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Clients in Conversation: Building on a Shared Vision, Part II

This article was originally published in the Winter 2014 RSF Quarterly.

Interview with Mark Herrera, Senior Manager, Client Development

Allegra Allesandri Pfiefer transformed a struggling school into the first public Waldorf-inspired high school in the nation. Laura Summer runs a successful year-long arts education program that is completely tuition-free. Both women have experience with the challenges of starting new initiatives that defy others notions of normal. In each case, strong communities played a vital role in their success.

Click here for Part I

Mark: Laura, I’m interested in this model that you have created for sustaining support for your work in a gift economy. Can you talk about how it’s working?

Laura: Free Columbia runs completely on contributions from many individuals, including our students. Sometimes, I do wonder if it’s going to be working next month or next year, but so far, it is.

As a teacher, that gives me this amazing feeling of freedom. I can give the very best that I have to my students and it isn’t tied to what I owe someone for paying me a lot of money. You actually get to teach out of what you know is right for your students in the moment. It’s such a strong feeling that I have given up teaching in any other model.

I’ve also stopped selling paintings for money. We started two years ago having what we call an art dispersal, where we hang up lots of paintings and make them available to the community. Community members can become stewards of the art, which means they can take the art and keep it for as long as they want. They can pass it onto somebody else or give it back to the artist whenever they choose to.

photo courtesy of Free Columbia

photo courtesy of Free Columbia

It was an amazing experience when we first did it. People just came and took the paintings off the walls and took them home. They emailed us about where they were hanging them and sent us pictures. It was as if, until then, the paintings had been out of work and unemployed.

This has also become part of our financial model because people can contribute money to the endeavor and to support the artists.

Mark: Allegra, you’ve been cultivating this really practical and deep approach to educating. What have been some of the highlights or transformative moments for you?

Allegra: I’m actually inspired by some of the parallels that I’m hearing in what Laura has said. I’m reminded of a story about my students. They have a main lesson block in health and nutrition. In one activity, they harvest chard and kale from our garden and prepare it with eggs from our chickens. Students told us that they went home and cooked it all week long for their families—the most green vegetable they could remember eating.

It’s like the artwork going out into the communities, it’s this learning that the students realize, “Here’s something I grew in my own garden at school. We planted it, we harvested, and now, I can take it home and nourish my family.” When that happens, you have families that are being supported by what’s going on in the classroom.

The art of our education is leaving the school campus with these kids and going into their homes—it’s bringing health, nutrition, and love of learning home.

In the first year of the school, I would go into classrooms to visit. The classrooms were chaotic. There was little respect for the teachers, for the learning environment, for the physical space. I walked into one classroom and greeted the teacher in the class. And one girl looked at me and said, “Why are you always smiling?” I thought, “Uh-oh, this is a really hard question to answer, because she thinks I’m happy.” I was actually sad. I wasn’t sure that this experiment of bringing Waldorf methods into the public sector was going to work. I had to think long and hard before I could answer truthfully. I replied, “Well, I love teenagers. I’ve always worked in high schools; it’s the place in education I love. And that’s why I’m here.” And I literally felt like the earth shifted. The kids realized I was serious. They believed that they were in a new kind of environment where learning could be interesting and fun, and where adults would listen respectfully to them. This experience taught me about the incredible potency of Waldorf education. The potency is held in the relationships, the intentions, and the vision that we share which is transforming our communities.

Mark: To wrap up, is there anything that you’ve heard from one another that has really resonated with you?

Allegra: I really like hearing Laura talk about the movement of art in the community. I’ve heard John Bloom speak about the healthy movement of money. And I think it’s true for art and other things. In my world, it might look like trying things, experimenting, not holding fast to certain protocols about education or what it’s supposed to be, but rather exploring through relationship and a safe environment. This picture of movement and flow in an educational setting is really resonating for me.

Laura: Throughout this conversation I’m hearing surety that this deep level of intention does work. It isn’t just that it works in a small, limited, cloistered place where everybody has the same values or the same financial background. It can work for diverse groups of people. And when it does work, it can transform people and allow them to see things that they couldn’t see before.

Allegra Allesandri Pfiefer is the principal of George Washington Carver School of Arts and Science, the first public Waldorf-inspired high school in the nation.  She is a graduate of Sacramento Waldorf School and a founder and teacher of San Francisco Waldorf High School. Allegra earned her doctorate at UC Davis as part of her mission to bring Waldorf education to a wide variety of educational institutions.  Sacramento City Unified School District serves 45,000 students and is the only school district in the US to support three public Waldorf-inspired schools educating over 1000 school children.

Laura Summer is co-founder with Nathaniel Williams of Free Columbia, an arts initiative that includes a year-long program based on the fundamentals of painting as they come to life through spiritual science. She has been working with questions of color and contemporary art for 25 years and her approach is influenced by Beppe Assenza, Rudolf Steiner, and by Goethe’s color theory. Her work, to be found in private collections in the US and Europe, has been exhibited at the National Museum of Catholic Art and History in New York City and at the Sekem Community in Egypt.

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