Reimagining the Classroom: Embodied Ecofeminism and the Arts Course on Hawai’i Island by Angela Yarber

“The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.”-bell hooks

Like many academics, my “in the box” dream was to be a professor. The full-time, tenured kind. Like many queer feminist academics, I know that such dreams are rarely reality. When you’re also an artist and activist with a strong penchant for wanderlust, these dreams are simply unattainable fairytales. Never one for “in the box” living, I left the traditional academy and traditional church years ago, wandering over the garden’s walls with Lilith as my intrepid guide. I’ve told the story before. My wife and I left our jobs, sold our home, traveled full-time with our toddler, and turned the Holy Women Icons Project into a non-profit while building an off-grid tiny house on the television show Tiny House Nation in Hawai’i. It’s become old news. But since we’ve been doing this for several years now, those faraway dreams are finally starting to become reality. The academic classroom, the activist’s platform, the artist’s studio, the feminist’s megaphone, and the farmer’s orchard are fusing into one creative, life-giving, empowering space for teaching. The Holy Women Icons Project’s first academic course, “Embodied Ecofeminism and the Arts,” is actually happening. Seminarians and doctoral students from Berkeley join us in January. They’re soon followed by undergraduates from New York and seminarians from Atlanta. And I’m reaching out to more and more schools interested in creatively, subversively, and sustainably decolonizing the classroom with us for one week on the Big Island.

In most Western classrooms, students would have to take four separate courses to learn about the arts, spirituality, sustainability, and feminism. Taking cues from indigenous ways of knowing, grounded in the aloha ‘āina movement, the lines between these seemingly disparate areas blur because, in Hawaiian culture, the arts, spirituality, sustainability, and gender theories are mutually informative and inseparable. This land-based intensive course offers students the opportunity to engage theory with practice on the Big Island. Intersectional ecofeminist philosophy undergirds conversations about revolutionary holy women from history and mythology, ethics, and sustainability. Knowing, being, and doing merge with engaged pedagogy that values the mind, body, and heart as students read and discuss critical theory, participate in guided icon painting, honor the ‘āina (land) by participating in planting, harvesting, and off-grid-sustainable living, research and create sustainable artistic practices functional for their home contexts, and examine the ethical virtues exuded by revolutionary women from history and myth.

Each day of the course includes a deep dive into the life, legend, and legacy of an historical, mythological, and archetypal woman as students examine the ethical virtue she promotes and how such virtue directly impacts both theory and praxis at specific places on the island.

This land-based intensive class is grounded in the engaged theory of bell hooks, and structured in Parker Palmer’s knowing, being, and doing framework. The classroom’s “radical space of possibility” expands to encompass the orchard, garden, art studio, dinner table, an active volcano, tide pools, and those much-beloved seminar spaces of dialogue. Hawai’i is not simply the location of the course, but the course’s methodology. As in most indigenous ways of knowing, humanity, spirituality, and art are inseparable from the land, so we learn on and as a part of the ‘āina of Big Island. Decolonizing knowledge, the strict boundaries between disciplines, and the classroom, students engage in knowing, being, and doing simultaneously. It is at Pele’s lap that we uncover the stories too often hidden in the crevices of our canons at best, strategically erased at worst.

In our first session, students draw connections of resilience in Pauli Murray and Pele. Pauli Murray was a queer civil rights attorney and the first African American woman Episcopal priest; Pele is the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes whose home is at the Halemaumau crater. Beginning in their first guided painting session, students create out of Murray’s intersectional resilience. In Volcano National Park, students witness the resilience of land that continues to create through Pele’s lava.

The next day, students draw connections of impermanence in the work of Gloria Anzalduá and Oya. Gloria Anzalduá was an American scholar who focused on the bridge building between chicana cultural theory, queer theory, and feminist theory; Oya is the Yoruban orisha of death and rebirth. During guided painting, students will have their first tangible lesson in impermanence while discussing Anzalduá. At the Awapuhi labyrinth, students will contemplate the impermanence of this newly created land while discussing Oya and painting again.

On Wednesday, students draw connections of compassion in Marsha P Johnson, Guanyin, and the Hawaiian concept of mahu (third gender). Marsha P Johnson was a self-professed drag queen and formative voice of the Stonewall Riots and LGBTQ rights; Guanyin is the trans Buddhist goddess of compassion and mercy. Grounded in the compassion of the “saint of St. Christopher Street” (Marsha P), students will explore Rainbow falls and learn about the compassion of the Hina and Maui myth. During a guided painting session, students meditate on becoming Guanyin. And during dinner, students discuss the connections between pride and compassion, particularly manifest in the Hawaiian mahu.

On the fourth day, students draw connections of sustainability in Wangari Maathai, Papahanoumoku, and the primary aim of the aloha ‘aina movement. Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan activist, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and founder of the Green Belt Movement; Papahanoumoku is the Hawaiian Mother Earth. In the morning, students will get their hands dirty and do the work of the Green Belt Movement by planting and harvesting. Hands remain dirty in their guided painting session. If the Mauna Kea Protectors are still offering their free Pu’uhuluhulu University as a form of protest, students will volunteer and discuss Papahanoumoku. If this is no longer available, the discussion remains, but we focus on the sustainability of off-grid living with an educational tour of solar power and rain catchment. Over dinner, students draw ecofeminist and aloha ‘aina connections.

During our final session, students draw connections of self-care as a political act in Audre Lorde and Lilith. Audre Lorde was an author and activist who defined herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet;” Lilith left the Garden of Eden when Adam demanded she be subservient. Focusing on Lorde’s proclamation that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is act of political warfare,” students will discuss radical self-care as collective empowerment, particularly manifest in the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement. Lorde and Lilith mingle as they guide students out of oppressive gardens in our final guided painting session, and as we sojourn to Richardson Beach.

And this is where my wife and I find ourselves as haole (white people) living as academics, artists, and clergy outside the academy or church in Hawai’i. We find ourselves shining an excavating light away from ourselves and onto the revolutionary historical and mythological women—often queer and/or women of color—who have radically shaped our world, yet whose stories are unheard, erased, maligned. Endeavoring to be accomplices in anti-racism work and inaugurators of interfaith dialogue, I imagine the students from around the world who will gather on our tiny acre of Big Island. As they teach us “How to Be Better Haoles” at Pu’uhuluhulu on Mauna Kea, we are reminded of our place on this island. The history and present reality is one of colonization and military occupation. Because of this, it is our responsibility, as ethicist and artist, to serve as interlocutors who introduce others into conversations about loving and respecting (aloha) the ‘āina (land) with our (he)arts and lives. If we are to call this island our home, we must also share the stories of this island with others. So, I invite you into conversation with the Holy Women Icons Project as we learn together how the arts, spirituality, gender, justice, and sustainability are inseparable teachers creating a more beautiful world for us all.

Sign up for Embodied Ecofeminism and the Arts now.


Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is the Founder and Creative Director of the Holy Women Icons Project. She holds a Ph.D. in Art and Religion. A professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, she is the author of seven books. As an author and professional artist, she is creating a retreat center with her wife and child on Hawai’i Island as a part of the Holy Women Icons Project non-profit.

Categories: Academics, Activism, Art, Community, Ecofeminism, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General

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3 replies

  1. Learning is not about getting the paper in on time and being graded on it. Real learning takes place at the intersections of body, mind, and spirit and in community with each other and the land. Yes such learning can occur in university settings, but deadlines and bells make real learning more often the exception than the rule. Good luck with your new modeling. And don’t forget to make time for “hearing each other into speech” in sharing circles at the end of the days. I did not include this when I first imagined the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete but now it one of the most important parts of our time together.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m glad to read about your success and your classwork. Studying a real activist person and a goddess together can lead to all kinds of insights, and I’m sure you’re leading your students to unexpected insights, too. Real, authentic learning is happening. Bright blessings!


  3. I know I am repeating but what Carol says is true “Learning is not about getting the paper in on time and being graded on it. Real learning takes place at the intersections of body, mind, and spirit and in community with each other and the land.” And you atre doing it! This is wonderful.


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