Learning about food cycles by turning compost piles at Vine and FIG. Food is grown for local restaurants and scraps come back to feed the soil―the circle of life.

Learning for Inclusive Leadership for Sustainable Peace

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By Edward J. Brantmeier, Claire M. Gormley, Melissa Gray, Aaron Minnick, John Mirambel, Amelia Morrison, Anne Sherman, Abigail Stevenson, and Bikash Adhikari
James Madison University

Looking at home and abroad, one experiences a rising tide of conflict and tension that permeates our world; societies divided along political and ideological fault lines, massive humanitarian crises, mass global migration, violent extremism, climate change denial and progressive action, environmental degradation and species extinction, and faltering old and fluctuating new economies. In short, these are the challenges of our times–wicked problems without easy solutions. Some of us remain hopeful in the power of peace education to transform individuals and the world. In that spirit, the educators among the readership here may ask the following questions: How do we create deep learning experiences for our students that are rooted in placed-based, experiential learning and also connected to global vision and initiatives? How do we inspire future leaders to dedicate their work toward alleviating violence and suffering and building sustainable peace?

Learning about permaculture and social equity from Tom Benevento outside
a Vine and FiG hoop house.

Course Context

Inspired by past scholarship on critical peace education for sustainability (Brantmeier, 2013), critical pedagogy of place (Grueneweld, 2003), and the Sustainable Self Summit, I (Edward Brantmeier) created and am currently teaching an exploratory course for our Honors College at James Madison University, USA. The course is entitled “Inclusive Leadership for Sustainable Peace.” As part of this learning journey, I want my students, who I view as co-learners in a process of mutual discovery, to be more aware of the how and why of learning, to gain clarity into their career purpose through contemplative exploration, and to clarify their values and approach to leadership. In short, we focus on knowing ourselves, on connecting to global and local sustainable peace leaders and education for sustainable development initiatives, and on figuring out sustainable peace action plans for our future as leaders.

In order to achieve these lofty learning goals, I framed the course with the following foundational course questions:

  1. What are your core values, philosophy, and approach to leadership?
  2. How do impactful peace leaders navigate opportunities and barriers to sustainable peace?
  3. Where is your power to make changes to alleviate violence and suffering in a world in need–to build sustainable peace, community, and happiness?”

Answering these three questions anchors inquiry for our course; these three questions served as both the first writing assignment and will serve as the final exam of the course. Eight weeks into our learning journey, we have created definitions for inclusive leadership and for sustainable peace, explored various global leaders, and are preparing to explore local leaders and organizations, such as Vine and Fig, Project Grows, and Radical Roots Community Farm–all dedicated to sustainable peace. We are exploring our own values and approaches to leadership for sustainable peace by engaging with others who are perhaps further along the path.

Learning about cultural hospitality and being a good neighbor―to all in

Exploring Inclusive Leadership and Sustainable Peace

Unsatisfied with the existing definitions of inclusive leadership, we sought to improve upon the established foundation of knowledge by incorporating fresh perspectives within the context of sustainable peace. As a class, we explored and created our own definitions. Inclusive leadership is creating a collaborative environment in which all concerned parties feel understood and empowered to participate. Here, understood and empower serve to highlight the intrinsically give-and-take nature of the environment. The traditional power dynamic between leaders and followers is transformed to support an atmosphere of humility that pervades interpersonal relations and inspires collective action in order to cultivate sustainable peace. What is sustainable peace then? As a class, we agree that sustainable peace is a state of global relationships where individuals, groups, and societies are enabled to be fully happy and well. A shared curiosity and understanding of diversity works to alleviate suffering by creating nonviolent and fair relations between and within communities of all sizes, the largest being the planetary community. Sustainable peace is both the process and the end goal.

Sawing some wood for experiments in sustainable heating, cooking, and

For the purpose of exploring and comparing global sustainable peace leaders, we completed webquests (internet-based research) on multiple leaders. As a class, we looked at two United States based indigenous leaders, Winona LaDuke of the White Earth tribe and David Archambault II of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. For each of these non-Western leaders, we examined their values, visions, and approaches to engaging in inclusive leadership for sustainable peace, as well as how they empowered, engaged, and transformed their community. Lastly, we studied the impact of these inclusive leaders and their influence on future generations. In addition to U.S. based indigenous leaders, we explored the lives and work of the following people: Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan activist and Nobel Laureate; Vandana Shiva, an Indian scholar and anti-globalization activists; and Lyonchoen Jigme Y. Thinley, former Prime Minister of Bhutan and co-visionary of gross national happiness initiatives; Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen buddhist monk and scholar; Mahatma Gandhi, Indian architect of satya graha, anti-colonial movement, and Martin Luther King, Jr, famous African-American civil rights leader. What have we learned from comparing global leaders so far?  

During a contemplative classroom activity, we shared the biggest takeaways when comparing and contrasting these leaders through our webquest. Here is a summary of our biggest takeaways regarding the approach of these leaders:  

  • Intentional nonviolent action.
  • Empowering the people to carry on the message, so that the movement continues for generations.
  • Persistence, lifelong dedication to their cause.
  • Every action matters.
  • No immediate gratification, rather it is a process.
  • MLK arc of justice, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
  • Imperfect people. They had/have personal flaws.
  • They are normal ordinary people, not archetypes, therefore normal ordinary people like you and me can make change, can become inclusive leaders.
  • These people are place-based, rooted in and a part of a culture, a community, and a history. These connections matter.
  • A deep spiritual/religious core shapes their values and drives their actions.

As a class, we are nourished by these insights. Sustainable peace leadership requires intentional nonviolent action, guided by core values, placed-based connections, and a long view of the struggle for peace and justice in mind and heart. Do we consider how our present decisions and actions contribute to the well­being of the 7th Generation, as Native American teachings encourage? What would your daily leadership look and feel like if you held the concerns of the health, well­being, and relationships of the 7th generation in mind? We are exploring the answers to perennial, beautiful questions in this course. So far this learning journey has been timely and inspiring–for students and teacher alike.


Brantmeier, E.J. (2013). Toward critical peace education for sustainability. Journal of Peace Education, 10 (3), 242-258.

Gruenewald, D. A. 2003. “The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place.” Educational Researcher 32 (4): 3–12.

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