women. Over the years, I have shared with my teaching team my lived experience, feminist perspective, and my thinking about how to provide for optimal learning experiences for women.  I’ve also learned from my team.

Here are some of the “wise practices” we’ve learned along the way:

  • Make sure there is at least one woman on the teaching team and that she is strong in the math/science/technical skills related to permaculture.  Support her to teach as much technical content as the men.
  • When students are learning “technical” skills or using tools/building, make sure women get equal time practicing them. Provide optional small-group times to practice skills.
  • Encourage all students towards mastery.
  • Don’t leave the “caring work and community facilitation” up to the female teachers/organizers/staff members.
  • Don’t discuss a woman’s appearance, it has nothing to do with her contribution. If you need more info to understand why, read “Here’s Why Good Looking is Wrong and Damaging
  • Establish and communicate a zero tolerance policy for harassment of any kind before the course starts.
  • Acknowledge that gender is not a binary, but a fluid spectrum, and that all folks are welcome.
  • Point out that sexism hurts men as well as women, just in different ways.

Here are some things we’d like to figure out in the future:

  • How to provide high-quality, safe, and cost-effective childcare so that parents can attend courses—in a way that doesn’t add to the unpaid work of an organizing team and raise liability issues for site owners.
  • Support teachers who have childcare needs—paying for childcare in order to teach a PDC can take up half of a teacher’s salary, especially during summers. One option that we have thought up (but didn’t quite work out) was a work trade…  a trusted friend who was interested in taking a PDC could provide childcare during a summer in exchange for free tuition for the next year’s PDC.

I offer these thoughts as an invitation to:

  • Email me with your “wise practices” or ideas about how to create nourishing learning environments for women.
  • Participate in our Permaculture Design Course this summer and help build an educationally rigorous and inclusive learning community.
  • Apply for our scholarship, which supports community organizers, educators, and activists to share their permaculture knowledge with the communities in which they are already working. Women, people of color, and individuals from other historically marginalized groups are strongly encouraged to apply. Apply soon! The deadline is soon approaching.
  • Join me on my journey of figuring this stuff out. I’m just getting started. My work with permaculture as intimately tied to women’s leadership.
  • Read the article I’m writing for the August “Permaculture Activist” about Women in Permaculture. I will be exploring the topic of women’s leadership in permaculture—if you would like to be interviewed for this article before May 28th, 2013, email me at <karrynolson@gmail.com>
  • Attend the “Women in Permaculture” gathering in the Fall of 2013 at Omega Institute (details coming soon—check back here for the link).
  • Think about who else needs to be “at the permaculture table.” Which constituencies do we need to hear from? How do we listen deeply and provide support so that others find their seat and their voice at the table? For example, do our local permaculture movements reflect the ethnic or economic diversity of our communities? If not, what deep listening and change needs to happen within us to make that possible?

In solidarity,


Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute (FLPCI)